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William Gray Purcell papers

Identifier: N3

Scope and Content Note

Collection contains drawings, including plans, elevations and sections, for much of the firm's work, together with renderings, sketches, photographs and correspondence. Letters, photographs and books from Purcell's maternal grandfather (William Cunningham Gray, 1830-1901) form part of the collection. Also present in the papers are manuscripts, typescripts, and clippings.

The bulk of the correspondence dates from Purcell's retirement, although the papers include letters from Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924) and others from the Chicago School of Architecture. Purcell remained involved in the architectural profession through contributions to journals and in correspondence with architects and architectural historians such as Talbot Hamlin, Lewis Mumford, Wayne Andrews and David Gebhard.


  • 1855-1965

Language of Materials


Restrictions on Access

Available for use in the Manuscripts Division reading room.


Copyright for all materials was not transferred to the archives; please consult with the archivist.

William Gray Purcell: Biographical Note

William Gray Purcell was born in Oak Park, Illinois in July, 1880. His parents, Charles A. and Anna Cora Purcell lived first with William Cunningham and Catherine Garns Gray, Anna's parents, in Oak Park. Although the Purcells eventually moved into their own home, except for brief periods the young boy remained with his grandparents over the next five years. In 1886, William Gray Purcell began living permanently with them at his own request.

In 1886 another family event occurred that was critical to his future development. For many summers, W. C. Gray, editor of The Interior, had taken fishing vacations on the peninsula of upper Michigan. In 1885, however, he was saddened to realize the extent to which the environment had been despoiled by destructive logging and mining practices. In 1886 Gray arranged the purchase of three square miles of land surrounding an island on a lake in northern Wisconsin, in co- ownership with the recently widowed Nettie Fowler McCormick, also of Chicago. Every following summer from 1887 until his death in 1901, Gray brought his family, friends, and associates to Island Lake Camp, as the isolated forest enclave came to be called.

During this time Purcell also became skilled as a photographer, his hobby made possible by the newly available commercial outfits which supplied camera, photographic plates, processing chemicals and printing papers in one package. Purcell received his first camera from W. C. Gray in 1888, a Kodak model given to The Interior office just before public release of the product.

When Purcell was fifteen, Frank Lloyd Wright built his Oak Park studio on the same block where Charles A. Purcell lived, not far from the Grays. In Chicago, where Purcell went frequently to visit his grandfather at The Interior offices, the work of Louis Sullivan continued to impress the young architect-to-be. His mind was already made up to pursue the study of the building arts in college and, following his graduation from Oak Park High School in 1899, he entered the School of Architecture at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. During his third year of studies, Purcell entered the Andrew D. White Competition of 1902, sponsored and judged by the American ambassador to Germany. The design that he submitted was laughed at by others preparing their own entries, for the drawings featured no classical ornament and the plan was strictly organized according to the minimal requirements of the program. To the astonishment of his faculty and classmates, Purcell distinguished himself by winning first prize.

After graduation from Cornell in 1903 he returned to Oak Park, IL. Purcell considered applying to Frank Lloyd Wright, of whom his father did not approve, for a position in Wright's architectural practice. Instead, Purcell took a clerking position with Ezra E. Roberts, a stable and prosperous architect of whom Charles A. Purcell thought well. During a dinner party in Oak Park, Purcell met George Grant Elmslie, then the chief drafter for Louis Sullivan. The two men liked one another immediately, not least because of their shared interest in progressive architecture. When Purcell complained of his situation with Roberts, Elmslie offered to secure Purcell a position in the Sullivan office. Purcell spent five months, from August to December 1903, in the Sullivan office. However, there was not a great deal of work to be done in the office; Purcell drafted a lock plate and doorknob for one project and also delineated a landscaping plan for his employer's summer residence in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

For his next employment, Purcell ventured to the West Coast by way of an extended journey through the southwestern United States. He eventually arrived at Los Angeles and applied for work at the office of Myron Hunt, but there was no opening. On the recommendation of those with whom he interviewed, Purcell left southern California for San Francisco. Hired by John Galen Howard, Purcell became clerk of the works for the construction of California Hall, being built on the University of California campus at Berkeley. In 1905 Purcell moved farther up the coast to Seattle, Washington, where he worked for several months in the office of A. Warren Gould. Purcell's father, who was afraid of the effects of the region's weather on the health of his son, offered to send him on a year-long tour of Europe. Accepting the offer, Purcell contacted his former classmate, George Feick, Jr., and two men agreed to meet in New York.

In April,1906 Purcell and Feick were greeted upon their landing at Naples, Italy, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. After visiting Florence and Venice, they traveled across Greece to Constantinople and by June had returned to western Europe. Purcell was keen to seek out the best contemporary design and, remembering a suggestion made by Elmslie he stopped in Holland to visit the architect H. P. Berlage. Berlage received him warmly and the two established a long-lasting friendship. Purcell was also successful in his efforts to reach Scandinavia, where he met progressive architects Ferdinand Boberg and M. Nyrop. These contacts added to his growing desire to commence his own work and shortly after returning to the United States, Purcell moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to open an office in partnership with George Feick, Jr.

[Purcell's collaboration with Feick and Elmslie are detailed in the following Historical Note.]

After the dissolution of the firm of Purcell and Elmslie, Purcell marketed standardized plans through a variety of service firm names. The Pacific States Engineering Corporation (PSEC) houses were a mainstay of Purcell's architectural practice during the 1920s. Purcell also became involved with the Architect's Small House Service Bureau (ASHSB,) and associated himself with other area architects in numerous residential designs in and around the Portland area. He also became increasingly active in professional, civic, and arts organizations. In 1925 Purcell met James Van Evera Bailey, a young architect who was an integral participant in both the design and construction process for four houses built during the Portland years. The largest and final major commission that Purcell received was the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in Portland. Built in 1926, the building as completed realized only part of his design.Throughout the decade, Purcell had felt a progressive decline in his physical well being and, finally seeking medical attention in 1930, was diagnosed as having advanced tuberculosis. He closed his architectural practice and moved to a sanatorium in Banning, California, where he met his future wife, Cecily O'Brien. They married in late 1935, shortly after Purcell's divorce from Edna became final.

Purcell turned to writing and began an articulation of his views on art and architecture that continued prolifically until his death. Two projects were of special importance to him. From the late 1930s to the mid 1950s, he developed a series of unpublished essays called "The Parabiographies" that were commission-by-commission accounts of experiences during his architectural practice. These pages, together with many manuscripts discussing Sullivan and the "function and form" thesis, were sent for reading to George Elmslie who often added his own annotations. From 1940 to 1955, Purcell was principal contributing editor to an architectural journal, Northwest Architect, to which he contributed more than sixty articles.

Purcell maintained his relationships largely through correspondence. He remained in frequent touch with artist friends such as Richard Bock, Charles S. Chapman, Frederick D. Calhoun, and Clayton S. Price, and often communicated by sending a small audio recording known as a Soundscriber disk. For research related to his writing projects, he contacted former associates, clients, and old friends who often gladly replied to his questions. Along the same lines, Purcell wrote to architects or their relatives, such as Roger Berry, brother of Parker N. Berry, who had worked in the Sullivan office following the departure of Elmslie, and other architects from the progressive movement like Frances Barry Byrne and Marion Mahoney Griffin. In the early 1960s, Purcell was nominated to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. James Van Evera Bailey was instrumental in bringing the award to his former teacher and associate, and Purcell reluctantly agreed to the honor in hopes of bringing to light once more the progressive work done by Purcell & Elmslie. Since Purcell was too weak to travel, the award was presented by a special committee that called at his home, Westwinds, in the summer of 1963. William Gray Purcell died in April, 1965.

Biographical information and historical notes adapted from the online publication, Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers, 1985, by Mark Hammons

George Grant Elmslie: Biographical Note

George Grant Elmslie was born in 1869 on a farm called Foot O' Hill near the town of Huntly in northeast Scotland. (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.) Elmslie remained in 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 began the study of architecture. By 1887 he was at work in the office of Joseph Silsbee. 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 there.

When business in the Sullivan firm waned after the turn of the century, Elmslie looked for a source of more regular income. He had been acquainted with William Gray Purcell since August of 1903 and the two had discussed the possiblity of joining forces in an architectural practice. Elmslie was reluctant to leave Chicago, since he would not abandon the ongoing work of clients. This and other personal reasons kept him from moving to Minneapolis until November, 1909.

[Elmslie's collaboration with Purcell and Feick are detailed in the following Historical Note.]

Elmslie returned to Chicago in 1912 after the death of his wife, Bonnie Hunter Elmslie, but continued practicing architecture from what then became the Chicago office of Purcell, Feick & Elmslie. After the Woodbury County Court House was completed in 1918, the business of the firm entered a decline. Purcell requested the dissolution of the Purcell & Elmslie partnership in 1921.

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. In 1947 Elmslie was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.

Elmslie maintained a voluminous correspondence with Purcell from the 1920s until his death. Beginning in the late 1940s Elmslie suffered from increasingly ill health. 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.

Biographical information and historical notes adapted from the online publication, Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers, 1985, by Mark Hammons

Purcell, Feick and Elmslie/Purcell and Elmslie Firms: Historical Note

Early in 1907, Purcell and George Feick travelled by train from Chicago and after arriving in Minneapolis they took rooms in a boardinghouse, rented an office on the tenth floor of the New York Life Building, and mailed out engraved cards announcing the new architectural partnership of Purcell & Feick. For the next two and a half years, they worked to establish their credentials as earnest practitioners of the Sullivan derived "function and form," or organic, architecture. In December 1908 Purcell married Edna Summy, a Wellesley graduate whose father owned a music publishing business in Chicago.

Many early business relations sprang from contacts with friends of his father or grandfather. This growing network of small town businessmen, especially bankers, would eventually broaden opportunities for commissions in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas. From contacts in his home town of Sandusky, George Feick, Jr., brought business to the office from Ohio, particularly speculative houses and an office building done for his father, a construction contractor.

During the last months of 1909 Louis Sullivan could no longer pay George Elmslie because of declining business fortunes, and Elmslie was forced to find a more reliable situation. For some time Purcell and Elmslie had talked of working together, and the time was right. By 1910 Elmslie had left the Sullivan office and moved to Minneapolis as a full partner in Purcell, Feick & Elmslie.

George Elmslie brought important business contacts that resulted in a growing number of commissions from former Sullivan clients. George Feick followed leads for projects in his hometown and handled small buildings for friends and acquaintances. Purcell continued to develop productive friendships with men who lived in small towns throughout the Midwest, which created a network of sympathizers who kept the firm advised of potential jobs. During these years of success, personal events brought substantial changes to the lives of both Purcell and Elmslie. Profoundly affected by the death of his wife in 1912 , Elmslie left Minneapolis in March, 1913 and returned to Chicago where he opened a second Purcell, Feick & Elmslie office. George Feick did not completely share the intense dedication of Purcell and Elmslie to the new architecture, and in 1913 left Minneapolis to rejoin his father's business in Sandusky, Ohio.

The only expression of the organically based architecture in a major public building occurred in the Woodbury County Court House completed in Sioux City, Iowa in 1916 and designed in partnership with William L. Steele, an architect who had developed a strong friendship with George Elmslie while working in the Sullivan office.

With the World War bringing architectural commissions to a near-standstill, Purcell looked for employment through former business connections. In 1915 Purcell had met Charles O. Alexander, the president of the Alexander Brothers Leather Belting Company of Philadelphia. Purcell's desire to participate in the war effort led him, in 1916, to begin working for Alexander Brothers Corporation (later known as International Leather Belting Corporation) in the dual capacities of architect and advertising manager. From 1916 until his resignation in 1919, he created a systematized and coordinated series of campaigns to sell Alexander products using artwork and graphic designs commissioned from some of the finest artists of the progressive movement, such as Charles S. Chapman, Charles Livingston Bull, and John W. Norton. As well, the Purcell & Elmslie firm oversaw a complete remodeling of the executive offices of Alexander Brothers and designed two unbuilt projects for C. O. Alexander personally. The most important of the architectural designs for Alexander Brothers was a standardized factory plan that was intended to be built in three locations. Only two units, those in Chicago and New Haven, were constructed. Purcell resigned in 1919, but eventually was forced to sue to recover architectural fees due Purcell & Elmslie as well as his own salary.

Purcell left the East Coast in November, 1919 heading for Portland, Oregon. At first, Purcell did not intend to continue in architectural practice. His original purpose in coming west was to join his cousin, Charles H. Purcell, in a bridge building company called the Pacific States Engineering Corporation (PSEC). However, under the old firm name of Purcell & Elmslie, the W. G. Purcell residence was built in 1920, but beyond one bank and a few other, fruitless inquiries, the effort to generate new business was a failure. Citing poor economic circumstances, Purcell formally requested that the Purcell & firm be dissolved in 1921.

Biographical information and historical notes adapted from the online publication, Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers, 1985, by Mark Hammons


256 Cubic Feet


Collection contains drawings, including plans, elevations and sections for much of the firm's work, together with renderings, sketches, photographs and correspondence. Letters, photographs and books from Purcell's maternal grandfather (William Cunningham Gray, 1830-1901) form part of the collection. Also present in the papers are manuscripts, typescripts, and clippings.


The collection is organized into nine series:

  1. Architectural Records
  2. Correspondence
  3. Artwork
  4. Audio Recordings
  5. Manuscripts
  6. Photographs
  7. Biographia
  8. Library
  9. Gray Family Archives

Physical Location


Other Finding Aids

An unpublished finding aid with more detailed description of the collection is available in the archives.


Donated by the estate in 1965.

Processing Information

The collection was processed by Sue Kendall, Mark Hammons, and Barbara Bezat. The finding aid was written by Mark Hammons and revised by Barbara Bezat.

William Gray Purcell Papers
Purcell, William Gray
April 2004
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Northwest Architectural Archives Collecting Area