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George Grant Elmslie
Special Interest Architectural Tour
Begin: PACE Route 524 - Downer Pl., Galena/Broadway
End: PACE Route 526 - W. Plaza Galena/Chestnut
The largest collection of George Grant Elmslie’s commercial buildings is located here in Aurora, Illinois. His five building designs in our city illustrate the influence of the Chicago School of Architecture’s modern ideas. This tour provides some excellent examples of Elmslie’s impact on American architecture.
Through Louis Sullivan, his employer for nearly 20 years, Elmslie was associated with the vanguard of modern architecture. Sullivan, one of the fathers of modern architecture, was then working with Dankmar Adler on the landmark Auditorium Building. Frank Lloyd Wright was employed by Adler and Sullivan at the same time. “Sullivan”, Elmslie wrote later, “allowed me a lot of freedom and from 1895 to 1909 I did much designing for him and all of the ornamental work besides. I owe an inexpressible debt to him, the great master, and to his teachings.”
Elmslie’s contributions to the firm were significant., including his work on Chicago’s Carson Pirie Scott and Company Building. While the structure’s overall design was Sullivan’s, what is frequently overlooked is that Elmslie created the world renowned cast-iron ornament that decorates that monument to the Chicago School.
Elmslie began designing alone in 1922. “Since then,” wrote Elmslie, “I have been holding aloft the banner of the Sullivan philosophy alone and endeavoring to design and plan on its basis.” Their shared philosophy included an unbending belief that modern American architecture should be, above all, indigenous. Elmslie once remarked, “There is quite some talk going on about an International style. This is something we do not want. I hope the idea of a common style between nations will pass away and be forgotten. What we need is a sane and wide development of the use of our own varied and marvelous materials...”
Elmslie favored terra cotta for ornament. Characteristically he used repeating bands of this baked clay material to define spandrels, lintels, piers, and other structural systems. Elmslie also frequently accented his work with bas-relief, deriving the themes from the building’s purpose and association to locally significant activities and values.
1. German-American Bank, 1925
1 S. Broadway
Built as a bank, and designed by George Grant Elmslie about 1925, this structure has undergone several alterations at the first floor level. The south facade originally served as an entrance with a stylized eagle on the silhouette proclaiming the use of the building. The long north facade has a highly stylized, Prairie style terra cotta frieze between the first and second floor windows . Similar Prairie style decoration appears at the top of the building, above the second and third floor windows, and framing the panel that separates the ground floor from the second floor.
2. Keystone Building , 1923
30 S. Stolp Avenue
The Keystone Building, built in 1923, is one of two Stolp Island works by Elmslie. It is a relatively rare example of the Prairie style used for an office building. This style, noted for its horizontal emphasis and decorative applications, is typically found in houses rather than commercial office buildings.
Faced with an essentially triangular piece of land, Elmslie designed the Keystone building 115 feet deep at the north end but just 25 feet deep on the south end. The former Aurora Silver Plate Manufacturing Company factory was successfully incorporated into the eastern portion of the Keystone Building.
The hallways and most of the offices have the original quartersawn oak trim and doors. On the exterior, highly refined Prairie School decorative elements are located in the arched screen over the central entryway, in the bronze light fixtures, in the cornice and in the horizontal banding that links the windows at each floor. Ironically, there are no keystones (the centerpieces of masonry archways) in the Keystone Building.
3. Graham Building, 1926
33-35 S. Stolp Avenue
Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, the Graham Building is one of Stolp Island’s two Prairie style buildings. Built in 1926, the Graham Building is one of the few downtown buildings that acknowledges its riverfront location. It has identical decorative face brick and horizontal terra cotta and brick string-coursing on both the street and riverfront facades. At eight stories, the Graham Building is the tallest of Elmslie’s five Aurora works and the most subdued in detailing and ornamentation. Contrast its severely plain, smooth pink granite first-floor elevation with the Keystone’s ornate storefronts across the street.
William Graham, Elmslie’s client, was also the general contractor for this building, along with the other Elmslie structures in Aurora. Graham immigrated to Aurora from Nova Scotia, Canada, in the 1890’s, becoming a general contractor of area prominence. Graham owned the namesake building until his death in the early 1950s.
4. Old Second National Bank, 1924
37 S. River Street
William George, bank president from 1895-1933, selected George Grant Elmslie to execute “a structure that would grow old with dignity and charm, but contain the spirit of a new day in commerce, the arts and the social welfare of the community.” The result is this 1924 building designed by Elmslie in the Prairie style. It reflects some of the best features of this style, particularly the Roman brick masonry with its horizontal emphasis, the elaborate terra cotta ornaments, the stained glass windows in a stylized geometric motif, and the incorporation of sculpture into the design of the building.
An outstanding team of artisans was assembled by Elmslie to execute these details, including Emil R. Zettler, sculptor; John W. Norton, muralist; and Kristian Schneider, who modeled the terra cotta designed by Elmslie. The bank patrons are recognized in Zettler’s bas-relief sculpture depicting the trades in the community, such as farming, animal husbandry, commerce, manufacturing, merchant trade and mining. The mural on the inside depicts the history of the community.
The exterior building configuration demonstrates the Prairie style emphasis on the horizontal, especially the southern elevation with its rows of vertical piers, bands of window openings, and granite base. The front facade’s vertical emphasis is due to the lot configuration, however, it too is broken with horizontal features, such as the spandrels between the windows on the front pavilion, the balcony, and the bands of windows.
Inside, the general configuration of the original space is visible, but the counters and ceiling have been altered. The walls have been divided into squares, with a piece of colored ceramic tile set in each corner, which form a part of the original Prairie style interior. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A later addition to the north is compatible with the original design, yet clearly distinguishable from the historic building. Old Second has been an exceptional caretaker, and has published a complete history of the building.
5. Healy Chapel, 1928
332 W. Downer Place
The Healy Chapel features characteristic Prairie style elements, including the emphasis on the horizontal in the exterior design through the use of horizontal banding and changes in materials from brick on the first and second stories to stucco on the third story. Other Prairie style features include the geometrically patterned terra cotta decoration, stained glass windows and hipped roof. The double stained glass entry doors are also surrounded by decorative terra cotta motifs.
The building’s plan and design reflect the architect’s careful attention to the details of both the business and personal aspects of the mortuary business. The vertical piers on the lower portion are commercial Prairie style features that reflect the business use. This contrasts with the more residential stucco material on the second floor, reflecting its corresponding use.
The Healy Undertaking Company ranks among the oldest of the family firms in Aurora in which descendants of the founders are still actively engaged. It was the first mortuary in Kane County to provide a suitable chapel designed specifically for its particular use. The ornamental medallion over the entrance was carefully restored from photographs after the original vanished.