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"Notes on Purcell and Elmslie, Architects: 1910 - 1920
William Gray Purcell
Manuscript, 1952

Summary: This manuscript is most notable as an important discussion by Purcell of how the Team reigned in lyrical excesses by Elmslie in the design of ornament. As indicated by the indented note at the top, this draft was prepared by Purcell for architectural historian Wayne Andrews as part of research correspondence conducted for Andrew's book Architecture, Ambition, and Americans, which appeared in 1955. The pages were apparently developed and collated over time, for at one point Purcell references a letter recently received from Elmslie (December, 1949), and then notes that Elmslie had earlier passed away (1952). Bits here and there echo the Parabiographies. It is instructive to read Elmslie's own similar view of his ornament in a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright written October 30, 1932.

Editor's note: Minor corrections in spelling and punctuation have been made, and a few later glosses by Purcell have been inserted in brackets for clarity. The last page has a less developed style than the first five. Page breaks in the original have been indicated. The table formatting represents the general layout of the type-written page, although the sentence breaks are not precisely the same due to the conversion to display in HTML. (See also note on why these documents are typed, rather than presented as PDFs).


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William Gray Purcell                                                                                   July 10, 1952

3201 Barhite Street

Pasadena 8, California

Notes on Purcell and Elmslie, Architects

1910 – 1920


  This is source material given in answers to questions by Wayne Andrews of the New York Historical Society and others. The various items discussed are not otherwise related except coincidentally. Material is factual and opinions carefully considered but this is not integrated to any immediate objective.  

            In the Purcell and Elmslie analysis you wrote that “Purcell was interested in the relation between the people and the buildings, and that Mr. Elmslie was not.” This is very far from being true and even certain aspects of such an idea require considerable qualification. Let me see if I can just give you that picture as it was.

            I know what you are trying to say, and too, without any requalification of M. Elmslie’s abilities. But the trouble with such a statement is that when you say “relation between the people and the building,” too many readers are again going to run off with the idea that function means concern with mechanical convenience. That wasn’t at all our idea, really, with me or Mr. Elmslie. Naturally we both were interested in the convenience relation between people and buildings, but we also were both equally interested in all the other aspects of the people and their relation with a building, the full interplay of those relations, material and spiritual.

            Now because architects generally are, today, not interested in ornament which is to be a permanent part of the fabric of a building, there is a tendency to judge Mr. Elmslie by his ornament because he was so wonderfully facile in producing it. He was simply marvelous at that sort of thing. His virtuosity was tremendous.

Now that doesn’t mean, except in some very special ways, that he was not also firmly grounded in good plan considerations, the relations of convenience, sound structure, and so on. His heart wasn’t

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perhaps tied quite so close to that as was mine.  Naturally we were of different temperament. Plainly he preferred to concern himself with what you might call the more lyric aspects of the building, in both plan, decoration, and structural exuberance too.  But at the same time any mind that could conceive as organic a house as the Babson house, Riverside Illinois, or the Owatonna Bank, can hardly be rated as primarily ornamentalist.  Both these buildings were clean, strong and well arranged.  They were logical in plan, and they were pretty lyric too in basic concept.

            Having said this much it can be acknowledged that at times he let this personal talent of his get out of hand. George wrote me a letter last week (December, 1949) in which he said “it is a pity that I allowed my facility to lead me into extravagances.” He would get so lyric now and then that a design would be more flower than fruit or root. Well, why not! Look at the East Indies, Bali, Angkor, wonderful! On occasion, unless all of us pulled together to ease him off, he could press both technical and economic boundaries to the point where projects simply jumped the fence. And, indeed, that was one of his functions as a member of the firm. He had always had capable and loyal friends to integrate this poetic enthusiasm, quiet and Scots as it was in outward deportment. In the early days Sullivan and Adler for whom he had deep respect, together with an office full of good men, were the control. Later, the Engineers Ritter and Mott, Winslow in metals, Gates in Terra Cotta, Linden in glass, all admired George and he in turn valued the wisdom and experience which they brought to the projects. An organic thinker is just bound to be practical and democratic at base in the democracy of persons, processors and the materials to be dealt with.

            Says Louis Sullivan in The Autobiography of an Idea,


“To ENVISAGE DEMOCRACY as a mechanical, political system, merely,

            To place faith in it as such, - or in any abstraction


            To foster an hallucination,

            To join in the Dance of Death;

            To confuse the hand of Esau with the voice of Jacob.



            In natural sequence the “Purcell and Elmslie” idea also developed democratically together in the fullest sense of the word when we worked together and our organization with us, - the combination acted as an integrator, organizer, and brake on exuberance. George under this pressure changed the character of his design very materially and permanently during the ten years he was working with me. Sioux City Court House, designed by George’s hand, for Bill Steele, after six years as a very part of Purcell and Elmslie, was a very different and much more socially related building than it would have been when he was still working in the Sullivan atmosphere. As a part of Purcell and Elmslie

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it wasn’t possible for Elmslie to let his facility and his ability to produce highly articulated ornamental forms go as far as he wished because the rest of us were there to protect the pocketbook of the client and deal fairly with contractors whom George too often pressed to execute work which was elaborated to costs beyond anything they could have anticipated from the contract documents. For instance in the Schlesinger and Mayer Building he let himself go. What didn’t he ask those poor Starret Brothers and Edmunds Manufacturing Company to do in jewelry made of mahogany. I was working in the Sullivan office when George was designing this wonderfully beautiful detail. His method was so simple, so direct – like skating. No trial studies, no working over. The patterns just poured onto the drawing board under absolute control – moving from the seed idea and unfolding as it proceeded with perfect insouciance to the last tender terminal. It looked so easy! On one but George has ever orchestrated for the eye in any such fashion. This was an unforgettable experience for me, a young architect just released from the cork-lined Bozart prison.

            The Sullivan projects had all been large buildings, where the high cost of all George’s unbelievably intricate bronze, iron, wood sawing, mosaic, and terra-cotta were wither absorbed in vast general construction costs or more or less willingly paid for by very wealthy clients. The business of Purcell and Feick had no such cloth to cut.

            In later years after I left him, Elmslie again became restive and let himself go unwisely as he says. For instance, I consider the Topeka Bank to be a distinguished building, but in the detail of the interior banking room he went a little crazy again and the scale of the ornamental mass is not right. He didn’t have any stabilizing person to work with him there, and the detail outside and in got out of hand.

            In the Sexton house that Purcell and Elmslie did at Lake Minnetonka, around 1911, George detailed a paneled margin for the ceiling of the living room of this country house – he had twenty-two moldings in that cornice calling for 704 mitred joints! That was just too much for our carpenter foreman August Lennartz, who admired George and loved to show his skill in executing his details.

            Well, then and there I began to put my foot down. The thing had just become silly and left us open to justifiable criticism that would have hurt our business and our reputation for well balanced work.

            Architecture is a building art and the character of a building is determined by the decisions made for all processes between the concept and the completed total project. Topeka was designed before Purcell and Elmslie was dissolved, and within the mental and emotional

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areas which had come to implement this partnership. But when it came to producing the Topeka working drawings, I was in Portland. Most unfortunately George decided to make the drawings himself in Chicago, rather than have Strauel make them at the still continuing Purcell and Elmslie headquarters in Minneapolis. (This “P and E – Minneapolis” arrangement continued active for another ten years, and Mr. Strauel is still working with me in 1952 – 38 years of architectural comradeship. Strauel’s attachment to George was equally deep and affectionate and he made the trip to Chicago, April 23, 1952, to attend his funeral.)

            The fact that George, in a silly and petulant tiff of no importance, had just rejected Laurence Fournier who had been out practical right hand for ten years, created a situation where there was no one capable of producing adequate working documents.

            We have here a curious and interesting paradox in the continuities and interrelations of personal history. George Elmslie from 1890 – 1910 took over so much of the output of Sullivan’s office at all levels, that after 1910 when George had left him, Sullivan is seen to have lost his creative continuity in building and no longer able to implement his still clear thinking with either the graphic or supervisional processes necessary to secure adequate expression in the resulting buildings or their details. Sullivan’s judgment in basic concepts of construction was unimpaired and he still had Ritter and Mott at his elbow – as George did for Topeka.

            So in 1922, George whose creative output has been served for twelve years by a remarkably competent organization which covered every link between idea and finished building, now feels so lost that he retreats into himself, turns this most important Topeka commission over to wholly inexperienced small time architects as superintendents and does not make a single visit to the project during its construction! Just unbelievable.

            Thus it is that Topeka represents the last solid work of a man who for a quarter century had made a major contribution to the new day in architecture, in some respects second to none.

Even a casual study of Topeka details – sculpture, glass, terra-cotta – and their lack of integration with the whole project, shows the project to be suffering from lack of firm decisions both at the job and at the subcontract and craft levels in Chicago. I later talked with him about Zettler and the complete lack of feeling toward the building – Zettler doing hatchet ornament right beside Schneider’s capable modeling – why didn’t he at least insist that all continuity forms and patterns except actual human figures be done by Schneider – why indeed didn’t he employ Ianelli, who did Sioux City and was right at hand in Chicago?

            Well – he [GGE] was sort of “off” Ianelli for some passing

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reason, “probably should have had him – and Zettler – well, he was just one of those temperaments” – and he hadn’t made it clear how the practical integration of sculpture to the other factors was going to be carried along. Fact was, “Zettler didn’t like his ornament and was going to do his stuff for itself, the way he wanted it – What could he do – “ and so on – nothing faced – because all this had always been done for him or fell into a continuity going clear back to 1887 in which such things just naturally worked together because they were all part of the great Idea Caravan of Sullivan moving toward its destiny.

            So the great possibilities in Topeka were unrealized. One can see easily what it could have been, a greater building than Sioux City or Chicago Edison {Shop] – or Winona. Those coming after are entitled to some constructive analysis and George was a great designer, not be misappraised for the absence of the essential executive building decisions.

            Thus at age 53 he turned – or was turned – to drift with the momentum of his own past accomplishments – his really great contribution to American Architecture had been concluded.

            The whole story is a complex of men, ideas, and a new world of materials and methods. George Elmslie was a man of fine and sensitive mind, good heart, and wholly unique creative ability. It is possible here to only outline what these pressures did in forming his character, providing his great opportunity which he met in a great way. As he truly said after 1922, he stood alone, but he need not have done so, for many loyal and long trained men who believed in the cause were eager and anxious to go along with him. That he did not make use of what he had in this last phase does not represent in any sense a negative evaluation of his accomplishments. Fate, circumstances, the clutter of a changing world, all made a clear view difficult. Acceptance of what seemed, but was not, inevitable in both the little decisions and the large soon built a rejection of the very personalities which could have been most useful to him and thus he lost contact with a going world where architecture is continually reborn.

            In conclusion it should be said that George accepted the discipline of the Purcell and Elmslie office and of a more reasonable look at our projects, and cooperated in good spirit toward less poetry and more good prose in all our output. He continued to enjoy his designing with plenty of enthusiastic appreciation, but, in its progress from there on, through the drafting room, the sobering processes were applied by all hands and in a spirit of mutual good nature. I do not recall a single drafting room clash over the reintegration of sketches which was constantly going on through the years. This continued after the partnership was dissolved, through the good offices of Laurence A. Fournier in Chicago for several years and Frederick A. Strauel in Minneapolis for many years.

            Thus was Purcell and Elmslie built up through creative

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contributions by many wise and capable men. Its spiritual and technical momentum did not fail between the members of the team, when the geographic and economic fabric of the firm began to unravel.

                                                                                    Jan. 1950


After all, just how important is all this miniscule biography and history? In Itself of no value in the march of men and world events leading on to World Wars I and II. But all this may give some idea of what was in the atmosphere of that potent era which was anticipating the new astronomic scale of the atomic age. Building tends to record and forecast. As architects we were working on what is now known to be the active front which was most clearly recording the living power-to-build of world peoples, at the turn of the century, in 1900.


[signed] William Gray Purcell



      Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries [C:6]
research courtesy mark hammons