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  • Josie Owens

THE PURCELL-CUTTS HOUSE: A Solution to Tuberculosis

Long before COVID, the world was confronted with another highly contagious disease: tuberculosis.Architects responded with innovative designs meant to promote hygiene and alleviate the effects of the disease.Josie Owens shows us how this hygiene-forward architecture can be seen in Mia’s own Purcell-Cutts house.

“The house and dress of the future will give us control of our environment, without interfering with our mental and physical nakedness. Our rooms will descend close to the ground and the garden will become part of the house. The distinction between indoors and out-of-doors will disappear … [W]e will sleep in the open.” American-Austrian architect Rudolf Schindler wrote this in a health column in the Los Angeles Times in 1926.

A deadly disease

At the turn of the 20th century, an architectural movement in both Europe and America reacted to illnesses affecting the population, mainly tuberculosis.

In his book, The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption, 1862–1954, Mark Caldwell states that tuberculosis of the lungs — “consumption” — was the leading cause of death in 19th-century America, and that by the mid-1800s, it had claimed millions, if not tens of millions, of lives worldwide. By 1900 it was still killing a seventh of the human race. Not much was known about treatment throughout the 1900s, and prior to the discovery and use of antibiotics, treatment was limited to the method of patient care. As late as the 1940s, tuberculosis (TB) continued to cause more deaths than any other contagious disease.

In 1882, German physician Robert Koch isolated Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the tiny rod-shaped bacterium that causes the disease. This led to the realization that the microscopic organisms traveled on dust particles or airborne droplets, providing physicians two approaches to slow the disease: isolating the infected and keeping them as inactive as possible.

Since TB affects the lungs, doctors in Europe concluded that patients would benefit by receiving lots of fresh air. Sanatoriums were built to offer patients space and clean air away from polluted, crowded cities. The first American sanatorium for pulmonary tuberculosis was established in 1875 by a Bavarian, Joseph Gleitsmann, in Asheville, North Carolina. Not only was the mountain air beneficial — so was the hygienic design of the sanatorium’s space and furniture.

The architectural response

Residential architects began to design homes that offered a similar environment. Prairie School architects, led by Frank Lloyd Wright, rejected the prevailing Victorian style with its heavy drapes, ornate furniture and crowded rooms; all of these features increased dust and dirt in the home. Instead, they sought to design homes that were cleaner both in style and hygiene.

Purcell and Elmslie, an architecture firm in Minneapolis, followed this school of thought. William Purcell, who had worked briefly for architect Louis Sullivan, designed a house with George Elmslie for the Purcell family (including wife Edna and the first of their two sons) in 1913 with these ideas in mind. The house, located at 2328 Lake Place in Minneapolis and known as the Purcell-Cutts house, embodies this modern hygienic design aesthetic. It was gifted to Mia in 1985 by its second owners, the Cutts family.

When the museum closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jennifer Komar Olivarez, Mia's Head of Exhibition Planning and Strategy and Interim Curator of the Purcell-Cutts House, saw an excellent opportunity to revisit how an earlier health crisis shaped the architectural design of the Purcell-Cutts house.

Out with germs and dust, in with fresh air

The hygiene-oriented modern design of the house begins with its placement: some 30 feet back from the street to reduce exposure to dirt and dust. The windows face the gardens of the neighbors, offering both privacy and clean air.

To minimize the spread of germs caused by frequent visitors, Purcell implemented some innovative designs:

Step one—don’t let the germs in! Instead of the ice man bringing the block of ice into the home along with his dirt and germs, he would insert it directly into the icebox by way of an opening cleverly cut into the side of the house, eliminating any need to enter the home.

Step two—stop the germs as quickly as possible! Visitors entering the house would remove outer clothing carrying dirt and dust and wash their hands immediately. To the right of the front door, Purcell placed a large closet with a sink and coat-and-hat rack. The Turnblad Mansion on Park Avenue, built in 1904-1908 and now occupied by the American Swedish Institute, similarly has a cloakroom with a sink by its staircase.

Sinks aplenty

The sink at the entry was not the only place one could wash hands in the Purcell-Cutts house. The maid had her own sink in her private quarters on the second floor. The guest bedroom also had its own sink. The family bathroom used the newest materials and designs for cleanliness. For example, enamel-coated cast iron was a development introduced by the Kohler Company in 1883 to make tubs and other products “superior, clean and hygienic,” according to Angela Miller, manager of archives and heritage at Kohler. The fixtures were easy to wipe down and keep clean.

Similarly, the kitchen had a modern, hygienic design. Purcell utilized a new flooring material and installation technique. Magnesite, a material made from magnesium oxide, sawdust, lime, pigment and other materials, was poured in place and then allowed to harden. The result was one continuous floor and baseboard with no cracks or gaps for dirt to collect. The solid-surface countertops and large enameled sink were also easy to keep clean.

To increase access to fresh air, Purcell incorporated an abundance of windows and screened sleeping porches. Olivarez explains, “The sleeping porch was something Purcell and Elmslie felt strongly about as therapeutic and important to the house.” The Purcells’ twin brass beds were cleverly placed on casters so they could be easily rolled out to the porch over a fold-down threshold.

Numerous windows throughout the house helped increase light and air. Olivarez says, “The windows are out-swinging casements with removable screens to allow for cross breezes in the large, open floor plans.”

The house had one of the newest inventions, a central vacuuming system, which was first seen in Minnesota architecture in 1908 at Glensheen Mansion in Duluth.

Even the furniture was designed with health care in mind. Instead of freestanding wardrobes to collect dust, the architects added closets and built-in desks and cabinets. Purcell concealed additional storage in the floors and in drawers under the child’s bed.

Purcell himself contracted TB (he later recalled that he was likely suffering from symptoms as early as 1905, though he was not diagnosed until 1930 at an advanced stage) and became one of the many Americans who moved west for better climates. After treatment at sanatoria in Banning and Monrovia, California in the 1930s, he eventually settled with his second wife in Pasadena, a city that grew and prospered as a direct result of TB patients seeking better weather in an ideal climate. Pasadena indeed agreed with Purcell, and he lived there until his death at 84 in 1965.

The disease is conquered

Although the architectural designs helped alleviate tuberculosis, it was a Minnesota medical discovery that eventually brought the disease to an end in the 1940s. First tested on TB patients at the Mayo Clinic in the winter of 1944, streptomycin was found to kill Mycobacterium tuberculosis within weeks, negating the need for the fresh air and isolation cure.

However, the beautiful architecture of the Purcell-Cutts house remains, along with its many beneficial hygienic features.

In fact, during the more recent COVID pandemic, those same health recommendations were revisited and encouraged. Remember to wash your hands!

Note: This article was previously published in the July 2022 issue of the Hill & Lake Press, Minneapolis, MN.

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