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Manuscript, undated (circa 1940s)
George Grant Elmslie

Summary: This is one of a very few autobiographical manuscripts from the hand of George Elmslie. Here, Elmslie covered the deep impressions of his youth in the Scottish Highlands; the training of his lifelong intellectual appetite at the Duke of Gordon Schools; experience in the course of his architectural practice, especially his relationships with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright; his general literary and artistic interests; and his views about architectural practice including his own preferences, and the goals of true architectural education in an organic way of conception.

Editor's note: Spelling and usages of Scottish terms have been left as they appear in the original; spelling is otherwise modernized in only a couple of places. A few later corrections by Elmslie have been inserted per his handwritten notations. Page breaks in the original have been indicated, including one unnumbered page later inserted between pages 9 and 10. The sentence breaks as they appear here are not precisely the same due as the physical page to the conversion to display in HTML.

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Annotation by George Elmslie at the top of the first page:

“This is NOT very interesting to anyone I fear Ho Hum. VERY DRY and only meant as mere NOTES anyway for someone to enlarge on. Keep it anyway.”

Our native place is in the north east corner of Scotland near the beautifully situation old town of Huntly, which is an old settlement even for that country, going back into history [for six or seven hundred years] to the days of Mary Queen of Scots who gave it is charter about 1550. Aberdeen goes back to about 1200.

The ancient Picts were there, of course, long centuries before the Romans appeared in the South of what is now England. There was some intercourse between us highland Scots and the Romans, because shards and implements of Roman make have been discovered in recent years in Aberdeenshire. The Romans, however, never took us, and no Scot was ever in chains to a conqueror.

Ancient hills covered with white and purple heather were all about us, rippling, musical streams and glorious woods.

Aberdeenshire has rich farm land and poor, great fields in pasture with the world famous Aberdeen Angus cattle enjoying life on them. At times the fields are literally covered with gowans, a most charming kind of daisy, about which Burns rhapsodized.

We were born on a farm for generations called Foot O’ Hill, and later moved to Huntly five miles away. There we attended the famous Duke of Gordon School built in 1839. Celebrated its centennial in February last. This school is well known over the north of Scotland and attendance at it was the pride of the youth of the land, boys and girls as well, for many generations. There are few settlements abroad the empire where there are not men who attended this school and dreamed of its romantic setting and the games of early days. A very interesting type of school in two units with a central clock tower and great arch at its base spanning the road leading to Gordon Castle. On one side were the boys and on the other the girls, each with its own play field and local iron railing enclosure. The Boys had a wonderful play field – a beautiful flat grass acreage with a slope at one side leading to the Deveron River, a stream noted for its

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fishing and picturesque windings through rich pastoral scenery for many miles, finally emptying into the Moray Firth – the sea to the north.

Close to the playing field was Gordon Castle, ever in sight and ever alluring. A ruin, but the ruined beauty of it was grimly interesting to all of us who were young. A fair spread of farms all about and aged woods. One fairly modern wood was plants in Scots pine depicting the battle formation of the Scots Greys at Waterloo. Very noticeably when the fields were covered with snow.

Our school was a busy place – outside of class rooms with games. Three of four games of cricket would be going on at one time with much enthusiasm and laughter. Some boys were wonderful players – not I. A very lively playfield, indeed. Out-of-doors sports were much to the fore, with cricket, then, in the ascendancy. Every village and town had teams and much visiting of the teams with neighboring places during the season. A blacksmith might be captain and a doctor or minister among the players. Democracy at play, and it is functioning today as it was decades ago. Bowling greens were very popular in our day as well as now, and in far off Chicago the public park bowling greens have about 90% Scots players. We like to play games – win or lose makes little difference.

Our farm was partly on a hillside and therefore poor. One of my earliest memories was watching the sun rise over the hill at our back and witnessing the light creep across that valley, gradually filling it all with sunshine. On very clear days from the top of our hill one might see the North Sea. Our summer evenings are still fresh in our memory – long sweet twilights, in which for a good part of the summer we could read and play out-of-doors until quite late. In fact, in June some nights were scarcely dark. In November it was quite dark until 8 o’clock in the evening and pitch dark by 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Short days balancing the long ones. Much snow in the winter time and wonderful sliding on the frozen snow film with hob nail shoes for hundreds of feet at a stretch. The temperature was never much below freezing but we had savage and bitter winds at all times. All in all

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winter as joyful.

Most beneficent of all was spring time with farmers out ploughing in February, giving a long maturing season for oats and barley, and for fruits native to the soil. Such strawberries! Such gooseberries! And, not to be forgotten, such flowers!

A stable countryside of men, women and children nurtured in the finer values of human intercourse, facing storm and stress with a smile, perhaps a sad one, and never forgetting the essential glamour of the homeland wherever they might be. In far off Chicago it lingers with us who were born there.

Some of the earliest, human welfare societies in America were made up of Scots. One in South Carolina is well over 200 years old. Scots who could find no room at home on account of poverty of soil and restriction of opportunity crossed the seven seas and will be found in all corners of the earth and with them will be found St. Andrew Societies.

Our idle reading in the young days was from the books of varied adventure such as Captain Wayne Reid and others, and we had the weekly "B.O.P," as it was called – the Boys’ Own Paper. In its pages were often found in serial form, and the first time in English, the writings of Jules Verne. We were so eager for our weekly installment that we went to meet the train carrying the precious document. Local delivery was too slow for us.

The 6’6” town crier with his bell gave every one in town the news – and what a voice he had. Stentor was a child compared to him. He always ended with “God Save The Queen” – I can hear his voice, now.

Then, of course, there was our own Sir Walter Scott and his great novels and captivating Border Tales and few indeed have read the Scottish Chiefs without a thrill. George McDonald, a distant cousin of ours and born in our neighborhood, gave us fine things also to read – “The Princess and the Goblin,” “At the Back of

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the North Wind,” and his many novels of Scots life and character. In the subjective elements of his life he was much of a mystic, and naturally so through his heritage, purely Celtic.

There was much singing in our house of simple songs, and ages old ballads. Hardly a farm hand remained inarticulate – with the lark singing in the sweet blue sky. The whole background fed the youth with unforgettable memories when he went to foreign lands and helped to fill the vacant places in his heart when in more prosaic places and circumstances.

The feeling for the homeland is much more serious than sentimental longing. It is a deep well from which clear water is constantly brimming and refreshing us. It is that fact which makes the average well-trained Scot a good citizen wherever he may be, giving him a broad and understanding outlook on the ways of life and beliefs of other people, as well as a tender smile for their frailties, being deeply conscious, as a rule of his own.

Education in the Scottish schools in my time was of a fine and courageous type. It could on occasion be savage and severe. School had a well defined function and purpose, discipline and obedience were watch words, and woe betide the lad who might cast an oblique eye on a comrade’s notes. There was a breadth and humaneness back of it all. A whole parish would subscribe to send a likely lad to the university. We were doing out best and worst with Euclid and Latin, and some with Greek, by the time we were twelve years of age and sometimes earlier than that. I know of no country with a yearning for knowledge that Scotland has. The Scots, by and large, appear on the records of time from peasant upward as probably the most literate people of our age. Education is a passion, and it is no exaggeration to sat that the average Scots youth of fourteen is easily comparable in general knowledge and understanding with the average American of eighteen. The carry-on spirit seems to be bred in the bones of the Scot and the pioneer spirit prevails wherever they go and they carry the spirit of the homeland with them in their old songs and rare inspiring tales.

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Some of our school mates when to North America, South America, India, Australia, Africa, China, and the Malay Peninsula. They carried the spirit of democratic freedom with them. A romantic race that always liked to plant seeds in far countries and watch them grow. Seeds of various kinds but mostly relating to the free spirit of man and his exercises in the art of living and doing. That is the general background of most literate Scots.

In school we spoke Victorian English; out of school Aberdeenshire Scots, locally called Aberdeen Doric, which we naturally liked the better.

The Scots are a reticent lot, even taciturn at times, but with a little patient digging and forbearance one may find a substratum of the mystic, especially among the northern or highland Scots. In that purely Celtic element as it exists in lesser degree in many nations may be envisaged the hope of the world. We believe that science Is fast climbing the last barrier of materialism, as witness the writing of Jeans and Eddington; and the world of matter as we now appear to see it is crumbling, dissolving, disappearing. What is left? The Celt will answer – a spiritual entity, no more, no less.

At our parents’ desire and with very little understanding of what I was venturing into I went into architecture in my early days in Chicago. It seemed a most interesting occupation, but it was years before I felt its fascination and possibilities. The full extent I, of course, do not now pretend to know except for all the dominating faith and belief that the best in architecture, as in all things, is yet to be.

At any rate, at the start, in a strange and somewhat perplexing land architecture seemed something that might be pursued and it appeared to fit my Scots mind in whatever subjective value it may have had. Near the beginning of my affairs, and after a session at a so-called business college, I had about a year’s experience in Joseph Silsbee's office – and architect and gentleman of fine distinction.

In this office at that time were Frank Lloyd Wright, George W. Maher and Cecil Corwin, the head man under Mr. Silsbee. When Mr. Wright, clearly disclosing

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at that time many of the essential elements of his future supremacy, left, he shortly afterwards asked me to join him as a friend and hopefully understudy in Adler and Sullivan’s office where he went after leaving Silsbee. In that office I had the usual experience of the greenest of tyros in witnessing good men at work, as well as the gay and ribald time servers who poked quite a little fun at F. L. W and his youthful and graceful set-up in personal appearance. However, it was all on the side, so to speak, and, apart from an occasional vicious and snarling stab, no great harm was done. Anyway Mr. Wright didn’t give a whoop what the men said or did. He was then, as now, the individual supreme.

That the men did not enjoy seeing Mr. Sullivan working with and talking so much to his new assistant goes without saying. Mr. Wright, in his Autobiography, discloses many of the incidents in his office experience, and I can vouch, by and large, for their accuracy.

I do not remember the first work as a tyro that I did – one thing one week and another the next. There was no idling by anyone. Paul Mueller, head of the office, seemed argus-eyed. He was a very able man and generally very friendly to us all. He had only one comment to make when one of the men failed to understand what he had said or meant him to do. In an accent slightly Teutonic he would say, “What is de matter, have you water in your ears?” Just that, no more. Then he would very quietly tell him all over again.

The master would come into the drawing room in the Borden Block in the early forenoon and walk, usually with a cigarette in his hands, directly to Wright’s table. He had a slight hiatus in his walk which Wright in his biography called a strut. Other have referred to this strut also. It came to be known as a Sullivan characteristic wherever he was seen. The Sullivan prideful strut. As a matter of fact, he had a slight congenital malformation of the hip joint on the left side which, in later years, he indicated to me. But he always and ever, notwithstanding his overwhelming difficulties in his fading years in the business world, held his

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head high and his eyes shown with beautiful liveliness and clarity to the end of his days. He claimed that his eyes were never tired or his brain either, no matter how great his activity in work or how preoccupied in thinking.

I had to stand the music of the office as best I could, not being a very facile student or observer. However, by dint of perseverance, and after 1895 when Adler and Sullivan dissolved partnership, Mr. Sullivan allowed me a great deal of freedom and from that time until 1909 when I left I did much designing for him and had full charge of all the ornamental work. In connection with the latter, this may be said. Some keen observers noted a great change in Sullivan ornament after I left, and the reason for the change is that Sullivan went back to 1895 and pursued his course where he left off. I pursued my way and have done so ever since, using the basic philosophy of the ornament, which is available to all who care, and did my work in my own way. What I have done has been criticized in a thoughtless way and ignorant of the circumstances.

I owe an inexpressible debt to the great master and to his teachings. He could at times be a severe critic, quite vitriolic, but even then as I look back on those days he was, in essence, very fair. He was very liberal in giving me of his time and very considerate of my shortcomings in every way. For my own good I doubtless remained with him too long, but it was his wish, as disclosed in his testament at the time, that I should succeed him and carry on as best I could.

I was in partnership with William Gray Purcell and George Feick Jr. in Minneapolis from 1910 to 1912. My function in this group was as planner and designer; Mr. Purcell’s as general contact man and genial office critic on all things; while Mr. Feick was engineer and specification writer. After Mr. Feick departed Mr. Purcell and I combined as Purcell and Elmslie until about which time Mr. Purcell went to Portland, Oregon to continue in the practice of architecture, and executed some very distinguished work.

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My association with Mr. Purcell was a most happy one. He has a really brilliant mind and most salutary spirit, as well as being of the ablest exponents of the Sullivan philosophy in the country. Since then I have been practicing alone.

I think the world of architecture owes a debt to the master that it can never repay. The debt will loom larger as the years go by. How futile seems most of the work at home and abroad. There seems to be so little of an animating spirit believed in. It is so appallingly dry, so set. Alas! So little truly organized, and if, organized, organized to death, which is just as bad. Or like stripping the vivid and lovely flesh from our bodies to see the vertebrate from of our structure. This latter is now called, if you please, modern architecture. It needs a resurgence of the spirit of the real pioneer, the lyric poet, the clairvoyant Sullivan, to animate it, to give it vertebrate life and a nourishing blood stream. We hope that the art of building may emerge from this dry and bloodless state into one of high spirited elegance and beauty, rimmed with a bland and lovely richness in human interest. There is such a needless waste of endeavor these days in trying to do something to a problem instead of the simpler manner of permitting the problem to so something to us, to inspire us. It has been many times said that the solution of a problem is in the problem itself primarily, and it must be imperatively the source of our inspiration, no matter what the seeming handicaps may be. Someone may say if he had only a little more money and a few feet more of land what a wonderful thing he might do. The contrary is the truth. The handicap is superficial and has no meaning in creative work; the greater the handicap within reasonable limits the greater the possibilities for real work, and bringing new interpretations to life and usefulness.

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Mr. Purcell and I were associated with Mr. William L. Steele on a court house in Sioux City, Iowa. Mr. Steele was chief and general administrator and we aided in plan and design. This was a happy combination on account of Mr. Steele’s understanding and genial spirit combined with a brilliant mind.

At other times I was, personally, associated with Hermann V. von Holst, as designer, in various undertakings with equally happy results, based on similar ideals of work.

In the middle nineteen thirties I assisted Mr. William S. Hutton of Hammond, Indiana, in the design of several large schools. This was another happy combination of mutual ideals, as Mr. Hutton is a man of unusual distinction of character and very able in the conduct of building operations large and small.

My early days in Chicago were all hardworking days and what little I have done was with my nose to the grindstone. But I loved it all and in mature years regret none of the struggle for what recognition at home and abroad I have received.

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My reading is of a very diverse order. I greatly enjoy Hudson, Conrad, Tomlinson – tales told in marvelous prose. I found out that, much as I enjoy and endeavor to absorb the simpler parts of Jeans and Eddington in all their cosmic grandeur, the difficult and quite un-understandable parts are marvelous soporifics after a trying day. In poetry give me Shelley and Keats and, of our day, Alice Meynell. The Celtic tales of the duel personality of Wiliam Sharp-Fiona McLeod have had a profound influence in my life. I read them off and on all the time. They are all written in a pure and beautiful style, finely adapted to the subject matter. It was a red letter day for us Scots and the world when Peter Pan was born, and also when a “Doctor of the Old School,: so typically a Scot, was set before us to help us dream of service to our kind, no matter in what field of life we may sojourn.

My work has been varied in its nature, comprising the greater part of the work in which an architect may be engaged. The plan itself, is, naturally, and as with many of us, my chief interest, and while the design is, in a sense, secondary, it does not have a lesser place in the result desired. The plan is the thing. The two interests or elements are developed simultaneously, and yet a limitless number of expressions may be given to a plan conception – austere, simple, rich, romantic – depending largely on the frame of mind at the time of conception, with, in all cases, a full recognition of the function. As the orchestration of a simple theme in music is, as we all know, limitless in possibilities, so it is in design. Architecture is a broad and inclusive art, embracing in its fold sculpture and mural painting, easel painting is generally recognized as a secondary phase of the fundamental art of mural painting and sculpture apart from architecture is also secondary and in most cases without much significance. Some monuments are really fine pieces of architecture, but the real home of painting is on our walls and sculpture on our buildings. In many cases I have combined the

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three elements in one with the aid of such very capable and imaginative men as John Norton in painting and Alfonso Ianelli and Emil Zettler in sculpture.

I include mural decorations and sculpture in my building cost budgets wherever reasonable and at all possible. I have been asked how I got the owners to pay for these allied arts. The reply is simple. I merely told the owners all about what I had in mind and the reason for it. Very few of my clients ever failed me. All were more than merely delighted when the art products appeared in or on the buildings.

Architects are slowly and painfully, because of fixed and outmoded ideas, becoming more frank, less afraid; developing courage; and I believe that the three arts combined in eloquent and integral form have a great future. Apart from purely symbolic forms in sculpture and painting, representing the enterprise in an intrinsic manner, a good deal of the work of my associate artists in form and color have been executed from purely local and historical sources – giving the people who come and go something of their own – and why not –

Most of my thinking I endeavor to do away from the drawing table and its deterring, and at times baleful, influence. That was one of Sullivan’s basic ideas in relation to work being done, of whatever nature, and all of us who were employed by him were supposed to operate on that mental basis and he was always quite content when we were so doing with no actual drawings in sight at all. To me that is the best and happiest way to basically integrate problems in plan and design. There is plenty of time for merely drawings. If pencil erasers were abolished, for one thing, better work would be done and subconscious thinking, our most fascinating and precious faculty would come into its own. Facile draughtsmanship may be a dangerous endowment and alas! Too often takes place of real communion with a problem.

As for the education of an architect, I may say this after a good

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deal of experience with various types of preparation. The earlier the start the better for the youth because he will be able to absorb gradually and effectively with his early day plasticity of mind some very vital things. One great architect declared that his real training for his life work began in a fine kindergarten that was at his disposal. When the young man leaves high school and enters an architectural school of the standard type, it is almost invariably too late. The plasticity is gone to a pathetic and tragic extent and the capacity to absorb is meager indeed. There are exceptions to prove the rule. The best thing that can be done in the finer architectural schools is to dissolve some of the crystallization that is well underway, rendering our normal creative faculties and impulses of very little use. Moreover, in the architectural schools the students are taught, as a general rule, the arbitrary nature of styles as though they were principles and laws when as a matter of fact they are no styles, only methods of approach, and style is a resultant and varied in degree and quality as generations and civilizations vary. There are no fixed ideas, only an external and ever-changing flow. If the students are taught Function and Form by any happy chance it is on the basis of their being dry wells and not ever flowing fountains of inspiration. The graduates know forms but have no understanding of the spirit that stands behind them.

The cultural values in the average curriculum are very desirable and by no means to be lost sight of. They are very useful and delightful acquisitions, but for the pursuit of the fair divinity their value is not of an overwhelming nature. The HERE and the NOW are what are really vital and the essence of which must be pursued with tireless assiduity. Shall architects be merely time serving onlookers on a progressive civilization, content with books and photographs as sources of inspiration for their work, merely semi-cultured aesthetes with much knowledge of the past, little of the present; or put on real working clothes and learn the vital significance of buildings as the greatest of the arts, by laying stone and brick for

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a while, mixing mortar and sawing wood. By all means in our power learn, the while, the strength and durability of the old materials and the new, know the social organism from top to bottom and its myriad needs and aspirations and realize the vast power within your hands to leave a finger mark on civilization as a token that you have passed through it as a citizen and a man of usefulness to your day and generation. Let us absorb a sound and understanding knowledge of the well-nigh incredible inventions as food for our creative impulses, and go our way.

In architecture, as the art of building, there are no fixed formulas, no dry standards of any kind. In design much has been written about “composition” an though it were a fetish of some kind, something to worship, without realizing that after all the myriad words in its favor it is only an arbitrary assemblage of forms and, therefore, by its very nature a dead thing. There is only one vivid and vital quality in architecture, as there is only one in nature itself, and that quality is defined by the word symbol Organic. So, unless architecture is organic in its complete integration, it represents in no sense the art of building. Only organic architecture is alive and is, as such, vivid and responsive to the conditions under which we live and eloquent of the spiritual association of Function and Form. We, in our ineptitude of understanding, call great works in music composition. So used are we to hackneyed expressions. A Beethoven sonata, a Brahms symphony, or a Bach fugue are not compositions in the sense of the word as usually understood. They are grand organizations, not compositions at all because they are living things.

Let us labor on this frank and consciously deliberate basis, for on this road and only on this road may be seen the real contributions of the ages, of all the races of mankind, civilized and barbaric, for our inspiration, gleaming in the sunshine.

Let us for illumination in architecture and allied arts while on our way read Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats; his Autobiography of an Idea; and numerous essays. Read the works of L. March Phillips, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, read

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Strygowski and his great works on the origin of various phases of organic architecture, and others, not forgetting the fine arts of John Ruskin, whom it is the custom nowadays to ignore.

The apprenticeships of the Middle Ages and down to a later time were doubtless the ideal way in which to bring to a full flower and fruitage the innate capacities of the young man in the arts. The youths of the Renaissance began their life work at about 15 years of age, some older, some younger. That does not mean the specially gifted few, necessarily, who rose to grandeur, but practically all of them, good, mediocre, or witless. The groundwork was thus laid for real accomplishment instead of, as now, cramming the naturally plastic minded youth with a farrago of non-essentials and devitalizing the creative faculties that all sense of reality is lost forever.

Let us hope that we shall have schools of architecture and the crafts where a likely lad may enter at 14 or 15 years of age, or even younger, when he is free of mind and plastic of spirit, happy in thought, and thus truly on his way, without handicap, to worthwhile life of usefulness to his generation. There are several such schools already, but not for boys so young. It is, perhaps, the only way to get out of the present Sahara and into a wholesome and invigorating environment – if there is any validity in the story of mankind.




research courtesy mark hammons