firm active: 1907-1921

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A. F. Bullen Residence, alterations<
Purcell and Feick
Red Wing, Minnesota 1907

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1907
Text by William Gray Purcell

Job Date (in Parabiographies): September 4, 1907


See also #198

Extensive but inconsequential.

Ships and Greenhouses

Crossing the Atlantic in March, 1906, on the 12,000 ton "Koenig Albert," we had a very severe storm and, fresh from my studies in engineering and building construction, I was amazed at the stiffness and strength of the exceeding light members of which the ship was fabricated, notwithstanding the tremendous shocks of the pitching vessel. The columns in the dining room were of turned wood, about 5-1/2 inches in diameter, and the ceiling joists, or deck beams as they were called, were also of wood about 1-3/8 inches by 5-1/2 inches.

In dwelling construction, common practice and the building laws called for 6 x 6 posts, and at least 2 x 10 floor joists for a structure that was to remain perfectly quiet while doing its work - the contrast seemed utterly ridiculous.

I recalled, six years before, my first revolt against accepting conventional constructional habits as sound, unless they could prove their value, when I staged a famous and entirely good-natured battle with Professor Martin over the details of double-hung window sash. He maintained that a double-sash had to be at least 1-3/4 inches thick, and that no sound window could be otherwise produced. I claimed that in every sleeping car there were doublt-hung windows which were subjected to very much more damaging use and were only 3/4 inches thick. Well, of course, the argument never came to a conclusion, and Professor Martin was right in one contention, that anyone would have a terrible time and much expense getting such windows built at any planing mill. This we were later to realize all too frequently in the many experiement we made in new construction details.

But necessity and not intelligence is the prime mover and in 1930 the competition by steel sash had become so acute fro planing mills that they developed a thin shas (about 1-1/4" but with a 1 inch face to show and invented a special machine to make the double mortice at the angles. These sash would not rust and held their paint which in turn compelled the steel sash makers to use non-rusting steel or aluminum and to develop new paints that would not peel.

Even at that time, planing mills everywhere were beginning to make 1-3/8" inch sash instead of 1-3/4 [inch] as stock standard. This, of course, was largely due to the increasing prices for lumber, together with the tendency of the lumber manufacturers during the previous fifteen years to take more and more out of the thickness of the rough board and make the public pay for the sawdust.

During this year 1907, with little real business to do, there was time to do a good deal of thinking about this relation between the mass sizes of material used in building construction, as compared with other engineered structures, and my investigations led me into a study of the surprising detail and simplcity of standard greenhouse construction, where wooden ribs cut from 1-3/8 inch x 2-1/2 inch stock, spaced about 10 inches o.c. on 16-foot spans, were carrying full snow and wind loads successfully. Some drawings were made with the idea of producing inexpensive rooms this way, substituting some opaque insulated material for the glass in the roof portion of the curving robs, and providing fly screens for a string of the lower ventilating units to serve as windows.

We were not as smart as Mr. Ernest Flagg and his systematized construction to which extended reference will be made in 1927, in appreciating the value of the peak ventilating units for drawing off the superheated air, but it had occurred to me that there would be considerable advantage in the matter of saving heat by burying such a room up to it window sills in the earth. And it also appeared that a tremendous savng could be made in greenhouse group planning by placing greenhouses on a hillside designed somewhat after the principle of enormous "cold frames" such as are used to start seeds for early transplanting. These buried rooms with glass roofs could have rolled padded canvas covers, quickly run down by gravity at sunset, thus conserving the heat during fourteen to sixteen hours of the coldest winter days. All these heat use and conservation ideas were to become the basis of extensive study by the Smithsonian in the 1930s, and many plans and machines offered the public for practical use of them.

Except for stiffening our determination to think out carefully everything we produced, none of these studies bore any particular fruit in our plans for a great many years. It was 1932 before we worked out a modification of the characteristic greenhouse roof vent, corn control, in order to remove the superheated air from the little desert cottage at Banning, California. It was a successful experiment, providing the householder did not forget to close the vent upon leaving the house and thus get a sudden shower in his living room, but even this will be remedied in the next one.

There was a certain fascination about the whale-rib shape of greenhouse roofs, and I was delighted in 1928 to be taken by an amusing delicatessen proprietor of Rochester, Minnesota, to a little house he had just finished, which designed by himself, on this principle. It seemed to him that the dairy barns of Southern Minnesota were about the only structures which had a fundamentally interesting and self-contained mass form. So within a simple plan rectangle, with its low walls and merging upward into a whale-rib roof, he arranged quite an amusing, practical and charming bungalow, with a high ceiling living room, balcony, bedroom, galley kitchen. This artist grocer of Rochester proved himself a really capable architect, and evidently had a creative imagination. The housewives told me that he was a better actor than he was a grocer. But he kept the town supplied with expensive food gadgets from Europe, and a lot of entertainment into the bargain - to the considerable annoyance of the conventionally-minded local market owners.


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