Published: January 28, 2003
The Purcell-Cutts House and The Prairie School Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art
MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. — Prior to the turn of the Twentieth Century, noted architect Louis Sullivan foresaw and ultimately set into motion the evolution of a uniquely American style of Architecture. His disdain for the reliance on the prevalent European and ancient architectural motifs of the period led Sullivan and his contemporary firms, Frank Lloyd Wright and Purcell and Elmslie among them, to redirect the face of American architecture. They moved in what at the time was considered a most unconventional direction — using sweeping horizontal lines to emulate the American landscape, subsequently creating a style known today as the Prairie School of Design.
To celebrate the movement and its renewed popularity over the past couple of decades, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has launched an exhibition entitled “: The Architecture and Design of the Prairie School.” The exhibition explores not only the institute’s extensive collection of American Arts and Crafts Movement iconic objects, but also the architectural styles of the period so aptly captured through its Prairie School gem of a home, the Purcell-Cutts House. This exhibition is not only open to the public for live viewing, but also through the museum’s state-of-the-art website where the furniture, fixtures, the architects and their designs are extensively chronicled.
Employing Sullivan’s principles of unified design, Wright, William Gray Purcell, George Grant Elmslie and others created numerous Prairie School structures across the United States between the years 1895 and 1918. These houses, churches, banks and other structures gave a physical body to the Prairie School ideals. And while the style grew in popularity across the nation, a number of the best architecturally designed examples exist in the institute’s back yard, the Twin Cities region.
The Purcell-Cutts House, a 1913 Prairie School home designed by Purcell and Elmslie, is the crown jewel of the museum’s collection and is often referred to as one of the most outstanding examples of Prairie School architecture in the country. Architect William Purcell, in collaboration with Elmslie, designed and constructed the home for himself, his wife and family. Purcell desired a home that would support a modern way of life for his family, yet also conform to the organic architectural principles that had been set in motion by Louis Sullivan.
In 1913 Minneapolis was a city in transition as the modern era began to make its mark. Automobiles and electric trolleys were rapidly replacing the horse and cart and the fledgling styles of a new America began cropping up everywhere. The Purcells built their home south of the downtown area, with a view of Lake of the Isles, which by that time was in the process of being incorporated into a city park. The surrounding rural area was rapidly being replaced with neighborhoods, many of which presented an architectural smorgasbord of English cottage and castle-style homes, Mediterranean villas and a few avant-garde architecturally designed homes in the Prairie Style. “The Purcells’ modern house was starkly unlike its neighbors,” states Minneapolis Institute curator Jennifer Komar Olivarez, “with a buff-colored façade, nearly flat roof and floor-to-ceiling art-glass windows.” The house, Purcell would later recall, “was somewhat of a spectacle at the time and the neighbors never got wholly used to it.”
Purcell put his home on the market just six years after occupying it and moved his family to Philadelphia, a move that ultimately proved to be a godsend for the structure. Anson Cutts and his wife Edna purchased the home and immediately recognized the architectural relevancy. Throughout their 66 years of residency, the home was never significantly altered. In 1985, theCutts’son, Anson Cutts, Jr, bequeathed the house to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts along with funds earmarked for restoration. Five years later, after the completion of a thorough restoration project, the home was opened to the public.
Purcell and Elmslie received more commissions than any other firm of progressive architects after Frank Lloyd Wright. The partnership began when two Cornell architecture school classmates, William Gray Purcell (1880-1965) and George Feick, Jr, (1881-1945) opened a practice in Minneapolis in 1907.
“The early work of Purcell and Feick is characterized by a building’s progressive space and layout and is rarely accompanied by elaborate decoration,” states Olivarez. “Elmslie’s entry into the partnership  brought an added complexity of composition and ornamental design, tying their work more directly to Louis Sullivan’s decorative tradition. Elmslie’s delicate, often inlaid or carved furniture provides a wonderful foil to Wright’s heavier, more masculine take on the Prairie School. Purcell contributed his imaginative sense of space and the ideal of developing a better living environment for the middle class, quickly establishing a national reputation for the firm, propelled by journals such as the Western Architect.”
“When I’m asked how Purcell and Elmslie’s work relates to that of Frank Lloyd Wright,” Olivarez states, “my explanation is that the influence of Louis Sullivan, considered the father of the Prairie School, went in two directions — one being Frank Lloyd Wright, who Sullivan fired after he was caught designing houses on the side, and one being George Grant Elmslie (1869-1952), who stayed with Sullivan until 1909 and learned Sullivan’s organic ornamentation firsthand. Purcell was raised in Oak Park, where Frank Lloyd Wright located his architectural practice and built many Prairie School houses, and for years Purcell had admired the work of Sullivan in Chicago’s loop, but it was Elmslie that befriended Purcell and mentored him in his early independent work. So, when Sullivan could no longer pay Elmslie, Purcell quickly jumped to offer him a partnership with his firm, and Elmslie accepted. While Feick left the group in 1913, the firm of Purcell and Elmslie continued until 1921.”
Purcell and Elmslie’s architecture is characterized by open floor plans with dramatic hearths as a focal point, versatile rooms that served multiple functions, custom designed built-in and free-standing furniture and large bands of windows to take advantage of the light at various times of the day. Consistent organic schemes of ornament inside and out, including stencils, sawed-wood ornament and integrated artwork, helped unify the design. The Purcell-Cutts House combines all these elements into a successful design for modern living.
In addition to more than 30 built structures in the Minneapolis/St Paul area, the firm is also famous for its jewellike Prairie banks in small towns in southern Minnesota that carry on the organic tradition of Sullivan and Elmslie’s National Farmers Bank in Owatonna, Minn., of 1909. In addition, the firm created buildings for Chicago and Madison, Wis., as well as a spectacular house on a promontory in Wood’s Hole, Mass. Long underrecognized, the firm of Purcell and Elmslie is only now being fully understood for its important contributions to modern architecture and design.
While the architectural aspects of the Purcell-Cutts house are captivating, the furnishings and other rdf_Descriptions in the institute collection are equally enticing. The exhibition showcases a plethora of rdf_Descriptions that through their simple shapes, organic motifs and handmade character complement the progressive architecture of the time. Exhibited rdf_Descriptions include the work of Purcell and Elmslie, Sullivan, Wright, George Washington Maher, Gates Pottery, Grueby and the Kalo Shop.
Architectural elements designed by Sullivan include an assortment of decorative panels, ornamental relief friezes, art glass leaded windows and the most striking of the objects, a pair of elevator grills, frieze and overgrill from the Chicago Stock Exchange.
Designs by Wright are well represented and include such icons as the large molded and hand hammered copper urn. “The urns were among Wright’s favorite objects and fit in with his desire for an integrated environment that blended exterior and interior elements and brought nature indoors,” writes Corine A. Wegner in the Catalogue of Objects. Perhaps the most impressive of all of Wright’s designs on view, however, are the imposing high back spindled dining chairs and dining table from the George Barton house of the Darwin Martin Complex in Buffalo, N.Y.
Some of the most interesting pieces are the Purcell and Elmslie designs that bear striking influences from both Wright and Sullivan. Classic examples include the spindled oak cube-type office chairs designed for the Merchants National Bank, a set of four side chairs with slab and spindled backs and architectural stiles designed for the Edward Decker house in Wayzata, Minn., and accessories such as the prominent interior light fixtures designed for the Minnesota Phonograph Shop.
While Grant Wood certainly is a recognizable name within the fine art world, few know of his achievements as a designer. Wood, in 1913, while taking night classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, worked days at the Kalo Shop. There he met Kristopher Haga, a Norwegian silversmith, and in 1914 the two opened a shop of their own, the Vouland Shop, producing modest silver and gold rdf_Descriptions and occasionally larger, more complex rdf_Descriptions. Two notable examples are displayed; a sterling and ivory coffee and tea service designed by Wood and Haga, and a sterling hors d’oeuvres tray. The business was short-lived, lasting only about 18 months, after which Haga returned to the Kalo Shop and Wood went on to become a celebrated painter, best known for “American Gothic” executed in 1930.
To coincide with this exhibition, the Minneapolis Institute has created an innovative resource and virtual exhibition that brings Prairie School architecture and design to life online. “: The Architecture and Design of the Prairie School” offers an in-depth look at the Prairie School through the furnishings, buildings and history of the movement’s founder, Louis Sullivan, and its significant innovators including Wright, Purcell and Elmslie. Focusing on the institute’s significant permanent collection of Prairie School objects, the “” program uses photography, commentary and virtual tours to tell the stories of the architects and the buildings, fixtures and furniture they designed.
“We’ve outdone ourselves,” says Jim Ockuly, senior producer in the department of interactive media. “Almost nothing is left out of this comprehensive online program, which is our way of expanding the reach of this institution.”
The “” website is divided into three comprehensive sections: the Collection, the Purcell-Cutts House Tour and the Architectural Tour. The Collection serves as virtual gallery in which visitors can view nearly 50 Prairie School objects, many of which are on display in the institute’s Ulrich Architecture and Design Gallery. The Collection also includes biographies of the major architects and a timeline of their significant career developments.
The Purcell-Cutts House comes alive with 360-degree virtual room views, historical photographs, commentary and design plans. It also provides an in-depth view into the home’s design, including architect/owner Purcell’s “own house notes.” Written around 1915, the notes express Purcell’s personal view on the relationship between the design of the house and daily family life. The virtual tour also provides detailed images of the home’s “nuts and bolts,” such as a specially designed gate hinge and a sawed-wood screen, which express the unified design scheme of architects Purcell and Elmslie and the influence of Sullivan.
The final section of the “” website is the Architectural Tour. Using historical photos, maps and audio interviews, the website guides visitors through some of Minnesota’s finest examples of Prairie School architecture. The “razed structures tour” includes images of remarkable Prairie School buildings now lost, such as the Francis Little House, built between 1912 and 1914 in Deephaven, Minn., and designed by Wright. Although the house was razed in 1972, portions still exist, including a hallway installed in the galleries at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
An exhibition catalog, Progressive Design In The Midwest: The Purcell-Cutts House and The Prairie School Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is available from the museum.
The website and gallery installation are accessible online at www.artsmia.org/unified-vision. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is open Sunday, noon to 5 pm; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Thursday and Friday, 10 am to 9 pm; closed Monday. Call 612-870-3000 for further information.
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