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Biographical Notes: George Grant Elmslie (1869-1952)*

Biographical essay in Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers.
Copyright by Mark Hammons, 1985.

George Elmslie, circa 1910s

Born on a farm called Foot O' Hill near the town of Huntly in northeast Scotland, George Grant Elmslie passed his childhood amid the picturesque countryside of the Aberdeenshire Highlands. His father, John, had given up his trade as a weaver to work the land, although the hundred acres tenanted by the Elmslie family of two sons and ten daughters was situated partly on an infertile hillside. To supplement his income John Elmslie also served as the clerk who collected the fees of children attending school in the local parish of Gartly and Elmslies named their first born son in honor of George Grant, the chairman of the Gartly school board.

The natural character of the countryside and the traditional cultural identity of the surrounding community deeply impressed George Elmslie with a feeling for the spirit of his homeland. His experience of the seasonal progression from the heather and gowan covered pastures of spring through the long, bright twilight of summer evenings to the savage, snow laden winds of winter nurtured a sensitivity to the rhythyms of nature and the relationship of human life to the environment. Elmslie was inspired with the proud heritage of his ancestors through the writings of Sir Walter Scott and George McDonald, a distant cousin, as well as by often hearing and singing old folksongs and ballads. Hand in hand with a Presbyterian upbringing went an awareness of the Celtic mysticism implicit in the age old national consciousness into which he had been born.

Elmslie's formal academic education began in Riggins School in Gartly and continued in the famous Duke of Gordon School in Huntly. He was known as the brightest pupil of his class at Riggins and at an early age showed a special gift for drawing. At Gordon School he studied under a strictly disciplined curriculum in which the demand for obedience was balanced by the encouragement to participate in activities, particularly out of doors, which emphasized teamwork and democratic cooperation. Elmslie remained in the school until he was sixteen when he and the rest of the family emigrated to America in 1884 to join his father, who had left a year earlier and found work at a meat packing plant in Chicago.

After taking courses for a year at a business school, Elmslie followed the desire of his parents and began the study of architecture. By 1887 he was at work in the office of Joseph Silsbee, whose practice specialized in large residences in the Queen Anne style, as well as commercial structures and institutional buildings. Also in the Silsbee office at the time were Cecil Corwin, George H. Maher, and, most importantly, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright soon left to work for the office of Adler & Sullivan, and in 1889 he asked Elmslie to join him.

Louis Sullivan had a profound impact on the evolution of Elmslie's abilities as a designer. Elmslie found Sullivan was an exacting taskmaster, sometimes caustic but essentially fair in his criticisms, and liberal in spending time with an earnest pupil. Although he did not consider himself a facile student or keen observer, Elmslie persevered in his efforts to understand and express the Sullivan concept of organic architecture. He learned to follow the Sullivan practice of thinking a problem through mentally and then turning to the drafting table only after a solution had developed in the mind. Elmslie was so successful in his efforts to learn the Sullivan technique that by 1895, when Wright had left the office and the Adler and Sullivan partnership had been dissolved, he became Sullivan's chief drafter.

In time, the professional and personal relationship between Sullivan and Elmslie became intensely important to both of them. Elmslie mastered the principles underlying the unique and vital forms of ornamental enrichment that were a hallmark of Sullivan designs, and he became increasingly responsible for the development and articulation of compositions from ideas only outlined by Sullivan. For example, Elmslie detailed nearly all of the exterior ornament of the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, designed the ironwork entrance to the Schlesinger & Mayer (now Carson, Pirie, Scott) store in Chicago, and was almost entirely responsible for the conception and execution of the Farmers' National Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota. Although Elmslie later remarked that to his detriment he perhaps stayed too long with his master and friend, he did so by direct request and the indication by Sullivan in his testament that Elmslie was to be the heir of the Sullivan practice.

Unfortunately, the decline of fortune afflicting Sullivan after the turn of the century resulted in deteriorated financial circumstances that prevented Elmslie from remaining. Since Elmslie had no capital of his own, he eventually had to find a position where his income was secure. Since August of 1903 he had been on increasingly friendly terms with William Gray Purcell, who worked briefly in the Sullivan office under his supervision. Purcell, in Minneapolis since 1907, had remained in close contact with Elmslie. The two men frequently consulted on various architectural projects and often spoke of the desirability of extending their personal relationship to a formal working partnership. By the summer of 1909, Elmslie was clearly aware that the time had come to leave the Sullivan office. Since he would not abandon the ongoing work of clients such as Henry B. Babson and Charles R. Crane, the move to Minneapolis did not take place until November of that year. Another reason Elmslie was reluctant to leave Chicago was his deep emotional attachment to Bonnie Hunter, who finally consented to marry him in 1910.

The years between his relocation to Minneapolis and the death of his wife in 1912 were probably the happiest of his life. Elmslie assumed charge of design and planning in the Purcell, Feick & Elmslie office and developed a relationship with Purcell that was in some ways ironically similar to the role that he had performed for Sullivan. Though brilliantly creative, Elmslie often lacked a practical sense of the economic constraints of a project and sometimes became unrealistically extravagant. Purcell was able to guide Elmslie toward more feasible solutions and could successfully relate the concepts behind the innovative forms to clients and craftsmen alike. Together the two men balanced the abilities of one another and formed one of the most artistically sensitive and productive practices among the progressive architects.

After George Feick, Jr. left the office in 1913, the firm was renamed Purcell & Elmslie. The death of his wife in 1912 profoundly affected Elmslie.  He picked up the pieces of his life by returning to his family, friends, and business contacts in Chicago, where he opened a second Purcell & Elmslie office.  While the work of the firm continued to further the cause of organic architecture in dynamic designs and occasional publications for which he was co-author with Purcell, Elmslie became more and more affected by a melancholia due in large part to loneliness. To avoid the longing for his dead wife he threw himself completely into his work, often driving himself to the point of exhaustion.

By 1915 the situation had progressed to the point of severe unhealthiness. When architect William L. Steele, Sr., an old friend who had formerly worked in the Sullivan office, asked him to design a court house for Woodbury County, Iowa, Elmslie went to stay in Sioux City to draft the enormous number of finely detailed drawings that were required. Several times during the design process he collapsed from overwork and had to be hospitalized. Once recovered he repeated the pattern, finding his only solace in the beauty of his designs and continuing in his mental retreat toward emotional isolation. The practice and understanding of architecture was the principal release in which Elmslie took comfort, although at times he could still exhibit a whimsical and lighthearted sense of humor.  There is some suggestion of a manic-depressive cycle.

After the Woodbury County Court House was completed in 1918, the business of the firm entered a decline that further distressed Elmslie. Some significant commissions were executed for a group of leather belting companies known as Alexander Brothers during World War I, but American taste had largely turned away from the Prairie art forms by the early 1920s. Purcell, who had moved to the Pacific Northwest in an attempt to establish a new practice, requested the dissolution of the Purcell & Elmslie partnership in 1921. Once again threatened by financial problems, Elmslie reacted angrily. Through a series of letters he complained that his services had always been undervalued and that he was unappreciated. At the root of his vituperative comments to his former partner was a sense that he, as Sullivan felt about himself as well, had failed in the great struggle to establish the principles of organic architecture in the expression of American life.

Two other factors, however, were of more immediate consequence to the continuation of the work that remained his emotional mainstay. First was the unwillingness of Elmslie to move toward newer forms of composition. He remained stubbornly dedicated to the familiar design elements that had brought him recognition, and it was this attitude that in part had motivated his partner to end their association. Second, and more important, Elmslie no longer had the benefit of Purcell to adjust his tendency toward overindulgence of his artistic inclinations. Thus, while he executed several large commissions, most notably the Capitol Building and Loan Association building in Topeka, Kansas, and the Institutional Building for the Old Second National Bank in Aurora, Illinois, Elmslie later expressed to Purcell the opinion that his later buildings were sometimes not as good as they should have been.

From the 1920s to the late 1930s, Elmslie obtained fewer than fifty commissions on his own. The practice that he established after the breakup of Purcell & Elmslie was known as George Grant Elmslie & Associates, representing an informal partnership with several draftsmen from the earlier partnership including Lawrence A. Fournier and Frederick A. Strauel. The largest related group of buildings that Elmslie designed during these years consisted of seven various structures, some built and others only projected, for a small college in Yankton, South Dakota.  Elmslie also served as associate architect on several commercial and industrial structures with Herman V. von Holst, particularly a series of train stations and power company buildings. Among the last works recorded on his office accounting system were several schools built in Indiana from 1935 to 1938 in association with William S. Hutton.

For the rest of his life Elmslie lived quietly in Chicago with three of his sisters, virtually forgotten save for his occasional contributions to the monthly newsletter of the Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects or sharply worded letters of protest on behalf of his long time mentor. As literary executor of the Sullivan estate, he accepted the Gold Medal posthumously awarded to Sullivan by the AIA in 1946, and the next year Elmslie himself was elected to the College of Fellows. He maintained a voluminous correspondence with Purcell, who often attempted to ease the perilous poverty of his friend with small checks. For a time he annotated the manuscripts that Purcell wrote to document the history of the progressive architects, but he was less sensitive to the preservation of archival materials and destroyed or discarded many records that he deemed either too personal or irrelevant, including Sullivan's diaries. From the late 1940s until his death, Elmslie withdrew even more completely into himself. He disliked to receive visitors, even old friends. Due to arteriosclerosis his physical and mental capacities weakened gradually until he rarely had the strength to do even the smallest amount of work. He died at the age of eighty three on April 23, 1952.


*Some writers give a birth year for Elmslie of 1871.  While definitive documentation has yet to be published, Purcell related that Elmslie was actually born in 1869.  However, he declared his birth year to be two years later than that when arriving in the United States to join his father at Chicago.  Had Elmslie given his real date of birth, he would have been too old to enter as a dependent child.

research courtesy mark hammons