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Biographical Notes: William Gray Purcell (1880-1965)

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


Portrait of William Gray Purcell, 1906

Back home in Oak Park, Illinois, William Gray Purcell went looking for a position from which he could learn the rudiments of an active architectural practice. Surrounded once more by the progressive, democratic architecture of the Midwest, the spirit of his quest toward an indigenous, wholly American building art was freshly renewed. Although Purcell considered applying to Frank Lloyd Wright, his father did not approve. Instead, Purcell took a clerking position with Ezra E. Roberts, a stable and prosperous architect of whom Charles A. Purcell thought well.

Respectable though Roberts was, his office was not very active. Purcell found himself with time to lament the uninspiring contents of the architectural periodicals and compose personal letters on the office typewriter. The situation soon changed for the better, however, when Purcell attended a dinner party at the Oak Park home of George Simpson, an old friend of his grandfather. Present at the gathering was George Grant Elmslie, then the chief drafter for Louis Sullivan. The two men liked one another immediately, not least because of their shared interest in progressive architecture. When Purcell complained of his situation with Roberts, Elmslie offered to secure Purcell a position in the Sullivan office.

The five months from August to December 1903 that Purcell spent in the Sullivan offices were the best possible fulfillment of his wish. In the rooms that the Sullivan practice occupied high atop the tower of the great Auditorium Building, completed by Adler & Sullivan in 1889, Purcell was exposed directly to the originator and the principal practitioner of the architectural philosophy to he was dedicated. His experiences in talking with Sullivan or observing his interactions with other draftsmen as he moved among the drafting tables stayed with Purcell as a source of inspiration for the rest of his life.

Sullivan, however, had entered the decline of his fortunes, and there was not a great deal of work to be done in the office. Purcell drafted a lock plate and doorknob for one project and also delineated a landscaping plan for his employer's summer residence in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. With time available to talk and study what work was passing through the office, Purcell and George Elmslie became fast friends. Elmslie attempted to instruct Purcell in the fine art of delineating the Sullivan ornament, and Purcell practiced on a design for a public library that was later published in The Brickbuilder. By the end of the year, though, it was clear there was insufficient work for Purcell.

Presentation rendering

California Hall, University of California Berkeley
John Galen Howard, architect    1905
William Gray Purcell, Clerk of the Works



Design for a City Bank

"Bank of Reno"
Illustrated in Chicago Architectural Club Catalog (#18, 1905, plate 18)

For his next employment, Purcell decided to venture to the West Coast by way of an extended journey through the southwestern United States. He eventually arrived at Los Angeles, where two of his aunts lived, and applied for work at the office of Myron Hunt, but there was no opening. On the recommendation of those with whom he interviewed, Purcell left southern California for San Francisco. Hired by John Galen Howard, Purcell became clerk of the works for the construction of California Hall, being built on the University of California campus at Berkeley. While he did not think much of the design of the structure, his stay in the area exposed Purcell to the work of Bernard Maybeck, who he came to admire. As could be expected with someone who had grown up around the play of light and water, he also noticed the pleasant manner in that bay windows on numerous houses reflected a functional response through house construction to the relationship between the hilly geography and the ocean views.

Presentation rendering, aerial perspective view
Amusement Park for the Borderland White City Company
A. Warren Gould, architect
William Gray Purcell, delineator


In 1905 Purcell moved farther up the coast to Seattle, Washington, where he worked for several months in the office of A. Warren Gould. Purcell's father, who disliked the Pacific Northwest and was afraid of the effects of the weather on the health of his son, offered to send him on a year long tour of Europe. Accepting the offer, he contacted his former classmate, George Feick, Jr., and two men agreed to meet in New York. Before leaving for the rendevouz, Purcell spent ten days in Chicago that included a visit with George Elmslie.  Elmslie showed Purcell a magazine illustrating the work of a progressive Dutch architect, H. P. Berlage, and encouraged him to meet the man if he could.

By April 1906 Purcell and Feick had crossed the ocean and were greeted upon their landing at Naples, Italy, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which heightened their appreciation of visiting the ruins of Pompei. After seeing the sights of Florence and Venice, they traveled across Greece to Constantinople and by June had returned to western Europe. Although appreciative of the architectural relics that surrounded him, Purcell was also keen to seek out the best contemporary design as well. He remembered the suggestion made by Elmslie and stopped in Holland to visit the architect Berlage, who received him warmly and the two established a longlasting friendship. Although short of cash Purcell was also successful in his efforts to reach Scandinavia, where he met progressive architects Ferdinand Boberg and M. Nyrop. These contacts added to his growing desire to commence his own work and shortly after returning to the United States, Purcell moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to open an office in partnership with George Feick, Jr.




research courtesy mark hammons