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Charles W. Sexton summer residence, alterations
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota 910

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1910

Job Date (in Parabiographies): September 27, 1910


Working drawings, November 10, 1910 Draughting: L.B.C.,G.F.,Jr.,W.G.P.,G.G.E

This was the alteration of a lake "cottage," but the alterations finally became so extensive as to create practically a new building. Mrs. Sexton was a matriarch and practiced her calling. But the old man didn't seem to mind as long as he could enjoy his business and his toddy unmolested. He gave continuous attention to both.

The plans showed our raised hearths in both the living room and den fireplaces. But not for Mrs. Sexton! "Out" they were to come, and incensed she was about our even proposing them. But Sexton liked the idea--said anyway the den was his, he wanted a place to put his feet up, the daughters sided with Dad--the mother, in a sort of trade for concessions on other extras, gave in.

Iron Woman Softens

About a month after completion Mrs. Sexton came in, rather embarrassed. After some conversational maneuvering-- "Could we rebuild the living room fireplace to make a raised hearth as we had planned. Everybody liked the den best and no one wanted to use the living room. We could, but it would cost perhaps $300 as the entire face of chimney, tile, wood, throat, and flues would have to be torn out. Sadly -- "it's hardly worth it."

"They want what they want when they want it," and when that kind get it, which they usually do, it's no fun; that isn't what they wanted, after all.

Like most alterations, this project started with a few simple changes and grew day by day. Mrs. Sexton called for materials, finish, equipment and decorations that took the final result entirely out of any lake cottage sense of things. She had great social ambitions for her two marriageable daughters and this house was intended to provide the proper setting.

I was so interested in the new imaginative quality that Mr. Elmslie was bringing to our work that I did not stop to consider some of its implications until a comment by the foreman, August Lennartz, of whom we shall hear much more later in this record, said to me, "Do you realize that there are twenty-two members in this wooden cornice for the living room?" It was indeed a gorgeous system of exfoliating paneling and margining. Here were nearly two dozen mouldings, strips, and broad boards, all of different sizes and shapes, calling for specially cut knives to mill them. A build-up of furring was required beneath this system, and the careful mitering and gluing of over three hundred corners. The question of cost was not pressing, and the Sextons were happy and excited about such displays of elaborateness and expense. But this exuberance of spirit in design which had had so much free play in the large and costly projects upon which George Elmslie had worked with Mr. Sullivan, now became, however, a serious problem in buildings where cost was a major factor in all decisions. My own feelings were for forms that were more primitive, closer to their constructional and materials origins. George was in no sense averse to this approach to design and so our patterns tended to become less and less ornate. We began working all our details toward the less highly developed forms of the Winona Bank, the Powers house, #98 , and my own dwelling, building #256, built on Lake Place in 1913, eventually reaching a complete and highly effective expression in the Alexander offices. [Another version of this draft, a fragment ]

[Annotation by WGP on the draft: Remember Thos. H. Ireland heating engineer. Still living in 1951--]

The reactions of our clients, individual and collective, had of course an influence on our designing. People still liked a certain amount of ornament in spite of the very marked tendency toward general plainness which Elbert Hubbard and Gustav Stickley's "craftsman" movements had started. Our functional buildings were, therefore, generally pleasing, provided there was not "too much" ornament, and the mass forms not too unusual. Omission of cornices took a good deal of personal salesmanship, but if there was not too much business politics in our new contacts, the new forms soon became acceptable. We were not good politicians and were more at home and more interested in architecture than in getting business.

Both our business and our pioneering in new forms were helped by the fact that few people can read architectural drawings or even gain any too good an idea from a "perspective."  We only made "perspectives" for a small percentage of projects--the same drawings were always made as attractive as possible, and by the time the working drawings were completed, the client had become used to specialized design values which would have been too strange had he suddenly been faced with their reality. The public got used to the building, while it was going up, and they had to take it and couldn't leave it when finished, so that our cause, on one way or another, made progress and developed character.

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