firm active: 1907-1921
minneapolis, minnesota :: chicago, illinois
George Grant Elmslie - Part III. (February 15, 1956)
A NUMBER of writers have said that Sullivan was "not interested in dwellings" or "not primarily interested." 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. <page 2> 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 Archives.) 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; <page 3> 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 talk. <page 4> 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. <page 5> 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 <page 6> 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 <page 7> 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. <page 8> 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. <page 9> 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.