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"'Why a Greek Colonnade to Lincoln?' Ask American Architects," by Francis Fisher Dyer

"Why a Greek Colonnade to Lincoln?" Ask American Architects" was originally published May 26th, 1912 in the New York Herald and also run in the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch [same page design] on the same date.

Caption, as header to the text, under photograph of First National Bank of Winona plaster model: Angered by the Proposal to Spend $2,000,000 to Erect a Classical Temple in Honor of the War President, Declare His Monument Should Mark the Birth of American Architecture.

Other Illustrations and Captions

Perspective and detail photographs of Rhinelander Bank: "Type of Bank Building Showing Series of Plate Glass Windows and Supporting Columns Placed in a Centre Position.

Stewart Memorial Church: "Stewart Memorial Mission, or "Neighborhood Church, Minneapolis. There is no Sculpture or Ornament on this Building Because None is Needed.

Portrait of William Gray Purcell.

Photograph of Gutzon Borglum: Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor, in His Studio at Stamford, Conn.


By Francis Fisher Dyer.

The proposal to erect a Greek temple as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, for which the government has appropriated $2,000,000, has aroused a storm of protest throughout the United States from those who do their thinking for themselves and who realize that something is radically wrong when such an anachronism is to be committed in the name of Art and Patriotism.

A long suffering public mat view with some degree of equanimity the Father of His Country masquerading as a Roman general, and gaze with indifference upon Greek temples used as churches, banks, office buildings, houses and stables, but the thought of enshrining the memory of the immortal rail-splitter, the great Emancipator, in a classical temple of three thousand years ago, and perhaps erecting therein a statue of him posed as a Greek philosopher or some mythological character is repugnant. But the mind that conceived Washington clothes in Roman toga could readily achieve this, and at last, the people have awakened to the impotency of American architecture. As a nation we have practically nothing in the way of art that represents us; nothing to show posterity our struggles and achievements.

The outburst of public opinion in regard to the proposed memorial voices the general feeling of discontent that exists in the United States toward the influence of the French school of architecture, and is an evidence that the seed sown by that celebrated insurgent Henrik Berlage, the famous Dutch architect who designed the much criticized Bourse Building in Amsterdam, Holland, and other notable European buildings, is bearing fruit in America where, under the able leadership of William Gray Purcell, the insurgent members of the allied arts and crafts have been quick to recognize the handwriting on the wall, forecasting the waning power of the stereotyped methods of the Beaux Arts school both here and abroad. Like many leaders of other progressive movements, Mr. Purcell is a Westerner and the head of the architectural firm of Purcell, Feick & Elmslie, of Minneapolis.

"Art Insurgents"

Louis H. Sullivan, of Chicago, is another widely known architect who has put the stamp of his originality upon many of the large buildings of that city and throughout the East. His work is a radical departure from the fixed ideas and rules formulated by the French School of Art. So strong has been impress of his individuality in this country during the last decade that artists and laymen alike have almost come to believe that his art, as a personal art, will die with him. On the contrary, Mr. Sullivan's work is only part of the general movement and protest against the present architectural conditions in America.

In the East the two best known "art insurgents," so called, are Gutzon Borglum. the sculptor, and William F. Price, of Philadelphia. It may be said that the interesting work produced by Mr. Price in Philadelphia and New York is the result of working and striving for years for his ideals against the almost impossible difficulties that exist in New York, the stronghold of the Beaux Arts adherents.

When I talked with Mr. Purcell recently during one of his frequent visits to New York he said, "I want to correct a general and stubborn misconception that we wish to cast aside all precedents in architecture. The Beaux Arts men claim that we are trying to invent a new architecture; to create what might be termed an indigenous architecture. On the contrary, we are trying to take every lesson that historic art gives us and use it. We cannot force an indigenous art, we can only let it develop gradually, and above everything else we are not trying to be original or unique. Please state that in big type.

"We stand for the elimination of sham, the sham of material and the sham of construction. For instance, in the Little Theatre building in New York city the architect had a rare opportunity to combine beauty and utility, but instead he put a copy of a facade on the front. Primarily a beautiful little structure, it is ruined by its false face. The Pennsylvania Railroad station is a beautiful picture but a colossal sham. It suggests anything else to the mind quite as much as transportation, the purpose for which it was built."

"What do you think of the Public Library?" I asked.

"Mr. Berlage," he answered, "when he visited this country last fall said that the Library was beautiful only as a copy, that he had hoped to see a style of architecture less traditional in detail, a design more symbolic of America.

"A building of this kind," continued Mr. Purcell, "should be the ideal materialization of the public life of the nation is represents. Mr. Berlage was right. The Library is Greek and Renaissance, a copy. In short, it is nothing but an archeological document."

"The man in the street realizes these things. We hear it on all side. While he may not be able to tell you why he does not like certain buildings and monuments, they displease him somehow. Perhaps the structure is a bank or a railroad or a library. Except as a picture, the more he looks at it the less it appeals to him/ He simply feels that there is something wrong with it, and he will finally decide that it does not express the use for which it was intended. The spirit of insurgency is in the air, and the revolt against the trite and copy books standards of the Beaux Arts School is everywhere.

"In the construction of bank buildings, a subject that interests the average person, judging from the newspaper comments whenever a new bank is to be erected, we utilize the very things to Beaux Arts men discard. For example, a series of plate glass windows and supporting columns, placed in a centre position, actually supporting 54,000 pounds. I have yet to see, either in New York or Chicago, a stone column that is supporting anything."

Present Tendency in Art.

Mr. Purcell then illustrated his point by describing the development of the architect's model for a bank in Minnesota.

"This building," he said, "is conceived from the inside out, not the outside in, as has been the case with practically every bank that has ever come to my notice. The working plan is a result of a study of the special conditions in a particular banking establishment, and in this sense is like a perfected machine, efficient and accurate. The appearance of the building is a result of the plan. The reverse of this natural process is to think of any 'good looking' building--especially one with four irrelevant columns and a stone gable placed against one end of it and then to exercise as much ingenuity as possible in order the satisfy the practical needs of the building without disturbing the the 'architecture.' All the bank buildings I have seen in New York," Mr. Purcell added, "are designed according to this inverted system of thinking. I recall especially one notable Fifth Avenue bank that can only be described as an 'American hodge-podge of Roman forms.' In connection with this I must quote a statement once made by Gutzon Borglum, that is startlingly succinct and comprehensive. Commenting upon the Beaux Arts methods as applied to buildings of this kind, he exclaimed, 'The insolence that put up a building like the Knickerbocker Trust!'

"How well this expresses the sentiment of those of us who work with the insistence that cause should precede result, not follow it; who believe that the attributes of an art arise out of it and that a great work of art, always a living thing, cannot be pieced together by a clever person with a head full of aesthetic rules. When some one stands forth and says that the practice of just plain simple honesty represents the sum and substance of an idea that is to completely reverse our present ideas of art--and of architecture in particular--it is not surprising that many whose culture is thin in proportion as it is broad should assume at once that we must sacrifice what is fine and delicate adjustment in favor of a coarse blunt truth; that is a romance-stultifying, narrow and puritanical honesty.

"We certainly have sufficient precedent for the possibility of life being both true and refined, of being wholly honest and aesthetically expressed; but the inability to distinguish between the impressing force and the resulting action, between motive and deed, structure and decoration, is so frequently met with that we find people inclined to scout the idea that such that such an unaesthetic virtue as ordinary honesty may have a direct relation, in fact be the direct channel for controlling the power that is to determine the most minute and subtle expression in a highly subjective work of art. It is this expectant determination to discover at all hazards some greatness in an idea and to get this greatness and power separated and apart where we can look at it, as a savage might look at a steamboat, that prevents people from seeing the real significance of this present tendency in art.

Rodin's Methods.

"The famous French sculptor, Rodin, has been accused of inventing new materials in his work. As to this he says, 'I invent strictly speaking nothing; I rediscover. I do not imitate the Greeks; I try to put myself in the spiritual state of men who have left us the antique statues. The Ecole des Beaux Arts copies their works; the thing is to recover their methods.'

"If that isn't a clear statement of our belief and creed by a great man with his years behind him, ejaculated Mr. Purcell, "I should be glad to hear a better one."

"Organize! Why don't we organize!" exclaimed Mr. Borglum, replying to a question I asked, when I found him at work some time ago on the Wyatt Memorial statue in his studio in Connecticut. "Can originality, individuality, or initiative ever organize?" he added. "The Beaux Arts workers organize because the are copyists and without individuality. There is no precedent for original feeling.. Mediocrity has to organize!"

Gutzon Borglum, as a sculptor, has an international reputation. His gigantic bust of Lincoln in the Capitol at Washington is considered by critics to be one of the finest sculptural creations of modern times. His rugged and somewhat picturesque personality is familiar in New York since the controversy that was so hotly waged a few years ago in regard to the sex of his twelve great stone angels that adorn the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

In questions pertaining to art he has always taken an independent and courageous stand. His admirers predict that he is destined to be the American successor to Rodin, and even his detractors are forced to admit the vitality of his work. His studio, where I found his putting the finishing touches on the memorial to the first Confederate soldier who fell in the civil war, is a massive domelike structure built of granite blocks hewn from the rocks of his 300 acre estate. The unique feature of the building is the fireplace, or, strictly speaking, the fire that is kept burning winter and summer one a stone slab or hearth; the logs being laid against the flat stone wall of the studio. Above, huge blocks of granite projecting in a cornice-like arrangement protect the chimney opening.

The Lincoln Memorial.

"I have always claimed," said Mr. Borglum, as we sat before the blazing logs, "that a fireplace is unnecessary for all practical purposes, which I have just proved, as you can see," with a gesture toward the flames and smoke that were being drawn up the chimney by a powerful draught. "Engineers and architects from all parts of the world come here to test the practicality of this arrangement. They are more interested in it than in the statuary, apparently," he added with a whimsical smile.

When I spoke of the present tendency in art and architecture, particularly the connection of my interview with Mr. Purcell, he said, " We need men like him in this country today, for the average architect has ceased to be a real builder. He knows nothing of sculpture and painting. He is merely what was called in ancient times a building supervisor. Ruskin says, 'A great architect must be a sculptor or a painter; is he is not he can only be a builder.'

"This," we went on looking with interest at the photograph of a missing church I showed him, "is a beautiful example of a structure built obviously and naturally for the purpose for which it was intended. There is no sculpture or ornament. Here social and material pretense are laid aside. The building admits its identity and makes no demand to be credited with a distinction that is not inherently its own. It represents the social element in religion today. It is a neighborhood church. The architects have met the needs of the hour. They are honest and express their ideas correctly.

Regarding the proposed Lincoln Memorial, Mr. Borglum expressed his opinions in terms that were both forceful and convincing. He said:--

"Our premises are wrong; we start wrong. In this case it is not a question of a good architect, or a poor one, but whether a monument to the great Emancipator can be conceived in architectural forms, ancient or modern. We should determine what it the best possible way of presenting the Lincoln period, and then set about to create it. That is how all the people in the past built, not only monuments and temples, but everything. Today we copy their old structures and rename them church, exchange or monument. The answer the Neo-Greek or Roman purists make, when they say, 'We can't build better nor as well, all we can do is copy,' is slanderous, and is, moreover, a personal confession of their own incompetence. Native creative ability has been given no fair opportunity in America.

Why A Greek Temple?

"It is now proposed," he went on, "to erect the shell of one of these Greek temples, at a cost of two million dollars, using hundreds of thousands of feet of meaningless marble, and upon this to write long inscriptions in a language thirty million American citizens cannot read; inscription not five percent will read who can and have the chance. All great races have known that the millions of unlettered must see their story in form and color, but the value of this great lesson we have never yet seemed to be conscious of. The value of that is wholly neglected in the temple proposed.

"Yet no period is richer in all the tragedies that make life dear ot hose who survive. And, not a square foot of all this marble is to bear a symbol touching our people, our struggle or our achievements. What is the purpose or reason of this neglect, I ask? Is it possible that we can forget what one race has passed through in this great land, where every real step gained is won? There is not a committee nor organization in all America that has any real information upon instructive historical monumental art except in America; monumental art that deals with any part of the great epoch-making events of the Western world; the Puritan pilgrimage, the Revolution and the Emancipation; nor does there appear to be even the intent of such a national service.

"We have hardly an instructive monument bearing upon it found up and down the ways of our public places. Not enough of our history is put together in painting or stone to give the millions of home seekers, immigrants, parents of future Americans, the least idea of what or by whom and when all this happened. "Yes," he said hesitating, "there is in New York harbor France's Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. Of course they don't know France did that, and some real impression, some real emotion is experienced. If they happen in Washington, they will see four monuments, again made by foreign hands, memorializing our independence, in the very face of our President's home. 'Borrowed independence,' 'borrowed glory,' in borrowed art. Every corner on that beautiful square is given over to shown how foreigners won our independence for us; not an American of that period to be seen anywhere.

"We are in the throes of erecting something to the great civil conflict that created Lincoln and gave that wise, good, and honest heart his chance," went on Mr. Borglum earnestly. "Like Luther, Cromwell , and Washington he was the foreseer of his day. Lincoln saw that our nation could not continue half one thing and half another, and he made, 'saving the nation' his creed. Families divided, petty outbreaks followed each other for thirty years; towns and States wrangled and rebelled; secession, outrage, civil war followed. Is it possible that a nation of ninety millions of the stoutest hearted world builders ever known can beget nothing but a colonnade torn from the pages of little Greece? I cannot believe it. You see," he said, "my feelings in regard to this are so intense I can scarcely express myself too strongly."

"Take this thought with you," he said as I bade him goodbye. "All good architecture is the expression of national life and character. That is what we need in our country today."


      Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries [AR:B4d4.2; Box 24, File 11]