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Review of Gebhard Thesis
William Gray Purcell (1950s)

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George Grant Elmslie - Part III. (February 15, 1956)

  A NUMBER of writers have said
  that Sullivan was "not interested
  in dwellings" or "not primarily
     LOUIS SULLIVAN did not have a normal American home life. His
marriage came late when he was nearly forty and was a highly special-
ized relationship until its tragic close. He was unable to express in
planning what he did not know in experience. But for him there were
really no first and second interests -- Sullivan was interested in
everything. At the times when he was placing in George Elmslie's
hands the planning of dwellings, he was also doing the same with banks
and stores. When Sullivan returned to designing in 1911, after George
left him, the houses he designed were really clubs, which he knew,
and his forms and ornamental details for them had lost some of the
facility he could command in 1894 -- but the fire was still there even
if it glowed rather than blazed.
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     Let us take an example of this relation as it developed in the
productions of his office. Sullivan was himself responsible for the
great mass of a projecting balcony, as a "resolution" of the facade
of the Babson house in Riverside, Illinois. This idea was conveyed
to George, as was the usual procedure, with a verbal discussion or
perhaps a free-hand memorandum drawing with written, not printed,
notes on any convenient scrap of paper. George was then free to
develop the idea. George was never satisfied with this Babson house
feature, but he did his best with it. He talked to me about it over
the drawings at the time and often afterwards. He said it was a
"tour-de-force" solution, the mass really out of scale.
     All the Schlesinger and Mayer ornament of the second unit of
their building built in 1902-1903, at the corner of State and Madison,
was from the hand of George G. Elmslie. There was no one in the office
at that time capable of doing such work. I sat beside him as he did
much of the interior sawed wood detail. I recall my excitement when he
produced so easily and so deftly that five-ply miracle sonatina in
wood -- the unit panel of the great screens for the dining room, rest
rooms, and so on.; That day I picked up the preliminary studies on
letter paper which he tossed away. (See these mounted, and photo-
graphic copies of same, in Sullivan Section of Purcell and Elmslie
     As to the earlier 1898 unit, it is my view that this too was
mostly from George Elmslie's hand, but I can't say as to each part;
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That was before my time. There seems to be considerable of Louis H.
Sullivan feeling in and through this part of the building, whether
via G.G.E. or in part from Sullivan's hand perhaps even George could
not have later said.
     I can say that the great cartouched [sic] panels and the romantic
chains of the 1898 canopy over the sidewalk on Madison Street are
much more like George just finding himself and moving forward with
boldness on his own. You can see that even the foliage is beginning
to be articulated in its stems and branching, that the geometry of
even-widthed [sic] bands and curving straps take on life by change of width
of cross sections; the surfaces begin to soar. Christian Schneider,
who did all the modeling with the exception of the Condict Building,
is escaping from geometry and Asa Gray. The geometry of the sup-
porting areas is breaking free from wordy expositions of plane geometry.
The surfaces, ruffled by the firsts winds of freedom from domination
by metal, mechanical process, and the "logic" of design as esthetic
invention, are beginning to life into poetry. Here is forecast the
concept that iron and bronze in their protonic depths are also alive
with heat and light, now in mid-Twentieth Century seen by the new
men of science as brother, father and mother of the iron in man's
blood, the chalk in his wheat.
  THE CONCEPT of "what is ornament"
  filled the Sullivan office, was
  potent in the conversation and
  in the new words used for daily
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     THIS ARCHITECT'S OFFICE which I entered August 1st, 1903, was a
place of living thought, so different from the dead academic world
I had been living in at Cornell for four years. Of course during
these college years I could escape to the forest at Island Lake in
the summers, or Christmas week, or Spring vacations on occasion.
These weeks and months of freedom in the healing silence of the
woods and lakes where the perfect complement to the architectural
thought-by-index and copy of that day. The people of the forest were un-
concerned with putting everything on paper in order to understand it.
     When George Elmslie took up his pencil he was free to be his own
man; saw the Schlesinger and Mayer store come to blossom and fruit
under his hand.
     And Sullivan was right there all the time.
     "What are you doing about the 8th floor, George?"
     "I'm thinking about it."
     "That's is all that is needed."
     What appeared under George's hand in Minneapolis, 1910-22,
when Sullivan was no longer a presence, had a totally different
character -- no longer was there an active Sullivan in it, but the
memory of him and George's long conditioning -- that could never be
lost. This was true tradition; no style; no Sullivanesque.
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  BUT THERE ARE other aspects of
  this practice of a remarkable
  creative and technical art that
  had become wholly lost as an art
  even in this day
     GEORGE ELMSLIE can be thought of in no sense as simply a momentum
in perfection of Sullivan. He was a different man than the Master.
George Elmslie had a control of his orchestration that Sullivan never
achieved and completed the philosophy of their mutual concept of
ornament in a way that Sullivan had not done. Sullivan, on the other hand,
had the primal force that seems to inhere in all the first things of
creative development and the men who give them form. One can see
this best in Sullivan's drawings for McVicker's Theater, and of course,
in the theater itself, long ago destroyed. This jewel of a room was
simply entrancing. To me in Grammar School this was the only true
theater. Then too after 1893 on it's "ASBESTOS FIRE PROOF CURTAIN"
was painted a vast mural of the "World's Fair" court of honor. The
romance of the White City and the modern scientific marvel of cloth
that wouldn't burn, that indeed as a lot for your $1.00 seat in
the "parquet."
     It seems to me now that the charm of this Sullivan work was the
fundamental concept still missed in places of "entertainment." Here
was a magic place every fabulous aspect of which sustained the idea
of make-believe which is "theater," that what was happening in the
audience and on the stage was a unitary event by people, where the
action was not life but plainly a kind of story about life. You
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     You went to see a "play," now called a show.
     Even as a little boy of ten it was a great disappointment to me
to find that the properties on the stage, the painted "flats" and
the ruffling, the painted sky and foliage drops did not seem to ade-
quately complete and sustain the sincere make-believe which the actors
themselves were creating. From the first, as a small boy who had
lived in the woods, I felt that they didn't bring it off -- especially
the tree branches and leaves painted and stuck on fish nets. Just too
much faking, not enough pretend. I never did get reconciled to such
in the theater. I know now that it was because they were not in-
tegrated with the theater and its actions. When token make-believe
properties and scene sets of the New Theater arts arrived from Vienna
before World War I, these seemed right and would have been at home
in Sullivan's theater.
     I have written about early experiences when I was only four or
five years old where things in which I believed, or which I had taken
for granted, were suddenly found to be imitations, or, even worse,
were making those who used or looked at them to believe that they
were genuine.
     Out of what was forthright in the character and thinking of my
grandparents, who brought me up, I had evidently become conditioned
in standards for both people and things that were to influence my
thinking throughout my life. This attitude went beyond being satis-
fied with that PEOPLE with their words and OBJECTS in the world
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with their forms appeared to be saying to the user or viewer. I
saw that one must go farther in his "listening" or seeing or sharing;
try to discover the intentions behind all communications. This was
why one November evening in the Auditorium Tower when Sullivan stop-
ped to talk to me on his way home, standing there with his overcoat
over his arm and wearing his hat, he came to say among other things,
"Never listen to what people are saying; listen to what they are
thinking about."
     When I saw my first play in McVicker's Theater at a very early
age, I of course knew that Sullivan, already my hero, had designed
the theater and that it was "the little" of which the Auditorium was
"the vast." In all other theaters the room-as-auditorium just sat
there, didn't help you get away from the horrid sights and clangor
of the granite cobbled streets of dull, dirty Chicago.
     Of course I could not have told why these things were do for
me. The "why" world began as soon as the false world of the Archi-
tectural School hit me. The specious arguments of the professors
were really a shock. I had to find substantial answers, and the way
was on. The kind of person I was to become when I grew to be a man
who had a job to do in the building world was pressed and conditioned
by my revolt against all these insincerities and lapses.
     It would be Sullivan who never let me down. All I needed, after
thirteen years of living with his mind, was five months in his office --
face to face with the Man himself.
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  THAT THE PUBLIC has been confused
  about the relations between the
  work of Sullivan and that of
  Elmslie is not surprising.
     IT IS NOT surprising in view of the lack of penetration on the
part of critics, that any attempt to differentiate these two man has
appeared as an attempt to walk off with Sullivan's highly personalized
contribution. This basic lack of critical light is of course a part
of the seventy years of obscurantist analyses of all that Sullivan
said or did. Most of his admirers saw clearly only his ornament and
they did not understand its significant. They did not see the
building itself as the embodiment of the total life of the community
at that point in geography, in time, and in society at the level it
had then reached. Even Wright is unclear and misstates the true
philosophy-of-the-whole in a recent analysis of the Wainwright Build-
ing in St. Louis.
     To understand anything about organic architecture as announced
and practiced by Sullivan, one must have clearly at all times the
realization of the fertilized seen, in itself containing every part
of the finished building, con-taining it not as a box or a skin, but
both intra-taining and ex-taining it as the registry, the momentary
crystallization of total society. An organic building, living archi-
tecture, is like a city; it is not an object, but an offering, a
returning of substance to the people who gave their hopes and their
needs and their strength to its formation.
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     In all this the ornament is but the fruit and the flower. Sulli-
van predicted the present sterile age; said he thought it not only
inevitable but necessary, and he saw that its appearance in archi-
tecture was to reflect the same sterile mind in all the phases of
man's life, which we now see it to be. Sullivan was always pre-
occupied with education. We now find that exactly in education has
the static mind of verbal dialectics induced sterility, and it is in
education that the destruction is perhaps more frightening than else.
where. As the printing press and its book sapped the life of the
church and its architecture, so it would appear that the vast diversion
of public funds to school buildings is destroying the peace army of
the teachers.
George Grant Elmslie - Part IV.


      Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, Correspondents, David S. Gebhard [C:124]
research courtesy mark hammons