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Exchange State Bank
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Grand Meadow, Minnesota   1910

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1910

Job Date (in Parabiographies): Spring, 1910

EXCHANGE STATE BANK, Grand Meadow, Minn.

Working drawings, June 15, 1910 Ornamental detail, G.G.E., August 16, 1910 Draughting: Lawrence B. Clapp, Marion A. Parker, W.G.P.

This was really a classic opportunity for stating our views in architecture. We made the most of it, and it lives today, of today.

How we met Elgar Greening, the vice-president, I do not remember, but we found in him a view of his function as a country banker which corresponded to ours about buildings, and I suppose we inevitably were drawn together through the mental clustering of his human outlook and mine. His name struck me as original, and comment brought about the fact that he was a cousin of Sir Edward Elgar, and it seemed strange to find him in a little--very little, wind-swept village on the vast, treeless meadows of southern Minnesota.

Swarming of Bees

But there is another really paradoxical circumstance of great interest arising from this building operation. To get its full force, one must turn back to the world-old problem of bee swarming. Even in ancient Egypt, those wise and clever agriculturalists knew the loss involved when the bees swarmed away from their hive without only an occasional chance of retrieving them or capturing in turn the swarm of some neighbor. If they could only know what made them swarm and when they would do it, the useful bees and their delightful product could become a very dependable part of an organized agronomy. But no one ever found out, and for five thousand years this problem remained as much of a mystery as the language of the Etruscans.

Laboratory Expert

On the first visit to Grand Meadow, Elgar Greening and I were standing by the old wooden bank, reviewing the building to be, when a wheelbarrow came bump-bumping over the railroad tracks pushed by an old man in a sloppy sweater and oversized overalls.

"Here comes the President, my father."

The old fellow was genial and hearty, made me welcome, but left bank and banking to his slim, quiet son. When we went "up to the house" for lunch, he took me out to the apiary, and I was then told that this unknown and unsung farmer had solved the hitherto unsolvable, and could control bee swarming on a schedule.

Why Bees Swarm

The idea, like all such deep secrets of nature, was too simple. As long as there were unfilled cells above the queen bee, the colony stayed with the old home. The minute this storehouse was filled, the colony split and a part moved out to find and build a new city. When Mr. Greening wanted a prosperous hive to swarm, he replaced partially filled tiers with trays from other hives in which the honeycomb was all filled, and then waited for the hive to swarm, which they promptly did. If a colony was not too vigorous and needed building up, he removed the tiers of honeycomb as fast as the bees filled them up, and replaced them with tiers containing empty comb, and the bees kept on contentedly working. It was just as simple as that, and let no one imagine that this old man's contribution to world economics is a slight matter. The saving in time alone to orchardists the world around, running all over the countryside trying to find and capture runaway swarms, in unbelievable. And the saving in actual bee colonies which would otherwise be lost must represent a quarter or a third of the living capital of the industry.

Back to Our Bank

As Mr. Elmslie was in Chicago, I developed the general layout of this bank-on-a-corner. The parts disposed themselves naturally, according to the obvious needs of the little country business. The plan followed former studies of country bank plans which I had previously developed before Mr. Elmslie began to work more closely with me. I made a design for the facades but was not satisfied with what I had done, so I shipped the whole works to him.

My design was direct and functional enough, candid masonry projecting roof slab without cornice, but I shall never forget my surprise and joy when I unrolled the tube of drawings which he sent back. The clean, cubic mass of the building, the simple asymmetric composition of the long side, but principally the absolutely unbroken and undisturbed march of the second floor windows from one end to the other. The old end-pavillions-and-center motive design system which had cursed architectural composition since the days of Louis XIV, were here demolished.

But the protagonists of this ancient cliche were not them defeated by our demonstration, nor since. In the most ultra of the ultra "moderne" of today, no matter how far the fashionable designer moves into unheard of building materials, and no matter what grimace of form these materials take on, we still have with us the old central motive and end pavillions in some form or other.

In this Exchange State Bank we introduced our exterior glass mosaic as enrichment, along with the ornamental terra-cotta, which is unglazed red brown to match the brick with two panels in polychrome in the sign. The tesserae of the glass mosaic are held together with white Portland cement, reinforced with galvanized mesh, and set in channels provided when laying the brick. It is an inexpensive and practically indestructible form of color and decoration.

Small Adjustment--Large Result

On this job, instead of using 3/4" wooden furring strips, as was usual everywhere, to carry the lath and plaster on the inside of the brick walls, we furred with 2" and 4"'s, so that the window frames and staff beads lapped on the masonry only a couple of inches and thus enabled the full thickness of the masonry to count in the window reveals. Thus, with the sacrifice of an inconsiderable amount of floor area, we added an element of great vigor to the appearance of the building without more than a few dollars of added expense. The use of squared spars of stone instead of the universe cornice in imitation of carved stone but made of wood or metal, was a further economy, because they were machine sawed to exact sizes and lengths, held the upper brick of the walls securely in place and did not have to be renewed or repainted. We sloped their upper surface slightly toward the roof, so that the dirt was washed back and the face of the building kept clean.

Practical Innovations

We were able to persuade our clients to abandon the conventional metal bars at the banking screen and establish more friendly and human relations between the teller and the customers. We merged the counters and the screen tops into the wainscot and casings of the room, allowed the counter panels to flow in a plastic sense into the wall surfaces, and made a considerable study of the quality of light in the room, both for working on the books and teller-customer relations. We glazed the upper part of the large window with slightly obscure opal glass to take away the glare without the necessity of resorting to the universal roller shades which spoiled the working light and soon became unsightly. In the thirty years this building has served, the money which would have been spent upon the replacement cost of roller shades alone, would have more than paid for the beautiful glass which has been providing satisfactory working light at the south window.

But this innocent bank was dynamite to architectural opinion in 1910. Only one architectural journal dared publish the building, and the resulting fan mail to Editor McLean sounded like a Liberty League Banquet.

What, then, was so shocking to the recherche Architects Diplome de le Gouvernment Francais lately returned from Paris, and their American followers?

1. They disliked corners with no visible support.

2. Any kind of cantilever, especially wood, was not "architecture."

3. They ignored interior furniture equipment integral with the interior architecture, except in the most elaborate projects.

4. All "regular" design was based on structural allegations with no foundation in fact, i.e., the honorific "pilaster with base and cornice making a linteled wall-panel design treatment." The idea of recognizing a wall as the enclosing bounds of a three dimensioned space was simply beyond their mental grasp.

5. Our ceramic was tile-like design, instead of their transcribed, ancient mosaic pavements.

6. Conditioned lighting from functional containers in place of torches, lanterns, chandeliers, they suspected of being something fell.

7. Omission of the universal bronze jail grids between the public and his money, was too great a break with tradition.

8. They scorned equipment items without visible support, i.e., working counters without counters depending beneath them.

9. And away back there before World War 1--years before Russian "Communism" was ever heard of, how truly "Red" and unspeakably loathed by proper Architects was our division of a major architectural opening into two parts by a column in the center instead of the Renaissance three divisions. (See photo of exterior, and note on design of Winona facade, #13.)

   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.4]
research courtesy mark hammons