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Review of Gebhard Thesis
William Gray Purcell (1950s)

        <page 1>

George Grant Elmslie - Part IV. (March 7, 1956)


TRADITION is a creative force, not
historical records.
ORIGINALITY is a quality of com-
pleted work, not a worthy impulse
in the artist.
     LOUIS SULLIVAN in his day was generally look upon as an expo-
nent of "originality," and also as an advocate of defiance to trad-
tion. Such a view was unwarranted. A mistaken use of these popular-
ly accepted beliefs was producing on the one hand a brash growth of
new-style, untempered buildings around the world, and at the same
time violent reaction by the static theologians of academic esthetics.
The original and unusual looking buildings for the most part were
feeble essays. The battling bozarters of the architectural schools,
and the A.I.A. shortly defeated themselves because they could not
recognize meretricious work and so wasted their energy blasting at
their own straw men.
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     Sullivan's actual position remained invincible.
     He was not concerned with originality. All his writings and
all his architecture illustrates this view. His best metaphor was
"caravan of days." He pictured man's power to build as a flowing
stream by which no means could be broken into units of "historic
style." The "tradition" of the architectural schools was a catalog
of visual continuities. When their index boxes did not fit neatly
end to end in their pre-planned train, unwilling links were reject-
ed. But Sullivan's view saw man's power to build as a registry of
his whole life; "no exceptions." The tradition which he saw to be
essential was the handing on of the torch of wisdom about what to
do, how to do it, with an ever growing facility to apply this mind
to the work in hand.
     Sullivan's buildings were fathered by no impulse to be differ-
ent. In this his thesis was a paradox, for it produced unique,
surprising, and very successful buildings which looked like none
before seen, but none the less formed a living link between the
records of past achievement and hope for a better future. From
about 1850 to 1930, the pressure of new an uncompromising Machine
Age forms, new materials, new business and manufacturing practices,
greatly troubled the world of "Fine" art. A large amount of
critical literature was produced, very litte of which recognized
the actual intellectual pintle on which, during this eighty year
period, the door of opportunity was hinged.
<page 3>
     It was not Sullivan's "form and function" theory which was to
eventuate in steel and glass crates as alleged by the horrified New
Yorkers of 1890. It was the surrender of architects to the engineer
that was to ultimate in an abstractionist neo-classicism. This
movement began in the 1920s when the public just couldn't stomach
one more Roman portico. The architects just had to think of some-
thing "original." So they have shaved the Renaissance foliage off the
classic stone box and made its columns square. Sullivan's imple-
mentation of the beautiful and historic word "function" eventuated
not in sterile samples of geometry as predicted, but in today's
Prairie Flower Sky Scraper, for Price, by Wright in 1955.
     We now wish to view Sullivan in relation to the history of Western
thinkers of the past, and to account for the two principal personal-
ities of the immediate future in the United States, Wright and Elms-
lie, who were to advance Sullivan's torch to the next caravansary in
World Architecture.
     Frank Lloyd Wright wholly and finally lost touch with Sullivan
in the fall of 1894, after five years under Sullivan tutelage.
Nevertheless, the world force which Sullivan let loose through Wright
will never be fully accounted, or rightly balanced.
     George Grant Elmslie worked under Sullivan's mastership and in-
fluence for twenty-two years, and it is the result of Sullivan's pow-
er and quality through this resourceful man that we are now examin-
<page 4>
RELATION OF SULLIVAN, 1856-1924, and ELMSLIE, 1871-1953
     1889 - 1898 Sullivan era of power.
     Auditorium, Chicago
     Wainwright, St. Louis
     Getty Tomb
     1898 - 1908 Transition and gradual transfer of responsibility
to Elmslie.
     Prudential, Buffalo
     Gage Brothers, Chicago
     Condict, New York City
  * Orchestra Hall project
     1908 - 1910 Emergence of Elmslie in freedom.
     Babson #1, Riverside
** Bradley #2, Madison
     1910 - 1922 Elmslie in Purcell and Elmslie
     Merchants Bank, Winona
     Edison Building and Sales Shops, Chicago,
        Minneapolis, Kansas City, San Francisco.
     Woodbury County Court House, Sioux City, Iowa,
        P and E Associated of William L. Steele.
     Alexander, Philadelphia.
     International Leather Factories, Chicago
        and New Haven.
Crane-Bradley, Woods Hole.
"2328 Lake Place," Minneapolis.
Heitman, Helena, Montana.
Bradley #3, Wisconsin
Any Hunter, Rossmoor, Illinois.
     1922 - 1942 Elmslie in decline.
     1942 - 1951 Terminal years, age 73 - 82.
<page 5>
     This is one of Sullivan's most distinguished works, as fine as
anything Sullivan ever conceived. The superb drawings from Sullivan's
own had have been lost. A very poor photographic copy will be found
in the Purcell and Elmslie Archives. I used to study that beautiful
26 x 34 pencil drawing framed under glass where it hung on the east
wall of Sullivan's reception room, called by us "the outer office."
It had a magic quality. It seemed unbelievable that this appealing
jewel should not have been appraised for what it had to offer to the
future of Chicago's Michigan Boulevard.
**  HAROLD BRADLEY, Madison, Wisconsin, #1, #2, #3
     Bradley #1 was from Sullivan's own hand and was rejected by Mr.
and Mrs. Bradley. This was almost the only piece of total design and
drafting that Sullivan had done for nearly ten years, the next previous
being the design for Orchestra Hall. I never saw Sullivan's drawings
for Bradley #1 until 1953. They are impossible, illogical, and whol-
ly unrelated, either to Sullivan's life continuity in architecture or
to normal daily living by anyone. Viewing this result from the hand
of a plainly distraught Sullivan, one could hardly have anticipated
that Sullivan would return to it at least some measure of his own power
during the 1910-1924 years.
     Bradley #3 was the Purcell and Elmslie Bradley dwelling of 1916,
out on the lake at Shorewood Hill in Madison, Wisconsin, built when
Bradley #2 was sold to a University of Wisconsin fraternity, for
which it was ideally suited. The fraternity is proud of the building
and has carefully preserved it intact.
<page 6>
     IN DISCUSSING Sullivan, or Purcell and Elmslie, Wright, Griffin,
and others, it should always be made clear that none of us ever con-
ceived anything "in terms of the drafting board." The drafting
board served; it was a tool for transmitting free ideas to craftsmen
and machines. The machines were in a sense circumscribed because
they were of necessity mechanical tools, but we did no violence to
them and they in turn were not allowed to dictate to us. In this
naturally maintained relation, easily maintained because it was seen
by us as inevitable, lay our contribution to the first practical
demonstration of the democratic relation in the age of manufactured
power between man and his machines; between the machine and man;
between creative idea and the craftsman; between creative artist
and the "consumer." It would be fifty years before the results of
this reaction would be recognized in its further implications by the
appearance of the still young science of Cybernetics.
     These organic procedures exemplified the living relation which
was practiced in exposition of democracy within our living world.
Architecture as we saw it was called upon to express, in peace and
mutual respect, that cooperation between the inanimate - the material
world, which we now know is never animate or "material" - and
the world of Man, together with his companions, the animals and the
plants. Man unfortunately can also discuss the concepts of what
seems to him material or spiritual, by dialectical spinning of philo-
sophic ideas with words as tokens. If these relations within a
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living democracy cannot be shown as the home and fountain of our mutual
life in common with all living creations, then any further attempt
to study and explain them becomes futile.
     When drawing board analyses, offering the hypnosis of the graphic
arts and the concept of a personally controlled "design" esthetic,
whether it be on paper of as visual preoccupation with the facade of
a building, is brought in to account for Louis Sullivan and all that
flowered from him, his world moving contribution is reduced to an
ingenious kind of encyclopedia. The Art of Architecture with all
its handmaidens of Engineering, Painting, Sculpture, Dance, Drama,
Music Scholarship, Poetry, Language, can never be found in book-
index or verbal controversy. "Architecture is the Great Life" in
all its manifestations; it is not subject to its parts, but at all
times grows complete in itself and lives the life in all its parts.
It is the Great Life -- expressed -- inexpressible and yet to be
BECAUSE of Sullivan's well earned
prestige and the association of
certain characteristic patterns
of structure and decoration with
his personal authorship, a dis-
cussion of Purcell and Elmslie
buildings must take into account
the well conditioned public mind
now due in part to omission from
architectural history of any
definitive account of this re-
lation or that of Wright before
and after 1894.
<page 8>
     IT SHOULD be made very clear that in no sense did Purcell and
Elmslie subtract or divert work from Sullivan. Quite the contrary,
we have a record of frequently helping him; for example, when he got
into real trouble with a client which, all very properly, Sullivan
had taken away from us. That was the St. Paul's Church in Cedar
Rapids, "The Sullivan Building that wasn't Sullivan's," as Robert
Craik McLain [McLean] said in his story in The Western Architect. (See
detailed account in Purcell and Elmslie files.)
     We were given the Crane and Bradley commissions because Sullivan,
in one of his completely unreasonable periods of depression conceal-
ed in bravado, had made enemies of all these clients, none of whom
could be satisfied with anything but organic American procedures for
their buildings and all of whom loved and admired George Elmslie.
From years of conferences concerning their many buildings while
Sullivan became more and more "difficult," they also knew who was
responsible for their character and practical success.
     Mr. Babson about 1930 had the decorating department of the Tobey
Furniture Company, of which he had become president, tear out and
reconstitute most of the first floor rooms of his famous Riverside
Dwelling. The whole operation accomplished nothing except to destroy
a really distinguished interior. The result as interior architecture --
"decoration" -- was a curious style-no-style mélange of Wabash Avenue
Modern, wholly out of key with any aspect of the original project, or
even with the often adequate commercial adventures of furniture and
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drapery stores.
     By this time Mr. Babson had broken completely with Sullivan
and asked George Elmslie to design a vast detached living room or
salon in the garden just to the north of the original house. Here
again was a most ill advised project not justified by any discern-
able need. This view was confirmed soon after it was built by Mr.
Babson abandoning his Riverside dwelling to make a permanent home
in a Chicago North Shore apartment. There were discussions con-
cerning such a project with Purcell and Elmslie as early as 1919.
His project was generally discouraged, but nevertheless many studies
were made, none satisfactory to anybody.
     Finally George, by 1927 practicing on his own and badly need-
ing a commission, just threw up his hands and drew what Babson told
him to. No one could have done very much with such an unintegrated [sic]
project. George was mentally depressed at the time. Fred Strauel
at the Purcell and Elmslie Minneapolis office, still maintained for
the benefot of myself in Portland and George in Chicago, was at work
on the Babson plans for the new salon as I passed through Minneapolis
in June, 1927, on my way to Europe. He was greatly distressed over
the whole business, but "did his best." Not much could be done.
The interior became a dreadful mess of costly Renaissance tapestries
and decorator-compromise. Not a smile in the whole enterprise. What
got Henry Babson off on this track, no one could imagine. I found
George in lowest spirits -- "What could I do, after nearly ten years
<page 10>
of pushing this project around?"
     The year before George died Henry Babson drove out to Hyde Park
to call on George, feeble and ill at 82. He spend a cordial half
hour, asked George a few technical questions and left a check for a
couple thousand dollars endorsed "For consultation services." Mr.
Babson had been a client for 37 years, a delightful companion and
friend, and except for these last two projects, most intelligent,
cooperative and warmly appreciative. He did much to advance the
cause for which we all labored with good heart. His wife was
always in alert and kindly agreement with all we did for them and
for his various business ventures in many, many commissions and pro-
ject, from New York to San Francisco.


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