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William Gray Purcell

William Gray Purcell (1880-1965)

William Gray Purcell [†[ was born in Wilmette, Illinois in 1880. He was raised by his grandfather, William Cunningham Gray well-known Ohio newspaperman, and long-time editor of the influential Presbyterian weekly, "The Interior" Purcell spent his adolescent years in the developing kansas suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, where he found himself fascinated by the radical designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, a close and well-known neighbor. After graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School, Purcell attended Cornell University, receiving an architecture degree in 1903. Returning home to Oak Park, Purcell managed to secure an internship under celebrated master architect Louis Sullivan. Though he only worked with Sullivan for five months, this apprenticeship was a seminal experience in the creative and professional development of the budding architect. It was at Sullivan's office where Purcell became acquainted George Grant Elmslie (1871-1951), who would become both a mentor and a partner. Since Sullivan's workload was insufficient to sustain his young intern, Purcell chose to explore his professional options. Long attracted to the Pacific Coast, he left the Midwest for California, visiting with prominent Los Angeles architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey. For a year and a half Purcell worked for Berkeley architect John Galen Howard; by 1905, Purcell had left the Bay Area for Seattle, Washington, and the firm of Charles H. Bebb and Leonard L. Mendel, where he was employed for seven months. During a brief stay in Oak Park, Purcell made plans with former Cornell classmate George Feick Jr. (1881-1945) for an extended trip overseas. Together, they embarked on an eight month tour of Europe and Asia Minor. Purcell & Feick 1907-1909 Returning to the United States in 1907, Purcell & Feick established their partnership in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The firm's early years were lean, subsisting mostly on the commissions of relatives, friends and acquaintances. Their first realized residential design was for Purcell's grandmother, Catherine Gray. During this period, the young firm established a solid reputation throughout the Midwest. The firm designed two churches, Eau Claire, Wisconsin's Christ Church and south Minneapolis' Stewart Memorial Church in 1909; the Stewart Memorial Church would be the largest commission completed by Purcell & Feick.

In 1909, George Grant Elmslie made the difficult decision to leave Sullivan's Chicago office and move to Minneapolis. Elmslie, who was born in rural Scotland in 1871, had arrived in Chicago with his family in 1884. At the age of seventeen, he was employed with the firm of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, where he became acquainted with the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and George W. Maher. In 1889, under Wright's recommendation, Elmslie went to work for Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. Upon Wright's dismissal in 1893, Elmslie became Adler & Sullivan's chief draftsman—a position he would hold for nearly fifteen years. When Adler departed in 1895, Sullivan became increasingly dependent on Elmslie. Sullivan's office experienced a steady decline in commissions. Immensely dedicated to Sullivan, Elmslie worked on "half-pay" for years in an effort to help Sullivan keep his practice afloat. By 1909, however Elmslie's departure was inevitable. According to Hammons, the addition of Elmslie spurred the architects to reach "for a new creative balance that resulted in a cascade of advanced organic designs unequalled by any other progressive firm." Although Purcell & Feick had already established a strong practice, Elmslie's association furthered the firm's reputation substantially. Additionally, Elmslie brought with him several important new business contacts from his days with Sullivan. The three years of the Purcell, Feick & Elmslie partnership saw "many sensitive expressions of functional architecture" completed, primarily in the form of small prairie town banks. Notable examples are the Exchange State Bank at Grand Meadow, Minnesota and the First National Bank at Rhinelander, Wisconsin, both of 1910. The "superbly detailed" Merchants Bank of Winona, Minnesota, built 1911-12, may have been the firm's finest commercial building, and is considered a standard of American commercial architecture. According to H. Alien Brooks, owing to Purcell's adeptness at public relations, "the firm soon had a larger and more diversified practice than Frank Lloyd Wright," adding that "they built more banks than Wright and Sullivan combined, and with that residences, churches, town halls, courthouses and fire stations." A series of twelve commissions for the Woods Hole, Massachusetts estate of millionaire Charles R. Crane began in 1910, and continued for the next three years. Among these important commissions, their greatest challenge came with the design of a summer residence for Crane's daughter, Josephine Crane Bradley, which was constructed on a thin peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1912, however, tragedy struck with the sudden death of George Elmslie's wife. In March 1913, Elmslie left Minneapolis for Chicago, where he sought the peace and consolation of his sisters. Later that year, the Edna S. Purcell House was built, which according to Hammons, "achieved the fullest and most articulate expression of their abilities." George Feick did not share Purcell and Elmslie's intense dedication to the organic philosophies of an indigenous architecture, and was sometimes unable to engineer the innovative techniques of his more progressive partners. Feick elected to leave the firm in 1913, choosing to rejoin his father's contracting business in Sandusky, Ohio.

The newly inaugurated firm of Purcell & Elmslie "entered a period marked by a diversity of challenging projects." The three buildings Purcell & Elmslie executed for companies selling Edison phonograph machines were "high points in their commercial design," noting that "although the Chicago store was the most highly developed of the three, other Edison Shops were built in Kansas City and San Francisco in 1914." Purcell & Elmslie's design for the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa (in collaboration with another former Sullivan protege William L. Steele) was equally influential upon its completion in 1916. In addition to The Jump River, Wisconsin, Town Hall and the Kasson, Minnesota Municipal Building, Purcell designed a large and complex residence for Louis Heitman in Helena, Montana in 1916. It was built with a steep pitched roof, a favorite device of Purcell's, and one used to dramatic effect in the Louis and Elizabeth Woerner House. In 1916, Purcell relocated himself and his family to Philadelphia to take a decidedly non-architectural position as advertising manager for Alexander Brothers, a Pennsylvania 'leather belting' firm for which Purcell and Elmslie had done previous drafting work. When Alexander Brothers entered into bankruptcy in 1919, Purcell resigned his position. According to Ronald Schmitt, "Purcell and Elmslie became the leading advocates of'modem' or progressive architectural design," adding that the interiors of the Winona Bank by Purcell, Feick & Elmslie, and the Woodbury County Courthouse by Purcell & Elmslie "are among the most beautiful and distinctive architectural spaces to be found anywhere." Purcell & Elmslie produced numerous banks and residences across the Midwest. Their collaboration on more than 70 buildings made them the most prolific of the Prairie School architects. Purcell & Elmslie regarded themselves as the heirs to Sullivan's ideals. Strengthened by their intimate knowledge of Frank Lloyd Wright's more modern forms of architecture, the firm's work displayed a distinctive synthesis. William Purcell and George Elmslie continued their partnership until 1922. William Gray Purcell in Oregon After leaving Philadelphia, Purcell faced an uncertain future. He was nearly forty years old now. He considered returning to Minnesota, but "felt a strong need for a new beginning." Hoping to "renew the independence and freedom he felt was lost during his time with the Alexander Brothers.. .his mind turned to the fresh, vigorous potential of the Pacific Northwest."

In the fall of 1919, Purcell relocated to Portland, Oregon. Providentially, Purcell happened upon his former Oak Park school teacher, Helen E. Starrett as soon as he arrived. Starrett had left Illinois, becoming a nationally renowned feminist leader. A permanent resident of Portland, Starrett was headed for Washington, D.C. to lobby for women's suffrage at a special session of Congress called by President Woodrow Wilson. More than happy to rent her house to Purcell, she only asked that he "leave the car and the cook in the same condition in which he had found them." Finally settled in Oregon, Purcell sent for his family, ready to begin his life anew. By all accounts, Purcell had no intention of continuing his architectural practice, though he did intend to join his cousin, Charles H. Purcell, a talented civil engineer, in establishing a bridge-building firm. Unfortunately, Charles Purcell, who would go on to design the Oakland Bay Bridge, was constrained by time-consuming government road building projects that prevented him from ever fully participating in the prospective company with his cousin, William. While the Purcell & Elmslie partnership still existed (if only in name), the firm secured few commissions.

George Elmslie drew preliminary sketches for a resort hotel to be located on Hood River; however, plans did not materialize beyond general discussions. In 1922, Purcell requested that the firm be dissolved. In the meantime, William Purcell busied himself with all manner of activity. He became director of the Architects' Small House Service Bureau and an editor for Northwest Architect magazine. Purcell became increasingly active in professional, civic, and arts organizations. In 1923 he was elected president of the Oregon chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and from 1926 to 1927 he served as president of the Oregon chapter of Pro Musica, International. Rejoined the Portland Architectural Club, the Portland City Club, and was a moving force in the local meetings of the literary Knights of the Round Table. From 1928 to 1930, Purcell enjoyed painting on the nature outings of the mountain climbing Mazama Club, an arts organization. To develop a greater public understanding of the role of architects in the community, Purcell initiated a group called the Architect's Research Board. One of the most significant and lasting results of Purcell's involvement in the Portland arts community was his co-founding (in 1927) of the Oregon Society of Artists. Purcell attempted to market architectural services to contractor-builders who more than likely would have assumed an architect's fee cost-prohibitive with a series advertisements offering standardized plans for banks and small houses. These ads were placed in various periodicals under company names like "Cunningham Gray Architectural Service," the "Builder's Plan Service," and "Pacific States Engineering Corporation (PSEC). In an effort to lend the impression of an established and flourishing businesses, advertisements listed the addresses of the architectural offices maintained in Minneapolis by Frederick A. Strauel, the one in Chicago maintained by Elmslie, and the one in Portland maintained by Purcell. The companies developed several speculative residential properties, and although several large apartmentPSEC houses, intended for working families of limited means seeking a higher quality residence than was customarily available, were a mainstay of PurcelTs Portland practice over the next ten years. Most sold for between seven and nine thousand dollars and many offered experimental solutions to the challenges that came with rainy Pacific Northwestern winters, including innovative heating systems intended to improve air circulation and special shingling techniques to keep moisture out. Because the houses were "built along common lines within a limited budget using commercially available materials" variations were employed to avoid obvious similarities. In addition to PSEC, Purcell proved adept in providing readymade home designs for the Architect's Small House Service Bureau (ASHSB). A national American Institute of Architects-endorsed organization, the ASHSB encouraged the construction of small quality homes by offering professionally designed stock plans. The ASHSB divided the United States into regional divisions, and Purcell served as an officer in the northwestern division of the ASHSB that included Oregon. At least one of his house plans was mass-marketed nationwide by the organization. In 1925 Purcell made the acquaintance of James Van Evera Bailey, a young architect "who introduced himself as the nephew of the plumber who had worked for Purcell & Elmslie thirteen years earlier on the C. I. Buxton residence in Owatonna, Minnesota" (Hammons, 1994). Bailey served as Purcell's "associate architect" on several Portland projects, proving himself an active and able participant in both the design and construction process. Purcell provided the plans while Bailey supervised the construction details. Purcell, always seeking a spiritual expression of his functional ideals, found Bailey's sound grasp of such ephemeral principals encouraging, and even allowed Bailey sole supervision of PurcelFs practice when he left on a lengthy tour of Europe. Bailey would distinguish himself as "an important figure in the development of the Northwest Regional style.".

The largest commission William Gray Purcell received while in Oregon was for Portland's Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in Portland. Built in 1926, the building only a portion of PurcelFs design was realized. Based on ideas first considered for a Christian Science project in Minneapolis, plans called for "construction in phases," beginning with a Sunday school auditorium, with a reading room to be added when necessary. With the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, Purcell fulfilled a long desire to design a Christian Science assembly hall. While living in Portland, Purcell remained in close contact with his many friends and associates still in the Midwest. Upon learning that sculptor Richard Bock was unemployed in Chicago Purcell encouraged him to relocate to Oregon, and was instrumental in gaining Bock an appointment as head of the Department of Sculpture at the University of Oregon. Bock welcomed the much-needed assistance, and in appreciation cast a duplicate model of his "Nils the Gooseboy" sculpture, which was originally designed for the Edna S. Purcell residence in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, the sculpture was damaged beyond repair during shipment to Oregon.

Purcell also turned to writing, prolifically articulating his views on art and architecture. Through his personal acquaintance with Christian Science Monitor editor Willis J. Abbott, Purcell sold more than a dozen articles to the magazine between 1923 and 1927. He also wrote a series of advisory columns called "The Lamps of Home Building" for The Small House, ASHSB's monthly journal, edited by Purcell's friend Maurice I. Flagg. From 1929 to 1930, Purcell edited the Arts Page of Portland's weekly, Spectator, in which he explored his interests in a wide range of historical and contemporary subjects.

Despite his achievements, Purcell experienced a general decline in his physical well being throughout the 1920s. Persisting in his Christian Science beliefs, he refused to see a doctor. Matters worsened dramatically on a 1929 visit to the John Jager's rustic cabin at Lake Vermilion, Minnesota. Not yet fifty years old, Purcell found himself almost completely incapacitated. Persuaded by friends, Purcell reluctantly sought medical attention in 1930. The doctors discovered that Purcell was suffering from an advanced case of tuberculosis. Purcell was forced to leave the damp Oregon climate for California, where he spent five years recovering in a sanitarium.

Following his slow recovery, Purcell settled in the dry climate of Pasadena, California, where he ultimately retired. He continued to write prolifically until his death on April 11, 1965. He was buried in Forest Home, Illinois' Forest Home Cemetery, under the monument he designed for his grandfather while still a student at Cornell University.

W.G. Purcell Houses in Portland

In addition to the Louis and Elizabeth Woerner House, Portland, Oregon boasts only four significant Purcell-designed residences. They each contribute creativity and energy to the development of Oregon architecture, and their designs are the unique works of a gifted master. Additionally, they each represent bold interpretations of Prairie-influenced concepts, adapted to fit a West Coast environment. The Woerner House is the most visible and accessible of the works, owing to its prominent and unobstructed placement. It is the only Purcell house located east of the Willamette River.

William Gray Purcell House. 1920, Arts and Crafts

Less than a year after his arrival in Portland, William Purcell constructed a home for himself in the southwest hills. Located at 2649 SW Georgian Place, this house is significant for its interweaving of Prairie-style ideas with Arts & Crafts aesthetics. As with the Woerner House, Purcell incorporated telescoping gables. In addition, the fa9ade is treated with white stucco. However, the home's hillside location ends any further comparison. Despite the difficult building site, Purcell managed to overcome all obstacles with a commanding design. Purcell's "masterful sense of balance" is revealed in the graceful proportions of its elevations.

Lillian K. Pollock House. 1921, Prairie Style

The Lillian Pollock House, located at 2666 SW Vista Avenue, was the first of two neighboring houses located in the southern reaches of Portland Heights. The house is situated at the foot of a hillside, and is built two floors above the garage level. The primary entrance contains a prominent polygonal bay, extended to the full width of the eave. The gabled roof is low-pitched and a flight of concrete steps curves above and behind the garage to the front door. Great effort was taken to synthesize the garage into the overall design. In effect, the bulk of the garage is minimized by a large garden trellis, which is supported by two large columns. The roof of the trellis doubles as a paved terrace. projects were designed, none were built. Projects tended to be small houses located throughout southeast Portland.

† Adapted from: Matthew Hays, Woerner. Louis and Elizabeth. House, nomination document, 2004, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.