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Review of Gebhard Thesis
William Gray Purcell (1950s)

Editor's note: This text is written by Purcell mostly in the third person, though in places he lapses back into first person.

Purcell and Elmslie - Part I. (May 10, 1957)


THE PREHISTORIC TRIBES of the British Isles came into historic view as the Celts, Piets and Brythones.

LIKE THE NORTH AMERICANS 2000 years later, the Welsh, the Scots, the Manx and the English were an amalgam. The original Britons and the wilder tribes who lived in the north were joined by a continuing immigration of various peoples from Europe and Africa. The ancestors of the Scots came from the north, both by North Sea and from northern Ireland. Others arrived in Scotia and Britain from the Adriatic. Northward through England, overland from the Solent off the south shore of England, came Iberians and proto-Gauls. Others came from Crete, and from Egypt as early as 3200 B. C. Everywhere they met those early Britons who, ten thousand years before, had crossed the Dover isthmus, then dry land, from Celtic Europe. So it was perhaps natural that in modern times, after 1700, say,

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the Scots should again set forth in the wake of early North American explorers to salt the world around with ”ca canny” men of singular integrity of character and lightfooted minds. It was the Scots who gave the unique quality to British Imperialism, which for a hundred and seventy-five years made the seas safe for all nations and taught the farthest lands what were to be the forces which would next move the world, British civil servants and teachers, most of whom were Scots, taught the far peoples how to deal with machines, with govern¬ment, and economics when world population would grow too large, and the world too small for local person-to-person solutions. George Elmslie was one of the more recent of the adventuring Scots and William Purcell came from Scotch, Scotch-Irish, Dutch and Irish ancestors# Purcell's ancestors, four main streams of them, the Grays, O’Haras, Grants, Garns, Cunninghams, Woods and Sherwoods, were scattered all through the American colonies, South and North, before the American Revolution. It is an interesting coincidence that Elmslie and Purcell are both fourth generation from a common Grant in Edinburgh.

  THUS WE SEE why the pioneering instinct was strong; it was an age-old inherit¬ance, a long conditioned urge, in both these architects. This inheritance is in evidence in all their thinking and is a strong controlling factor in all the work they did.

PURCELL’S PIONEER IMPULSE was the direct result of some highly specialized and very characteristic experiences with the early Westering spirit of America. He was raised by his Grandparents. This linked his childhood with life in the Ohio Valley of 1830, when the Grays still lived in a log cabin on the farm they took over from the government in 1806.

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Even in Oak Park, Illinois, in Purcells childhood, primitive living prevailed. He helped lift the household water by a long handled iron pump in the back yard, to be carried to the kitchen, or up to the tin bathtub on the second floor when it had been heated on the coal burning kitchen "range”.

From 1874 to 1890 there was no plumbing in the new home on South Boulevard, planned by Architect Charles C. Miller. This was one of tiie fine houses of the village and is still in use in 1957.

From 1887 to 190I, at Island Lake in Bayfield County, Wisconsin, Dr. Gray reconstructed the log—cabin days and ways of his own pioneer childhood as they came to him from his forebears who "had moved West from the Juniata” river of central Pennsylvania in 1806. For him and tor his grandson the words ”on the Juniata” had a magic sound, carried the poetry of an early America which was a paradise in spite of the ague and Mohawk Indians.

  ALL TOLD, THREE and a half years were spent there in the Great North Woods of Northern Wisconsin just south of Lake Superior. This four¬teen year period until he was twenty- one confirmed Purcell’s deeply American and democratic heritage, and bound his feelings to the free lives of common, self-reliant people, and to Nature as the source of health.

HERE IS TO BE FOUND the principal factor nourishing the spirit of adventure and fixing Purcell’s determination to solve all problems with ideas and tools at hand, if nothing more than an axe was available. The extensive and widely varied records of these years in an area un¬touched by civilization show that this was no mere summer diversion in vacation entertainment. All concerned were living on the basis of

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organic necessity. Its spiritual and emotional base was the life of the Ohio Valley of the l840’s. The isolation was complete. Mail once a week meant a long, hard eight-hour round-trip pull for the ponies. Purcell says that during 1887 and 1888 they only saw two persons who did not belong to their own household. They owned about a thousand acres. Surrounding this was three hundred square miles with no roads other than the ones they themselves blazed out. Not even pine-hunters were passing through.

  DR. GRAY, THE GRANDFATHER, was a pioneer spirit in the newspaper world. See the "Blue Book” account in the files. Purcell’s father, Charles A. Purcell, had helped his brothers, Tom and John, found North Bend, Nebraska, in 1868-70. There for two years he clerked in a frontier store and traded with the Indians.

DR. GRAY HAD GONE to Alaska the summer of 1899 with the United States government expedition that brought the first reindeer to Alaska from Finland by way of Siberia. The grandfather’s accounts of this trip coming the year after the Gold Rush of 1898 fired Purcell’s pioneer¬ing enthusiasm and with his father and brother he went to Alaska the summer of l9OO. For a year he had prepared himself so thoroughly for this trip by reading and study that people on the boat going up asked him how long he ”had lived up here”. The next year he went into the ”black belt” of Southern Alabama, at Kowaliga, twenty-five miles from Wetumpka. This was his first archi¬tectural commission and for a negro client who was the largest colored land owner in the United States at that time — 2,200 acres. This was a unique and memorable experience. A black neighbor was lynched in the hills about a mile away the night after he arrived.

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Purcell was a pioneer in photography and in May 1888 owned two of the first batch of Eastman "Kodaks" ever made. Since then he has owned twenty-five cameras and taken several thousand negatives, a couple of dozen of which he feels to be good. At the age of ten he was doing his own processing and making prints with homemade "albumen” silver paper — then so-called. His father beginning in 1888 and his grand¬father in 1896 were skillful photographers. The best of all these glass negatives, 2—1/2 x to 8 x 10, are still on file.

  THE YOUNG ARCHITECT'S interest in art was greatly stimulated by a young artist, Lawton S. Parker, whom Dr. Gray brought to Chicago from Kearney, Nebraska, to study at the Art Institute.

AFTER TWO YEARS, during which he captured all the honors of the school, Dr. Gray sent him to Paris for further study. This lad, who by 1913 had become the leading portraitist in America of that era with medaled recognition in European salons, was Purcell’s big brother in the home and at the forested Island, at the decisive period when the nature of his creative processes were forming. Then too the fact that the child, called by the age-old "Willie” of the Scots, living in the aura of Robert Burns poetry and the tales of the "Higlands", was raised by his grandparents in a world of creative art of many sorts rather than in the more conventional busi¬ness and social atmosphere of his parents was certainly the determining factor in everything he was to do. Mrs. Gray was a competent artist, and studio rooms, always in active use, were built into both the South Boulevard home of 1874 and the North Kenilworth Avenue home of 1890. Purcell’s grandmother and Lawton Parker both continued to encourage

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Purcell in drawing and painting. His grandfather encouraged him in draughtssmanship, especially with forest tools. He taught him to think with care and penetration and to test in use whatever came to him out of daily experience in city or country.

Thn winter of 1890-91 in the studio of the new home, also planned by Architect Miller, on North Kenilworth, Lawton Parker, just home from Paris, encouraged "Willie”, then ten, to make a design for the Woman’s Building Competition for the Chicago Fair, then scheduled for 1892. The design, laid out at large scale some three feet long, was notable for having no columns. It showed a large arch for an entrance, had tall round arched windows unchanged from end to end — "like Mr. Sullivan’s” which the future architect had just seen on January 25th, and doubtless also in the newspapers which were just beginning to publish news pictures. The first half-tone engravings from photographs had appeared about 1888. However, Lawton and student decided not to send in Willie’s design.

G E O R G E  E L M S L I E

ONE CAN IMAGINE that leaving the hills of Scotland at age fourteen or fifteen was itself a great adventure. Once in America his life’s thought and feeling would greatly change. Then too, the Lady Gordon School at Huntley had been a new experiment in Scotch education. George’s most impressionable years from eleven to fifteen were thus an adventure in study, conditioned by the three mile walk in all the weather, rough or sweet, from the farm at Foot’o’Hill, Gartley, to Huntley, and back again in the gloaming or in winter snow and dark.

In 1956 we were fortunate in making connection, in Huntley, Aberdeenshire, with Mr. George Robertson, then aged 88, who had been a schoolmate of George Elmslie from 1874 to 1883. In addition to many

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family and personal details elsewhere referred to (see Trapp-Hendry accounts in Purcell and Elmslie files; see also "Huntley Express" May 23, 1902 and February 10, 1956) Mr. Robertson discussed with Mr. Hendry his friendship with George. Said he: -

"George had a brother and ten sisters. They left us for America in 1884 whither the father had gone the year before. George was named in honor of George Grant of Burn-Cruinach, a Scot of some local dignity in education. He and I attended the Riggins School in Gartly until he was twelve.”

George Robertson continued, "I was born in 1868 and was in the same class with George Elmslie at the Lady Gordon School in Huntley. This would have been 1880 and we were together there for three or four years, until 1884.

 "Our school master at Riggins, in the ‘70s, was William Smith, a farmer. There were fifty or more pupils with us in these primary forms. Even in the grammar school forms at Riggins Georgie showed himself an outstanding scholar; indeed the other children so often copied his work that when he made a mistake the source of their shared knowledge was made plain. He early showed his special talents in drawing.

"The story is told of school-master Smith, with his croft and cow — he had a son, a mechanical engineer of Newcastle-on-Tyne, who invented and built a wind-power threshing-mill for his father’s farm at Foot o’ Hill. The lads at Riggins School liked to help him with the winnowing. One day when all was going full blast, George Elmslie threw a small Bible into the mill ‘to see what would happen. It did! Two hours lost to call the millwright from town. The farming school-master remarked, ’Our mill will thresh all but the word of God’.

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Elmslie’s boyhood friend, George Robertson, became a tea merchant traveling the world; spent five years in Vancouver, B. C., and retired from active business at the early age (for a Scot) of 78!

  ONE CANNOT READILY SEGREGATE the many new developments that were furthered or originated by George Elmslie during his twenty-one years with Sullivan, but they can be found in the buildings.

 TO HAVE CONTINUED in maturity for a score of years under a mind like Sullivan’s, and with Adler, whom he much admired, was a life adventure that has come to few. Even Wright had but six years of it, and not even a contact in friendship with “Adler and Sullivan” after that.

P U R C E L L  a n d  E L M S L I E

Since so little source material is to be found covering specific contributions by Elmslie to the art and science of architecture, this account and the listings to follow may appear unbalanced by the extent of the records kept by Purcell. It is equally true that little of a definitive nature can be found about the contributions of the team. Here we find a continuing group of men of a very wide variety of capabilities all inspired with the fresh breezes of opportunity in¬herent in the break-away from bozart. The developments in every de¬partment were unending and the ideas of all were welcomed.

In this connection one should stress the remarkable feeling for a very special kind of democracy constantly in evidence — democracy, not as the tool of politics, but the inherent relation of creatures, things and know-how. The "team” made no social or educational fence around the personnel. Everybody in anyway connected with a

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project was made to feel himself an honored and intimate part of the work. Every craftsman or laborer was encouraged to offer his ideas; they were respected and made use of. The spirit of praise operated in all directions between people. Of complaints and censure there was none. Contractors and workmen were free to go directly to the draw¬ing tables.

In 1954, thirty years later, a university professor spending a day in "The Cave”, Purcell and Elmslie terminal headquarters on Minnehaha Creek, talking to John Jager (Purcell and Elmslie since September, 1908) and Fred Strauel (Purcell and Elmslie since May, 1913) and reviewing the collections, wrote to Purcell, ”1 feel that I too am now a member of the team.”

This was probably the one office in the country at that time where anything like this re-examination of every last detail and facet of architecture was under daily minute and imaginative examina¬tion. To understand how deadly dull was the mass output of the architects at the turn of the century one has only to leaf through the bound volumes of the architectural press from 1893 to 193. It seems incredible that business men could have been found to put up money for such feeble, inconvenient and wasteful buildings.

  IN REVIEWING MEMORANDA of the new and basic architectural concepts, equipment and facilities which were developed in wide variety by Purcell and Elmslie, one soon finds himself simply listing furniture, tools, and solutions for plan and structures now familiar to everyone.

IN APPRAISING RECORDS of general historical accomplishments it is seldom possible to say who was the "originator” of anything. "Fulton invented the steam-boat”, but we now know that seven years

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before a steam propelled vessel plied the Severn in England. And so it is with the invention of moveable type, cotton gin, the Seldon auto patents, the radio tube and a hundred others. The historic inventor is nearly always later found to have been preceded by his own invention in operation.

So it can be said that the Purcell and Elmslie contributions were the result of the ingenuity and enthusiasm of all, and individual credits are of no special significance.

From all we have seen of the records of both Purcell and of Elmslie, and our talks with those who knew them, three characteristics are outstanding:

A primary concern for Architecture in motion — architecture as experience with forms mechanical as facilities and forms spiritual as resu1tants

          — the objective

          — the tool needed

          — the fruits, that was the world-in-motion.

Second, a disregard for originality. In his very large volume of printed criticism, Purcell constantly stresses that the most novel and refreshing result is that which shows the clearest evidence of the forces moving in, pressing upon, or flowing from any given event call¬ing for a solution-in-necessity. For him, ”the most unselfed man is the most original. Like happiness, personality cannot be sought after.

Third, he asserts that conservatism must make clear just what it is proposed to conserve. The "conservative” aims to maintain the static. But it is the dynamic factor which has first call for exper¬ienced maintenance.

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          Conservation promotes the oyster;

          The conservative collects the shell.

          The static keeps the index.

          The dynamic operates production.

On this theme the writings of Purcell for the NORTHWEST ARCHITECT for fourteen years, 1941-1955, covered so wide a range that a friendly but conventionally minded architectural editor wrote to Purcell in 1949, "What has all this to do with architecture?” Purcell referred him to Sullivan’s all inclusive definition of architecture and recommended that he reread Viollet le Due of the 1850’s and Ruskin of the 1870’s. He said to me that an equally good answer is provided by the whole course of building production and the teaching in architecture during the past fifteen years.

  LONG BEFORE Alfred North Whitehead or before W. H. Whyte declared in his ”Next Development in Man” the concept of "process”, these architects made it clear, in all they proposed to do, that facilitating the good life at all levels and in all areas was the objective of architectural thinking.

UNTIL RECENTLY "modern" architecture has been almost wholly concerned with construction and equipment design; so much so, that the word "function" has been permanently accepted by press and public as describing some aspect of mechanics. However Purcell and Elmslie did not fail to meet this Mchine Age need with over a hundred unique contributions which include, to name but a few:

          The first all openable window walls, 1907-1909-1918-1940 et seq.

          Sliding sashless window glass.

          All glass commercial buildings, 1918.

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 Supporting steel withdrawn from perimeter walls, which were to be supported on cantilevered floor edges, 1918.

Back to back channels riveted to flat face of H columns in order to provide for vertical pipe and conduits with no costly offset at the floor levels.

A park bandstand with a single reinforced concrete stem supporting a flat slab umbrella roof, 1917.

At the time when a continuous laboratory was being put behind their buildings, all project plans included as a matter of course the relations of people to each other and to their environment — the hearth fire, distinguishing between outdoor and indoor stair use, a sales effort to solve public relations in banks without the need for bronze cages, and the first air conditioned dwelling in Minneapolis.

During the war Purcell supplied Kettering’s War Inventions Board with detailed specifications for twenty-four proposals. See NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, Volume VII, #3, February 1943. Among them:

Floating steel.

Infantry body armour. [sic]

One wheel pull-push infantry “tanks".

Instantly jettison-able fuel tanks for "carriers".

Armour for war ships made in layers of laminated micro-corrugated metals like mammoth electric welded ply-”boards" serving on the "give-resist" principle of the fibre-trap bullet-proof vest. This method also, developed for 1/2" and 1" "ply- steel” partition and floor sheets ("boards") sealed at edges to provide air—cell-containment balanced, as to weight-volume, to float.

The bow and arrow and stockman*s lasso for commandos. The arrows for silence and psychological impact; the "rope” as infantry

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equipment of very wide utility. This idea grew out of the manufacture, by Alexander Brothers of which Purcell was a director 1917—1920, of all-purpose artillery harness traces for World War 1, horse drawn equipment.

 Instantly disassemblable ships so that an entire section could be jettisoned if damaged by submarine.

In 1920 tetra-hedral trusses of one pattern-one joint members were explored and models made. In 1922 in collaboration with Dr. Walker of Portland the possibility of storing the heat potential of low cost electric current at hours of minimum demand was investigated; then, back yard wading pools of canvas with three-foot kiddy rowboats that drew but 3" of water, 1927. As early as 1927 at Atkinson, Nebraska, two-way telephone booths for country banks were developed to facilitate common use of a single phone without pass-through or permission interruptions. Purcell independently proposed to increase current transmission by more efficient transmission cables having a cross section, hollow or surface-deformed, rather than by solid wire or the standard twisted cable of that day. Also conceived was the use of mammoth outboard motors which rotated with the ship to 90° by gyroscope control to prevent roll, by alternate vertical or horizontal thrust of propeller.

  IN HIS LONG imaginative continuity of adventure the most successful and prophetic would appear to be Purcell’s proposal of 1943 to carry fully loaded trucks on railroad flat cars to save heavy origin and terminal handling costs.

IF THIS HAD already been envisioned before this time no accounts of it had then appeared. Fifteen years later this system now represents 60% of the total income of the Southern Pacific Railroad. However,

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such flat car trains as now operated are still loaded and unloaded like circus wagon freight trains from the ends of the long trains, a time consuming and awkward job twice multiplied. Purcell proposed that the existing main line double-track railroads be used as if "single track” — that is to say, the existing standard four wheel freight car chassis-assembly riding on one pair of rails were to be paired with a parallel set on the adjoining "track” for each car for the whole length of the train* Thus in such a development the "gauge” of the railroad would become 22’-0" out to out, while calling for no structural changes, roadbed re-spacing, rail-retapering on curves, or the like. The flat cars would be 26’-0” wide, instead of the 8’-0” at present. The loaded motor trucks or "lorries” could be run onto the train crossways of the broad flat cars as wide as the truck is long. An entire train could thus be made up and unloaded in a matter of minutes from car height service platforms on both sides of the full length of train.

The problem of removing the few between-track obstructions would be simple; there are not many. Such wide gauge multi-”castored" trains would be run safely at very high speeds, pulled and pushed by conventional diesel power plants and alternated for public passenger service with the usual regular two track train schedules unchanged around the clock. The savings would be very great; many times the very large savings already made by the present halfway measures.

An equally interesting and far reaching proposal was offered at the same time. This proposed basic redesign of ships to rounded equilateral triangle to move with broad side as "prow” — which has long been a well known dynaflow solution by the tow or push pilots. Only now are ship designers taking up the new approach to time-speed-mass movement-cum-resistance data which experience with hard and soft air has provided for airplane design.

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The following brief survey lists a selection of catagories from tlie index record of special experiments, projected and in most in-, stances put to work:

AGRICULTURE — Sub-surface plow.

ART — Founded Society of Oregon Artists. 1927.

BANKS — Based on customer relations. 1910.

CANDY BAR — First proposal to make type now used as "man candy" sales item to meet specific demand during prohibition. 1918.

COOKING — Disposable frying pans, not commercialized until forty years later. 1918.

CORNERS OF BUILDINGS - Revitalizing of interior corner areas as a planning facility freeing inter-¬room transit. 1911.

DOORS & WINDOWS - The whole field of openings reimplemented and re-scaled.

ENGINEERING — First “floor-slab-built— in-air" construction; walls brought up under later. 1911.

FIREPLACES — First raised hearths. 1907 First cantilever throat. 1909. First one-sided openings. 1909.

GARAGES — Public — First in Minneapolis.
First lift garage doors.
Private —

First glass doors.
First 6'-6" door heights (Were 8' x 8' for years)
FFirst three-track, interleaved push back sliding doors, making automatic 10'-4" open¬ing for a 2-car minimum 15'-6" inside width double-garage.

HERITAGE  —    Father,   as   owner, had built (1891) at Kensington, South Chicago, first reinforced concrete build¬ing in U.S.A. east of Rockies. First reinforced concrete build¬ing in U.S.A. was on Leland Stanford University campus in 1889> still standing.

HOSPITALS — First proposal for one-story hospital plants of wood construction. Introduction of color for psycholog¬ical effect. Jan. 1916. Non-crash bedside tables. 1935.

LIGHT treated as a building material. First spotlight room lighting. 1920. One of earliest ceiling reflecting types. 1910.

MEDICAL — Cause of Cancer stated. 1923, at least ten years before confirma¬tion by any medical statement.

MODULE PLANNING - One of earliest projects. Lockwood. 1913. Continuing — 1926-1930.

OPENINGS IN WALLS - Using two-part "process” design base, instead of three part "static” (classic) base.

PAINTING BUILDINGS - Early proposals for psychological value of non-"matching" contiguous surfaces, to secure vibration.

PHOTOGRAPHY — Owned and operated two of the first batch of Eastman Kodaks ever made. May 1888. . Kodaks first appeared April that year. First architectural cinema (with Erven Jourdan). 1948.

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PLUMBING FIXTURES - First proposals for: Open front seats. 1905 Streamline faucets for easy cleaning. 1908. Double sinks with swinging faucet. 1920.

POOLS AND FOUNTAINS — First "brimming” pools, when pools were partly filled bowls.

First no-crashing fountains. (Idea from Taj Mahal and Alhambra)

PUBLIC BUILDING - First American indigenous organic design for public building - Woodbury County Court House, Sioux City, Iowa.

RELAXATORIA — Indoor gardens. 1909. Highwalk gardens project. 1955.

ROOF DORMERS — Reintegration of visual and constructional factors. 1915. Special attention to avoiding glaciers in roof valleys.

SEMANTICS — First recognition that architects* vocabulary was graphic terms, not of building.

SHOWER BATH — First outside glass walls in shower stalls, over tubs, eta. "Bathe in the sunshine."

STRESSED SKIN CONSTRUCTION in dwellings. One of the earliest uses: Banning, Caifornia. (1932).

SWIMMING POOLS — First non-rectangular. 1928.

WOOD USE — First solution for no crack¬ing placement of extra wide ex¬terior panels. Heitman. 2/4" red wood. 1916. None has split in forty years.


[Purcell and Elmslie - Part 2]: Gallagher Dwelling 1909

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