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St. Paul's Episcopal Church, project
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Cedar Rapids, Iowa  1910

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1910

Job Date (in Parabiographies): April 23, 1910

T. H. Simmons, St. Paul's Church

G.G.E. developed the design. W.G.P. made the presentation drawings.

This was a commission which was "in the bag" and then we lost it. Indeed, I handed it on a silver platter to Louis H. Sullivan because in developing the idea of a logical architecture and its value to these prospective clients I failed to sell him the idea that we were proper persons to translate it into a building. If I had never mentioned Sullivan or Wright and had tested my thesis on my own authority, we would have secured the business, as Simmons was the key man, and I sold him the idea too successfully.

Business Trick Ricochets

But Mr. Simmons was not quite as clever as he thought he was, and would have done much better to have stayed with the architect who was candid enough to tell him the truth about the situation and how best to secure results. How we first heard of this church is not in the records, but I made the trip to Cedar Rapids, met Simmons, secured his interest and spent a number of hours in several discussions outlining the whole philosophy of modern art, the form-and-function basis of true architecture, and of course unwisely, for us, proceeded to show him how this had originated in the mind of Louis Sullivan, then an active practicing architect and, of course, a potential competitor. Simmons saw our drawings and apparently liked them.

Our church would have developed well with its integrated clerestory and tower. Of course it would have been much restudied in making working drawings. [At any] rate our very complete and beautifully presented drawings confirmed for Simmons my analysis of how to produce a beautiful building.

The drawings were left in Cedar Rapids to await the final decision of the trustees. No sooner had I left town than Simmons jumped on the train for Chicago, called on Sullivan, and within a few days had completed a contract with him for architectural services on this church.

Business Service Misses Function

Sullivan let Simmons' imagination run wild in visualizing an institutional church with all the trimmings, and then proceeded with working drawings for a building of extravagant construction and detail based on this expanded program. The bids ran twice what the members could ever dream of raising as a building fund. Then came a bitter fight between Simmons and Sullivan. Simmons took Sullivan's plans to an incompetent Chicago architect who attempted to revise them. At about this point, Simmons wired Mr. Elmslie who was then in Chicago that he wanted to come in and see him about the church. Mr. Elmslie wired his refusal, as the job was Sullivan's. Simmons wired again, saying he was coming anyway. He came out and Mr. Elmslie began the interview by explaining to Simmons what a terrible building Architect Jones had laid out in revising Sullivan's plans. It was a catastrophe. The great basic curve of the plan form was ruined by various sized piers, and all along the line by the grossest kind of absurdities. The tower had become completely stultified.

Confronted with this tragic and confused situation, Mr. Elmslie tried to show Simmons in a practical way how Simmons and Jones were destroying all that was useful in the project. In the end, covering almost every aspect of plan and exterior design, Elmslie spent two days making a large number of pencil tracing paper sketches while Simmons looked over his shoulder. Simmons had Jones incorporate all these design changes in the revised drawings from which the building was built, expressed his gratitude for Mr. Elmslie's efforts in his behalf, and said that he desired to pay for them. Later Purcell, Feick and Elmslie sent Simmons a bill for services to which he replied that he did not consider the "conference" was worth anything to them and refused to make any payment whatever.

Sullivan Design nor Sullivan

These sketches, with the running explanations made to Simmons, constituted a major operation on the building and were the means of preserving whatever of Sullivan's contribution is to be found in the building as it stands. Elmslie never told Sullivan of his contribution toward the preservation of the project. An agreement was finally reached between Simmons and Sullivan in compensation for the original drawings.

This Chicago architect, Jones, realized his own incompetence in dealing with a work of this architectural magnitude. Of course, the quality of a resulting building is not solely determined by what is down on the blueprints. This architect provided only a draughting service, did not supervise the construction, and the decisions made by Simmons and the contractor after the commencement of the work further damaged the project, so that the completed building as it stands, significant as it is, is but a poor and faint ghost of Sullivan's original conception, and also far short of the character which Mr. Elmslie tried to retain for it in his revisions.

The design of Purcell, Feick and Elmslie's proposed building was based on a very different church project than the highly diversified institution upon which Mr. Sullivan based his working drawings. We kept to a program which included little more than the simple function of worship and Sunday School, and within range of the money that Mr. Simmons thought might be available. While working with us, Simmons, who was deeply dyed with a grandeur complex, had not yet begun to expand his world-moving church under the glowing imagination of Sullivan's articulating and rearticulating procedure. It is, therefore, not possible to really compare the two schemes, but it is certain that our project called for a resolute and imaginative solution for a Protestant church of our day and generation, and its elements were such that the scheme could easily have been brought within the appropriation without destroying any of its architectural values or its soundness of construction. Simmons had carried his institutional program so far that the church had almost become a Y.M.C.A. with a chapel addition--but that, of course, is the business of the church and not of the architect.

It would have been wonderful for us to have gotten this building to do. Our interior, with a lovely clerestory, could have been very fine. So could the tower, with further study, have been an element of power.


   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.4]
research courtesy mark hammons