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Purcell-Cutts House
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 Nuts & Bolts
 Purcell's Own House Notes
Purcell's Own House Notes
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Sometime around 1915, William Purcell celebrated his beloved home in the organized poetic musings he called "Own House Notes." The original copy is now part of the William Gray Purcell Papers at the Northwest Architectural Archives.
Edna & William Purcell
Here are Purcell's comments in their entirety.


In so far as the house represents a departure from customary forms it does so because in designing it a conscious attempt has been made to first establish a real modern American family life, and then give it expression in real forms. This is indeed a departure. The standard type of house - the "style period" house, is planned on a jumble plan of daily life within the house and an essentially aristocratic view toward the community. The element of honorific waste is present everywhere. In plan, material, finish, all decisions are based primarily upon what contemporary fashionable "society" is going to think about it, rather than upon the fitness of things.

In the modern dwelling planned by habit we have seen the parlor disappear and the living room disappear; we have seen the sun room arrive, and with its advent we have seen the function of the living room pick up and move into the sun room; and completing the circle, we now have the old parlor idea - now called Living Room - back with us again in slightly different dress, but still the same unlived-in zone. What we needed to do was to lose, not so much the parlor as the parlor idea of life - and when that went the resulting change in form bore witness to a very definite occurrence.

In this dwelling the useless division between recent sun room and living room quietly slipped away. A new place appeared with the house, all free and open, filled with soft light, tributary in all parts to the hearth; all parts invite one to exercise the various functions of everyday living. One can live all over the single room of the entire lower floor according to the time of day or his mood. The room even merges into library function.

The daily use of these rooms reflects very definitely the background against which they were framed. On fine Minnesota winter mornings when the first level sun rays come slanting over the snowy house tops just at breakfast, the table time and again is laid in front of the Living Room fire. The electric toaster sits on the end of the hearth and the coffee and cheese and jam come down from the kitchen above at their leisure. On Sunday evenings the great chairs and the littlest chairlets are drawn up around the hearth; the bread and milk, cookies and apples are had with stories and chatting, and with the firelight for company.

The writer recalls one extremely hot August day - sticky and dusty downtown - coming home to some fresh clothes - but still the heat - and then down to tea; and there in the end of the Living Room, all open toward the east with the little pencil stream of the fountain puttering away among the pale yellow water hyacinths, was the evening tea table, so cool looking, with two cool little colored chairs, one lilac one. The house had begun to show its desire to say things at the right time. The coolest looking tea table in town, I'm sure - most of them that night sitting in the same surroundings that felt good last winter.

But in what way do these very commonplace and familiar occurrences indicate any special architectural qualities in the design of the house? Because variants in the daily program are really done only in books, in life possibly discussed.

Ten thousand times ten thousand American families dine in the same spot, facing food in the center of the room with their backs to the windows while all the poetry and splendor there is flows by inviting as the still small voice of beauty but with no response. When whatever we eat and how we eat it become so important that we can't move the ceremony of it near the window or outdoors, something in life has become unreasonable. But if the dwelling by refusing to be fixed in habitual forms makes easy the mechanics of such variations then the free forms which it has begin to express themselves in a vital way.

It would seem as if the playfulness of life never had a chance in our rigidly planned American homes. Think of the freedom from unreal conventions in the countries we think of as so very conventional. The supper table everywhere upon the sidewalks and pavements of Paris - the outdoor gardens for music, refreshment and grown up play - and the possibilities in every country from Italy to Norway for suiting the action to the sentiment of the moment. What hotel in the "Land-of-good-hotels" is not prepared to set its tables out in the yard if the evening is fine, where one can see the Alps - and what hotel in America is prepared to do so.

Houses should not be clamps to force us to the same things three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; they should not be ordering us about regardless of breeze and sunset, but they should be backgrounds for expressing ourselves in three hundred and sixty-five different ways if we are natural enough to do so.

The customary Dining Place in this house, still within and a part of the family room, is eight steps above the Living Room, excepting only that in summer the Dining Table spends practically all its working hours out on the porch. In this connection another detail might be mentioned. The rooms are noticeably free from an overcrowding of furniture and its practical absence is taken account of by a group of very dainty folding chairs, stained blue, red, green, yellow, violet and orange. The coming into the room of these chairs as they are needed brings a festive character to the room and any occasion. Another festive character that comes to the room quite naturally is the result of the general basis of the illumination in the evening. A reading light that burns generally and the five pendants give an extremely soft light of a cool rather than a warm quality, and on this as a basis rests whatever local light that may be required for reading, writing, or looking at pictures or prints. When the guests come and all parts of the rooms come into quite active use at the same time, several dozen candles are placed around. The house is such a perfectly natural and effective answer to each everyday living requirement as it arises that it is continuously suggesting things of itself and it furnishes a perfectly quiet background.

The daytime light in the room is in many ways equally surprising. Under the seven foot eave projection over the great East windows the sun comes in the first thing in the morning, and in the winter time since in Minnesota it stays close to the horizon all day, it slants into the room until noon. On summer evenings I have seen the orange red squares of setting sun sending ribbons of light down the whole length of the fifty odd feet of Living Room and flecking rose colored spots of ruddy color on the window mullion of the East window - shadow and sunshine basking against the lavender light of evening climbing up the Eastern sky.

One cannot pass the astonishingly lovely light effects that are continuously surprising one without mentioning the effect of the pendant electric lights, inverted semi-domes of pinky lavender moonlight color as seen through the hanging fronds of the fern. The flecks of pale moonlight color between the fronds, scissor snips of light picking up the curve of the light form, is a Chinese phantasy.

All these effects while not apparently of the architecture of the building are so in fact because they are incidents and situations which if seen at all in average houses are so confused with the jumble of color, furniture and material possessions that the effects are spoiled and lost. The diffused daylight and high ceilings make possible the great shower of fern and the pale sienna walls shot with gold and green and lavender and margined with warm gray oak with a lavender filler, forms backgrounds for fern and lights.

The house has no facing as of front and rear but accounts for conditions as they exist in all directions. The house is set back some thirty feet behind at the general property line which throws the Dining Room windows and porch quite free of the actual rear of adjoining houses. The porch faces the Lake of the Isles a hundred yards away to the west, and although on a narrow lot the prospect from each point at which the house opens out is broad and free, where adjoining houses come close the plan is closed tight.

Note the long horizontal window near the writing desk. The floor of the Living Room is lightly (typo in original) below the level of the ground outside and to the west the ground rises a couple of feet which brings this window very close to the ground, with a little garden of small sorts of wild flowers just inside the window and almost at one's elbow as one writes.

The second floor in its principal plan feature shows a similar attempt to solve the problem of living in generous quarters and still providing for such division as occasional necessity may demand. The principal bedroom may be separated into two rooms by screen like doors covered with greenish gray grass cloth. But ordinarily they stand day after day pushed back against the end of the chiffoniere - the portions of the rooms not merely joined as by a door, but one room in fact, with the little boys' corner with its little fireplace where, please imagine, next winter each cold snowy night, two little rosy cheeked lads sit candle-on-table eating their prunes and crackers with milk and waiting for Father to come home listening to Robin Hood, Autumn Fires, Songman's pack. The convenience of doing it makes the charming occasions, the habitual occasions. One does the beautiful things in this house in a beautiful way because it is easy to do them. Fireplace seats will not be sat in if they are not comfortable. Hot and cold day-meals will not seek special cool or cozy places unless it is both easy to do it and delightful to the senses after one has done it. The fireplaces here begin to twinkle at the slightest occasion because they are raised and accessible, because the hearth is dished to keep the ashes within bounds and the floor tidy, and because fuel is handy and the hearth decorative enough to let the charred log ends die out and lie there without a sense of confusion or neglect.

One must not pass the little lad's "sleeping car" bed all panelled about and with two tiny windows just at the pillow and a regular "berth light" and rolling, cloth shades just like the real ones. Underneath are great drawers for toy things and the footboard is a bookcase with a folding desk tucked away inside.

The sleeping porch is just the length of a bed and outdoor sleeping is done when the weather invites as always with the modern sleeping porch - the departure in this case being that when the weather does not invite instead of pulling down a lot of sash which have all the time been making the average sleeping porch a tight little box even when opened, the beds are rolled back into their places in the bed room.

And the bed room itself is about all windows, twelve windows and two outside doors, but when all are closed still one has outside fresh air for all the air in the house is fresh warmed outside air when has been brought to sixty-five per cent relative humidity with an automatic humidifier in the heating plant. A spring day atmosphere at sixty-eight temperature and plenty of it, and one can sleep or sit all day in the sort of indoors climate he prefers.

William Gray Purcell

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