firm active: 1907-1921

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Biographical Notes: The Team

Biographical essay in Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers.
Copyright by Mark Hammons, 1985.

The changing community of draftsmen, artists, craftsmen, designers, contractors, and others who together carried out the work of the various Purcell architectural partnerships came to be known collectively as the "Team." These men and women shared a practical association based on the democratic ideals that inspired the progressive movement toward an indigenous American architecture. Many who worked for the Purcell office regarded the firm as the most challenging and interesting place to be employed and, in contrast to the majority of contemporary architect's offices, a situation where their active contribution to the production process was both recognized and appreciated. Their camaraderie as a fellowship was rooted not in time cards, salaries, or commission fees but in a common belief in the organic procedures through which they joined in the building art.

The first drafter to be hired for a regular position in the Purcell & Feick office was not a man but a woman, Marion Alice Parker (1875?-1935), who joined the firm in 1908. She moved to Minneapolis from New Hampshire, where she had gone to drafting school and gained her first practical experience at a woodmill owned by her uncle. She had worked for a series of firms before coming to Purcell & Feick. Parker was competent and dependable, and during the more than ten years she remained with the firm her previous eclectic attitude toward architectural design changed into a full commitment to the organic principles. After her departure from Purcell & Elmslie in 1919 she maintained her own successful practice in Minneapolis until she retired to open an arts and crafts shop in Laguna Beach, California. In a strange twist of fate, Parker died of a heart attack only a short distance from the Purcell estate in the Pasadena foothills while on the way to visit her old employer.

Another drafter, Lawrence B. Clapp, also joined the Purcell & Feick office in 1908 and remained through the change of partnership to Purcell, Feick, & Elmslie until 1912. Clapp formed a particular attachment to George Elmslie and returned to work for him during the 1920s after the dissolution of Purcell & Elmslie. Clapp left the Midwest in 1929 to follow the boom in Florida real estate, where he suffered financial losses. After a short time in Alaska he returned to Chicago to sell watercolors made on his trip north and, like Parker, eventually moved to southern California. In 1935 he was living in Santa Barbara and participating in the artists colony fiesta in Laguna Beach.

In March of 1912 a drafter named Paul Haugen who was leaving the Purcell, Feick & Elmslie office was asked to find someone to fill his place before his departure. Haugen knew of Lawrence A. Fournier, who was unhappy with his position at the Minneapolis Ornamental Iron Works. Haugen arranged for Fournier to interview with Purcell and the drafter was offered the job. Although he had previous experience in the offices of Kees & Colburn and William Kenyon in Minneapolis, Fournier was at first self conscious about his carpenter drafter background and intimidated by the idea of working for a highly creative firm without the benefit of a formal education. Only a brief time back at his drafting board in the ironworks persuaded him to make the change, however, and the next day he telephoned Purcell to accept.

Over the next decade Fournier worked on most of the major commissions built by the firm. In addition, he regularly entered small home competitions sponsored by the Minnesota State Art Commission. He took first place in a 1914 Model Village House contest, and the plan was published in folio with the second prize entry of Marion Alice Parker. His two story design for a brick house with an estimated cost of $2,500 won third mention in 1916 and appeared a year later in The Minnesotan. When the Purcell & Elmslie office in Minneapolis was reduced to a smaller staff in 1917, Fournier was transferred to Chicago and remained with George Elmslie after the firm was disbanded in 1921.

Fournier made significant contributions to later work by Elmslie, particularly the Capital Savings and Loan Association building in Topeka, Kansas, that Elmslie refused to give credit until Fournier finally left, dispirited, in 1922 and opened his own practice. In 1935 he became executive architect for a large housing project built during the Depression. Four years later the opportunity arose to become designing engineer for a major bank building if he could meet the license requirements. Fournier overcame the last of his educational hurdles at age sixty by putting himself through three months of intensive technical study in order to qualify for the work. When his health later became impaired, he retired to Minnesota to spend his remaining years writing novels and poetry until his death in 1944 at age sixty six in an apartment fire.

The most significant figure in the history of the "Team" came to the firm in May 1913 shortly before the departure of George Feick, Jr. A native born Minnesotan, Frederick A. Strauel (1887-1974) first worked on the Thomas Snelling residence that was being built in Waukegan, Illinois, and ultimately came to be regarded as the chief drafter of Purcell & Elmslie. He remained a friend and associate of both Purcell and Elmslie for many years following the end of their partnership, continuing to work with them for nearly half a century afterwards. For example, Purcell sent most of his drafting to Strauel during the 1920s and twice brought him out to Portland, Oregon, when the work in his office warranted. Purcell and Strauel collaborated on a number of speculative houses for a developer in Minneapolis, as well as on other projects in Minnesota, from 1928 to 1932. By sharing the rent with Purcell and Elmslie, Strauel was able to maintain a small office in the Architects and Engineers Building in Minneapolis until 1935 and did the working drawings for the last house designed by Purcell for a client, the K. Paul Carson, Jr., residence in 1940. Except for the periods when he employed Fournier and Clapp, Elmslie too used Strauel as drafter for many of his jobs, including the Yankton College buildings in South Dakota and the Western Springs Congregational Church in Illinois.

From 1933 to 1943 Strauel worked in the same WPA office as John Jager, followed by a brief wartime job with a chemical company before taking a staff position with the Minneapolis City Planning Commission from which he retired in 1952. In October of that year he began working with John Jager on preparations for the "Purcell & Elmslie, Architects" exhibition held at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1953. Thereafter Strauel was periodically involved with the archival preservation of the Purcell & Elmslie records, making detailed catalogs of the drawings and annotating many records with information that he remembered from earlier times. He outlived the rest of those involved in the office and before his own death in 1974 donated the Purcell & Elmslie materials in his possession to the University of Minnesota.

Numerous other draftsmen passed through the Purcell firms at different periods, some on the way to establishing their own successful architectural practices. The most prominent of these was John A. Walquist, who became a highly successful architect in New York City. LeRoy A. Gaarder came to work at Purcell, Feick & Elmslie in 1912 from earlier experience with a church architect. He stayed for five years and later opened his own office in Albert Lea, Minnesota. While working for Purcell & Elmslie, Gaarder attended night classes in architecture at the University of Minnesota, leading Purcell to remember him by his notable habit of carrying a derringer pistol for protection. Other draftsmen who worked for the firm at various times included L. F. Collins, Kenneth Harrison, Clyde W. Smith, and A. H. Wider.

The concept of the "Team" extended to encompass the many service professionals who contributed to design details, construction, landscaping, ornamentation, and the myriad other aspects of bringing a building into existence. General contractor Fred M. Hegg handled mason and cement work, carpentry, roofing, plastering, and painting for many Purcell & Elmslie buildings, his first job being the Harold Hineline residence in Minneapolis. The Hegg foreman was Fritz Carlson, who supervised the banks built by the firm in Madison and Hector, Minnesota, as well as the Clayton F. Summy residence designed in 1924 by George Elmslie in Hinsdale, Illinois. Both Carlson and Edward Goetzenberger, a tinsmith, were so pleased with working for the Purcell office that they had their own homes designed by the firm, an unusual indication of respect for the building practices of their employers.

Numerous Purcell & Elmslie residences and other structures required specially built furniture or other interior decoration. Much of the detailing of furniture was done by French born interior designer Gustav Weber and Emil Frank, a "Team" drafter whose father was the foreman of the John S. Bradstreet and Company woodworking shop. The first time Weber (b. 1870) worked for the firm was in the design of dining room furniture for the E. L. Powers residence, after which he produced furnishings for the Wakefield, and Owre residences, as well as many others. Emil Frank collaborated with Harry Rubins, the president of the Bradstreet company, to produce drawings for the furniture, paneling, and interior trim of the house for Louis Heitman in Helena, Montana. The Bradstreet company also was responsible for interior furnishings of other residences built by the Purcell firms and commissioned Chicago metalsmith Robert Jarvie to do their metal work. Ralph B. Pelton, a craftsman, cabinetmaker, and superintendent of construction for the Gallaher residence built in 1909, also produced a lamp for the Edna S. Purcell residence as well as other handcrafted objects.

Interior finish often included leaded glass windows and mosaics, which were usually executed by the Mosaic Art Shops owned by Edward L. Sharretts in Minneapolis. Sharretts maintained a large stock of the best available glass and reserved the finest pieces for his work with Purcell & Elmslie. Purcell considered the color sense and imagination possessed by Sharretts to be a major contribution in the beauty of the final rendering of the designs. Sharretts supplied window panels and light fixtures for, among other buildings, the Merchants National Bank and Madison State Bank, the Leuthold, Decker, Purcell, and Hoyt residences, and the Alexander Brothers offices.

A man of essential importance to the execution of the delicate terra cotta ornament incorporated in many Purcell & Elmslie buildings was not employed directly by the firm but by the American Terra Cotta and Ceramics Company owned by W. D. Gates. Sculptor Christian Schneider had modeled much of the terra cotta and iron work designed by Louis Sullivan and George Elmslie since 1892, and he excelled as no other person in translating their delicate, two dimensional drawings into the three dimensional forms of clay and metal. Almost all of the best terra cotta ornament designed by the Purcell firms passed through his gifted hands. The distinction between his abilities and those of other sculptors can be seen by comparing his work with that done after Schneider left the terra cotta company, when the modeling became visibly less sensitive.

Artists were frequently employed by Purcell & Elmslie to embellish their buildings with artwork. In particular, muralist John W. Norton contributed to many of the most important commissions executed by the firm, including the Woodbury County Court House in Sioux City, Iowa, and the Alexander Brothers offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Norton, along with Charles Livingston Bull and Charles S. Chapman, were the principal contributing artists for much of the advertising materials created for Alexander Brothers under the supervision of Purcell during World War I. Bull had earlier done the fireplace mural for the Edna S. Purcell residence in Minneapolis. Other artists regarded as significant participants in the work of the Purcell firms included Alphonso Ianelli, the sculptor of large statuary groups for the Sioux City court house, and Frederick D. Calhoun, an impressionist painter who did a large oil perspective of the same building as well as interior design for other commissions.

The idea of the "Team" meant each individual who was part of the production process shared in the credit that was summarized by the name of the architectural firm. For example, office secretary Gertrude Phillips, who made the first alphabetic index of the work of the Purcell firms, was as fully respected in her position as Purcell and Elmslie were in performing their own functions. The efforts made by every person were based on this shared attitude, a foundation of purpose that made the final result a fuller expression of the democratic, organic philosophy in which they believed.

research courtesy mark hammons