firm active: 1907-1921
minneapolis, minnesota :: chicago, illinois
William Gray Purcell - Part VI. (June 25, 1956)
EUROPE - 1906 WHEN THE POSSIBILITY of study in Europe had finally become a fact to be planned for, I organized a method with which I had long experimented. It was plain that the object of this trip was a better understanding of architecture, of great building. I didn't want to improve my drafting, or to collected "working" photographs, as they later came to be called. Feick and I decided that we would call on practicing architects in all countries, talk to the citizens, try to know buildings, ancient and modern, appraise the works of man along our path. A day by day account of this year of 1906 will be found in my pocket diary and in letters to my family. Sailing from New York on March 24th at 11:00 AM, via he Azores, we stopped for a day in Gibraltar, continued on three days to Naples. During and immediately following our visit to Pompeii we experienced the most severe eruption of Vesuvius in modern times, <page 2> viewed from a distance of only a dozen miles, at one point only a dozen feet from the molten front of the moving lava. Fleeing with the populace, our party evacuated the village of Boso Tre Casa an hour before it was destroyed. We drove most of the night across the plain to Cava in full view of the gorgeous spectacle. This awful illuminated column continued all the next day, while the lightning pierced cloud that capped it rose to 20,000 feet. We were traveling for the first three months, until July 8th, with the Bureau of University Travel of Boston which, under Dr. Harry H. Bowers, had reached a high level of service and competence during its fifteen years of travel experience. It was then almost alone in its field in which fifty years later it is still outstanding. Upon arrival in Italy under the direction of Dr. Henry Willard, we were joined by early spring European and Italian parties under Dr. Powers and Dr. Clinton L. Babcock to form a large group for the Greek cruise. The first major travel project was to start from Brindisi on the chartered steamer Ermopolis which enabled us to go where we chose in Greece, thence to Constantinople, Asia Minor and the Grecian Islands. Here out experienced professors carried on their interpreti- ive work for us at historic sites and in galleries as is if in university class rooms. It was a remarkable and unforgettable experience which effected all my life and thought. In reporting what was told us at the ancient sites and monuments, one hesitates to call the talks "lectures." Certainly the significance of what was before us each day, in the light of the history that had there been recorded, was all that a lecture should be and much that no classroom could ever give. One experienced an accumulating and living body of knowledge. Drs. Powers, Babcock, Willard, Howard and others were all specialists; the "lecture was really a continuous experience all day and evening <page 3> too. There was a recreational release at lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. Formal accounts were given by the several specialists on the sites, or as a summing up in the evening after dinner at the hotel. Between times the leaders would be sitting with the travel- ers in casual comment on the passing scene. In Italy we have in- valuable interpretations for Roman Civilization by Miss Caroline Fletcher, Head of the Latin Department at Wellesley. Thus the ancient Mediterranean civilization came alive for us. Conventional classic scholarship with its static surfaces and plaster cast world of white mannequins was nowhere in evidence. "Color" was the land, the people, and glowing with color all its history and all the tokens remaining of it. That set the right thought for everything later. The forces, the forms and the ribbon of time were understood. We began to see how the system could be put behind production when we got home again and began to be architects. Delightful, intellectually exciting, with never a dull or boring moment - that tells out days with the Bureau of University Travel. Back to Italy from Greece and Turkey we returned for a month. Then followed Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany again, Italy again and home for Christmas. Carrying out our plan, among others we met with Archimandrate Anatole in Athens, a man of broad culture and education; I also re- call a high school professor in Italy. We tried for and missed some good men in Austria and Germany. We knew about Behrens, but he was unavailable. Muthesius, now even a name almost forgotten, was on vacation. We did better with architects in the north. Henrich Bull in Norway. H. P. Berlage and Martin Nyrop in Holland. Ferdinand Boberg in Sweden. <page 4> All were very generous with their time. In Stockholm we were taken by Boberg to call on Prince Eugene in his new home of which Boberg was architect. The Prince was out for the day, but we saw his two galleries of paintings, one the blue- green room, the other orange red. The prince himself was a well known painter. They thought our plan of studying architecture through living architects was good. They enjoyed seeing young Americans and had many questions to ask. On my way home from Seattle to New York I had relaxed for three weeks at home in Oak Park. I spent as much time as possible in the familiar Sullivan office, 1600 Auditorium Tower, talking to George Elmslie. He told me about Eliel Saarinen, showed me pictures of his buildings. George Feick and I wanted very much to go to Helsingfors to see his great railroad station built in 1903 (burned 1951). The world had begun to talk about him, then but thirty-one years old. But the trip proved too costly for our budget. In our Parabiography will be found more detailed accounts of the work of these men and our useful experiences in meeting and talking with them. My European letters to my family will also picture the climate of design and criticism in European architecture at that time. See also NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, July-August 1953, Volume XVII, #4, Cover and pages 40-41. I continued an exchange of correspondence with some of these men as long as they lived. Berlage came to America in 1911. I accompanied him through the East and as far West as Minneapolis. Wee his "Travels in America: (in Dutch) in my library. See also W.G.P. files for a full analysis of Berlage and his work made in 1956 made for Leonard Eaton of the University of Michigan. <page 5> When visiting the cathedrals George Feick and I sat on the green, in their aisles, or on the roof (of Beauvais and Florence) and read the appropriate chapters of Charles Moore's Gothic work which we had read in preparation during the sixteen day voyage from New York to Naples. When we got back to the United States, and continuing to this day, the records in photographs we took and bought, post cards, and a few drawings, reminded us of what he had learned of the three thousand years of man's building we had come to now, from Smyrna and Delos to Stonehenge and the Stabur churches of Norway. We were no better drafts- men, gained no further skills in making patterns; but looking back fifty years, the results seem to indicate that we had stabilized out res- olution to stay with organic architecture and the view of life which Sullivan had outlined and which we had seen demonstrated by Wright on our own home street. Two basic ideas were the result of this intellectual adventure. That no more than in other fields of thought could the building art ignore history. It was plain that the bozart method of the copy was unproductive, not because it had studied history of architecture, but because it looked at the past without seeing; there was no "creative vision." Thus we resolved to know all we could find out about the past, observe the relations of collective thought to the resulting forms and use this experience to understand our own times and their urges. We also saw that "originality" was an impulse that could result in nothing more than passing fashions. One must till mind, plant the seed, nourish growth. The architect must forget himself in the work, fill himself with total understanding of the project and process and then let it crystallize as it will. This was science and poetry, <page 6> the paired movers of the world, the source of freshness, beauty, growth from which true originality greets today and tomorrow as the early sun and the small rains. As I went through Chicago George Elmslie had given me a copy of the now historic thesis of Sullivan, "What is Architecture," reprinted by him only a few weeks before. This I read aloud to Drs. Willard and Babcock on shipboard and I gave the copy to Drs. Power and Howard. We all had many talks about it in Italy and Greece. Cordial approval to the new point of view was given. Thus in our season of travel study we made ready to be sound architects in control of living buildings from the first work that would be asked of us.
William Gray Purcell - Part VII. (October 1, 1957)