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Review of Gebhard Thesis
William Gray Purcell (1950s)

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


  THE 1790 “MOVERS,” whose slow wagon trains dragged west from Cumberland Gap and the Kentucky meadows, on through Ohio and Indiana, did not cease when the railroads finally reached the Pacific. I guess it was the West that kept moving me.

BERKELEY MEANT FOR ME many kinds of adventure. The best was the experience of pre-earthquake San Francisco and the lovely un-bridged bay. The white and yellow ferries gave a twenty minutes unhurried show of morning and evening beauty. The Schweinfurth Brothers and other adventurous local architects were building pictures on both sides of the bay, with rough texture of brick, broad boards of redwood, and much decorative use of shingles and shakes. Schweinfurth’s charming Unitarian Church was directly across Bancroft Way from where I roomed with Mrs. Conger and her big family. This simple mass of redwood shingles with the boles of great redwood trees, shaggy

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bark and all, was unique in that day of paper model churches. The University campus then uncrowded with buildings was like a tropical park. The village of Berkeley was busy with boys and girls of my age, something pleasant to do any evening and every week end. The dry summer fog rolling in from the bay at sundown was a new kind of refreshment after golden sun. The three months of winter rain did not prove depressing.

That year I looked very fit, played tennis, walked in the hills, went to occasional dances and sorority parties, and almost every Sunday afternoon tool college girls through the eucalyptus grove to the concert in the just completed Greek Theater. On rainy winter days these weekly treats were adjourned to nearby Hearst Hall (Women’s Gymnasium). But from time to time I felt so tired that all I wanted was to stay home and get to bed early. I did a lot of reading, Sartor Resartus for one thing, and all my Grandfather’s “Camp-fire Musings” which Annie Ziegler, my grandmother’s companion, and I had made into a large, very presentable bound volume with a red leather back. I liked to bring home an armful of books from the library.

This tiredness I now know was the first onset of [tuberculosis] t.b. which was to recur in 1910, 1919, 1927, and finally be identified in 1930. That winter of 1905 I “caught a bad cold” in the drafty half completed California Hall I was supervising. But it was not like a cold; no

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sneeze, no stuffed-up nose just tired and hard to breathe. And thus appeared the slow cloud which would more than any other factor was to shape my whole life.

  BEFORE I LEFT CHICAGO Seattle was really my goal; and its prospect held firm, if delayed for two years by the California experience.

I HAD FIRST SEEN SEATTLE in sunny July and August 1900; did not connect the then unrealized cold and rain as a negative factor in view of my plain need for milder climates. And again I fell into the same error when leaving Philadelphia in 1919 for wet and cloudy Portland, Oregon. The North Pacific states seem to have won my adventuring heart in spite of logic and good sense.

In the spring of 1905 men were laid off in Howard’s offices. Plans for the University of California new library were on the boards and I could have stayed on as building superintendent. The foundation test pits had just been dug and recorded under my eye. My pal the Englishman, Walter Ratcliff, Jr., wanted me to stay on and go in business with him. But I was restless, handed in my resignation August 1st and took the boat north; a very rough trip all the way. I never even saw my stateroom after we left the Golden Gate; just lived and slept on deck, and had no with [will] to eat.

  CHARLES E. BEBB was the business agent and superintendent whom Louis Sullivan sent to Seattle

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  in the spring of 1892 on the Seattle Opera House project. He had now become the town’s leading architect.

ARRIVED IN SEATTLE Bebb and Mendel hired me on the spot, and I went to work Monday morning. Mendel was a German trained engineer with great facility in all matters of building and office procedure. All the men in the office were experts. I was expert in nothing except enthusiasm. I didn’t last long, a couple of weeks, and then quit before I was fired, but not before I landed another job at fifty percent more pay. In this new office of A. Warren Gould, lately arrived from Boston, although I knew little of practical architecture, I was more capable than any of the other five draftsmen. The engineer was good. Zeigler, the chief imported from Boston, found himself away over his head in the ten-story banks and hotels we were doing. I felt sorry for him, a plain small town builder of fifty years. I liked him, tried to save his face, to build him up. He was grateful, let me know he understood what I was doing. The “character” of the staff was a four-by-five black Egyptian. The pioneer breeze was supplied by a curly haired lad of twenty-three, Albert Wood, just back from two years in Dawson City. Of Albert, more later.

If you wish to know the Seattle of 1905, read an excellent novel “Great Son” by Edna Ferber. An aristocratic family and their home a

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few blocks up Madison Hill where I made my first formal call was the family of “Son.” This 1870 house, its furnishing and the people, young and old, who lived in it are described in great detail by Miss Ferber, exactly as I recalled it. Other houses which she described to set-scene for her plot are unmistakably Bebb and Mendel dwellings. They had planned literally hundreds of the most costly dwellings in the city during the second boom. Bebb and Mendel’s best designer had a standard house-type which he reproduced over and over, but never twice alike and with imaginative and admirable variations.

These were all wood dwellings, painted lapped siding or textured brick below, brown stained shingles above, with 45 degree roof and big brick chimneys as a feature of the outside walls associated with painted verge boards. These dwellings were something on the order of William F. Kenyon’s work in Minneapolis from 1905 to 1920. I believe these dwellings were a natural organic expression of the way a certain prosperous class of American people liked to live at that time, and it was a pretty good way. Miss Ferber though so too.

Seattle was still a primitive culture aristocracy rather than a “money society.” In a sense it was nouveau riche, but the men could not forget the mines, the lumber camps and wagon trains. They were rough, folksy and rich. They spent money accordingly. In a day when food was not served at drug store soda fountains and there were no lunch counter cafés, one of the very best eating places

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developed out of a very luxurious and ornate former saloon on Second Street. One sat at the bar on revolving stools with mahogany chair-backs. The food was very expensive and very, very good. Breakfast was about all I could afford, enjoyed occasionally just for the unique experience.

Miss Ferber was critically discerning when she selected these Bebb and Mendel dwellings as characteristic of the 1900-1915 era. I also think this method of designing out of a great reservoir of one’s personal plans and patterns, just as one speaks his mind, and with no conscious reference to what is esthetic, represents, the insouciant procedures of living art as contrasted with mentalizing. Intellectuality itself soon becomes a “style” of thinking even when disclaiming style form. A “no-style,” “no-cliché pressure on sculpture, painting, architecture, can become as much of a rigid class communication by negation as the “historic style” incubus of 1892. The ultimate cult of “abstraction” in art and architecture thus becomes itself a “style.” At many levels and all areas of today’s thinking, in politics, education, finance and where not, we can watch in action the supreme cynicism of a class conscious conservatism whose collective mind is wholly divorced from man and the living world.

Before we leave Seattle, a passing memorandum must be set down so that “Albert Wood and five sons” will not be forgotten. A very small part of his fabulous story, before and after his year in A.

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Warren Gould’s office, was printed in the NEW YORKER ten years ago and further notes in hi9s adventures will be found in mjy files under “ALBERT WOOD AND FIVE SONS.” This business moniker does not include Mrs. Wood and their six daughters. There was his winter of 1904-05 in a one-room log cabin in Dawson with his mother and their horse (“We couldn’t let the poor thing freeze to death.”); his subsequent presidency of Henry Ford’s billion dollar holding company for real property wherever located throughout the world, and his invention of this high wind-up hospital bed now in universal use. These are just passing incidents that out to start some competent mind to getting this man’s fabulous life on paper before he dies. (See W.G.P. files, NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, “Writing,” for data). [Editor's note: The preceding comment in parentheses refers to a collection of research files Purcell accumulated as a resource for his future writings in Northwest Architect, still gathered together in the Purcell Papers].

In those six months in Seattle I lived a very full and most agreeable life, felt well, met a lot of remarkable people. At Christmas I got two week’s leave. My Grandmother Gray and her companion Annie Ziegler came out from Chicago to meet me at Grand Canyon in Arizona. We stayed at Grand View, had a wonderful winter experience with two feet of snow and crystal clear days. Annie and I went down into the Canyon on horses as a special party; much warmer down there. The Indians brought in a 9’-0” cougar, lovely even in death. Too soon we were all back in Seattle again, back into the fog and sousing rain; Grandma happy if she could be with me, rain or no rain. My father stopped by in late January on his way to Los Angeles for his annual winter vacation with the

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Purcell aunts, as was his custom for many years. He was troubled about my health; didn’t like anything about Seattle. “What were my plans for the future?” I said I wanted to go to Europe for a year. He said, “Good, fine’ when do you want to start?”

Grandma, Annie and I left Seattle March 1st. Once through the Cascades, the trip across country was like mild April; most surprising, an observation platform trip. OaK Park was mild and charming. But everything was different, strange, after the West. I called on the girls, took pictures of Wright’s houses with the new camera bought for European records, and on March 15th left for New York. George Feick, Jr., joined me and we sailed on the Konig Albert for the Mediterranean and Greece, with a Bureau of University Travel party. This plan of serious travel was a surprising and delightful experience. We had with us Dr. Harry Powers and Dr. Rossiter Howard, later Museum Director of Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Kansas City Museums. All were men of distinguished scholarship and remained life long friends.

William Gray Purcell - Part VI.


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