firm active: 1907-1921
minneapolis, minnesota :: chicago, illinois
George Grant Elmslie - Part II. (May 25, 1955)
ORNAMENT It was during the 1896-1906 decade that George mastered ornament, not just Sullivan's ornament. WHILE GEORGE WAS INDEBTED to the basic principles of Sullivan and his brilliant mastership, Sullivan himself didn't think of orna- ment as what his detractors used to describe as "Sullivanesque," something of general utility that had become available through his invention. Sullivan and Elmslie conceived of ornament as a symphon- ic development that belonged to the concept of the living building as a fully functioning organism. The "designer: - the man of firm intention - simply found it there and drew it forth. He expressed the building in the poetry and philosophy of form and offered it to the world. It was then and there that the word "exfoliation" was born; a word not only referring to the leafy forms, but to geometrical <page 2> relations to pattern and sculpture of every kind, and in all the most diverse materials and crafts - the soul of the building in flower. PEOPLE HAVE the wrong idea about Sullivan's ornament and the rela- tion of what Sullivan had done to what George Elmslie was to do. I'm now the only one who can make this clear, because I am the only one, other than Wright, who knows from first hand experience just what was going on in the Sullivan office. Wright would not be the best of reporters - he left in 1894. UPON WRIGHT'S DEPARTURE in 1894, George took over all design coordination. It was three or four years before he was able to handle projects on his own from concept through decorative detail. All this time George was working with Engineer Ritter, Sullivan's close friend and consultant. Ritter had done all the Adler and Sullivan pioneer structural projects beginning with the above grade work on the Auditorium. Of course there were office draftsmen- engineers on all the tall buildings and George eventually became capable in structural mathematics. When we went together in 1910 to take our State Board Exams in Urbana, for our Illinois licenses, George passed as well, or better, than I in all subjects despite the advantage of my four years' organized study at Cornell. Ninety percent of all the ornament in the Guaranty Building in Buffalo came from George Elmslie's hand. In fact, he told me him- self that the only ornament that Sullivan actually sat down and <page 3> developed for that building were the capitals and the big ornament that climbs up over the cover of the cornice at the top of the build- ing. But there is still a lot of ornament on Guaranty which is closer to Sullivan in spirit and communication than it is to the Elmslie of Owatonna, Condict, Schlesinger and Mayer, and the Purcell and Elmslie ers. A most careful analysis should be made about this, for in two more generations architecture will be in flower again. "Ornament" however will in no visual sense carry anything resembling what was produced by Sullivan, Elmslie and Wright. How could it possibly? Structure and materials are already wholly changed. It may happen to architecture here as it has in Russia. Political and other pressures of mass emotion may throw the creative art of the nation - indeed of the world - into the control of men who will not tolerate free arts. In the writing of books those who fear change and intellectual adven- tures are already threatening non-conforming teachers and librarians with the loss of job security. So we can be sure that in another thirty years the forms of all objects and buildings will be as differ- ent as a pine differs from a palm or a pineapple. While the new flower and fruit will be so inevitable that those who are to enjoy it will wonder why we were so dull, we cannot assure ourselves that it will be expressing the freedom envisioned in Sullivan's book "Democracy, a Man Search." <page 4> IT HAS BEEN SAID of George Elmslie's ornament, "The movement of the ornament was essentially on the plane of the surface; the effect being entirely opposite from a Baroque or Gothic structure." And again, "This two-dimensional quality must be understood as a key to all Elmslie's work in ornament." THESE TWO STATEMENTS are in conflict, because with respect to the substance of a building - its material surface, and its idea substance - only an appliqué ornament could be two-dimensional as between building and its decoration. Any ornament that arose out of the idea, or out of the material fabric of a building, would have to be three dimensional or it couldn't do any arriving. The nature of ornament is one of the most difficult things to explain to a world that is afraid of ornament, which has no ability to produce ornament, which does not rejoice in ornament. The word "orna- ment" today does not mean what it originally meant, in the great organ- ic periods of living architecture. The word ornament now means some- thing applied, something unnecessary, something gratuitous, and ugly words have been sludged from unwashed language to describe any living thing which appears beyond the actual construction forms. Ornament in its organic and generic sense is the flower and the fruit of the building; not only the flower and the fruit of its mater- ial fabric, but the flower and the fruit of the spirit that produced the building. Ornament is nourishment for the people by whom and for whom the building was made. It has been said, "Although many of the <page 5> present day critics may have some reservations about the quantity of Elmslie's ornament, there would be few who would criticize its essentially fine quality." That statement is a true statement, but a very incomplete statement. Reservation about quantity does not refer to the generic concept "ornament." Concern with the quantity of the ornament is like saying that one has reservations about the ability and desirability of a tree to produce its full contribu- tion of blossoms and mature them into fruit. THERE CANNOT BE TOO MUCH ornament in the generic sense. It is orna- ment for which the form of the building came to be. People can satisfy their creature comforts and their mechanical needs quite easily without the aid of archi- tects. BUT WITHOUT ARCHITECTS people cannot build their spiritual lives nor even themselves in beauty. In fact the "Spirit of Ornament," if we only had a goddess to watch over that concept, would be a laugh- ing, humorous goddess, because she is always laughing at the abstrac- tionist architects who reduce a building to its minimum mechanical demands. The abstractionists reduce the poem to a telegram and forget what was to be said, and why, and to whom, with what end in view. In architecture they become so taken up with the science of deletion that they omit providing for even the routine service requirements, which must then be supplied by the owner as best he can. The owner then <page 6> becomes an amateur architect engaged in the thankless remodeling of a stubborn fabric. In this process is lost even the esthetics of the original design, whatever academic value it may have had. A very good basis for recently heavenly laughter comes from the enclosing of tall metal buildings with various sheets of stainless steel or aluminum. Architects found almost at once that a plain un- ornamented surface as originally conceived would not work because the fresh rain from the sky seized all the carbon from the air and from the window ledges, washed it down the face of the building, compelled the designers and the users to retreat from "pure" structural logic and admit in embarrassment that the surface of the building looked like an old gasoline tin. The window washing problem also ran into increased cost of labor due to the dribbled glass. So we find Mr. Harrison in the newest of his buildings working hard (see FORUM) to design a sheet metal enclosing wall for which the best solution appeared as an incised or stamped pattern of wedge shaped troughs, each one of them angled so as to gather the muddy dribbles and spout them clear of the building. Thus the decorative flowering was here fertilized by rain and "soil." Such a mechanical and commercial origin for ornament is not to be despised, but it certainly is a long way from the spirit of joy and contribution in which Sullivan and Elmslie set about to make people happy. <page 7> THIS IS THE RIGHT PLACE to record a report on the practical and technical qualities of Sullivan and Elmslie ornament which has come to me only during the past few weeks. IN AN EFFORT to find further Sullivan and Purcell and Elmslie historical material, I finally located Neil Gates, the son of the founder of the Teco Pottery Company which for years made all of Sulli- van's and all of Purcell and Elmslie's architectural terra-cotta. They developed the polychrome glazes for exterior architectural terra- cotta. I happily found that he, Neil, lives right here in Pasadena. I've had a preliminary telephone conversation with him. He believes that he can locate waster pieces that were thrown into the rubbish heap up there at Teco, Illinois. He thinks that possibly some of the samples still sit there in the offices and stock rooms. He will report in a few weeks. But meantime, he gave me this basic ac- count of ornament production. It will show you first hand how far from the case is any suggestion that even the tiniest part of any Sullivan or Elmslie ornament is two-dimensional. To better understand Mr. Neil Gates' story, look at the background of the great ornamental flowers that center on the panels of the origin- al Schlesinger and Mayer 1898 canopy over the Madison Street sidewalk. The delicate ornament arising out of the cast "surface" of the back- ground is actively aware of the substance of the iron which is to father the ornament. As you look at the surface of the background, in contrast to the very vigorous flowering and wild-nature geometry of <page 8> the central growth, the background surface vibrates like a breeze blowing across the surface of a lake. These flat backgrounds may appear at first as graphic patterns drawn on the clay, but when you apply creative vision in depth to this "surface," you see that across the surfaces of these cast iron panels under Sullivan's mind and under Elmslie's mind and hand, the delicate waves and wavelets of ornament are lifted out of the substance of the iron exactly as the wind reaches in beneath the surface of the water and lifts and patterns wavelets. Certainly as we think further, how can anyone assume that there is no depth. The third dimension, however micro small, in what you distantly see on the surface of a slightly wind-blown lake can be detected by the change in the color of the water and the color can only be the result of microcosmic aqueous topography. NEIL'S COMMENT on Christian Schneider's method of modeling the ornament from Sullivan and Elmslie drawings, which I shall now describe, was also more than surprising. I HAD NOT KNOWN of this before, because I have never gone out to Teco, Illinois. As I think of it now I can't imagine why I never went to the plant. Whether George ever did, I don't know. Schneider sometimes brought the clay to the office and of course always excel- lent 5 x 7 negatives of all work before firing. I know of no instance where the relation between a sculptor and a designer was more intimate than that which existed between Sullivan, <page 9> Elmslie and Schneider from 1890 until Schneider's death; forty years of it. Neil tells me that unlike any other modeler, Schneider laid on his clay, not as dabs of clay pressed on here and there in approx- imation of detail for later development, but as all-over, even thick- ness layers, the full size of the entire project. Thereupon, in developing the volutes, foliage, geometry, Schneider as sculptor now faces his solid slab of clay; he is ready to deal with substance, not surface. He proceeds to excavate all the ornamental material out of the layered mass of clay. Neil said that it was fascinating to watch him as he worked down from the surface of the clay, reaching one layer after another. Be- tween the lowest depth and the details which appeared out of the visible surface, he always knew exactly which layer he was working with. I asked Neil if the layers were of different colors or the separations tinted. "No, he could tell by the feel where he was." Now this is really an astonishing revelation toward a better understanding of the nature of true ornament. I know of no other instance where a "sculptor" working in clay maintains a continuous awareness of the paradox represented in this approach to form by antithesis, building up from a solid "void" to the surface which will contain the idea, excavating solid substance down to what will support the idea. This is what gave this work its remarkable life. One wonders what would happen today if a modeler, instead of "building <page 10> out" upon his iron supporting armature, would start with a solid spar of moist but firm clay and excavate back to the surface of the image which he would be sensing exactly as Greek sculptors used to do, as Michelangelo did. Excepting certain Scandinavian artists, the almost universal procedure today is one in which the sculptor in stone is not a sculp- tor at all, but a modeler. In clay he builds up his image, patch by patch, then has a mechanic transfer its forms into the mass of rock by mechanical parallelism. Then only "as culptor" does he do some whittling and polishing of the surface. Certainly the spirit, the basic thought stuff out of which a sculptor is working, cannot handle two creative concepts at the same time. Thus we live in a world where stone sculpture is at best a sort of stereotype of modelling [sic] and not true sculpture at all. BACK IN 1909 I put "air-planes" (then so called) in the leaded glass of the Stricker dining room in honor of what had happened at Kittyhawk two years before. FROM THEN ON, in mutually enjoying what George was doing, I used to say to him that his volutes had anticipated the airplane. Note where a given volute takes its origin at a stem of growth. This may not necessarily be a stem imitating Nature's support of living foliage, but merely a token stem of geometric origin. In any event, instead of arising as a simple, on-dimensional, one-width flat ribbon, <page 11> or even a round or square rod, George's stems begin at once to express life and mobile thought by constantly changing size, cross section, character and direction. As these swing around the curve and blossom into foliating forms, volutes and free geometry, they all tilt as railroad tracks are tilted for speeding trains, or as an airplane, or a bird curves against the drafts as it swings in circles, then re- balances as it seeks another path. Many of George's volutes and other of his unfolding forms are in their articulation and sweep like the movement of flocks of birds, where the main mass will swing in to a great volute, with little subsidiary flocks breaking off to a swirl on slanted wings in another direction, turning and rejoining the principal movement; or crossing the main path to produce contrapuntal develop- ments within the four-dimensional development. Select any one of these volutes. It is a little world complete in itself, but incomplete; more development will yet appear. There is more than can ever be seen; it points you on. It makes you think of figure skaters, of the arm motions and body motions of dancing which are significant as the movement of the feet -- more so indeed, be- cause the feet also report their cooperation with the motion of the entire body. It reminds one of escaping deer in the forest dodging trees, leaping over brush; of escaping fish, or salmon trying to leap through rushing waters. Your attention my be upon a little develop- ment of foliated material as big as your thumb lifting its head in some tucked corner, or it may be a great moving growth. Whatever your <page 12> interest, study these man-made forests of patterns from the most minute to the most complete, through all the ranges of line, of wholly free geometry. This ornament of George Elmslie's honors, but does not copy, the growth in nature, in the forest, in the sea, in crystals and chemistry. It always rejoices in subtle movements which Whitman characterized as the insouciance of the movement of animals, or which today is shown in the slow motion pictures of plant growth and the unfolding of flowers. IN SULLIVAN AND ELMSLIE you have an ornament that is not concerned with things at all. It reports a yet to be completed episode. The existence of the ornament is the record of a process completely unrelated to the static world; uncapturable [sic]; a constant invita- tation to the eye to follow its story as one would read a long novel. HERE IS A "MOVING PICTURE" which makes happiness, because it gives the beholder something to do -- he must do the moving, he must move his eyes, he must move his thoughts and he comes to move his feelings. The "experience" is not what you get out of the Elmslie symphony in ceramics or bronze, but what one brings to it out of his own life. This is quite a contrast to the cinema where the beholder becomes more and more static while the picture on the screen beats louder, fiercer and harder, to accomplish its way with him. I have dwelt upon this matter here because for a long time I <page 13> have felt that something must be said to combat the current philosophy of minds concerned with the logic of words, confined to concepts which can be analyzed and cataloged, while acknowledging no awareness of the ineffable logic of nature and man which cannot be so captured. The impulse of every human creature is to see something included in his spiritual possessions that will make him happy. Richard Guggenheimer says in his "Creative Vision" (Harper and Brothers, New York, pp. 80-81):
"Whenever man experiences what he calls the beautiful he
enjoys a sense of growth in the direction of integration.
It gives him an insight into the quality of wholeness or
relatedness that underlies the apparently separate parts
and incidents of being. He becomes charged with a convic-
tion of design, of meaning, of almost mysterious sufficiency.
That is why a developed sensitivity to art is important
to philosophy. Many creative minds have confessed that in
their early efforts they were as incapable of embracing
extensively formed thoughts as they were of large mathemat-
ical conceptions. Their intuition of form came to grips
with reality as they acquired an appreciation of plastic
expressions in sculpture and painting. Experience with
these arts developed an expanded ability to think. By
sustained attention to the wholeness that they felt was
intimated in creative seeing, the consolidated habits of
attending to similar integrations wherever they could
approach or discover them in metaphysics. They had
'believed in them' as far back as they could remember
meditating on such things, but only on the basis of an
unsubstantial sort of 'felt' conviction."
SO IN THESE days where people are not supplied with joyful visual and tactile experience in the use of their buildings, they turn elsewhere. Ornament they must and will have. We find them rejoicing in the ornamental patterns of women's clothes, of the fabrics that are patterned and ornamented for men's wear, in the show windows where goods are displayed. One can have a laugh with our Goddess of <page 14> Ornament over the present paradoxical situation. Architects who "just hate ornament" and will not give you a well reasoned explanation of why they would not dream of having any ornament appear on their buildings, nonetheless take plane for Mexico and there, momentarily lost to the far off world of streamline, let themselves go with real joy and deep emotional satisfaction before the Mexican colonial churches. Here structure is hidden behind ornament like tree trunks beneath a lush forest, their domes bright with unafraid color. Back home again, in the land of the advertising pitch, these architects forget the natural power possessed by these living stones singing the hopes and the joys of all the people. Can we recover this rela- tion within the sterile world of abstractions without meaning, communication without a message, all presented as intellectual esthetics which catch nobody's breath in delighted surprise? Never have artists had to face a deeper need in the anxious and unsatisfied hearts of people everywhere. But in answer they talk to each other or more often only to themselves in an invented un- esperanto of form which is not worth learning. The generality of artists have an intellectual basement full of tools which they polish and repolish by artificial light. The missing factor is necessity; they can think of nothing to make; their skills, which are many, are not perfected for service but as collections for exhibit.
- George Grant Elmslie - Part III. (February 15, 1956)
Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, Correspondents, David S. Gebhard [C:124]research courtesy mark hammons