firm active: 1907-1921
minneapolis, minnesota :: chicago, illinois
William Gray Purcell - Part I.
[Editor's note: Remember, this is Purcell writing in the third person. Also, he has in this early draft inserted footnotes as well as references to research materials within paragraphs. These have been reproduced in-line, more or less as they appear within the manuscript.]
July 20, 1955
Review of David Gebhard's PREMLIMINARY DRAFT OF "P and E" THESIS
by William Gray Purcell
WILLIAM GRAY PURCELL SECTION
Life with pioneering grandparents in the primitive forest on the south shore of Lake Superior, as yet untouched by white men, was the principal influence in shaping his life.
WILLIAM PURCELL always lived with his grandparents and was educated by them. During the years from 1887 to 1901 the family lived in the summer at Island Lake on the St. Croix Trail, Section 7, 8, 18, 18, township 45 North, range 9 West, Bayfield County, Wisconsin. This forest was quite other than the usual summer home or vacation camp. Here, isolated from all city life, they learned of nature, came to know the Indians and woosdmen and on this early life experience rests his philosophy and architecture.
His grandfather, Dr. Gray, was one of the first writers to interest any considerable audience in a literature of nature, and his
work became known around the world wherever English is spoken.
William Cunningham Gray was born in an Ohio log cabin, when Abraham Lincoln was 21. In his long life, 1880-1901, he aw the transformation of America from rough frontier days to the new world era of scientific achievement and more general prosperity.
Dr. Gray was essentially a pioneer spirit, and made an original and lively approach to everything he did. He was the first "columnist" (1875) and introduced to newspapers the special report technique (a story of Northern Pacific Railroad completion, 1883). His paper made almost the earliest regular use of half-tone newspaper illustrations (1891) and installed the first type-setting machines (1892). He was one of the first to print photographs taken in natural colors (1897); one of the first special writers to carry his own camera for picture reporting (Lapland Reindeers Expedition to Alaska, 1899). After a trip through the South (in 1888), he first brought to public attention the deplorable conditions of child labor in the cotton mills. A powerful athlete of brilliant mind, and great heart, this genial writer filled his life with good works, well-seasoned with hearty laughter.
THE CLOCK TURNED BACK
This Island Lake home was really a revival of American frontier communal life, as lived in the Miami Valley of Ohio, from about 1790 to the Civil War.
THERE IN THE northern pine wilderness was rebuilt in all sincerity, a way of life that was simple indeed - few conveniences - and a very definite patriarchal relation between Dr. and Mrs. Gray and the eight to a dozen men and women, always referred to as the "help," which it took to run the place in the summer. Two men, or a family, lived there year round. A third of the summer crew were Chippewa Indians *
* Related footnote at bottom of page 3:
See Purcell's book, "St. Croix Trail." See "Campfire Musings," William Cunningham Gray, McClurg, 1901, out of print. See "Musings by Camp-Fire and Wayside," William Cunningham Gray, Randolph, Publisher, 1894. out of print.
See also thirty-five years of nature writings in the bound volumes of Dr. Gray's weekly paper The Interior, Chicago. The complete sequence of issues from 1871 to Dr. Gray's death in 1901 will be found in the Cyrus H. McCormick archives, Wisconsin, State Historical Society, at Madison, Wisconsin. The paper continued as The Continent (1911) until about 1928 (?).
This forest life was wholly unselfconscious in organic relation to its environment. During fifteen years, which to a growing boy seemed a very long time, many very diverse types of people characteristic of the American scene of that day, men and women from every walk of life, came year after year to live and work in perfect fraternity. Much of the food for man and beast came from the forest. The groceries for the year were shipped from Oak Park in a chartered freight car and laboriously hauled over the sand roads, about a ton at a load, from Iron River, north sixteen miles, or from Gordon (Gaudin's) south twenty miles. Everything had to be ferried, 400
pounds at a time, across the lake in the old dug-out canoe made by John Morrison from a single white pine log three feet through; or later in Frank Berquist's forest made plank-skows. Once on the Island shore, those supplies were laboriously wheel barrowed up the steep slopes of the Island to the overflowing log store houses.
One fact will perhaps more than any other show the impact of this life on a young boy. During the summers of 1887-1888 only two people were seen who did not belong to their own family establishment. It was really uninhabited for fifteen miles in all directions; 225 silent square miles of untouched forest and several hundred virgin lakes - a situation hardly duplicated on the North American continent today.
It was through this utterly sincere life, serving "the beautiful necessity" that in due course he was inevitably to understand that architecture is something far deeper than mechanical convenience or scholarly aesthetics. He came to look at people and ideas in a way that could never have been possible in an urban setting. As he himself has remarked many years later, "I came to despise the meretricious, to value the goodness of plain uneducated people and accept democratic relations with all men as the normal way of life."
Return to the Oak Park home in the fall meant no change in the spirit of family life in this most characteristic of American villages. the details I shall recount later.
FOR A BRIEF PERIOD of two years, 1892-1894, when he was in poor health he attended a progressive private school in Oak Park directed by Mrs. Starrett, a school of which his grandfather was President, and one of the leading spirits. The courses which he took at this school in English and the literary influences of his grandfather formed the basic stylistic foundation for his own very personal and intimate style of writing. As a result of this experience he came to look at language and writing in general as a dynamic, ever-changing phenomena, not static, no "literary" aspect of men and their fortunes. In late 1895 he returned to the public schools of Oak Park and continued until his graduation from high school in 1899.
Purcell relates, "Our home library was constantly, weekly, renewed by the new books Dr. Gray brought home. The bright manila package of books which Dr. Gray brought home in the evening and placed on the hall chair to be opened by me after supper was traditionally displaced about April 1st by the early strawberries, two for a quarter - three for a quarter - four for a quarter as the season advanced. These he picked up at the Italian fruit stand at the south end of the Well Street bridge, on his way to the C. and N.W. suburban train. The books and the berries were an unbroken ritual for thirty years."
Every few weeks on Saturdays Purcell was also permitted to go up to the book cases in the book review department of "The Interior" office, select whatever interested him and take home as large a bundle of new books as he could carry. There were never less than 3,000 volumes in
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the library at 319 N. Kenilworth. "No trash" was the only prescription. He and his grandfather carried clothes baskets of books to the Scoville Library, took hundreds to the Island and gave others way.
BOTH OF PURCELL'S PARENTS and grandparents were active participants in the new society which grew uo around the great inland city of Chicago. WILLIAM GRAY PURCELL was born July 2, 1880, in a small beach cottage in what is now the city of Willmette, Illinois. He had one younger brother, Ralph, who died in 1912.
His father, Charles A. Purcell, had come to the midwest at the age of seventeen to live with his older brother. He attended the well known Oak Park (then Oak Ridge) Central school. After finishing school, his father when to North Bend, Nebraska, founded in 1866 by his two brothers, Tom and John, and brother-in-law Michael Dowling. Returning to Chicago two years later, he entered the grain business of his Chicago brother William H. and eventually became on of the influential members of the Chicago Board of Trade. Charles A. Purcell was interested in the more progressive aspects of American architecture. Prior to the Columbian Exposition of 1893 he was one of the first to commission a re-enforced concrete manufacturing building. This was constructed in 1891 in Kensington, South Chicago. In 1893 C. A. Purcell employed a local progressive Chicago architect, Charles C. Miller, to design his own house, 508 North Forest Avenue in Oak Park,
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northeast corner of Elizabeth (now Erie) Court. This dwelling still stands, but ruined by unfortunate remodeling in 1910, its original design wholly obscured.
Purcell's mother was the daughter of Dr. William Cunningham Gray whom we have briefly reported above. He died in 1901. Purcell was actually raised and educated by his grandparents with whom he had lived since babyhood and for most of his life before going to college. The basic American culture of his grandparents' home was one of the most influential factors in his life.
There were during this period other factors which formulated his special point of view. Reading during his early school years was active and continuous with out-loud reading around home fire and campfire. Both his grandfather and grandmother were fond of poetry and liked to repeat the wide range of poetry they have learned by heart. His early experiences with literature was quite naturally the English and American romantic poets of the Nineteenth Century; Robert Burns, Coleridge, Scott and Eliot and Jane Austin. In the environment of his grandfather's home he was exposed to the essays of Addison and to the romance of classical antiquity contained in the writings of Schliemann, von Humboldt and the other natural and anthropological scientists. This his reading reinforced his close feeling for nature which he experienced in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin. Purcell was able to take the most creative and genuine aspects from Nineteenth
Century romantic thought and to leave behind its sentimentality.
TWO UNUSUAL EXPERIENCES during Purcell's college years are now seen as closely related to his pioneering character, past and to come. IN THE SUMMER OF 1900 he went to Alaska, the "last west" of the American dream and still seething with the unspent force of the gold rush which had begun only two years before.
In the summer of 1901 he had his first architectural job in Kowliaga, Wetupuka County, Alabama, the very heart of the American Black Belt - three negroes to every Caucasian - and a lynching the night after he arrived a mile or so across the creek bottom.
"ALASKA" - from the Purcell Parabiography of 1900:
"My grandfather had graduated from college in the same class with President of U.S.A. Benjamin Harrison. They remained lifelong friends and on Dr. Gray's recommendation President Harrison in 1897 appointed John Brady to be Governor of Alaska. He served until 1913 and at long last during this period Alaska had an honest and non-political administration.
"As one result Grandfather was asked to accompany the U. S. Expedition of 1899 in the Revenue Cutter 'Bear' to bring the first Lapland Reindeer to Alaska from Siberia. This is not the place to recount the details of this experience. (See files of "The Interior," April to September 1899, in the Cyrus McCormick Archives, Wisconsin
State Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin; also "Musings by Campfire and Wayside" by Dr. William Cunningham Gray, A. C. McClurg; Chicago and New York, 1902 - out of print).
"These accounts stirred my father to take my brother and me to Alaska in June and July 1900. See bound volume of my diary of this journey. I saw Seattle when its building lots were crowded with giant burnt stumps and had only 87,000 population. I had spent previous winter studying Alaska. The whole experience made a deep impression on my thinking. Grandfather and I had much to talk about."
"ALABAMA" - from Purcell Parabiography of 1901:
"On his second trip through the south to report in his paper for the first time the unbelievable cruelties of child labor in the Southern Textile Mills, my grandfather had attended a gathering of negro clergymen from many states at Tuskegee. There he was entertained at the home of Booker Washington and met William Benson, an outstanding Alabama negro farmer. Mr. Benson, who had been a slave, at that time owned several thousand acres of land and was the largest employer of farm hands in the state. He retained by the year Mr. Tyson, a Caucasian attorney, of Montgomery, to protect him from his 'white' neighbors, who at that time were outnumbered by the negroes of Wetumpka County.
"Benson wanted to build an ideal farm community. Dr. gray recommended his 'architect!' grandson and I was hired. Willie Benson,
Jr.s, age 25, a graduate of Tuskegee, came north that spring, stayed at our house and discussed the project during my Spring Vacation.
"I spent part of June and most of July in the Benson home at Kowaliga working on this project. [Ed. note: The following refers to photograph of Benson's house published in The Interior.] This well built two story frame house, planned on the old pioneer model with wide hall through the center rooms on both sides above and below, stood in the cotton fields forty miles from Wetumpka, the nearest village. It probably was the best dwelling owned by any negro in the South and would have been burned by the 'poor white trash,' as was Mr. Benson's general store, had it been left unguarded at any time. The wonder is that Benson survived. He was 57 when I was there and managed to live another dozen years.
"My architectural results for them were really nil. The project was beyond realization by anyone concerned at that time. No one knew enough socially, agriculturally, economically or architecturally to integrate such a project. It was to take another thirty-five years, much research at the University level and the life work of Dr. George Washington Carver before such experiments could be made to produce. We knew we were defeated, but we did not know why.
"Nevertheless the condition of continuing servitude which the negroes there faced, and the spiritual and intellectual servitude which the 'whites' had brought upon themselves, made a deep impression on me. I had never know any social difference between man and man.
"Before going out to Kowaliga I visited for a few days with the
Tyson family in Montgomery. There were boys and girls of my age. Mr. Tyson was a graduate of the Howard Law School. The household was very much 'old south' with a number of negro servants. These months in the unreconstructed South, still fighting the Civil War, was my first experience watching and listening to apparently educated and cultured people who considered themselves 'superior.' Such a thought would have never been tolerated in our Wisconsin forest or at home in Oak Park toward those who worked for us or served us in any capacity."
PURCELL'S FIRST ARCHITECTURAL work to be built is in some respects the most revealing and many think his best.
THIS IS THE MEMORIAL to Dr. William Cunningham Gray, his grandfather, in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois, directly opposite and about a hundred yards down the vista from the main entrance gate.
Mr. Haas, the president for the past fifty years of this large cemetery which was laid out in the 1870s, recently said of this memorial: "We have naturally a large number of architects design tombs and memorials in wide variety; many very costly. But it seems to our directors that the architects seem to miss the feeling. They do not seem to relate their work to the native American setting and the general sincere and indigenous character of the old forest in our memorial park.
"We feel that in the Gray memorial Architect Purcell achieved a work unique in placement, and with certain qualities that make it perhaps the most generally pleasing piece in the park.
"It has been copied many times, but none are able to catch the character of the original."
"The picture shows what has been described by some as a kind of embryo obelisque; to others it is a truncated pyramid. Its form is unusual in its obvious simplicity but it would appear plainly not derived from either a geometric base nor any conventional stone spars of the past."
WE WERE THEREFORE interested in Mr. Purcell's account of how this design took form. Says he in "A Parabiography" for 1901:
"IN THE MONTHS of my sophomore year directly after the death of my beloved grandfather I was determined to have my belief in Sullivan's organic principles rule my thought in expressing the character of this venerable and unique pioneer of the Lincoln country in the Valley of the Ohio River. I was aware that as soon as a design was started I would be subject to faculty pressure to conform to fashionable French pastry in stone. Such proved to be the case. I did not show the plaster model I had made until I was wholly satisfied with it and thereafter remained wholly unmoved by the 'critique' of professors and students.
"I began by thinking of the slabs three or four feet high in early New England graveyards -- just a stone face to set forth the
name and date. But I noticed that the front soon tilted the slabs. Some were doweled on base stones, these in turn set on foundations below frost. But falling trees, tree roots, frost and careless people sooner or later threw them all down. And, too, the scale, the mass of these headstones, was not significant.
"So I just kept thickening and enlarging the slab, projecting and proportioning a suitable base, until I had two complementary masses that would assure stability. I then considered all the kinds of blows and forces that could displace the work; how the rain and snow would come and how be drained off or blown away; how falling leaves would drift upon it and whirl away again.
"All these factors resulted in the sloping ledges and top, in tapering the four sides. The joint between upper spar and the base was acknowledged in a fillet on the base and a margin on the spar which would facilitate a perfect joint all around; one that would keep itself clean and no spalling. The top was sloped four ways.
"Then came the final shaping to make all this be said in a kind of stone speech to make a monument like this man, powerful, forthright, but of gentle deportment, full of Christian grace. In this process I was engendered by the then recent discoveries of the refinements of all the lines and surfaces of the Parthenon. Thus it came to be that in the finished work there is not one straight arris. The planes appear to join in straight edges, but all are curved up to 5/8" on the longest horizontals.
"To accomplish this effect of grace without disturbing the force of the masses, I shaped each face of the model independent of the others. Having cast it in plaster, I then pressed small lead straight edges into firm contact with the eight surfaces, transferred the contours to a paper, superimposed, with a needle sharp pencil. The composite resulting curve was then enlarged eight times by proportional squares and the result drafted with full size beam compass and ship's curves.
"The stone was quarried, cut and set by the Barre Granite Company with remarkable precision and a complete understanding of what I aimed to accomplish."
SUCH WAS THE BASIS of his organic approach to architecture, an approach which not only demanded an honesty of expression, but demanded that architecture be a poetic response to the inner spiritual and psychological needs of man. THIS SAME CONCERN for organic thought was continued in his readings at Cornell University, which he attended from 1899 to 1903. He first read Ruskin in 1901 and the logic of this man's far ranging and productive criticism reinforced his four year battle with the static "bozart" teaching of the Cornell Architectural School. In the writings of Edward Carpenter, "Civilization, Its Cause and Cure," the writings of Lethaby and other pioneer thinkers, he encountered suggested solutions for an industrial work that was rapidly losing
its ability, or even its desire, to face the problem of the dehumanization of man by his machines. It was while at colle4ge that he continued to read the writings of Sullivan. He knew most of Sullivan's buildings around Chicago. He was also familiar with all of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings as they appeared one after another in Oak Park, River Forest and Riverside, Illinois.
The architectural ideas and concepts experienced at home, in the forest, and in his reading were in complete opposition to the academic training pressed upon him in the Cornell architectural school. In the school projects the design requirements were the latest McKim, Mead and White adaptations of Roman architecture or French Renaissance developments. Medieval architecture was at that time in complete disfavor. Viollet le Duc was despised. In the entire four years of study, no examination of any architecture other than the then fashionable French Renaissance was called for or tolerated. The influence and prestige of the French Beauz Arts Academy was complete. To this Purcell was wholly opposed and did all he could to combat it short of getting fired or losing his chance for graduation.
Purcell continued to read Ruskin. He saw that there must be a reconciliation between Sullivan and Ruskin. It was to be a good many years before the concept of truth as a process and architecture as an experience enabled this bridge to be completed. (See "Is It Only Beautiful?" NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, March-April, 1953 (Volume XVIII, Number 3). Also see "What Is Architecture, A Study in the American
People of Today" by Louis H. Sullivan, NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, January-February 1944, Volume VIII, Number 203, and "Louis H. Sullivan - Poet, Prophet and Man of Action," NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, September-October 1951, Volume XV, Number 5.)
William Gray Purcell - Part II. (July 19, 1955)