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Review of Gebhard Thesis
William Gray Purcell (1950s)

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George Grant Elmslie - Part V. (May 1, 1957)




THERE IS ALWAYS considerable
speculation as to just what designs
came from Sullivan's mind and hand,
and what from Elmslie's. Students
want to know the nature of the
creative and practical working
relations between these two.
     A GOOD EXAMPLE lies in the origin of the Owatonna bank. Sullivan
made a preliminary review of the basic concept of this project as he
saw it. This he laid out at 1/4" scale in his so delicate but firm
drafting. He had the great cubic mass pierced with a group of
windows __ small linteled windows either side of a larger opening -- a
modified Palladian motive such as is repeatedly found in United States
Colonial buildings.
     George said, "I see it as one opening, a single great free lift-
ing arch."
     Sullivan, "You are right, George. Go ahead; you do it."
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     That was the last drafting Sullivan did on the Farmer's Bank plan,
construction or detail, except for two minor exercises. On my first
visit to the building after completion I noted two items of ornament
which plainly came from Sullivan's hand. One was the stencil on the
under side of the interior great arch soffits. Next time I went down
to Chicago I asked George about this. "You are right, Willie -- he
just wanted to try his hand."
highways, I am certain that there
was never the remotest flicker of
a connection with Rome or its works
or even a mental glance at classic
     WHEN BUILDINGS OF THE PAST, in their original forms, came to
attention they were of history's "caravan." They just evaporated
from conscious thinking when a new building was to be produced.
Every thought and feeling came from the project in hand and the imme-
diate living pressure of its unique time, and place. How could one
working in the 1890-1920 era, teeming with factors to be solved, stop
to think of Rome, gone 2,000 years? Impossible.
     The office of Purcell and Elmslie, and no doubt the dozen or so
drafting rooms of the men who sustained the new movement in the Mid-
dle West, were to my knowledge the only architectural establishments
in the United States, or indeed the world, that did not maintain
a file of the "plates" which every architectural publisher was obliged
to supply printed on heavier paper. These were used by designers as
"working photographs" to "inspire" their productions. Everybody had
them, tried to use them, but the system never really worked. Still,
they couldn't leave it alone.
     In the plan of the Owatonna Bank, the separation of bank and
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office building came from two specific factors not concerned with
architectural values at all:
     A. Bennett's own idea to give the town an office building as
well as a bank.
     B. The alley which bounded the bank plot on the south was owned
by the city. The city would not surrender the alley which was needed
for delivery access to the stores to the east. They were glad to approve
carrying the office building over the alley to join with the main
mass of the bank; that would give them a good rain and snow protection.
     The design of the bank was George Elmslie's. The architecture
of the office building was also George's. I could always identify
work from his hand.
     Over the drawing board at 1600 Auditorium Tower, with all the
drawings still in pencil, George talked to me about his "cornice" and
his feeling about it as the right surface terminal to mark the upper
margain of the building's containing walls. George's pencil line was
always unbelievably beautiful, a vibrant living thing of utmost
delicacy. And his ruling lines equally magical. At times his
skill in drafting, a flowing line like a steel engraving, was carried
to a point where it almost got lost in the blue print; but the key
areas were always clear and the dimensions and figures firm and plain.
He surely made distinguished working drawings and details; that too
was creative art.
FOLLOWING the Chicago World's Fair
of 1893, there appeared in Paris
during the late 1890s a number of
buildings of novel form and decora-
tion which was labeled L'Art
Nouveau. In the United States it
was seized upon as the base for an
effective line of criticism with
which to discredit Sullivan.
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    THERE IS JUST no relation of any kind between L'Art Nouveau and
the organic and spiritual values of Sullivan and Elmslie. I don't
think they gave two looks at published examples of this new excitement
in the dull world which was about to exchange the classic McKinley
for the dynamic Teddy Roosevelt. A superficial, invented design-
esperanto just held no life or meaning. How could it effect any
serious mind? It didn't even occur to us to discuss L'Art Nouveau.
The visual design forms of L'Art Nouveau were so inorganic that the
inventor himself could not sustain the system and soon lapsed into
conventional fashions in design.
THERE IS a tendency by critics and
researchers to emphasize those
visual factors in historical records,
which can be diagrammed and cataloged
as in themselves the evidence of
heritage and tradition.
     BUT IT IS exactly the non-capturable facilities and skills to
be seen beneath the architectural forms which call for examination.
The significant social forces are hard to discover, harder to report
about and still harder to record in forms of beauty.
     In our furniture, or in any designing, Purcell and Elmslie were
never self conscious about geometric or other theorems as a basis
for the elements of design. Squares, cubes, or forms of rectilinear
influence which analysts may find in our work were principally the
the result of trying to get out things produced economically by the men
and machines best available. Departures from a right angle or any
curved or shaped work at once doubled the cost of those parts. For
furniture therefore we just used the best processes that good planing
mills had to offer. When we could afford Bradstreets or other furn-
iture makers, we still liked best to think of interesting assemblies
that were what we called "right handed" construction. We used inlays,
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dainty spindles, sawing, and spots of carving, rather than to waste
funds on shaping machines or as for tool resets.
     In his last years George began to play with the hexagram idea,
but these studies, unconditioned by mother necessity, never found form
in actual buildings. In this connection one can say that Sullivan's
last book on ornament with designs based on the pentagon, hexagon,
octagon, triangle, etc., are feeble examples of a man long past the
virile creative days of 1890-1900. Even so, Sullivan didn't let the
verbal or literary syllogisms, as he labeled them, run away with the
story he wished to tell. He was not yet ready to offer to the copy-
ing public any Sullivanesque "Book." He was trying to elucidate an
approach to ornament. That his text book did not accomplish his ob-
jective is only the story of a brave old mind and heart pushing a
land long out of practice and a brain still eager but unable.
     In our chair designing the high backs had a very definite func-
tion -- to provide a plaque against which the guest's head would con-
tinue to compose and recompose pictures as she or he turned and
talked. We had noted at formal dinner parties, candle lighted on
white table linen, that the bright flickery lights tended to close
the pupils of the diner's eyes. The lighted faced of their table
partners opposite, seen against the darker, often very dark walls
of the room or night dark windows, produced a curious effect as of
a pale mask, unflattering, especially to women. It seemed to us
that some simple lines and planes in a chair back carried up well
above the shoulders and framing of the face would form a softly lighted
but interesting background and bring out the contours of the face.
This effect was not noticed by anyone, to my knowledge, until the
advent of television, when it became plain that the very strong
lighting made necessary some sort of patterned backgrounds, in order
to bring out the faces otherwise muffled by shadowless lighting.
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NEARLY ALL who have written about
Sullivan assume that Sullivan's
thesis of "form and function"
refers to the material interrela-
tions -- the structural and engineer-
ing factors -- within a building.
Sometimes relation of the building
to public convenience is admitted.
     MR. SULLIVAN spent his life trying to make clear his inclusive
idea; that these factors, while important (and because they were
pressing with great force in 1900 due to the fact that they had been
too long ignored) were merely corollary to a larger idea. He insisted
that the visible forms of architecture and the habitual acts of living
which everybody knew without thinking about it, were constantly being
reconditioned, developed, re-expressed, changed by people and in turn
changing those people. The whole complex, not one thing omitted,
were the functions of life which crystallized not into the material
forms of buildings, but into the infinitely varying forms of every
day living and feeling by all the people taken together.
     This was Sullivan's re-expression on an architectural base of
what Whitman was trying to say. In his writings Sullivan was in no
sense copying Whitman or transcribing him; he merely saw clearly
exactly what Whitman meant, what was behind Whitman's ideas and he
knew very well that Architecture was a more comprehensive area of
human thought and intelligence in which to express these vast ideas
than was literature, which like building construction, painting,
sculpture and so on, was itself only a part, however important a
part, of the great story to be told.
     The general refusal to acknowledge the comprehensive character
of the Form and Function theory was due to the fact that those with
privileged minds were endeavoring to hold on to their own profitable
conceptions. They were unable to answer Sullivan's propositions and
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the only way they could find an answer was to distort or limit his
meanings to something that could be answered. This process has gone
on for sixty years and is still going on. Its most practical result
is the destruction of the words "function" and "functionalism." When
either of these two words is seen or used by public or profession,
an instant connotation takes hold of the contemporary mind, and all
conclusions so derived push that idea into the world of construction
and engineering and there builds a fence around it. It is no longer
possible to use these words in critical discussion. Anyone who is
thinking accurately is obliged to use carefully specificationed [sic]
clauses to drive reluctant critics and readers to acknowledge, or if
not to acknowledge at least to listen, to the idea that the functions
of man are not to be circumscribed by his material possessions and
his over-convenienced attempted to shelter himself.
     Sullivan said, "Architecture is the Great Life." His whole thesis
was an attempt to implement that idea and make people understand it.
He did not succeed. He did not even convince Frank Lloyd Wright, who
in his alleged tribute to Sullivan in analyzing the Wainwright Build-
ing, moves right straight back into the Bozart philosophy and criticises
the building for not maintaining a material and explanatory relation
between the visible surface and its structural support.
     The relation between the visible tokens of Wainwright architec-
ture is primarily the relation between these forms and the entire
building as a single concept, related to the entire community and the
thought of the people. Everything must take its place with respect
to and within this concept and it is incumbent upon no vital architect
to turn his building into an academic dissertation of the physiology
of buildings. That may be all right for the engineer. People who
live in the community are entitled to those messages through the forms
of the building which will give them hope, courage, growth, happiness.
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Civic lectures on engineering or esthetic subjects should be confined
to the classroom or the professional convention.
     But architecture is poetry; its subject is Man, and to him it is
addressed. The Function of architecture is to express Life -- all
of it. If good economics produce more buildings and good engineers
make them stable, so much the better -- but that is not the principal
need for great architecture.
                                    --Eric Gill
"Letters of Eric Gill"
Ed. by Walter Shewring
Devin-Adair Co. $5.00
480 pp.
New York Times, 3/6/49

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