George Grant Elmslie

Architecture and Aurora and George Grant Elmslie and Outside Chicago and Preservation11 Aug 2013 05:21 am

I’ve mentioned George Grant Elmslie, Louis Sullivan’s former draftsman, here and elsewhere before, particularly noting one of his smaller working buildings, the Peoples Gas Irving Park Neighborhood Store at 4839 W. Irving Park Road.

Elmslie is best-known as the man who festooned Adler and Sullivan’s buildings with fractalizing terra cotta and cast-iron explosions of leaves, flowers, and other elements, bringing rapturous glissandos and arpeggios to Sullivan’s architectural operas. After leaving Sullivan, Elmslie started a firm with William Gray Purcell (about which more here). When that partnership dissolved, Elmslie went on to collaborate with other architects, but also worked through his own company, George G. Elmslie & Associates. Aurora, IL, as it turns out, holds the largest number of Elmslie’s commercial buildings in one place. All were designed in the 1920s, and though most experienced some unfortunate alterations over the decades, they remain mostly intact and feature Elmslie’s later, more subdued, but no less lovely, ornamentation.

Included below are photos of Elmslie’s German-American National Bank, Old Second National Bank (particularly amazing), Keystone Building, William H. Graham Building, and Healey Chapel. I’ve thrown in a few photos of Leland Tower/Leland Hotel (I knew nothing about its impressive history as the former tallest building outside of Chicago and a recording studo location for such blues performers as Sonny Boy Williams I, Robert Nighthawk, Jazz Gillum, Big Joe Williams, Washboard Sam, Tampa Red, and Yank Rachell), and Aurora’s Paramount Theater for good measure. Who would have thought the location of Wayne’s World would be so culturally rich?

Architecture and Art and George Grant Elmslie and Louis Sullivan and Outside Chicago and Preservation07 Oct 2012 10:40 pm
Architecture and Art and Chicago and George Grant Elmslie and Hegewisch and History and Louis Sullivan and The Hidden19 Mar 2012 07:06 pm

Hegewisch has the distinction of being Chicago’s southeastern terminus. Once you reach the neighborhood, that’s it. You’ve run out of Chicago.

Words fail when describing Hegewisch itself. It feels like a quintessential Chicago working-class neighborhood, with a hint of small-town America. Then again, it’s neither. Pinning down any sort of local character is refreshingly impossible.

If their site is any indication, the people seem to like living there. Founded in 1883, the area was intended to be a company town (ala the Pullman District) for Mr. Adolph Hegewisch’s United States Rolling Stock Company, builders of railroad cars. Pullman eventually blew Mr. Hegewisch out of the water, and by the 1910s US Rolling Stock Co. became the Western Steel Car & Foundry. In 1889 Chicago annexed the town, and the Hegewischians became Chicagoans.

No offense to the residents, but at first glance Hegewisch doesn’t have much to recommend for the casual visitor. However, it earns points for two things. First, its snazzy signs, which are more visually interesting than the average neighborhood lamppost banner. Secondly, it was once home to a interesting slice of architectural history.

Occasionally, I use the “The Hidden” tag in my posts. I’m not referring to the 80s Kyle Maclachlan scifi/thriller (enjoyable cinematic cheese, by the way). Rather I mean those little bits of history and ornamentation that linger in the city’s blind spots. Few people have probably made the northwestern trek to view the memorial to the Old Treaty Elm, for example. I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t made a wrong turn in Sauganash.

A variation on the Hidden involves the appropriation of ornamentation from demolished buildings for use in others. I wouldn’t call it cannibalism—more like headhunting—though it would be pleasant to imagine a demolition expert with a heart of gold deciding, “You know, that part is just too pretty to bust up. Let’s recycle it instead.” Whether it’s more moral to pry off a piece of ornament and stick it on another building (Pro: it remains on public display; Con: it’s viewed out of context and is subject to everyday wear and tear) versus displaying it on a museum wall (Pro: public display and protection; Con: still out of context, perpetuating the idea that decoration can represent a lost building in its gestalt), I leave to the comments section.

Travel to 13310 Baltimore Ave. in Hegewisch, stand across the street, and look up. You’ll see a familiar hand in the building’s ornamentation. Sullivanesque? Very nearly.

The address is the former location of architect Parker Noble Berry’s Interstate National Bank, and the ornament is all that remains of that edifice. Even if you’ve never heard of Mr. Berry, you likely know his boss. Louis Henri Sullivan hired Berry as a draftsman from 1909 to 1918. While not as seasoned as Sullivan’s former chief draftsman George Grant Elmslie, Berry was a bright, talented young man—one of those individuals presumably destined for greatness.

And such promise he showed. Mr. Berry assisted Sullivan with projects like the Henry C. Adams building in Algona, IA, one of Sullivan’s famed “jewel box” banks. Interestingly, Mr. Berry may have had a greater hand in designing that particular structure, if Berry’s 1915 First State Bank building in Manlius, IL, (still standing and currently being restored by the Manlius Historical Society after being used as a storage space for many years) is any indication. Side note: the First State Bank of Manlius, IL, was built by Berry’s father, a Princeton, IL, contractor.

In 1917, Berry was approached by Lawrence Cox, president of Hegewisch’s Interstate National Bank, and asked to create a new building on Baltimore Ave. Contemporary photos show a smart-looking structure that built on the ideas of the First State Bank and Henry C. Adams building. Shots of the interior show a simple elegance, and all the ways Berry communicated and mused upon his former mentor’s philosophy. Sadly, the bank failed and was torn down in the 30s. For better or worse, the facade’s ornamentation was chipped off and slapped onto the front of the store taking its place.

Previously printed in The Prairie School Review

Sullivan, already struggling during his final decade, couldn’t pay Berry enough, and so the young architect supplemented his income with jobs in Manlius and his hometown of Princeton, IL. Years before, Sullivan had sacked another former employee, Frank Lloyd Wright, for designing homes on the side, but he apparently looked the other way on Berry’s commissions. At least until Berry built the Adeline Prouty Old Ladies Home (yes, that was the name; it was a more politically incorrect time) in 1917. According to Berry’s brother Roger, that was the last straw. Sullivan let Berry go. Despite various health problems, Berry probably would have done well enough afterward, and perhaps might have made a name for himself. He’d gotten married and was courted by the architectural firm of Purcell and Elmslie for years—though he’d turned them down for the opportunity to learn from Sullivan and advance in the trade. Opening an office down in Hyde Park, he began work on commissions for another bank and a hospital.

But Parker Noble Berry wasn’t long for this world. Already sickly, in December 1918, he traveled from Chicago to Princeton to attend his father-in-law’s funeral. Contracting what he imagined was just a bad cold, he refused medical attention. Soon after, Parker Berry became another young victim of the 1918 flu pandemic (aka: “Spanish Flu”). He suffered for eight days before succumbing on December 16, all of 30 years old.

—Dan Kelly

[Writer’s Note: I am currently at work on a long-form essay about Parker Berry. If any relatives of his (or anyone with information to share about him) read this, please contact me at dan [at] mrdankelly [dot] com!]

Architecture and Art and George Grant Elmslie and Irving Park and Louis Sullivan08 Nov 2011 05:04 pm

Last Friday, I took my kids out to visit the park, a church off Western where my great uncle served as assistant pastor, and two buildings connected with Louis Sullivan’s former chief draftsman, George Grant Elmslie. As a father I am slightly unusual, I know.

Mr. Elmslie stuck with Mr. Sullivan through the Lieber Meister’s exceedingly lean final years. Sadly, Sullivan was unable to afford to keep him on staff and had to let him go. Elmslie landed on his feet by partnering with William Purcell, forming the firm of Purcell & Elmslie in 1909. After turning out several lovely Prairie School style buildings across the Midwest  together, personal problems, including his wife’s tragic death at age 31, took their toll on Elmslie. Despite being a full partner, he chose to move back to Chicago to live with his sisters, while Purcell ran the firm from Minneapolis. Steeped in misery, Elmslie nonetheless pressed on, producing several more works—including his masterpiece, the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, IA—before financial matters eventually caused the firm to dissolve.

If his work seems “Sullivanesque,” it’s because Elmslie is responsible for much of Sullivan’s fancier ornamentation. He’s probably best known for  his designs on such large scale structures as the Carson Pirie Scott facade and the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna, MN. Luckily for the city, Elmslie created smaller structures as well, lending a bit of Sullivanesque charm to our neighborhoods. My favorite would have to be the Peoples Gas Irving Park Neighborhood Store at 4839 W. Irving Park Road. Peoples Gas Stores were actual stores selling only products employing the full benefits of that exciting new energy source, natural gas. Check out the 1920s ads below.

If you ever drive or walk by the building (which appears to be a church or similar religious institution now) be sure to look up, otherwise you’ll miss its delightful decorations and windows. Wish I could have had either a clearer day for taking photographs or direct sunlight. I’ll go back and try again some day.

Looks like one of the ads features the addresses of every store in Chicago. There’s a field trip for you!