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City Hall, project
Purcell and Feick
Eau Claire, Wisconsin  1909

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1909

Eau Claire City Hall

This study in plan arrangement was, in reality, in our minds at least, a shot at two objectives.

As a result of committee reactions to our little Winona bank model, and noting people's comments and expressions of feeling as they studied the 1/8" scale sketches for buildings we laid before them, I made up my mind to find some way to meet a situation in the popular mind which can be well expressed by this syllogism--small drawing equals small building, therefore a casual solution, meaning to the general public "small drawings--small value."

It seemed to me that one should be able to push a big pencil across a big sheet of paper at large scale as fast as one could push a pencil around a small sheet of paper at small scale. And if a perspective made from a 1/8" scale plan looked dinky, especially if it had to be viewed by a number of people at the same time, it ought to be just as easy to make a picture from a quarter-scale plan or even larger, that in the ever increasing competition for business would talk more impressively--50 percent more impressively, and of course in too many cases no doubt deluded them by over-expression.

Selling Our Services: The whole matter of "big drawings" began at the entrance into American business life of pressure salesmanship, and to this curse belongs a lot of our trouble now. A genius clad in motley with a modest sketch befitting his seriousness got nowhere, while a shady entrepreneur with a topper and a drawing with the delusive allurement of size carried home the chicken for the family pot.

I was to feel this in a very practical way when contractors and builders began to run away with business we wanted. They beat us on two counts. They used quarter-scale "maps" of the building's floor plan in simple black lines, with a minimum of information. Almost anyone could understand such a plan, and second, they said, "That much building will cost so much money," or at least that is what the prospective client thought he heard them say. If the architect was long on accounting for everything needed but uncertain about price, the contractor was sure of his insistence on the price. These canny contractors usually named a sum at about what they thought the owner could probably be induced to spend--but they were likely to be quite vague about what the owner would receive in the way of building for his dollars. It may have been Dankmar Adler who first said, "The first principle of architecture is to land the job," but if one is to be an architect he must produce a creditable building, and George Elmslie from his corner of the office rightly maintained that "a large drawing may be a dangerous process. So many architectural monstrocities have been materialized by just that process." He maintained that in public competitions "large scale drawings should be banned."

Practical Design Approach

"From microcosm to macrocosm is the law of life, and perhaps is the creative designing process." That was George's working idea and for him "the smaller an idea for the mental eye, the simpler, for the evolution of our thought toward living proportions. Many a time have I gone back to the microcosm to check up and keep aware of the primary impulse.

"Leonardo [da Vinci] made many studies of various parts of a conception such as the turn of a hand, the finger articulation pattern. There is a world of freedom within the primary idea for architects likewise, but there must be no tinkering with the organic basis which, if unsatisfactory, had better be thrown away. Get a good sleep and begin again.

"Although we don't always practice what we preach, I believe that this doctrine is sound. While I kept handy the first small sketch which was the result, usually, of deep meditation; since I rarely made more than one sketch, I seldom had much trouble. The evolution was simple--no backtracking to look at this or that."

George Elmslie was forever throwing things away, but I have always kept for reference every least scratch of a pencil made in recording a building. Returning to such records just before the final crystallization in working drawings helps eliminate many a turbid and irrelevant development. The review of such records when the building is finally alive and in use is a revealing experience in self-understanding. More important to us now is that this lifetime habit places at our disposal drawings, photographs and data of all kinds about this vivid transition in world architecture.

Politicians Win:

Returning to the more serious situation concerned with earning our living, we saw in this Town Hall a business prospect on which we couldn't afford to spend much money because we had no great political backing. To make drawings for the project was the special request of our Eau Claire client, John S. Owen. Time was very short. These plans were made with a 6B pencil, inked in with a stub pen, together with a dashed-up perspective, colored with crayon.

We didn't land the job, and as very shortly thereafter Mr. Elmslie came to us to take over the making of all the design and presentation drawings, I never tried this "freehand, working-drawing size" preliminary study system, until after I got to Portland, Oregon, in the fall of 1919.

Of course, we realized that these drawings were too immature, caused largely to the time element. What happened after presenting these designs--or who judged them--has faded from our records. Politicians had everything sewed up, I fancy.

Depressed Civic Art:

A vital idea that got a good beginning in out thinking processes in this set of City Hall pans was the direct reaction from all the Renaissance junk and bunk which at that time was hung upon public buildings everywhere. Before the Chicago Worlds Columbian Exposition of 1893, H. H. Richardson, noted architect of Boston, had produced a long series of public buildings of integral structure and functional organization. The details of these buildings and Richardson's style which was an adaptation of Romanesque, interfered as little as possible with practical utility, and they had a dignified character, as befitting public buildings. The "Imperial Roman" buildings of this Exposition dried up all public interest in Richardson's medieval exhibits and the virtue and honesty inherent in his work dissolved into the brash growth of a Franco-American Renaissance.

As the last of the great pine forests disappeared, the lumber business in Northern Wisconsin was fading out and the little town of Eau Claire was short of cash. But we believed there was a way to put a good and substantial building around some plain, solid, honest, interior supports in such a was as to produce a formal and dignified public quality, without dragging in a lot of tin cornices painted to imitate stone and a front of painted wooden "stone" columns, with plaster of Paris carved "stone" capitals, which was the accepted mode.

More Laboratory Study:

Our competitor, Mr. Bell, would go before the County officials with his well worn water color picture of a court house, and his final sales argument would be, "I have built this one sixteen times."

In our plan there is evidence, I believe, of true research into a growing architectural field--Public Buildings. As Fate would have it, neither Sullivan nor Wright ever had an opportunity to produce a Public Building for city, county, or state [obviously written before the Marin County Court House, but certainly true of the progressive period as it was already finished:MH]; and not until William L. Steele with Purcell and Elmslie as associates, built the Woodbury County Court House at Sioux City, Iowa, in 1916, was there any real functionally expressed American public building. It is interesting, indeed, to think of a public building designed by either Wright or Sullivan in the 1890s. It would doubtless have been an architectural achievement of a distinguished order and inspiriting to look upon.

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