William Gray Purcell was born in Wilmette, Illinois in
1880. He was raised by his grandfather, William Cunningham Gray, editor of "The
Interior", a religous magazine, on the same street that Frank Lloyd Wright would
later build his first home on. Purcell graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High
School in 1899 and went on to graduate from Cornell University in 1903 with a degree in
architecture. It was at Cornell University that he met his future partner George Feick Jr.
He then returned to Chicago and obtained work with Louis Sullivan for five months. While
he was there he met another of his future partners, George Grant Elmslie
With work on the decline in Sullivans office,
Purcell left for Los Angeles to visit Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey and then on to San
Francisco where he worked for John Galen Howard. He left San Francisco for Seattle and the
firm of Charles H. Bebb and Leonard L. Mendel in 1905. In 1906 he returned to Oak Park for
a short stay and shortly thereafter left for Europe and Asia with former college classmate
George Feick Jr.
Upon their return to the United States in 1907, Purcell
and Feick established their partnership in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The firm was known for
designing churches, residences and various types of civic and commercial buildings
throughout California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and the Midwest. They received their
first bank commission in 1907, the unrealized First National Bank in Winona, Minnesota.
Their design for the bank, which was derived from Wrights Unity Temple, was rejected
for a more classical design. It was not until 1911 that Purcell, Feick & Elmslie (who
had joined the firm in 1909) got their chance to execute a bank in Winnona, the Merchants
Bank Of Winona. Over the course of a decade the firm had executed over 70 buildings along
with numerous other unrealized designs, making them the most productive of the Prairie
In 1913 George Feick Jr. left the firm, while Purcell
and Elmslie continued their partnership officially until 1922. The new partnership of
Purcell and Elmslie produced numerous banks across the Midwest as well as the Woodbury
County Courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa in collaboration with former Sullivan protégé
William L. Steele.
During World War I he moved to Philadelphia to take a
position as advertising manager for a local Philadelphia firm, but then returned to
Minneapolis in 1919, as the company entered into bankruptcy. In 1920 Purcell went into
semi-retirement because of failing health and moved to Portland, Oregon. In Portland he
became the director of the Architects Small House Service Bureau and an editorial
assistant for Northwest Architect magazine. Purcell moved to Pasadena, California at the
end of the decade and ultimately retired there. He continued to write until his death on
April 11, 1965. He was buried in the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois under
the monument that he designed while a student at Cornell for his grandfather, in the
family burial plot.