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Warehouse for Sears E. Brace, Jr. & Company
Purcell and Feick
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1909

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1909

Job Date (in Parabiographies entry): March 20, 1909

Sears E. Brace, Jr. & Co. Brass Bed Warehouse

Consultation -- some work done -- inconsequential.

We had a good personal lead to this job through Sears Brace of the Reel and Rudder Club. We made some drawings and Brace went pretty thoroughly into our experience and competence for handling the work successfully.

It appeared that in every large city throughout the country there were two or three firms of "commercial" architects who usually did most of the large buildings, and such operations were those in which the most money was to be made. Toward architects in small partnerships who had had university training in architecture, these important firms maintained a very condescending deportment. It was "we business men," "you artists," -- Male success versus feminine aesthetics. And so the business men got this job.

Professional Climbers

On the other hand, the architects who had formal academic training, who had been to Paris, looked down on business as such. Our own special views growing out of the Form and Function philosophy saw the living quality in what the business men were privileged to handle. We were continually surprised at the utter blindness of the architectural profession to the most significant activities of men. But we had no patience with the actual procedure of either side. The Business men, with that lack of imagination which let the world blow up in 1930, were spoiling every tendency of the new machine age to crystallize into significant form, and the Aristocracy of Architects were given all their thought to maintaining a great International Professional Club, whose members must conform to the deportment and tailoring handed down by the collective "Chairman of the Board of Governors"--nonconformists were to be cast into outer darkness. How real and destructive this situation had become is well illustrated by the history of architectural "competitions" (for public buildings) from 1896 to 1930, and the dictatorship in this field maintained by Professor Warren P. Laird, of the University of Pennsylvania. He was Chairman of the powerful Competition Committee of the American Institute of Architects. This Laird, an oblique character, had a most baleful influence. He developed and perfected an ingenious system by which the awards in national architectural competitions were given in approximate rotation to a group of perhaps a dozen highly placed New York firms. This racket was finally broken up in the Nebraska State Capitol Competition by Thomas H. Kimball of Omaha, a true liberal and democratic spirit of outstanding merit.

Conflict in the Building World:

At the turn of the century Business and Architecture were different world. Today discredited Big Business and the temporarily defeated hierarchy of the International Beaux Arts are peevish companions in distress, gathering together all the beneficiaries of former Special Privileges to weep over their own private America, of which they'd like to recover possession.

In 1910 an American Institute architect who deferred to the practical requirements of any business building lost caste by that much. If his work was linked to business men, if it aided the commercial aims of the project, the architect was simply a traitor to his art and an outcast among his professional brethren.

The Architects' architects would hardly speak to the so-called "commercial architects" on the street, the draftsmen of "practical" firms acquired a sort of taint which never quite left them if they moved to a "regular office." If you think this is exaggerated and not a general condition, let me quote Paul Starrett, outstanding among the American builders. a man who erected a majority of the tall office buildings in every state from 1900 to 1930. Referring to a conversation about the year 1910, in the offices of America's most famous architects, McKim, Mead and White, concerning the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City, he write in his fine, illuminating biography, as follows:

"One day, Mead asked me to have a look at the drawings which the engineers had made for the steelwork to frame the train shed. It was frightfully ugly. It seemed a shame to erect such an eyesore as part of that magnificent terminal.

"'Why don't you redesign it?' I asked.

"'We don't design steel,' he said.

"'Well,' I said, 'you could make a sketch of how you would like it to look and then get Purdy and Henderson. They're the best steel designers I know.'

"'But what about these engineers of ours? They'll have a fit.'

"'To the devil with your engineers,' I said. 'Get Purdy & Henderson!'

"Mead did so, and the result was that graceful archwork of steel which has excited the admiration of architects and artists ever since."

Consider the significance of this naive admission. The most effective designing done on this pretentious and characterless building was initiated by the good taste and sound judgment of a building contractor, and its forms were created in the draughting department of a firm of structural engineers. What more can be said of the low estate to which the architectural Royal Family and all its sycophantic court had brought the building art?

The Outcast Tall Building

Among architects the tall office building did not fall within the province of architecture. Our professors from Paris, 1899 to 1903, said that it could be ignored as far as our studies of the Art were concerned.

When faced with the commission to design a tall building they had no canon by which it could be one building. Their laws of aesthetics stopped at about the sixth floor--the height to which Venetian palaces had been built. So that all pre-Sullivan buildings and many after him were a series of two- four- or six-story buildings piled one on top of the other to make the ten or fifteen or twenty stories required, as the case might be.

As is so often the case in a new expression of a new art form, American pioneer steel frame office building, the Tacoma Building at the Northeast corner of La Salle and Madison Streets in Chicago, was an exception to this elegant design inhibition. It was unified into an integral mass by unbroken vertical lines of bay windows which extended from the second to the tenth stories inclusive, with the top story a sort of interrupted series of recessed loggias in lieu of the usual classic cornice.

In about 1935 Thomas Tallmadge, F.A.I.A, wrote a monograph for Marshall Field to prove that the Home Insurance Building was the first steel frame office building. He proves no more than that the building was of reinforced brick masonry with plainly no thought on the designer's part that he was producing an integrated steel scaffold to support and carry floors and enclosing walls.

Tall office buildings were profitable and socially important enterprises and only a few of the most sensitive in spirit, such as Ralph Adams Cram, actually refused to design them. When one of the architectural nobility "did" an office building he exorcised its uncleanness by making this "tall building which was not Architecture" out of a number of lesser buildings which were "Architecture," piled one on top of each other, the whole further insured in its orthodoxy by important looking pieces of classical buildings out of the past, added here and there, as if to hide the shame of sixteen or more stories of business vulgarity.

    Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.3]
research courtesy mark hammons