firm active: 1907-1921

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Catherine Gray Residence, second scheme
also known as W. G. Purcell Residence
Purcell and Feick
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1907

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1907
Text by William Gray Purcell

Job Date (in Parabiographies): May 1, 1907

WILLIAM GRAY PURCELL HOUSE (also now [Catherine Gray House] to distinguish from 2328 Lake Place

2409 Lake of the Isles Boulevard. Ownership changed inn 1917. Extensively and very unintelligently altered by new owners in 1918. Still standing in 1938.

George Grant Elmslie appears. After a series of studies for this project which were wholly unsatisfactory, and with the confusion and dead end of JN 4-1/2, we turned to George G. Elmslie, with data on [the] lot, lake view, winter flowers room, and wish for a detached pavilion porch, out of sight in winter, similar to a Fair Oaks, Oak Park house of F. L. Wright's. G.G.E. replied with a pencil plan that seemed just right. W.G.P. articulated the mechanics of the plan and developed the elevations for this house. A start was made with tented ceilings, a plastic trim system, and inside storm windows for outward opening casements. So far as I know, this was the first use anywhere of such double windows with outswinging hinged sash, and the first outward opening windows in Minneapolis.

Interior Finish System

It was for this house the George Feick and I first worked out our 5/8 x 2-5/8 unified, single section interior trim, with mill-glued corner and angle pieces - all placed to make framed panels of the wall surfaces and thus emphasize the decorative rather than the structural qualities of door casing, mop board, picture hangings strips, and so on.

Philosophy of Interior Design

That there was a deep and basic philosophy in a sympathetic and functional handling of a wood finish system was obvious to us and to some of our contemporaries. The old system centered the attention of the designer on the opening - the hole in the wall - and the traditional designer tended to "emphasize", as he called it, all the structural elements of such openings, whether doors or windows. We felt that they [doors and windows], throught Use and Light, had all the emphasis they needed. We felt that the walls were essentially the elements which created the cubic living space which was the room, and that these walls presented areas which should be distinctly emphasized with due respect for what they really were. We wanted walls to speak their enclosing sense, to be true to their net function. Walls, by their very nature, offered well defined areas affording opportunity for simple or rich treatment through the use of color, various materials and textures, every variety of surface and grace of pattern.

Since the beginnings of architecture the wall had been structural - something to hold up the roof and keep out man's enemies. Because the man whose hands built it decided what and where and how, the architecture of the wall was all structural expression. The framed structure, which during the Middle Ages had been fully explored in stone and in wood, now appeared in steel and the wall began to give up its burden to play a happier role. The day when wall would be a slight fabric of glass, of sliced wood, squeezed sawdust, chewed up sugar cane, cotton gelatine, rolled rosin [sic], glistening metal, was still a quarter of a century ahead.

The Plastic Idea

Baillie Scott's book [Houses and Gardens (1906)] published about this time shows a great deal of what we call plastic treatment of both the larger design elements and of interior finish. Scott's long rows of casement windows anticipated in no small way the feeling for a new and better relation between living rooms and the out of doors. Of course long uninterrupted windows were no new thing in themselves. Elizabethan England had them, often with minimum stone mullions between, and similar fronts of almost continuous window glass are to be found in fifteenth century Hildesheim in Germany. Perhaps in that day the discovery that the glass which had been glorified in cathedral windows as a sort of precious jewel could answer also a common need in daily life, produced a public excitement similar to its rediscovery as a structural material today.

Of course, Frank Lloyd Wright had opened up direct apporach to the rational use of wood finish as far back as 1896, and I had recently seen several Oak Park houses in which he had used very narrow strips as casing with square, slightly projecting, backboards carried along as base cap. But as late as 1900 (see June Architectural Review - special number) he still retained many recollections of the old romantic mouldings, panels and wood transitions, though of a much more delicate and sensitive character than the bold face designing that was popular on the detail drawing boards of architects' offices at the turn of the century.

Wright undoubtedly knew Baillie Scott's work and recognized that this man was in tune with the vital forces being released in building. There is much correspondence in both feeling and detail between the work of Scott and Wright prior to 1900, but Wright's mind was dealing with the while range of building, while Scott, whatever he may have been thinking, found expression largely in domestic architecture. I recall no evidence of Baillie Scott being aware of the age of machinery and of farflung engineering with their impact on every sort of building.

We Fix Our System

Our approach and method was a success, but worked out a bit heavy and woody, and so the unit wood strip was reduced to about 7/16" x 2-1/2" net. When funds permitted, we used the moulded backband which Mr. Elmslie had used in works done with Louis H. Sullivan. George Feick and I did not of course originate this apporach to bridging the inevitable construction joint between the plaster wall surfaces and the door and window frames. I had seen many new uses of common materials in Wright's Oak Park houses over and through which I had been climbing, during their construction, since my high school days. I saw details of this general intent in the working drawings for the Babson Riverside house (L.H.S.) on my way to Europe in March, 1906, and in the Owatonna Bank plans (L.H.S.) on my return, both of which George Elmslie was designing, but Wright and Elmslie dealt in wood 3/4" x 3-3/4" and up, always richly and often elaborately moulded, Wright's designs especially continuing very woody.

Net "Trim"

All the wood pieces were deisgned to be the minimum casing that would cover the "grounds" and at the same time cut economically from the rough "stock" (6" and 1" boards) which still ran full 5-3/4 and 11-3/4" in 1907. This provided a piece with 2-5/8" face when the saw cut was allowed for and the material dressed. With us that base alone retained a 7" face, but George Elmslie brought this down to 5" and then to the 4" which Strauel took over as standard and we have all used ever since. A new and more functional carpet strip was developed to replace the old quarter round. Subconscious traditional fear of the old broom and mop whacking against the base kept plenty of wood at the floor line, and that habit continued in American architecture until the 1920s.

And so, what Frank Lloyd Wright had done along this line beginning about 1890, was carried further by Charles E. White, who made numerous studies in organized interior finish as earlu as 1906 or 1907. George Elmslie contributed many practical and imaginative variants in buildings produced between 1900 and 1910. Our combined efforts represented the first emancipation from the old carpentered treatment of common "interior finish." Very satisfactory were the results, a great novelty in 1908.

Plan and Details

The detached porch to the south, in this house open in four sides, gave many summers of delightful service, to be demolished by the next owner. The south wall of the living room and its outlook was spoiled with a blank wall - to provide a space for three large old-fashioned bookcases. Our projects were often injured in order to include equipment of furniture which our clients had on hand. Often a fine room was defeated to no purpose for after a thousand dollars was spent to save three hundred dollars of old equipment, it was often laid aside when the new home was ready for use.

This dwelling is still undated in the parts done by us, but is ruined architecturally through the extensive additions bt unimaginative draughtsmen which nearly doubled its size.

The First Raised Hearth Appears

In this house we developed the very first raised hearth fireplace, suggested by the very open kitchen working fires at low table height which Feick and I had seen in Swedish folk farm houses in 1906. In this first example the idea was rather timidly expressed, but was greeted as a great novelty and was generally approved. In constant use in our fire-loving family, we found it just right - a joyful picture within the very substance of the room wall.

Here, also, much thought was given the design problem of finding an honest expression for the brick envelopment of frame construction to stay with the "form and function" idea in the face of many business disappointments. I'd been talking, thinking, and living this fundamental idea in architecture since 1896, when I first saw Frank Lloyd Wright's new home and studio in Oak Park.

Taking the Clock Apart

After four years of the cynicism and dilteeantism of an architectural school of the pre-depression era, my revolt against sham which I took with me to college in 1899, together with the reinforcement which my views received from George Elmslie immediately after my graduation, confirmed a need for some sort of Ten Commandments of Design. While in college I had read Ruskin's "Seven Lamps" and also the essay to student which is found in the appendix of some editions. In 1900 Ruskin's writing were already laughed at as fusty and naive by the world of fashion in architecture. As for me, I believed all that Ruskin said, and when his logic wouldn't fit the plain facts of practical living and building, I rewrote his syllogisms "as Ruskin would have written had be been born into the Machine Age." There was no twinge of conscience in this procedure for I noted that he had completely reversed himself in his attitude toward war by reapplication of the same logic from a different standpoint. I was sure his honest generous heart would not have hesitated to rethink any condition of life and art upon which new light had fallen.

In such a mind and with firm resolve, I sat down to design this house No. 5. All the practical factors pointed to "brick veneer" as the best type of construction. The philosophic problem was to decide if such brick "veneer" was in very fact, and no quibbling, honest architecture, and if so in principle, what was the true expression of the inherent qualities of such construction.

Reading "Back to Nature" with Goethe

That Nature distinguished between "structure" and "envelope" was plain at once, and it soon became plain that envelope often reinforced structure without actually displacing it; and finally, that the structural fabric, as in lobsters, in our fingernails, in the shell of man's external ear, that is to say the envelope, modified, actually became the structure. I recall sitting on my drafting stool in our New York Life office, holding pencil and triangle in one hand, and actually feeling my ear with the other, as I thought out all the implications of transition from a pure veneer of brick, where is was a facing for rough construction, as in the upper shell of the ear where the skin so plainly slides on the cartilage beneath, to a veneer that became pure construction when, like the skin of the lower lobe of the ear, the brick veneer flowed around and along to build flower boxes or railings, beneath and inside which there was no structural fabric and none needed.

In thinking about this earnest attempt, so long ago, in all my designing, to associate my own body with the concept of a building as it took form, I have been deeply moved by the words of Paul Valery on this same theme. In his "Eupalnios, or the Architect," [fn: Authorized Engligh translation by William McC. Stewart, 1932, Oxford University Press, London - Humphrey Milford - German by Ranier Maria Rilke. Valery born 1871 - ]Phaedrus is reporting to Socrates the conversation with Eupalnios where he sayd:

"....O Phaedrus, when I design a dwelling...and when I lovingly seek its form, studying to create an object that shall delight the view, that shall hold converse with the mind, that shall accord with reason and the numerous proprieties...I confess, how strange soever it may appear to you, that it seems to me my body is playing its part in the game."

And then he follows with a long, most beautiful and intuitive prose poem on this theme.

Having satisfied my conscience I began with confidence to establish the brick work in this building, to create both the enveloping areas and the solid masses of the various parts and utilities in such a way that they would counteract in movement, bulk and shape, against the other elements of the building and thus establish a sequence, subordination and movement of aprt with part, and part with the whole.

Construction started August 1st; we moved in Thanksgiving Day and in this home when completed, I lived happily with my grandmother in my "own house" for the year before I was married.

For this plan, we developed our first interpretation of the combination entrance hall - rear hall - main stairway - and to-basement-from grade-approach used in many subsequent houses. This basic plan idea was first announced in a revolutionary house by Frank Lloyd Wright in the Ladies' Home Journal.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Late in July, when the working drawings were finished, I went down to Chicago for ten days with the idea of showing my plans to Frank Lloyd Wright. I found him in his octagonal draughting room on the corner of Chicago and Forest Avenues. The long shafts of orange sunlight were slanting through the door from his private office, making the high ceilinged room seem dusky by contrast. The odor of pine smoke which permeated the room from its fireplace (which didn't draw any too well) was perfume to my forest trained nose. Wright was in a genial and friendly mood, but never too enthusiastic toward me, because as a bright young kid about town, studying architecture, he had expected that I would enter his office upon leaving college, and when I went, even for a few months in the summer of 1901, into the office of Architect E. E. Roberts to please my father, he considered me already a lost soul.

He glanced over the roll of blue prints which I spread out on his knee. I was rather insistent upon definitive criticism of my work. It was a considerable disappointment when all he cared to say was, "Twenty-five years from now you will see plainly in these drawings what I see in them." I do.

Of course, the architecture of this house lies in the world in which Wright was living and working at that time, and he himself did not then see the world of form in which he is now living and working. In the face of his brilliant accomlishment it would have been presumptuous to have said, "True enough, and twenty-five years from now you too will see a new world toward which both of us are moving." Douglas Donaldson says, "The most surprising thing about Wright's work during the thirty years from 1985 to 1925 is that although it seemed to radical, so extreme, so controversial at the time, it is not 'old hat'."

I have studied all that Wright has done; I have read all that he has written; I have followed him from the beginnging. I believe that I understand the man and his architecture better than anyone else today. Indeed, I believe I understand Wright better than he does himself, because, with respect to certain relations with men and materials, he also has his blind spots. His Broad Acre City is plainly lacking in provision for warm human community expression. Like his furniture, the city plan is tremendously interesting, useful, logical, but in certain very essential corners it is uncomfortable.

In 1906 I had stood on a street corner in Stockholm and counted my remaining express checks to see if I had by chance sufficient funds to cover the trip to Helsingfors to see Saarinen and his architecture, and particularly the new Helsingfors Railroad Station, completed only two years before. So that is had been my privilege over a long period of time to compare these two greatest architects of our day, and perhaps to ask about their relative merits. But they can hardly be compared because Wright, in addition to his specific accomplishments in distinguished buildings, has been a great pioneer, an adventurer of the spirit, willing and eager to try out every possible imaginative variant, while Saarinen has kept to a more definite continuity of thought and action, refining and re-thinking his values. Wright ignores individual humanity and does not hesitate to violate the needs and the feelings of any individual whenever it suits his purpose. He is spiritually ruthless. His concern for man is a concern for generic man, the crowd man. Saarinen is alwaus loving and human, thoughtful about people, friendly, neighborly in his architecture. Both men are great teachers, and are today producing a splendid band of unusually capable young architects.

On this trip to Oak Park, I took my drawings to George Elmslie, high up in the Auditorium Tower, and there, overlooking the beautiful and ever-changing lake, we went over the project. He had already had his say on both concept and detail while the drawings were being made. He thought the building was headed in the right direction. I wish now he had insisted on opening up the south wall - a defect sufficiently glaring that I can hardly imagine myself so blind as to not have seen it.

Spending an hour or so in Wright's office, even the brief glances at work in progress on which the draughtsmen had laid down their mencils a few minutes before, walking again under the great elms of Forest Avenue and stopping to restudy the Moore house, Huertley, Fargo and others by Wright, was, as always, a great refreshment and encouragement to my spirit. The hours with George in Sullivan's office seemed like coming back home. I went over his work and stopped in the outer office to look at the samples of ornamental hardware, the cast iron grille for the McCormick house, the beautifully drawn facade of Louis's project for Orchestra Hall, and all the familiar and inspiring objects that had grown from seed that I, too, was now planting and cultivating.


   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d4.1]
research courtesy mark hammons