Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie, 1912
The Edison Shop, 1912, Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie, architects. Illustration from The Western Architect, Vol. 19 No. 5 May 1913.
The Edison Shop, completed in 1912, was a small commercial building of four stories housing a store that sold Edison phonographs. My first knowledge of this building, which stood at 229 South Wabash Ave. in Chicago’s Loop, came as I was browsing an issue of The Western Architect of May 1913, with a series of pages devoted to this structure. As an example of Chicago’s early 20th-century commercial architecture, much of which has been lost, this small building seemed to show design influences from the Chicago School, Prairie School, the arts and crafts movement, and echoes of European modernism. It existed, I found, at the intersection of various architectural careers, including those of William Purcell, George Elmslie, George Feick, Jr., Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and interior designer George Niedecken.
The Edison Shop, 1912, Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie, architects. Illustration from The Western Architect, Vol. 19 No. 5 May 1913.
The only downtown Chicago office building designed by Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie, of Minneapolis, the building was notable for its use of buff brick and terra-cotta ornament, combined with large expanse of glass on its west-facing facade. Its geometric design and tension between vertical and horizontal elements, its stark appearance relieved by sparing ornamentation in its fourth story and toward the cornice, gave the building a striking appearance. The top illustration shows the shop’s deeply recessed entry, drawing visitors in, as well as plantings that give its front a welcoming look as well as softening its severity. Large display windows opened the facade visually and would have offered views from the elevated Loop structure which the shop faced.
Designated a Chicago Architectural Landmark 1959, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks described the shop as “a place of dignity and beauty.” Nevertheless, the building was demolished a decade later.
The Edison Shop was owned by Henry B. Babson and sold Edison phonograph machines. It was one of three buildings designed for this purpose by Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie, which and have been described as “high points in their commercial design.”
Carefully placed display windows were intended to entice the customer within the store, where the integrated treatment of furniture, light fixtures, and other decorations created a unified merchandising space. From time to time, Elmslie designed instrument panels or whole cases to replace the awkwardly styled factory made cabinets. Other comparable Edison Shops were built in Kansas City, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.
The Chicago commission apparently involved a new facade and new interior architecture; it was not, then, a completely new building. During its history, in addition, it was known by different names: Edison Building, Edison Phonograph Shop, and the Babson Brothers Building.
The building’s vertical grouping of large entrance and window openings, as well as its terracotta capitals and central ornament below a shallow cornice, lead the eye upward, and show some influence of Louis Sullivan’s commercial work. A comparison of The Edison Shop to Sullivan’s Gage Building (1899), on Michigan Avenue, shows a similar interplay of horizontals and verticals, and sparing use of ornament above the ground floor. The Edison Shop’s design would employ these elements on a smaller scale and in a more severe, abstract manner.
The Gage Building, 1898, 30 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago Louis Sullivan, architecthttp://bldg51.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/fty_51.jpg
A comparison to Sullivan is appropriate, as Both Purcell and Elmslie had worked in Sullivan’s Chicago office, Elmslie designing some of the ornament on Sullivan’s buildings.
Fortunately, there were some good visual resources available for The Edison Shop, some of which are reproduced here. Sources include the Art of Institute of Chicago, Ryerson and Burnham Library, architectural periodicals such as The Western Architect, Explore Chicago Collections, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Northwest Architectural Archives, William Gray Purcell Papers. The three versions of the architectural firm (Purcell and Feick 1907-1910; Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie 1910-1913; Purcell and Elmslie 1913-1921) achieved great notoriety during and after their periods of practice.
Rendering by the architects; Ryerson and Burnham Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
Frieze panel, photo c. 1964, Historic American Buildings Survey.
Henry Babson (1874-1970), a native of Nebraska, had a career in many areas of the sound recording industry. Starting in 1903, he traveled worldwide as a representative for the Victor Talking Machine Company, reportedly selling over $100,000 worth of phonographs. He subsequently started the Babson Brothers Company in Chicago with his brothers, Fred and Gus. It was a catalog mail order company and a major seller of the Edison Phonograph. Babson would become a major stockholder in the Victor Talking Machine Company, maker of the popular Victrola phonograph; the company was later acquired by RCA. Babson enjoyed racing custom sailboats, and, in the 1930s, began to import Arabian horses to the United States.
Left: Chicago Talking Machine Co., “H.B. Babson, Prest.,” Catalog, c. 1898
Right: Edison phonograph and records advertisement, c. 1915.F.K. Babson was Henry’s brother, Fred.
In 1907, Henry Babson had commissioned Louis Sullivan to design a 28-acre estate in Riverside, Illinois.
Henry K. Babson residence, Riverside, Ill., 1908, Louis Sullivan, architect (demolished)
Purcell and Elmslie would design two subsidiary buildings for this estate, in 1914 and 1915. Though the main residence has been lost, the other two buildings remain. Among furnishings designed by the firm for the Babson residence is a Tall Clock, 1912, now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Tall Clock, 1912, Designed for the Babson Residence by George Grant Elmslie
(of Purcell, Feick and Elmslie); Manufactured by Niedecken-Walbridge, Milwaukee. Mahogany with brass inlay
Art Institute of Chicago 1971.322
The Interior: George M. Niedecken
George Mann Niedecken. George Mann Niedecken Archives, Milwaukee Art Museum
George Mann Niedecken (1878–1945) was a well-known designer of furniture and a self-called “interior architect,” who worked in Milwaukee from 1903 to 1945. His Milwaukee Art Museum biography notes that
Niedecken’s designs were based on a synthesis of styles: Arts and Crafts, Prairie School, Art Nouveau, and Vienna Secessionist, among others. His philosophy was to unify interior furnishings with the building as a whole by working collaboratively with the architect and the client.
Niedecken studied art in several locations in Europe, and after meeting Otto Wagner, leading member of the Secessionist group, became influenced by the group’s simple, geometric motifs. He subsequently studied at the Académie Julien in Paris, under artist and designer Alphonse Mucha. Returning to Milwaukee in 1902, he taught decorative arts at the Wisconsin School of Arts, and exhibited designs at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he came to the notice of Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he would work on 12 commissions. In 1907, Niedecken started his own interior design firm with his brother-in-law, John Walbridge, and by 1910 had established his own furniture shop.
The interior of The Edison Shop, credited to Niedecken in The Western Architect, May 1913, was amply illustrated in this issue. The shop seemed designed for the comfort of its customers: upholstered wooden armchairs, tables, sofas, and elegant rugs seem to belong to a club interior or luxurious waiting area. There is hardly an item of merchandise in sight in the illustrations in The Western Architect of May 1913; a couple of tall phonographs are just visible in the first- floor display window. This was certainly an interior much different from any of today’s audio or electronics stores.
George Mann Niedecken, mural for the Meyer May House, 1908-09, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Frank Lloyd Wright, architect. Source: https://meyermayhouse.steelcase.com/
Plans of first and second stories, The Edison Shop
The Western Architect, May 1913
A look at the first and second floor plans shows how narrow and deep the building’s footprint was. Seating areas at the front of each story are illuminated by the large front windows. The middle section of each story contains listening booths – 5 on the first floor and 7 on the second – where customers could listen to phonographs in comfort. The first floor, in addition, featured a Concert Room,for musical performances or auditions of Edison phonographs.
Stairs and an elevator linked the floors. It is unclear, however, what purpose the upper two floors served; they may have housed offices, stock, or been leased. Microfilm images of the original plans in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago, are quite indistinct, the writing indecipherable.
The furniture, designed by Niedecken or in cooperation with the architects, includes upholstered armchairs with angular arms, and appear as wooden frames filled in partly with wood panels, boxy and somewhat severe-looking, apart from legs that curve at the bottom. Wooden tables echo influences of the contemporary arts and crafts or mission style, and side chairs with upholstered seats, quite plain in treatment, are arranged along the long side wall.
Edison Shop, interior, first floor
University of Minnesota Libraries, Northwest Architectural Archives, William Gray Purcell Papers
First-story walls are partly paneled in wood to about half the wall height, the panels framing painted wall surfaces. Wooden bands continue to the top of the wall, which angles inward at the top, and then across the ceiling. Stenciled decoration is evident the entire length of these bands of wood, giving continuity to the design and enclosing the space. Lighting on the first floor is from wall-mounted fixtures with downward-pointing prism shades; the second-floor fixtures are hanging glass bowls, suspended by metal rods from the ceiling.
The first-floor Concert Room featured wicker furniture, a small stage with an Edison upright cabinet phonograph, and upper walls decorated with a mural of tree branches, leaves, and hanging lanterns. It seems an elegant environment in which to audition sound equipment. In this room, one wonders whether, as in period Edison advertisements for “The Phonograph with a Soul,” audience members tried to guess: Is it an opera singer, or is it an Edison?
1919 Edison Phonograph advertisement
“Concert Room, Edison Phonograph Company Building, Chicago.”
The Western Architect, May 1913
Concert Room (detail of previous illustration), showing the mural decoration of tree branches, leaves, and hanging lanterns.
Perhaps the most fascinating object designed for The Edison Shop is a hanging electrolier, over the main entrance and outside the large display window. This enormously complex light fixture seems designed to attract customers into the shop beyond.
Electrolier, The Edison Shop. The Western Architect, May 1913
A detail of the facade shows the shop entryway with the electrolier. A large display window in the center attracted the attention of passersby, while the entrance was to the left, behind a display case filling the area between two piers. Illustration from The Western Architect, Vol. 19 No. 5 May 1913.
The Architects: Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie
Top: “William Gray Purcell, left, sits in an office with George Feick Jr. in 1908, the year the two Cornell classmates established their own Minneapolis firm.”https://web-b-ebscohost-com.chipublib.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=a98fb521-cf99-496e-b86c-580ca23d7327%40pdc-v-sessmgr03
Bottom: George Feick, Jr., William Gray Purcell, and George Grant Elmslie
Photo: Northwest Architectural Archiveshttp://artsmia.org/unified-vision/introduction/credits.cfm
Left: William Gray Purcell. Source: pcad.lib.washington.edu
Right: George Grant Elmslie. Source: prairiestyles.com
William Gray Purcell (1880-1965) and George Feick, Jr. (1881-1945) had been classmates at Cornell, traveled in Europe together, and in 1907 formed the partnership Purcell and Feick. Purcell’s family had moved to Oak Park, Illinois, and he would have been familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s work there. Feick, Jr. was the son of George Feick, an Ohio contractor. The partnership lasted until 1910, when the firm became Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie.
Purcell met George Grant Elmslie (1869-1952), then the chief draftsman for Louis Sullivan, at a dinner in Oak Park, Illinois. Elmslie secured a position in Sullivan’s office for Purcell.
After his first sight of Sullivan’s newly-built Auditorium at age 10, the awestruck Purcell resolved to become an architect. He studied at Cornell from 1899-1903, and following graduation, he returned to Chicago where he entered Sullivan’s office. Although he spent only five months there, it was a profound experience: he was exposed to the organic philosophy of the Master’s architecture which was to infuse his own work thereafter, and he became a close friend of George Grant Elmslie, Sullivan’s chief draftsman.
Elmslie was born in Scotland and migrated to the U.S. with his family in the mid-1880s. The family settled in Chicago, and Elmslie started his architectural career in the office of Joseph Silsbee, and later spent 20 years in Louis Sullivan’s (Adler & Sullivan until 1893) practice. Elmslie “designed most of the ornamentation that graced Sullivan’s buildings,” including that of the Schlesinger & Mayer (later Carson Pirie Scott) store. Due to Louis Sullivan’s declining business fortunes, in 1909 Elmslie searched for a more reliable situation, and by 1910 had moved to Minneapolis as a full partner in Purcell, Feick & Elmslie.
Feick left the partnership in 1913, when he returned to Sandusky, Ohio to join the building firm George Feick and Sons Company with his father and brother Emil. The partnership of Purcell & Elmslie endured until 1921, though both men operated offices in separate cities. The firm produced designs for buildings in twenty-two states, Australia, and China, with offices in several cities. Viewed as among the chief 20th-century prairie school designers, or more generally, as “progressive” architects, the firm was responsible for a huge number of prairie-style houses and a variety of commercial work; they are credited with receiving “more commissions than any other firm of progressive architects after Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Purcell and Feick’s architecture is marked by buildings rarely accompanied by decoration beyond opportunities afforded by building materials. 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. Purcell contributed an 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.
The William Gray Purcell Papers, housed in the Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, document much of the firm’s work. Documents relating to the design of The Edison Shop in Chicago are available both in online archives, and in digitized volumes of architectural periodicals, all listed in the Notes and in the Online Resources / Links section.
Preliminary designs, Edison Shop / Babson Bros. Building, Chicago, Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie, architects
University of Minnesota Libraries online U Media Archive https://organica.org/pejn170_5.htm
Elevation, The Edison Shop; Source: Explore Chicago Collections
Designs for The Edison Shop (Babson Brothers Building), Chicago, “A building designed to meet the various especial requirements for the display and sale of phonographs”
The Western Architect, January 1913
Left: A Purcell and Elmslie advertising brochure featured The Edison Shop, Chicago.
Right: “Edison Phonograph Shop, Chicago, Original drawings by G.G.E.” Detail of central façade ornament https://organica.org/pejn170_5.htm
The building’s later years
Sanborn Map of Chicago, 1927: The Edison Shop, 229 S. Wabash, Ave., is indicated with EDISON.
The Edison Shop in 1917 with its neighbor, building for the John Church Co., Mundie & Jensen, Architects
The Western Architect v. 24 no. 4 April 1917, p. 25
Hung Fa Village occupied the building in the 1960s. The lighter building on the right, at 243 S. Wabash at the corner of Jackson, is now occupied by the DePaul University College of Computing and Digital Media.
The Edison Shop was evidently remodeled in 1933. Although the building had been listed a Chicago Architectural Landmark in 1959, by August 1964, when a Historic American Buildings Survey was conducted, its condition was listed as “fair.” The building’s owner, J. & R. Investment Company, indicated that the building would be demolished when the current occupant’s leased expired. Hung Fa Village Chinese Restaurant and Key Club occupied the building. By this time, the buildings on either side had been razed.
The building was demolished in 1967, and the site on S. Wabash Ave. where it, as well as adjacent buildings, stood is now a parking area directly behind Symphony Center. Its unfortunate loss further erased some important links to Chicago’s commercial and architectural past.
View of The Edison Shop from above.
Photograph: Richard Nickel. Ryerson and Burnham Archives, Art Institute of Chicago
1 “The Edison Shop,” The Western Architect Vol. 19 No. 5 May 1913, no page numbers.
2 Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), HABS IL-1044, 1959, data sheet.
3 Lowe, David Garrard, Lost Chicago. The University of Chicago Press, 2010. Illustration caption, p. 226.
4 Biographical Notes: William Gray Purcell (1880-1965); Purcell and Elmslie, 1913-1921. Hammons, Mark, in Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers, 1985.
6 Historic American Buildings Survey ILL-1044, 1964: “The date of the original structure is unknown….The permit lists the Babson Brothers as owners, but their name appears nowhere on the chain of title.”(p. 3)
“Original drawings (on microfilm in the Art Institute of Chicago) carry notations which indicate that another building existed on the site, and that the present structure was remodeled with the present front added.” (p. 5)
7 “Henry Babson.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Babson
8 The Frederick Law Olmsted Society. https://www.olmstedsociety.org/events/housewalk/housewalk-2010/babson-estate-service-buildings/
Although Sullivan designed the 1907-08 residence, a large part of the scheme—including the built-in and freestanding furniture—was actually executed by Elmslie, who was then working for Sullivan. In 1912 Elmslie and his firm made additions to the house, including eight pieces of furniture. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/36161/tall-clock
9 Milwaukee Art Museum, George Mann Niedecken Archives https://mam.org/collection/archives/prairie/
It is unclear what role Niedecken played in the design of The Edison Shop, Chicago. It’s possible that his furniture manufacturing firm, established 1910, executed the furniture from the designs by Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie. The George Mann Niedecken Archives indicate that he “worked on” the Edison Shop commission.
Gebhard, David, Purcell & Elmslie, Prairie Progressive Architects, 2006, p. 127, notes that “The furniture they [Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie] designed for the interior was executed by George M. Niedecken….”
A table for one of the Edison Shops (possibly San Franciso), “executed by George Mann Niedecken,” was recently listed for sale on ebay:
The Niedecken and Walbridge firm (est. 1907) are credited with the design of yet another Edison Shop, wholly or in part, in Detroit, 1915-16. https://organica.org/peniedecken1.htm
11 “Prairie Vision: The Architecture of Purcell, Feick,and Elmslie in Bismarck,” by: Sakariassen, Emily. North Dakota History. Fall 2016, Vol. 81 Issue 3, p16-31. 16p.
Other sources for George Feick, Jr. include:
George Feick, Jr. http://barbfeick.com/FeickHistory/George_Feick_Jr.htm
Sandusky Library Historical Collections
12 Lathrop, Alan K., “The Architects,” Purcell and Elmslie, Architects, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries. https://www.lib.umn.edu/scrbm/purcell-and-elmslie-architects
14 “William Gray Purcell.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Gray_Purcell
15 Unified Vision: The Architecture and Design of the Prairie School. Accessed 12/17/2020 at http://artsmia.org/unified-vision/collection/purcell-elmslie.cfm.html
See also Organica.org, Purcell and Elmslie, “The Compleat Commission List.” Accessed 12/15/2020 at https://organica.org/pejn170.htm
17 University of Minnesota Libraries, Archives and Special Collections, Purcell and Elmslie, Architects. Accessed 12/14/2020 at https://www.lib.umn.edu/scrbm/purcell-and-elmslie-architects
See also Hammons, Mark, “Purcell and Elmslie, 1913-1921,” Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers, 1985. Accessed 12/13/2020 at https://organica.org/pewgp6.htm
18 Historic American Buildings Survey ILL-1044, index card (no date), supplement to 1964 report
19 Historic American Buildings Survey ILL-1044, 1964, p. 7
Online Resources / Links:
Architecture in the Spirit of Democracy: Purcell and Elmslie, research courtesy Mark Hammons. Accessed 12/12/2020 at https://organica.org/purcellandelmslie.htm
Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson and Burnham Archives. Digitized images of Babson Brothers Store (The Edison Shop)available at https://digital-libraries.artic.edu/digital/collection/mqc/search/searchterm/Babson%20Brothers%20Building/field/altern/mode/exact/conn/and
Explore Chicago Collections: The place to discover the history and culture of Chicago. Accessed 12/12/2020 at https://explore.chicagocollections.org/
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), HABS IL-1044, 1959, data sheet. Accessed 12/12/2020 at https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/master/pnp/habshaer/il/il0100/il0111/data/il0111data.pdf
Milwaukee Art Museum, George Mann Niedecken Archives. Accessed 12/17/2020 https://mam.org/collection/archives/prairie/
“Prairie Vision: The Architecture of Purcell, Feick,and Elmslie in Bismarck,” by: Sakariassen, Emily. North Dakota History. Fall 2016, Vol. 81 Issue 3, p16-31. 16p. Accessed 12/17/2020 at https://web-b-ebscohost-com.chipublib.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=a98fb521-cf99-496e-b86c-580ca23d7327%40pdc-v-sessmgr03
University of Minnesota Libraries, Archives and Special Collections, Purcell and Elmslie, Architects. Accessed 12/14/2020 at https://www.lib.umn.edu/scrbm/purcell-and-elmslie-architects
Hammons, Mark, Biographical Notes: William Gray Purcell (1880-1965); Purcell and Elmslie, 1913-1921., in Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers, 1985.https://organica.org/pewgp6.htm
“The Edison Shop,” The Western Architect Vol. 19 No. 5 May 1913, no page numbers. [Click on title for archived article.] Available online at HathiTrust Digital Library.
The Work of Purcell and Elmslie, The Western Architect Vol. 19 No. 1 January 1913, no page numbers. [Click on title for archived article.] Available online at HathiTrust Digital Library.
The Work of Purcell and Elmslie, The Western Architect Vol. 22 No. 5 May 1915, no page numbers. [Click on title for archived article.] Available online at HathiTrust Digital Library.
The William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries. Accessed 12/12/2020 athttps://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/8/resources/2215
University of Minnesota Libraries online U Media Archivehttps://organica.org/pejn170_5.htm