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William Gray Purcell (1950s)

William Gray Purcell - Part IV. (September 19, 1955)


ANOTHER EXAMPLE of Architecture as Experience began to take form during Purcell’s twenty months in Berkeley. This was the year before the San Francisco earthquake of April 1906.

IT WOULD BE A THIRD of a century before observations of local folkways in the “Bay Area” dwellings would bring the Purcell and Elmslie story to a dramatic climax in the Helena, Montana, earthquakes of 1935. Purcell was delighted with the western character of much that remained of the 1860s and ‘70s, still unspoiled by the Machine Age but so soon to be destroyed by the great fire. In Oakland and Berkeley, then little more than villages, he noted that contractors were producing dwellings with certain unusual features which had come to be character-

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istic of the better dwellings in Bay Shore communities. One of these was the hanging, square, corner “bay-window,” a projecting wrap-around construction. The other was the wedge roof dwelling, a two story and attic design with the principal cornice line at or near the first floor ceiling. Both these features were looked upon with great disfavor by the architectural intelligentsia. But when Purcell started to do eventual drafting for his pal in the Howard office, Walter Ratcliff, Jr., whose English family built and rented dwellings for income investments, he learned something of the force of folkways.

The Corner “Bay-Window

The public demand was insistent for those corner window-seat “bay-windows.” The unmarried wanted them indoors and it was up to the architect to make this feature look nice outside. All women thought this feature looked just fine no matter what. Any kind of corner windows were a novelty, East or West, in 1905, but Purcell had become familiar with their logic and plan convenience in Sullivan and Wright designing. He says: “These right angled California bays on the two faces of any, and usually on both front corners of dwellings did not extend down to the ground, but rested on projecting brackets a foot or so above floor level, usually the first floor. This provided a nice deep cushioned continuous window seat inside. When I sat with the sorority girls I too was all for corner window-seats – the more kinds the better. Walt and I disagreed about them as architecture;

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he sided with the classic, but nevertheless put them in the rental houses he planned. He had to. Nearly all architects were obliged to, reluctantly. Even Maybeck used plenty of them as did I. Maybeck designed them well.”

California Wedge Roofs.

Continuing his account of these two “naturals” that had appeared without benefit of esthetics in Bay Area domestic architecture in the 1890s, Purcell says: “I had not then advanced to taking account of economic pressures in design and it would be 1921 before I discovered that the roof could be the least expensive enclosing fabric in any building.

“In that day American homes of two stories were the rule. Bungalows close to the ground were just beginning to appear in Los Angeles following the fashion of Greene and Greene. There was a San Francisco one-story house which had been popular since the Civil War days. This was perhaps due to the mild winters, absence of good building stone, and plenty of low cost lumber to be had. They were built with a 6’-6” “basement right on top of the ground (no cellar) and with a flight of 12 to 14 fancy wood steps with turned balusters leading up to the front door. This type was traditional in the city and suburbs. Hundreds can still be seen from San Jose to Santa Rosa.

“In evening study under my enthusiasm for the steep roofed two-story-and-a-half dwelling, I decided to redesign the steep roofed

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design of my Cornell junior year thesis. This I sent to the Chicago Architectural Club Exhibition in March 1905. No doubt I was subconsciously influenced by my admiration for Wright’s steep roofed Chauncey L. Williams house at 520 Edgewood Place, River Forest, Illinois, built in 1895. By 1904, the California wedge roof at a steep 60 degree pitch had become very popular around the Bay. Designing them had fallen into a drafting formula. The expanse of redwood shingle roof resting on strong horizontal lines gave one a ‘big house for the money.’” The better native born architects went along with the general feel of many local traditions, but New York and Paris men coming out there for adventure did not. To me, regardless of often silly detail and poor taste, these dwellings were satisfying.”

Purcell kept coming back to this form in early Catherine Gray studies, 1907 (Purcell and Feick job #4-1/2) but rejected them. In the Minneapolis climate the idea kept developing snow pockets. The wedge was plainly tied to rectangular plans with no “L’s” and no jogs greater than the width of the broad eaves. Steep roof designs seemed to get complicated and ultimately wholly out of control – too many dormers.

In the Backus dwelling (Job #283) see the Alternative wedge roof designs which Backus rejected in favor of a very flat roof so that his “house would look like 2328 Lake Place.” Thirty-nine years later in 1952 Backus’s wife and daughter were still living in the 1916 flat roof edition of this house which Purcell and Elmslie

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designed for them.

In Minneapolis Purcell eventually found a client, Dr. Hirschfelder for whom and for whose high location on Lake of the Isles Boulevard, with beautiful oak trees, a wedge roof form seemed right. The doctor agreed. He was a Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota. When the working drawings were completed (Job #278, 2/13/15) Dr. Hirschfelder, filled with enthusiasm, sent a set of blue prints to his wife vacationing in Berkeley, of all places. She rejected the whole works by wire; no back talk wanted. She was plainly pretty mad and he was pretty sad. The drawings can be seen today in “The Cave” on Minnehaha Creek, #6 Red Cedar Lane, Minneapolis, under the continuing custody of John Jager and Frederick A. Strauel.
  THIS DISAPPOINTMENT was tempered with an unexpected opportunity to finally build one of these roofy projects.

WORKING DRAWINGS had been completed in 1911 for a dwelling in Helena, Montana, for Louis Heitman, president of the American National Bank (Purcell and Elmslie Job #122; see Western Architect, January 1913, page 3, for preliminary plan.) It is a beautifully organized dwelling and had it been built would have taken its place in the history of Purcell and Elmslie beside 2328 Lake Place in Minneapolis and the Bradley dwelling in Madison, Wisconsin; but the bids ran too high. For the next five years Mrs. Heitman’s hopes for a new

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house were laid on the shelf.

In February, 1916, discussion was resumed on the Heitman project but little progress was possible by correspondence. In May the Heitmans came to Minneapolis ready to go; summer was at hand. What to do? It usually took six weeks to develop a project and produce working documents.

It occurred to Purcell that the Hirschfelder dwelling closely paralleled the Heitman requirements and site. The working drawings were in the files ready to use, the cost about right. Mr. and Mrs. Heitman studied the plans, pronounced them perfect…with of course some little changes here and there. Heitman authorized procedure at once. His only instructions were, “Make everything just the way mama and the girls want it.”

“Little changes,” as always, in no time resulted in wholly new working drawings. In the restudies there were many interesting and imaginative minor reintegrations of all the functions concerned with site, owner, mountain climate, local building materials, available skills, all aimed to produce a result that would make happiness for the owner and his friends.
  IN THIS TEN YEAR trail from Berkeley, California, by way of Minneapolis to Helena, Montana, we have a demonstration of architectural design as a continuity of experience.

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OUT OF TRIAL AND REWARD grew a practical but not a mechanical architecture, a dwelling place wrought out to be lived with, shelter that served and satisfied. Perhaps more than any other, the Heitman house illustrates a conviction that function must include the whole man engaged in living. The Purcell and Elmslie team were conditioned to keep in view at all times the economic, social, physical, engineering, poetic and historic factors bearing on any project and to produce forms that would contain and express these forms in complete freedom from pressures generated by the unscientific and un-historic habitual forms then in use. This office was a pioneering laboratory in which a very large number of new constructions and equipment was developed and put in use for the first time. Mr. Laurence A. Fournier, for many years chief draftsman, writes, “Paul Haugen when persuading me to take the position in the Purcell and Elmslie office which he was obliged to give up, said, ‘These men know what they are doing.” See NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, Volume X, #1, 1946. See also analysis, “Pioneering as a Prime Factor in Purcell and Elmslie architecture.”
  GEORGE ELMSLIE AND PURCELL, working closely with all departments, pressed the new working drawings through in three weeks time and August Lennartz, an unusually able force-account foreman who had done a number of buildings for them, started off for Helena.

THE STRUCTURAL WORK proceeded during the summer and fall and by the time winter had set in the building was under roof.

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Under date of July 7, 1955, Mr. Frederick A. Strauel, who entered Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie May 1st, 1913, and is still a “member of the firm” in charge of records in Minneapolis, writes as follows: “All Heitman millwork made here in Minneapolis by Northside Sash and Door. Shipped in dead of winter; you sent me to yards to watch loading into freight car, which was wet and full of snow. Nice place to put finished millwork; all that solid black walnut trim and doors. Box car shortage and we just had to take what the railroad put on the siding.”

The house was completed the following spring, beautifully furnished, and happily lived in for sixteen years. Nothing was said then about cost and nothing was ever said. Its $32,000 final cost plus $3,000 for the lot was cheerfully paid, everybody pleased and has so continued through the present owner, Mr. J. E. O’Connell, who has occupied the dwelling since 1930. The original Heitman curtains are still serving unfaded in 1955. Forty-five years was the forecast in forms made by Purcell and Elmslie for Helena. Time has justified their confidence and underwritten the decisions they all made together.
  BUT NOW COMES one of those all-inclusive disasters in which fate seems to scorn half measures.

DURING THE LATE SUMMER of 1935, Helena, Montana, had a visita-

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tion of earthquakes. The number of quakes was more than 800! Four of major violence. Many other severe. The rest added to public fear and finished the destruction which the first had begun.

The headline news out of all these months for Purcell and Elmslie was that the Heitman dwelling was the only structure in the entire city that survived with no damage whatsoever. The damage to every other building in the city ran from cracked walls, overthrown store fronts and chimneys, down through the list to total destruction of the new quarter million dollar high school. The Heitman house lost a dozen bricks out of the chimney top which were replaced at a cost of $25.00. There was no other damage to the house, not even plaster cracks. After four or five hundred more chocks, some of considerable force, most of the chimney above the roof line was thrown down; but all else inside and out remained intact.

The Purcell and Elmslie office had given no especial thought to the possibility of earthquakes, for none of any violence had occurred in that area in historic times. The stability of the structure appears due to the very low center of gravity for a mass of that bulk and to sound construction produced under an unusually capable foreman, Mr. A. P. Lennartz. He was also responsible for the construction of Sexton at Minnetonka; International Leather and Belting at New Haven; High Haith for Alexander at Squam Lake, New Hampshire;

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and was about to leave for a P and E project in Siang Tan, China, when World War I and worldwide silver inflation cancelled that project.

In the study of the Heitman house we find a remarkable record of personal lives, of many persons, of many persons, over many years, and a wide spread of events across these United States. We have to come think on many accounts, some of which we have analyzed for you, that the home on Dearborn Avenue in Helena, Montana, contributes a living something beyond what may be found by looking at it or testing is physiology by the rules of esthetics. As Purcell wrote in NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, Volume X, #2, “Architecture is what a building does to you when you live with it.”


William Gray Purcell - Part V. (September 15, 1955)

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