firm active: 1907-1921
minneapolis, minnesota :: chicago, illinois
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. <page 2> 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- ing. <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. Owatonna 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. DWELLINGS: 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> * DESIGN FOR ORCHESTRA HALL PROJECT. 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 <page 7> 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 expressed. 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 <page 9> 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.