firm active: 1907-1921

minneapolis, minnesota :: chicago, illinois
philadelphia, pennsylvania :: portland, oregon

Architecture In the Spirit of Democracy

A Brief Introduction

The material displayed here represents work by William Gray Purcell (1880-1965) and George Grant Elmslie (1869-1952), partners in an architectural firm dedicated to the vision of an independent and proud American archiscape. Part of a design movement during the early decades of the 20th century known as "Prairie" or more generally as "progressive" architects, Purcell and Elmslie joined with like-minded office associates, artists, craftspeople, and clients to create buildings that were honest and unique expressions of the American spirit of democracy. Examples of their outstanding accomplishments are displayed here in a mixture of archival source materials (drawings, manuscripts, and illustrations), as well as modern commentary and recent photographs of surviving buildings and objects. 

These web pages are intended to be a research resource for students and aficionados of organic understanding in architectural expression, combining original documentation in a mix of image and text, together with later photography and commentary.  The representative samples here are meant to entice to further, perhaps original discovery.  Go out and find the living objects, such as they survive. That's the only way these words and images will ever grow to be more than merely intellectual beauty.

Site last updated February 5, 2015: This web site consists of over 2,275 HTML pages that are presently undergoing reformat to implement a fresher design aesthetic, correct obsolesced links, and add new materials. An account of the last upgraDe to this site before I move on can be found in the revived Grindstone blog.

Main Menu

Selected Works of Purcell & Elmslie, Architects (alphabetical listing)

Creme de la creme, a la carte.  A sampling of the delights within, illustrated here.  The much requested, if still accumulating, earth addresses for surviving P&E buildings are also available.

Charles A. Purcell residence
River Forest, Illinois  1909

E. L. Powers residence
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1910

Edna S. Purcell residence
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1913

Hearth and home were the most frequently happening place for P&E, from small open plan houses built for Joe Citizen to large estates for wealthy clients--and lots, so to speak, in between.

  • Commercial

    Motor Inn Garage
    Minneapolis, Minnesota  1908

    First National Bank
    Rhinelander, Wisconsin   1910

    Merchants Bank
    Winona, Minnesota  1912

    This category includes banks, office buildings and interiors, stores, factory designs, business garages, and hotels.  Except for the banks much of the commercial work of the firm has vanished.  Their most honored series of commercial commissions, the Edison Shops, are long gone, as are the exquisite Alexander Brothers Executive Offices.

  • Institutional and Civic

    Stewart Memorial Church
    Minneapolis, Minnesota  1909

    Town Hall
    Jump River, Wisconsin  1915

    Municipal Building
    Kasson, Minnesota 1916

    Here find the churches and their community spaces, town halls, libraries and schools (all unbuilt), theaters, pavilions, and monuments, plus the magnificent Woodbury County Court House, the only major public building erected in the progressive idiom.  There's even a YMCA for Hunan province, China, and of course the Australian Federal Parliament Building designs.

  • Furnishings and Decorations

    E. L. Powers residence
    Dining room    1910
    Gustav Weber, delineator

    John Adair residence
    Fireplace mosaic
    Owatonna, Minnesota   1913

    Merchants Bank
    Leaded glass
    Winona, Minnesota  1912

    This section includes furniture, terra-cotta, leaded glass, sawed wood, textiles, mosaics, stencils, metalwork, electric fixtures, and all the other bits and pieces required to complete the idea of a building. 

  • Landscaping

    Catherine Gray residence
    Front steps
    Minneapolis, Minnesota 1907

    Henry Babson estate
    Landscaping plan
    Riverside, Illinois  1914


    Edna S. Purcell residence
    Reflecting pool
    Minneapolis, Minnesota  1913

    Growing things were the icing on the cake in an organic building, and alas the most ephemeral. 

  • Graphical Designs

    Farmers National Bank

    Purcell & Elmslie
    Advertising brochure 

    Alexander Brothers
    Advertising poster  

    The encounter with idea of the idea also deserved proper representation, and the many graphic devices produced included stationery, advertising, and even magazine layouts.

  • The Compleat Commission List

    Gusto Cigarette Company, project
    Minneapolis, Minnesota  1914

    YMCA, project
    Siang Tan, Hunan, China  1916

    Christian Science Church, project
    Minneapolis, Minnesota  1914

    The work of the firm as seen through the original accounting system.  Many jobs not visible through the Selected Works pages can be found here, although most are projects with limited imagery and some of the citations contain reference only to later notes or brief commentaries by Purcell, not direct documentation of the work.

  • Virtual Catalogs

In an effort to assist researchers not affiliated with the dark side, these catalogs present the original drawings for decorative elements such as sawed wood, leaded glass, terracotta, light fixtures, and stencils in one reference set.  Carpe caveat.

  • Historical Continuities

    The Acropolis, 1906

    World's Columbian Exposition ticket, or,
    Be Ancient Now

    Court of [dis]Honor
    World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

    The pictures above reveal at a glance the organic argument, leaving only the details of who said what to whom.  When completed, this section will offer an overview of various narratives that make the organic greater than the sum of the parts.  Starting with the poetic insight of the Transcendentalists, through the evolution of "fourth dimensional consciousness," the World's Columbian Exposition, and evolving modes of architectural education, the timestream flows over the course of a century from 1820-1920.  Purcell and Elmslie epitomize the essential practical outcome of the philosophical journey.

  • The Team

    William Gray Purcell
    circa 1910

    "The Team" office
    circa 1910

    George Grant Elmslie
    circa 1910

    Everyone who made it happen received recognition in the P&E office, meaning the drafters, office staff, contractors, artists, and craftsmen as well as the architects.  This was a highly unusual democratic practice among practitioners of the day. 

  • Others on the Field

    Accounts of other major players as they interacted with the firm, such as H. P. Berlage, Frank Lloyd Wright, and significant clients, as well as various biographical information concerning artists, writers, and others who impacted the continuum of events before, during, and after P&E.

  • Writings and Publications

A prolific writer, William Gray Purcell left a massive body of manuscripts articulating the work of the firm, their design intentions, and the experience of getting through the work.  In particular, Purcell developed a commission-by-commission account of Purcell & Elmslie, Architects, that he called the Parabiographies.  Also available here are the contents of the three Western Architect issues (1913, 1915) showcasing P&E design; writings by George Grant Elmslie; and selected publications from the era.

  • Competitions and Exhibitions

    F. W. Bird Competition, 1908

    Cornell Exhibition
    Plates, 1912

    Minnesota State Art Commission Competition, 1914

    The practice of architecture relies on getting your message out there, at least when an architect has one.  Even today, competitions and exhibitions sponsored by professional organizations, product manufacturers, and even museums are the main venue for peer review and subsequent publicity (not least of which is the privilege of saying you won an award).  Back in the 1910s, such opportunities--and they were pretty much the same--were even more important in getting across the progressive message--and occasionally seeing who was best among the pure and good.

  • Bibliography

    IN PROGRESS.  Not everything can be OCR'd despite 99% accuracy. This section includes a much edited version of my essay, "Purcell and Elmslie, Architects," which appeared in Life and Art on the Upper Mississippi, 1890-1915: Minnesota 1900," edited by Michael Conforti and published in conjunction with the Minnesota 1900 exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1994.

Access to various guides and information available at other locations, archives, and web sites, such as the inestimably important William Gray Purcell Papers. Also reports of auctioned items.

This information wouldn't be here for you if these people and organizations hadn't been there for me along the way.  Take a moment of appreciation.

Locations of visitors to this page New Caravan Map

Just for fun, here's a map of the world showing the geographical reach of those interested in this site, starting 29 May 2010.



research courtesy mark hammons