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Louis Heitman residence, second scheme
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Helena, Montana  1911/1915

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1916
Text by William Gray Purcell
for 1916

Job Date (in Parabiography): [1916]

Louis Heitman residence

[This is from an incompletely edited draft, circa 1930s. I have entered Purcell's hand written corrections and corrected the spelling of the name as he also noted, but the text is fragmentary, both grammatically and as a whole--MH]

Louis Heitman was of the generation of German immigrants, whether Jewish or not I am not sure, who came to this country with the wave of immigration in 1848. As a young man seeking his fortune, he went west into the west with the gold rush, with Silver Bow, which was later to be the city of Helena, Montana, as his objective. Mrs. Heitman told me about her experience as a bride, going north in an old fashioned stage coach from the Union Pacific in the middle of winter. They were stopping at log cabins and ranch houses along the way, the snow finally becoming so deep that they were snowed up for some time, finally arriving in Silver Bow, which at that time was the roughest sort of one-street mining camp.

She was essentially a person of refinement and eager for the best in life, and he was a good natured, generous-hearted Dutchman, very definitely a family man, indulgent to his children. At the time we met him, he was the president of the American National Bank and a leading citizen of the town. I was under the impression that Myron Brinig when writing "The Sisters" had Louis Heitman in mind when he portrayed the character of the banker in that story.

First Sullivan's wedge roofs, then Wrights __________house in River Forest with its steep pitch coming down to broad eaves, numerous very stupid contractor houses in Berkeley, redeemed somewhat by the gallant rise of steep roofs into tall wedges, always fascinated me and I was eager to do houses with this mass. The opportunity seemed at hand with [Dr. Hirschfelder] (Jewish U. of M. professor) and Mr. Elmslie being in Chicago at the time and loaded up with going work, I developed this project along lines that had been taking form in my mind for years. (See account of [Hirschfelder], Jewish house).

When Mr. Heitman came to Minneapolis with a big flock of his family for a reunion with the Leutholds (see Beebe house, St. Paul), he was all fired up to build himself a home and to build it quick. He had no conception of how long it took to plan a house and make the working drawings. I realized that he would never be patient to go through the process, that if we could not move ... [text fragmentary]

I showed to the Heitman's the [Hirschfelder] house and it seemed to answer the situation perfectly. They liked it in every way, and Mrs. Heitman felt it would make her more comfortable in the community and simplify her housekeeping labors as compared with the original project which they now felt to have been too grand. I sent a foreman to Helena and work was started at once. Fundes were available to do the building well, although Mr. Heitman's son-in-law insisted upon selling him the lumber, and as the foreman said, it was the worst stuff that he ever had to work up into a building. "Crooked as a dog's hind leg" was his description of the dimensions of the material.

We designed special dining room furniture in character with the interior architecture and wood finish of the dining room. This was built by Harry Rubins, of the John S. Bradstreet Company, of Minneapolis. Harry also did their charming mural "Alt Hildehein" over the mantel.I tried another experimental idea here which had appeared on several plans but always abandoned for one reason or another, that is of a fireplace facing both ways, serving two rooms. I took unusual precautions to insure proper draught because I had no technical information as to how sush a performance would work. The result was successful and it was not. The fireplace drew perfectly as long as no-one opened any doors and if the curtains in the opening between the living room and library were not closed. When closed, any compression of air in one room or the other would send a puff of smoke out one side or the other. However, they made pretty constant use of the fireplace and were not seriously troubled with the matter, although from time to time there were discussion about putting a steel division back, a possibility which I had anticipated by putting in two dampers and two separate flues.

Mr. and Mrs. Heitman both died about 1930. The house was sold to Mr. J. B. O'Connell, who called on me in 1934, and said that the Montana state architect had gone through his house and found the detail and design of everything so "modern" that he could not believe that the building had been built in 1916.

In 1937 this house survived 215 earthquake shocks without a crack or damage of any kind. On the 216th shock it lost a couple of bricks on top of the chimney. About the 225th shock it lost about 18 inches of the top of the chimney, and the earthquakes then coming to an end, no other damage was observable in the building, although it was the only structure of any kind in the city of Helena remaining undamaged by the earthquake, many of the buildings being completely destroyed.

I attribute this to the fact that the edge shaps of the mass, beginning at the ceiling of the first floor, not only forms a tremendous triangulated bracing, but the center of the mass of the building is very close to the ground. The triangular eaves with their sockets also create a sort of horizontal truss wall below the line of the first floor ceiling and running the entire length of both sides of the house.

I had always remembered the distinguished use of broad simple wood panels by [Bernard] Maybeck around Berkeley, so I sent to California and had special redwood panels 24 inches wide sawn and crated to Helena. It was expensive per foot, but I think not a tremendously expensive item as compared with metal lath and plaster, say. At any rate, the panels were erected by underlaying with heavy waterproof building paper held in place with securely nailed vertical furring strips approximately 12 inches on centers. The 24 inch redwood boards were nailed with finishing nails well set and staggered along their center line only. The edges were carefully not nailed but slipped under the batten strips which in turn were securely nailed. This gave very broad boards full expansion and contraction movement, and Mr. O'Connell tells me that the boards are today whole and unscarred with any cracks. But the exterior of the building went just twenty years without painting at all or showing any need for it, and then he painted the sash and oiled the wood.

We were very careful in selecting our curtains and decorative materials all made by John S. Bradstreet and Co. and Mr. O'Connell tells me that the original curtains are there asbolutely unfaded after twenty years' use. The very expensive French fabrics we used proved less costly than the cheap stuff which could have been gotten.

This home gave the Heitmans twenty years of joyous background for a real, hearty family "gemuchlichheit" (Help!) - it was about 15 for them - and Mr. O'Connell tells me that he always envied Heitman the house and was delighted to get it, and that he thinks it the only good looking house in Helena.

   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.10]
research courtesy mark hammons