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William Gray Purcell (1950s)

William Gray Purcell - Part II. (July 19, 1955)

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Area of my life between leaving Cornell University and departure for Pacific Coast – June 1903 until January 1904.

COMING HOME to Chicago from Ithaca, New York, on the Nickel Plate, a railroad name which had fascinated me since I was a child hearing my father “talk business” about it, I arrived in Chicago about noon. As I glided, on the “Nickel Plate,” through James Whitcomb Riley’s Indiana on that beautiful June day, I realized that at last my boyhood and youth was over and that I was on my own. It gave me a strange feeling. It was really “commencement,” rather scared me. The next three days didn’t much improve my feelings. In the pouring rain I tramped around Chicago, visiting over thirty architect’s offices. I hardly got a decent how-do-you-do in any office. Somebody told me that they needed a draftsman in the granite contrac-

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tor’s office of the new Post Office Building then building, Henry Ives Cobb, architect. I stated my situation and was hired on the spot. I went to work and spent the next five or six weeks there. I did was little drafting there was, while the head draftsman in charged attended to his own private business on the side, doing his work underneath a rolled-back top sheet which would roll forward over his private work every time he heard anyone coming up the stairs. We occupied a little two-story frame dwelling house built right in the present mailing room, which has a very high ceiling. Our drafting room was on the second floor of the cottage under a skylight in its shingle roof. Being inside of two buildings at the same time in July was hot.


My interest in people now shifted from the forest to the drafting room. It was there that I met F. W. Fitzpatrick, one of the most unique and colorful figures in American architecture. Because his life was spent as a Boswell to hundreds of well publicized architects, he was and remains almost unknown.

AT THAT TIME he was the only full time free-lance architect, and a clever designer, adept at the then popular French Renaissance design in authentic Beaux Arts technique. He was as good as any of them; just laughed in a cynical, good natured way and told me he didn’t think any of it was worth two cents but it was the only way he knew

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to earn his living. He thought Louis Sullivan was the greatest living architect; that Sullivan’s ideas were absolutely sound, and he wished that he were good enough and had had the training to follow in his footsteps. I had been preaching Sullivan for ten years to all who would hear me.

Fitzpatrick went from office to office making competition drawings, renderings, working up designs for libraries, public building and large commercial buildings of every kind for business-men architects who could not design. He was then personal representative for Henry Ives Cobb, a New York man. I have no doubt that the Post Office Building was designed by Fitzpatrick and with two or three draftsmen he was doing all the details.

He naturally warmed my heart by his loyalty to Sullivan and by having exactly the same idea that I had about the invalidity of the whole Bozart idea of architecture. He occupied an adjoining two-story cottage in the same mailing room and I went in there whenever I could find a half hour to talk to him. I would see designs by him in the architectural press from time to time for many years. Even as late as 1925 I received in Portland, Oregon, a brochure gotten out by him, recounting his career and naming the buildings he had designed, pages of them. He never shot for ordinary work; always went after the biggest jobs and the most important buildings, any place in the country that he heard of projects being planned. With his remarkable record for winning competitions, he never lacked some commercial

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architect to employ him with the idea of capturing a big work. They frequently were proud to put him down as associate architect. His career could quite readily be followed in the architectural magazines, probably beginning about 1890 or ’92. At the time when I met him he must have been about forty years old. He had an unobtrusive beard, looked like a healthy D. H. Lawrence; a very agreeable, friendly man; full of ready laughter; not mad at any body; and except for a terrible hay fever, apparently enjoying life fully.

  ON MY GRANDFATHER’S paper, “The Interior,” a charming old Scotch Presbyterian minister educated at Aberdeen University, edited the department called “The World.”

THIS WAS A FEATURE of this weekly paper, which Dr. William Cunningham Gray had taken over in 1872 directly after the Chicago fire. This column, so far as I know, was the first anywhere to take up the idea of a weekly digest and critical explanation of world news which has now come to its full development in TIME magazine. Mr. George Simpson was well qualified for this job. My grandfather, who was a specialist in history with a very lively appreciation for the necessity and value of the British Empire toward peaceful world development, was convinced that no one in this country had so competent a knowledge of British politics; that meant world politics in those days. Mr. Simpson’s continuity from about 1895 , when he first came to the paper, to his death, January 1908, deserves a lot more credit in the annals of

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historical research and writing than he is ever likely to get. The files of “The Interior,” complete from 1871 (the first year of the paper was burned up in the Chicago fire) until dissolution about 1928, are in the Cyrus H. McCormick archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin. I can recommend them to researchers in any of a very wide variety of fields – politics, history, advertising, printing arts, photography, science, biography, American literature, and live comment on nature and the American scene. This paper carried the first of the modern “columns.” It was called “Piths and Points” and was written by Dr. Gray himself over a period of thirty years. The London Times wrote of this column in particular and Dr. Gray’s writings in general that “he is the master of the English short paragraph.” This was the home atmosphere in which I grew up and such were the issues I heard discussed at the dinner table and around the open fire which burned every night from September to May.


Mrs. George Simpson was a darling old Scots lady who was very fond of me, and the Simpson’s were very close friends of the Elmslies. She had in mind the need for some improvement in my architectural prospects.

MRS. SIMPSON ARRANGED a dinner party the last week in July 1903 at her home on North Marion Street, Oak Park, and invited George and the three Elmslie sisters. We had a very lively evening. Sure enough, George asked me to drop in at Sullivan’s office the next day which I

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did. He told me that he was going away on his vacation; somebody had to be in the office; if I cared to come over I might be kept on for some time. So I resigned from the John Pierce Granite Company and moved to Sullivan’s office August 1st.

The general historian, it seems to me is often preoccupied too much with the duration of time applied to certain events and persons. Architects frequently expect to find that I was in the Sullivan office a much longer period than I was. But measured by calendar these five months have no relation to my contact with Sullivan. When I entered Sullivan’s office I had just concluded a four-year battle in his behalf at Cornell University. It was not an easy one. At that time the whole Bozart crowd crowd were very, very bitter toward Sullivan. I had first become his admirer on the birthday of Robert Burns, January 25, 1890, when I walked for the first time into the new Chicago Auditorium. This is the most overwhelming emotional experience of my entire life.

Ever since he had designed in 1885 (?) the Opera Auditorium, a vast room built within the old glass exposition building built in 1880 (?) on the lake front between Washington and Jackson, Sullivan had been a personality of controversial character. I had seen this building the fall before Sullivan started to remodel it and recall the building very vividly.

Sullivan was therefore a familiar name in my ears. As a child I had heard him talked about in Oak Park, where he seems to have done

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at least one residence, although it is not listed in Sullivan’s list of buildings and George Elmslie does not recall it. I always heard that Henry W. Austin’s home was designed by Sullivan. It used to face on Lake Street just 200 yards west of Forest Avenue a little to the south of where Ontario Street runs into Forest from the east. It has twice been much altered.

At any rate when Norman S. Patton was given the commission to design Scovill Institute Library in Oak Park, the name of Sullivan was often brought into the discussions, as to whether Sullivan should not have been the architect for the building. My parents and grandparents did not think so; thought his work exaggerated and costly.

When I went in to the new Auditorium at ten years of age, I knew who had designed the building. At that moment I decided that I too would be an architect and that I would build buildings just like Louis Sullivan. Grampa too now thought Sullivan pretty wonderful.

The five months that I spent in Sullivan’s office from August 1st, 1903 until December 24th, were therefore in no sense a period of becoming acquainted with Sullivan’s ideas. That experience was a period of confirmation, and an opportunity to become acquainted with the man himself. Of course it also began the long friendship with George Elmslie which never abated from that time. We were always in close communication, even during the two years that I was on the Pacific coast, and the formation of the partnership fives years later was, it

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would appear now, inevitable.


As a child living with my grandmother I liked to play in the studio room which Dr. gray had built for her in the tower in 1874. I was accustomed to see drawing and painting being done and the paper, paints, and clay for modeling were always available to me.

THAT WINTER OF 1890-91 Lawton S. Parker was living at our new house on North Kenilworth Avenue. He had just returned from his two years stay in Paris whither my grandfather had sent him, a young artist that had been discovered through an art competition in the pages of “The Interior.” My grandmother was interested in art, painting portraits of the whole family, painting china, always drawing and encouraging me to do so. When the new house at 319 (now 219) North Kenilworth Avenue, also designed by Charles C. Miller, was built, a fine north room was also planned in the third floor as a studio for Grandmother. Lawton was daily using this new studio on the third floor. I spent all the time possible with this exciting new big brother just back from Paris. That further continued my interest in drawing, painting and art in general. No doubt I had told him about the Chicago Auditorium and what a beautiful building I thought it was. So he said, “If you’re going to be an architect, why don’t you make plans for the new Woman’s Building at the Chicago Fair? There is a competition to select the architect. They hope that a woman will win, but anybody can send in

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drawings.” So he gave me a big piece of manilla paper which I spread out on the floor. I went to work.

All I can remember is that, whether instructed by him, or for what reason, this was a very large drawing. I don’t suppose that I had the ability to draw it to scale, but I seem to remember using a ruler to get it square and orderly. The principal feature, still vividly recalled, was that it was a long building with arches something like Sullivan’s Transportation Building which of course at that time had not come into public view – probably had not been designed at that time. For entrance I had a tall arched opening, and all the windows at both sides had arches at the top. I am not meaning to imply any anticipation of Sullivan by any means; I merely indicate that I had a certain practical streak. Whatever good looks I wanted to give the building, at any rate I was going to produce something that was able to hold up its own roof, let in the light, and it did not have any Roman columned porch.

  A YEAR OR SO BEFORE this Frank Lloyd Wright had moved to Oak Park while still employed with Sullivan. His own home on the southeast corner of Forest and Chicago was built in 1889.

UNTIL I LEFT for college I was playing with the boys up and down Forest Avenue nearly every afternoon after school. Anything that Wright built had first attention.

So it was from the time that I was ten years old, for the next

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thirteen years, I was a strong defender of the ideas and the architecture of Wright and Sullivan. The major battle I put up in Cornell University for my convictions in their principles of architectural philosophy has been very full set forth in my article in the NORTHWEST ARCHITECT titled “1902 and the Gilded Age” in Volume XVI, Number 2, March-April 1952.

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[Editor’s note: the remaining five pages of the typescript were hand edited by Purcell, mostly to change the manuscript from third to first person. The portion of the draft relating to the “Village Library," pages 10-12, are also heavily corrected. These changes are reflected below as faithfully as possible.]

  MY FIRST PROJECT of significance after leaving college was the design for a village library submitted September 1903, in a competition sponsored by The Brickbuilder, a very popular architectural publication by Rogers and Manson of Boston.

THIS WAS A STUDY encouraged by George Elmslie because for days at a time there was no work in the Sullivan office to keep me occupied. I did all the drafting on it and George took about the same part as any school professor of design. He directed the analysis and its detail; conducted discussions for reorganizing the design from time to time as the work progressed. But he insisted that I work it out for myself. The result was not exactly collaboration, but rather a very good example of teach and pupil relation. It was my first practical experience in creative design where I could come to grips with the living substance free of

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any necessity for battling the academic pressures. Where the ornament got out of control, George provided the needed direction finders and we came through with a creditable [design] which [Kristian] Schneider [clay modeler at American Terracotta Company] could have improved without trying.

So one could say that the project was half Purcell and half Elmslie, and one should say that it would not have taken anything like the form it did without Elmslie looking over my shoulder. I naturally wanted the design to be submitted over both our names, but Elmslie could not agree for reasons now obvious. The project won the fifth prize. It was published a few months later along with the other winning designs in The Brickbuilder where it can be seen today.

The basic plan of this Village Library was good – if [it had been] built it would be serving well. [Text struck by WGP: This early building presents no clear indication of the character of design by Purcell in his later years. It does have some visual relation to certain buildings by Purcell and Elmslie, but in general] it looks back toward Sullivan and 1895, rather than ahead to 1925. It was the only project submitted which in any way accepted the limitations and developed the possibilities of ceramic products. We certainly tried to make this project a village library and locate it on a village site. None of the others did so. They were all city libraries. This was the only ornament I produced until late in life. I had no need to use my inexperienced ideas as George was already a great master in this field.

A look at the over one hundred designs submitted for this Village

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Library, a third of which found publication, will show that without any exception every plan submitted was actually a French Renaissance essay designed as a stone building. To bring it within the terms of the competition, it was considered entirely acceptable to both jury and to The Brickbuilder magazine top submit designs that were intended for stone construction, providing one introduced certain brick panels in the walls and handled the stone details with a certain un-classic freedom of decorative material and jointure that said, “This is just a little too gay to be carved, so you can assume that, very reluctantly and only because it is cheaper, this design is intended for baked clay.” There was also a tendency to indulge in lush classic ornament which even with Machine Age methods was too costly to carve, but could easily [be] produced in clay by a modeler.

  I should like to take SOME HISTORICAL NOTE at this point of The Brickbuilder magazine, because in later years it became direct progenitor of the Architectural Forum.

STARTING OUT AS an organ of the brick manufacturing industry, it was so well handled by its editors that it coon became one of the two or three leading architectural publications of the day. It help its own without difficulty with the American Architect, Architectural Record, and the Architectural Review of Boston. In all probability the reason that this magazine continued to confine itself to buildings in which brick construction played a considerable part was due to the fact that archi-

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tectural terra cotta had become very popular because it could imitate stone at half the cost. It had first come into view along about 1885 (date should be checked). At first it was all the same color, a sort of pottery brick red. By 1896 its manufacturers were learning to produce it in other colors. It was the province of the Teco Potteries under William D. Gates to carry these techniques to perfection with dull and glazed enameled surfaces in many colors that would withstand the weather. It was thus that the popularity of brick buildings with terra cotta trim became so general that a magazine devoted almost wholly to them could easily hold its own in competition with other publications not have such a limitation. They confined their publication to brick buildings until a very later period, about 1918 (date should be checked) because the Brickmaker’s Association provided the capital background for the publication.

It is interesting that this specialty building material magazine furthering the brick industry originated in Boston, when the Mississippi Valley was actually the center of the clay industries and it was in Chicago that terra cotta was brought to technological perfection.

Mr. Rogers, owner with Manson of The Brickbuilder, was a firm friend of what was then generally referred to as “progressive architecture.” He never passed an opportunity to publish anything by the Chicago group who worked with Sullivan and Wright, and by William L. Price of Philadelphia.

He was fully aware of Sullivan’s place as the father of this

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world movement. For twenty years Rogers made a semi-annual tour of USA calling on the architects for news and pictures. He was a very pleasant and sincere man; never failed to spend an hour in the Sullivan office and later with Purcell and Elmslie in Minneapolis. His heart was with Sullivan’s view of American architecture. It pained him to publish buildings of appliqué design. In those days little else could be had and a review of published work from 1892 on leaves one incredulous that sensible businessmen could have been persuaded to build enclosing fabrics of brick and masonry which not only so interfered with the uses of the building but added greatly to the cost at no purpose, useful or otherwise.

Notes on The Brickbuilder

First number – January 1892..
Arthur D. Rogers and Frank C. Manson, Publishers.
Name changed to Architectural Forum January 1917.
Rogers and Manson moved their publication offices from Boston to New York, date unavailable.

William Gray Purcell - Part III. (July 27, 1955)

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