firm active: 1907-1921

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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.

Purcell, Feick and Elmslie, 1910-1912

A profound change in the way Purcell developed as an architect occurred at the beginning of the fourth year of his professional practice. Although George Grant Elmslie had occasionally helped Purcell in his work since 1903, these contributions were more of a suggestive guidance than a determinant role in problem solving. Purcell had continued to increase his own design faculties at a balanced pace by remaining responsible for every phase of a project. Even if Elmslie was available as a consultant, Purcell still separately faced the myriad creative and practical details to be met in the process of bringing a building to life.

George Grant Elmslie, circa 1912

During the last months of 1909 events brought the two men together once more in a daily working relationship. As chief drafter for Louis Sullivan, Elmslie had for years done much of the designing himself, receiving only a weekly salary and having no financial capital of his own. When Sullivan could no longer pay Elmslie because of declining business fortunes, Elmslie was forced to find a more reliable situation. For some time Purcell and Elmslie had talked of working together, and the time was right. By 1910 Elmslie had left the Sullivan office and moved to Minneapolis as a full partner in Purcell, Feick & Elmslie.

With the arrival of Elmslie, Purcell was exposed to an advanced creative method that had been seasoned for fifteen years in the presence of the founding master, Louis Sullivan. His slow, careful progress in developing architectural understanding was interrupted by the need to assimilate the rapid and voluminous flow of sophisticated expressions that Elmslie produced, and at times Purcell was unable to wholly digest the new forms at once. The two men spent many hours in deep discussion of the means and ends of organic design, and their frank and intimate communication resulted in a synergistic creativity that balanced their respective strengths and weaknesses.

The division of labor in the office was structured to accomodate an increased volume of business. With his natural, poetic facility for composition, Elmslie assumed much of the creative work of formulating designs. Given his bent for structural details, George Feick was in charge of the writing of specifications and, later, engineering. Between the two specializations of his partners, Purcell was responsible for managing the flow of the work between client, office, and contractors. Part of his management role meant guiding Elmslie into practical and economic solutions more in line with client needs. As George Feick grew more uncomfortable with the experimental forms produced by the firm, Purcell often had to articulate the technical elements of the designs into contractors' specifications.

George Elmslie brought important business contacts that resulted in a growing number of commissions from former Sullivan clients, such as Henry B. Babson, Carl K. Bennett, and Charles R. Crane and Crane's daughter and son in law, the Harold C. Bradleys. George Feick followed leads for projects in his hometown and also handled sundry small buildings for friends and acquaintances. Purcell continued to develop productive friendships with men who lived in small towns throughout the Midwest, which created a network of sympathizers who kept the firm advised of potential jobs.

Education of the public about the meaning and purposes of "function and form" architecture remained a task to be performed for many potential clients, and sometimes Purcell succeeded too well. For example, he lost the commission for St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, through being overly enthusiastic about Louis Sullivan who, still practicing, was a competitor to whom the builder subsequently turned. On another occasion, drawings for the proposed First National Bank at Mankato, Minnesota, were left for further study with a thrifty client who was fully convinced of the organic cause. Shortly afterwards, a competitor not known for innovative work landed the job by underbidding with a design that Purcell regarded as an outright transcription of his firm's presentation.

During this time, Purcell used other means to spread the message of the new architecture. He regularly delivered addresses to a variety of groups, including architectural clubs, social meetings, and conventions of contractors and materials suppliers. To reach a wider audience, he published essays in progressive magazines. These writings advanced the argument that Americans needed to abandon historically derived building forms and encouraged the use of materials native to the site of the building. He also profiled other architects participating in the movement. George Elmslie was co author on some of these publications, especially the important "The Statics and Dynamics of Architecture," which was the principal expression of their design philosophy.

The three years of the Purcell, Feick & Elmslie partnership saw the completion of many sensitive expressions of functional architecture, particularly a series of important banks and houses. During this time the architects attained mastery in the enrichment of their buildings with polychrome terra cotta, leaded glass, and sawed wood. All of these elements depended on talented artisans like modeler Christian Schneider and window maker Edward L. Sharretts for translation from graphic drawing to material form Mosaics, furniture, carpets, and draperies were included where budgets allowed, as were specially designed electrical fixtures and experimental air conditioning systems. Murals, sculpture, and other works were commissioned from artists such as Albert Fleury, John W. Norton, and Charles Livingston Bull.

The principal commercial work of the firm took form in a number of small town banks. These buildings were usually intended to provide financial and other services to the broad areas of dairy and farmland that centered around a small town. Such a banking institution was often a small business whose democratic foundations were expressed by the relations between banker and depositor. As an organic architect, Purcell saw that this condition needed to be expressed architecturally. In the Exchange State Bank at Grand Meadow, Minnesota [7], for example, the conventional metal wickets that separated teller from customer were removed, bringing the working relationship into greater harmony with the Midwestern egalitarian spirit.

The small banks came to share a number of distinct features. Interior light was introduced through wide, opalescent leaded glass windows that prevented glare and obviated the need for unsightly roller shades. Delicate stenciling emphasized the plain plaster surfaces of the walls, which were unified through an integrated system of wood trim. The exterior structure enclosed the functional simplicity of the internal arrangements with straightfoward geometric planes composed of brick, terra cotta, and stone. Squared stone spars flush with the wall allowed the thickness of the masonry to serve as window reveals, and similarly placed terminal coursework eliminated the applied ornament of a false cornice. These and other elements combined to make the building a creative expression of modern American life, rather than the illusion of a Greek temple or Roman bath.

Almost all commissions for the small banks came to the firm through the efforts of men who were convinced of the rightness of the Purcell, Feick & Elmslie view of architecture and who were often instrumental in persuading others to see the light. In some circumstances this was a difficult task. D. F. Recker, the vice president of the First National Bank at Rhinelander, Wisconsin, overcame the dubious faith of his board of directors to begin construction of the radically different yet elegantly economical floor plan proposed by the architects but ultimately suffered the loss of a shareholder who rebelled at physical proof of the revolutionary approach. Others like Elgar Greening at Grand Meadow and O. G. Dale of the Madison State Bank in Madison, Minnesota, had greater ease in fulfilling their desire to commission the Purcell firm but were surprised at the astonished reactions of those who came to see the buildings.

Another friend of the firm, H. C. Garvin, was responsible for their finest commercial building, the Merchant's National Bank at Winona, Minnesota. The opaque windows, which had appeared in earlier banks, expanded to vast planes of leaded glass filling open space carried underneath massive steel girders that were boldly cast pier and lintel fashion across the street facing facades of roman brick. Both neutral and color glazed terra cotta ornament enunciated the balance of tensions within the structure, with the entrance surmounted by a symbolic eagle centered on the axis of the front wall. Inside the banking room two great murals majestically placed on the upper half of the rear and side walls reflected the agricultural character of the river valley, and the spacious cube shaped main room was lit by symmetrically placed groups of light standards that thrust toward a richly colored skylight. Chairs and other furniture were designed to match the architectural elements, and the round doorway to the bank vault was encircled with an halo of glass mosaic.

In the development of their ideas for both commercial and institutional work, Purcell, Feick & Elmslie created a substantial group of buildings that were direct statements of their beliefs in organic architecture. These works were scattered across the countryside of nearly every midwestern state and most held a central position in the life of the communities where they had been built. Although the functions were similar in purpose, each one was unique to its place and a special celebration of the character and life of the people who had raised it. As a whole, these buildings were a successful combination of the immaterial understanding of organic philosophy and the practical demands of the physical world in a totally fresh and uniquely American point of view.

Residential designs by the Purcell, Feick & Elmslie office attained similar degrees of accomplishment. Like the banks, these houses embraced the character and living customs of the client in a dynamic design process based on the same democratically inspired principles. Financial limitations were a principal concern in the evolution of projects, but the firm often eloquently transcended such constraints to produce dwellings that expressed domestically the unique American vitality that was the source of their inspiration. The needs of clients with smaller means were met by individualized variations in the compact, open plan houses whose concept the architects continued to refine. The influence of George Elmslie led to a more versatile interplay between architectonic relationships, first reflected in the A. B. C. Dodd residence built in 1910 for a relative of Purcell in Charles City, Iowa, and further shown in the Harold E. Hineline residence completed the same year in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A surprising number of such commissions would eventually come from ordinary people who did personal business with Purcell, such as his piano tuner C. T. Backus.

More elaborate houses allowed a greater artistic freedom, including the incorporation of sawed wood panels, extensive stencil work, leaded glass, and other graceful decorations. The range of possibilities within this category of residential designs was seen in a number of houses erected near inlets of Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. The size of the project, however, was not always an indication of the cost. In some cases, such as the Oscar Owre and the E. C. Tillotson residences, the designs could be enhanced in detail because the clients were able to pay for finer building materials and more decorative craftsmanship. Even though able to make use of their full palette of ornamental techniques in the larger E. L. Powers residence of 1910 because the client was well to do, the architects discovered that cost determination for cubic footage was more dependent on compositional simplicity than mere size. In all their domestic designs the firm sought to strike a balance that enclosed the necessary amount of space but also established an individual creative character through ornamental enrichment, which resulted in a more complete expression of the idea underlying the house.

The house in which Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie achieved the fullest and most articulate expression of their abilities was the Edna S. Purcell residence built in 1913. Built on a very narrow lot, the dwelling was set back to the rear of the property to avoid the crushing alignment of adjacent houses and to create a compensating sense of depth. Morning sunlight striking a reflecting pool on the eastern front of the house was refracted through a seven by twenty eight foot breadth of beveled, leaded glass windows to shimmer as an aurora upon the tented ceiling of the sunken living room. Split level living areas on the first floor were integrated through a segmented stairway. From the entryway, steps descended easily to the living room and rose upward to the open dining area aligned directly above the living room. On the second floor were the bedrooms and maid's quarters. Cleverly functional built in cabinetry and furniture, myriad stencil patterns, embroidered cheviot draperies, and specially designed light fixtures executed by metalsmith Robert Jarvie worked together to bring a sense of wholeness to all elements of the space. Artworks incorporated into or acquired for the residence by Purcell included paintings by Lawton S. Parker, Albert Fleury, and Charles Livingston Bull and sculpture by Richard Bock.

A series of twelve commissions for the Woods Hole, Massachusetts, estate of millionaire Charles R. Crane began in 1910 with alterations to the original 1880s vintage main house. Further work over the next three years included cottages, stables, a greenhouse, a boathouse, and similar outbuildings. The greatest challenge of the Crane estate projects was the summer residence built for Josephine Crane Bradley, Crane's daughter. The radical design of the house wholly matched a spectacular site on the end of a thin peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. The Bradley Bungalow, as the house came to be called, began as a notion on the part of Charles Crane to buy an inexpensive prefabricated cabin. A talk with Purcell, however, made him consider the many deficiencies and inconveniences in the idea. Once the actual requirements had been more carefully articulated, the final plans for the house included four principal bedrooms, three baths, and two wide sleeping porches and servants' rooms, as well as the necessary utility areas. The symmetry of the cruciform two story layout centered upon a massive chimney whose raised hearth faced the sea along the tip of the penisula through a semi circular bow of leaded glass windows.

During these years of success, personal events brought substantial changes to the lives of both Purcell and Elmslie. In March 1913 George Elmslie left Minneapolis and returned to Chicago where he opened a second Purcell, Feick & Elmslie office. Profoundly affected by the death of his wife a year earlier, Elmslie hoped to regain a sense of equilibrium by reinstating his daily routine in comfortably familiar surroundings. On a happier note, Edna and William Purcell adopted two young boys, James in 1911 and Douglas in 1913. Together with Catherine Gray, the Purcell family continued to vacation at Island Lake each year and took several cross country trips. Purcell accepted the practice of Christian Science as a logical parallel to his philosophically progressive ideals, an involvement fostered largely through the encouragement of his wife. On the whole, Purcell saw the expansion of activity that came about during this period as a cause for optimism. His life and work happily underway, prospects for the future looked bright.



research courtesy mark hammons