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George Grant Elmslie
1871 – 1952  Class of 2012  Architect
Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on February 20, 1871, George Grant Elmslie attended the Riggins and Duke of Gordon Schools, Gartly and Huntly, Scotland.  He came to Chicago in 1884, where he began as an apprenticeship in the office of William LeBaron Jenney, the originator of the steel frame skeleton still used today in modern construction.

In 1887, George joined the office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee where he became a co-worker of Frank Lloyd Wright’s.  Wright subsequently referred him to architect Louis Sullivan, and after Wright’s departure from Adler and Sullivan’s office, George
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became Louis Sullivan’s chief draftsman for the next 15 years.  He delineated many of the famous Sullivan firm drawings, including the cast iron entry ornament of what would become the Carson Pirie Scott building on State Street in Chicago, the detailing on the National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, and the Wainwright building in St. Louis, Missouri.

George left Sullivan’s practice in 1909 to join the firm of Purcell and Feick in Minneapolis.  They were known for their designs of churches, residences, and civic and community buildings.  Eventually, he partnered with Purcell, and the renowned architectural team of Purcell and Elmslie was formed in 1913, perhaps the most prolific and successful of the Prairie School architects.  Author David Gebhard wrote a book about their architectural contributions entitled Purcell and Elmslie: Prairie Progressive Architects.

George left his signature across America.  In 1922, he started a private practice back in Chicago, focusing on commercial designs.  He later worked with William S. Hutton on many Indiana and Illinois school designs, and in conjunction with Herman von Holst on such buildings as the Elgin Station, Aurora Terminal, many Chicago area utility buildings, and the Lake Lawn Hotel in Delavan, Wisconsin.  In 1933, he designed the Aquatic Golf Layout for the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. His life work is an American treasure chest of drawings and realized buildings in the Sullivanesque and Prairie styles that make him one of the top architects in American history.

George spoke of his craft like an artist:  “Shall we be cultured aesthetes and dilly-dally with our jobs or put on our dungarees and learn the significance of architecture by laying stone and brick for awhile, mixing mortar and sawing wood.  Learn of the strength of materials; know of society and its myriad needs and aspirations.  Read fairy stories; read Keats, Shelley and Whitman.  Absorb a sound and understanding knowledge of the incredible inventions of our day and go to it.  There are no fixed formulas; no dry standards; no such thing as composition.  There is only one thing to achieve and that is an architectural organism.  Composition is dead; an organization is alive…vivid…responsive to conditions; and eloquent of the spiritual association of function and form.  Travel the frank and courageous road whereon may be seen the real contributions to ages gleaming in the sunshine.”

While serving his Fox Valley clients, George left a legacy of buildings that have made Aurora, Illinois, a tourism destination for architectural enthusiasts from around the world.  Within about a ten-block-square area in downtown Aurora sit five of his unique “shining jewels”:  The Old Second Bank Building (1924) on River Street at Downer Place, the Keystone Building (1924) and Graham Building (1925) on Stolp Avenue, the (German-) American Bank Building (1922) at the corner of Galena Boulevard and Broadway, and The Healy Chapel (1927) on Downer at Chestnut Street.  

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Architect John Cordogan, a 2006 inductee of the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame, along with his wife, Carmen, researched Elmslie extensively years ago when they initiated design work for the building addition to Old Second National Bank.  Wallace Cunningham, 2010 inductee of the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame, and one of the nominators of George Grant Elmslie, said this about his buildings in Aurora:  “All these buildings are touched with genius, especially Healy Chapel and Old Second.  They are the ultimate expression of the Prairie School:  with magnificent detailing, proportions, light and shadow; glorious materials, such
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as Roman bricks, limestone, terra cotta, and stained glass.”

Craig Zabel from Pennsylvania State University felt that George Grant Elmslie “moved beyond Sullivan’s example” with the Old Second Bank building, stating “…(Elmslie) encouraged the inclusion of other functions beyond those of the bank to broaden the public appeal of the building, as monumentality was diminished, and ‘a bank home’ emerged with its symbolic gabled roof.  With this last bank, Elmslie more literally created the architecture of democracy toward which Sullivan worked poetically throughout his career.”

Wallace Cunningham, quoted in a 1976 newspaper feature story stating that Aurora had more potential landmarks than any other city in Kane County, said, “If Elmslie would have only drawn his ornaments, he would be considered a world-class interpreter of design.  In actually realizing these edifices he is truly a master builder.  Old Second is unquestionably one of the largest and most glorious of the Prairie School designs…”

Locally, George also designed the St. Charles Country Club, plus dozens of residences in several Chicago suburbs:  Hinsdale, Evanston, Highland Park, Flossmoor, Riverside, Glenview, Western Springs, and Lemont.  His homes, churches, and commercial buildings may be found in several states in addition to Illinois:  Minnesota, Missouri, Indiana, Vermont, Kansas, Florida, and Wisconsin.

In 1947, the American Institute of Architects awarded George Grant Elmslie their prestigious Fellowship status. In his later years, George wrote about architecture and accepted speaking engagements.  He died on April 23, 1952, at the age of 65, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

The interest in and value of his artistic contributions has not waned.  In 1971, Mrs. George A. Harvey gifted a pair of brass and bronze cast iron andirons that George Grant Elmslie designed in 1912 to the Art Institute of Chicago.  In May of 2012, an appraiser associated with the television program, “Antiques Roadshow,” noted that a chair created by this great architect could be worth as much as $50,000.  

Portrait photo supplied by: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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