Growing up in the same Oak Park (IL) neighborhood as Frank Lloyd Wright, William Gray Purcell decided to become an architect at an early age. He studied architecture at Cornell University before returning to Chicago as a draftsman in the office of Louis Sullivan. Although Purcell’s time at Sullivan’s firm was short, it proved to be extremely influential in shaping his organic design philosophy and in creating a close friendship to chief draftsman, George Grant Elmslie.
After leaving Chicago, Purcell traveled for many years in the United States before settling in Minneapolis to form a partnership with college classmate George Feick in 1906. The new firm struggled to gain influential commissions until 1909 when Elmslie relocated to Minneapolis to join the young partners. Elmslie, who had experience working with Frank Lloyd Wright, George Maher, and Louis Sullivan added experience and maturity to their designs. Purcell and Elmslie became the dominant design partners while Feick remained primarily the engineer and specifications writer. But by 1913, Feick was unable to share enthusiasm for their experimental approaches to design problems and left to do contracting work in St. Louis.
From 1910 until the dissolution of the partnership a dozen years later, Purcell and Elmslie enjoyed a large and diversified practice. They produced banks, churches, residences, courthouses, garages, and other types of buildings, all bearing the unmistakable characteristics of the Prairie School. Notable Minneapolis commissions included the residences of Charles Backus (1915), Lyman Wakefield (1912), and Dr. Oscar Owre (1912), but the house Purcell designed for himself in 1913 most brilliantly exhibits the open plan characteristic of the Prairie School. By the time the partnership formally ended in 1922 Elmslie had returned to Chicago to resume his independent practice, while Purcell became an advertising executive in Philadelphia before retiring to California.