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.


Portrait of the Purcell family in Lake Place, the Edna S. Purcell residence circa 1914

By 1913 the work of the Purcell firm had reached a peak in creative and commercial success. The continuity of architectural development by the office was summarized that year in a profusely illustrated issue of the Western Architect, specially designed by the architects themselves, and twice again in numbers of the magazine that followed in 1915. Their building reputation was secure in a considerable number of elegantly distinct expressions of the organic philosophy and prospects pointed toward increasing business. About halfway through the course of the Purcell partnerships, however, events foreshadowed a change.

George Feick, who did not completely share the intense dedication of Purcell and Elmslie to the new architecture, had been ill at ease with the innovative techniques used by his partners. Increasingly work that would normally have been his responsibility was subcontracted to outside engineers. Since his practical training put him at a disadvantage in meeting the needs of the office and his personality was essentially more conservative than that of the other principals, Feick left in 1913 to rejoin his father's business in Sandusky, Ohio.

Under the new name of Purcell & Elmslie, the partnership entered a period marked by a diversity of challenging projects. Residential work continued to be an important element in the business of the firm, but the office also produced a variety of designs for commercial and public buildings, churches, factories, and landscaping. Although the skill to deal with the special factors inherent in many of these schemes was rooted in their previous experience, the architects were often able to even further explore their inventiveness. Still faced with an uncomprehending public, however, many especially experimental forms were fated to remain unbuilt. One of the most forward looking of these projects was a bandstand pavilion designed for the small, largely Scandinavian Minnesota town of Litchfield. George Elmslie envisioned a structure cast in concrete whose covering roof was mounted on a single supporting stem, a concept that was too radical for a town still questioning the need to hire an architect at all.

Other imaginative solutions failed to because of external influences upon clients. When the Minneapolis Women's Club decided to add a theater to their building, the fundamental problem was the cramped size of the available lot. Purcell & Elmslie discarded the aged idea of a proscenium in favor of a thrust platform around which 225 seats were efficiently tiered in sharply rising arcs. The adroit and unconventional arrangement was abruptly dismissed because of an unfortunate but otherwise unrecorded remark made to Ella G. Winter, the club president, by someone associated with the Purcell & Elmslie office. In another instance, which was typical of several residential projects, plans for a dwelling for C. A. Wheelock of Fargo, North Dakota, had to be set aside because the client encountered financial difficulties.

Two other elegantly conceived projects were disappointments in ironically opposite ways. Intrigued by the opportunity to examine the functional needs of a factory, Purcell proceeded with studies for the project until he discovered that the fast talking client for whom his office had prepared plans for the speculative Gusto Cigarette Company in 1914 was a con artist. A commission for whose loss Purcell blamed his own aesthetic enthusiasm was the Palmer Cantini residence project [6] also of 1914. For once, the Purcell & Elmslie office was carried away by the delight of a novel design that was far beyond the means of the client to construct. On other occasions, though, such complexity was desired by the client, as with the second Josephine Crane Bradley residence in Madison, Wisconsin, Unconventional heating and cooling systems, the latest labor saving domestic machinery, and special built in cabinets were included to automate housekeeping chores as fully as possible. The details of the cabinetry alone were sufficiently complex to keep "Team" drafter Lawrence A. Fournier at work on the required drawings for more than a month, personally directed by Josephine Bradley.

At the times when George Elmslie was fully committed to other projects, Purcell was on his own. He often used such opportunities to try architectural forms that did not often appear in work by the firm. A large and complex residence for Louis Heitman in Helena, Montana, for example, was built in 1916 using a steep pitched roof one of Purcell's favorite elements. The house was finished with redwood panels and other rich decorative materials obtained from the John S. Bradsteet Company, and the interior decoration developed to a fine degree of detail, including dining room furniture and a fireplace mural executed by designer Harry Rubins. The Heitman house was one of several that evolved over a period of years through several revised schemes, before being finalized and built.

The firm also returned to embellish houses done earlier. In 1914, the simple windows and fixtures of the Charles A. Purcell residence were replaced with elaborate leaded glass and sawed wood designed by Elmslie. A new screened porch was added to the the Edna S. Purcell house, together with additional interior decoration and a new set of dining room furniture, and similar changes were made in the Catherine Gray house. With the rising popularity of the automobile, clients requested that the firm design garages for their properties, and in the case of the E. S. Hoyt residence in Red Wing, Minnesota, the outbuilding was joined to the main structure by a dramatically framed breezeway.

Because of his involvement with Christian Science, Purcell often pursued prospects with these churches. He felt the special service requirements for Christian Science assemblies were an ideal challenge for which he offered an organic solution. Although no results beyond preliminary consultations came of most such contacts, his firm prepared alternate schemes for the Third Christian Science Church in Minneapolis. Accessibility and circulation for those attending services were among the chief difficulties, as well as the problem of traffic noise from the busy street that fronted the site. The semi circular auditorium proposed by Purcell & Elmslie met these considerations with an intimate and friendly plan made economically attractive by an efficient structural technique, but divisions within the church membership prevented the project from being realized.

The three buildings that Purcell & Elmslie did for firms selling Edison phonograph machines were high points in their commercial design. Consisting of large scale alterations for a new facade and completely new interior architecture, the plans for the Edison shop owned by Henry B. Babson in Chicago introduced a recessed front to draw passersby in from the sidewalk. Carefully placed display windows were intended to entice the customer within the store, where the integrated treatment of furniture, light fixtures, and other decorations created a unified merchandising space. From time to time, Elmslie designed instrument panels or whole cases to replace the awkwardly styled factory made cabinets. Other comparable Edison Shops were built in Kansas City, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.

Although the firm was never able to realize a commission for a library, school, or hotel, the architects did preliminary work for several such projects. The design of the Welcome Inn for George Hermann, the local contractor who built the First National Bank in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, anticipated revolutionary changes in merchandising attitudes later commonplace in hotels. The design was aimed at forming a homelike atmosphere in which restaurant areas for formal and casual dining were segregated and providing direct access to the coffee shop from the street. Purcell & Elmslie were confident enough in the approach to provide for later multiple story expansion, but the new ideas were too great a departure from the expectations of the client.

A few smaller buildings that served community purposes were built in rural areas. The Jump River Town Hall of 1915 was intended to be a multipurpose meeting place for a Wisconsin lumber town. The the low, horizontal appearance of the interlocking board and batten siding recalled the logging camps from which the town had come into being. The Kasson, Minnesota, Municipal Building, uilt in 1916 included a library, post office, rooms for service clubs, police department and jail in a small two story plus basement structure.

The only expression of the organically based architecture in a major public building occurred in the Woodbury County Court House completed in Sioux City, Iowa in 1916. William L. Steele, an architect who had developed a strong friendship with George Elmslie while working in the Sullivan office, was originally granted the commission for the new court house based on his submission of a bland neo classical design. Once the contract was in hand, however, he disregarded the approved plans and told his supporters on the county board they could get better than they had bargained for. Steele asked George Elmslie to develop a design that expressed the wealth of the agricultural region and the populist character of the people who would be served by the building. Despite opposition from several quarters, including a limestone vendors' association, disgruntled politicians, and public incomprehension, the Elmslie concept was accepted, in part because the structure used large quantities of locally manufactured brick, most of the construction money would be spent in the city, and praise for the radical design from highly respected visitors.

Designed through debilitating overwork by Elmslie, the the functional organization of the court house was enriched with vast quantities of polychrome terracotta leaded glass, mosaics, and metalwork. While Purcell did not participate directly in the design process, he was responsible for coordinating the work of contributing artists. Since the fee asked by Gutzon Borglum was more than available for a sculptor, Purcell engaged Alphonso Ianelli, a former student of Borglum who had just opened his own studio in Chicago. For a frugal thirty five hundred dollars Ianelli executed massive frieze groups symbolizing democratic forms of justice to surmount the principal entrances and whimsically added cow and buffalo heads over the alleyway service dock. On wide, overhanging balconies surrounding the artificially lit, glass domed lobby, artist John W. Norton painted murals to represent the Elysian richness of the countryside.

By the time the Woodbury County Court House was completed America was on the verge of entering World War I. With architectural commissions at a near standstill and wishing to make some contribution to the national defense effort, Purcell made a decision that would temporarily lead him away from his primary career and ultimately end in unpleasant litigations. In 1915 through contacts of his wife's family, Purcell had met Charles O. Alexander, the president of the Alexander Brothers Leather Belting Company of Philadelphia and a man who seemed sympathetic to the progressive movement. Since the production of leather belts that connected pullies on factory machinery was a priority industry and met Purcell's desire to do something for the war effort, he was encouraged to work for the company in the dual capacities of architect and advertising manager. The various Alexander Brothers concerns were rapidly expanding to include several other leather belting manufacturers under the umbrella name of the International Leather Belting Corporation. In 1916 Purcell sold his properties in Minneapolis and moved his family to Philadelphia.

As advertising manager for Alexander Brothers, Purcell supervised the yearly production of a broad range of promotional materials, including posters, calendars, brochures, labels, mailing cards, and stationery. From 1916 until his resignation in 1919, he applied the principles of organic design in a systematized and coordinated series of campaigns to sell Alexander products. Using artwork and Graphical Designs commissioned from some of the finest artists of the progressive movement, such as Charles S. Chapman, Charles Livingston Bull, and John W. Norton, the Purcell presentations prophetically anticipated artistic trends in postwar decades.

Architectural work seemed to be plentiful, both for the company and C. O. Alexander personally. Shortly after Purcell assumed his duties, Alexander decided to remodel the executive and general offices of his headquarters, including clerical departments, a library, and the executive dining room. Purcell & Elmslie considered the requirements of the business operations and designed a functional system of office divisions and furnishings. Chairs were wall mounted to swing away from the desk when not in use, numerous pieces of furniture and lighting fixtures were commissioned to coordinate with the new interior finish, and decoration of the executive area included murals by John W. Norton.

The most important of the architectural designs for Alexander Brothers was a standardized factory plan that was intended to be built in three locations. Only two units, those in Chicago and New Haven, were constructed. The International Leather and Belting Corporation factories were among the first industrial buildings in America to express their utilitarian function with such philosophical conviction. Using steel roof framing anchored in pier buttressed brick end walls, the architects dismissed intervening side wall supports to leave a continuous 130 foot breadth of window. The human needs of the worker were further considered in carefully developed machinery layouts.

The firm designed two unbuilt projects for C. O. Alexander personally, but completed some alterations at his summer residence in Squam Lake, New Hampshire. The first scheme, a large residence for a site in Philadelphia, was begun by Purcell shortly after his first meeting with the company president but had to be abandoned at the onset of the war. Detailed plans were prepared for a large institutional church building or Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.), which C. O. Alexander was to have contributed to a mission in Siang Tan, China, but that project ultimately fell through when the Alexander companies went bankrupt.

Sometime before the failure of Alexander Brothers was evident, however, Purcell realized his first impressions had failed to recognize the true character of his employer, whom he now understood to be autocratic, ruthless, dishonest, and vain. His involvement with C. O. Alexander became extremely distasteful, and he resigned after completing his duties for the 1919 advertizing campaign. Although he attempted to leave on cordial terms, Purcell was eventually forced to sue to recover architectural fees due Purcell & Elmslie as well as his own salary, thus endowing his three year stay with a bitterness and personal disappointment that would remain with him for years.

Purcell briefly considered returning to Minnesota to resume his private practice, but the changing climate of public taste in architecture had effectively ended the progressive period and undermined his happiness and business as an architect. Equally as important, he felt a strong need for a new beginning for his family. The once nurturing climate of the Midwest seemed to have turned against his fortunes. Purcell began to think the time had come for a new beginning in a different part of the country.

PORTLAND, 1920-1930


research courtesy mark hammons