Here is the article;
"Possible title: "Promoting the Prairie School in the Heartland: William L. Steele of Sioux City, Iowa" or "William L. Steele and the Viscousitudes of the Prairie School.
The Prairie School was an attempt by a group of Chicago based architects to create a regional image and ideology in architecture and the decorative arts. Sophisticated in appeal the success of the Prairie School (also known as the" Western or Chicago School") occurred in two distinct cultural areas of the middlewest. The initial work came in the large metropolitan centers and suburbs during the later 1890s and 1900s. But beginning about 1908 and fully evident by 1912 the future of the Prairie School no longer lay in the cosmopolitan centers but instead in the rural heartland from whence it had derived its imagery of the long horizontal of the prairie and simple forms and complex details, and ideology of small town, participatory democracy. In small towns and cities of rural Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Iowa a new chapter in the life the Prairie School was constructed in the form of banks, stores, houses and public buildings. Out in the providences the Prairie School took on a different and much more public image, no longer primarily a domestic house style, it became a symbol of the community. William L. Steele (1875- 1949) of Sioux City, Iowa, was an important figure associated with the continuation of the Prairie School; only in 1914 did he begin to design buildings in the idiom. One of the most public spokesman for the Sullivan cause, Steele collaborated with George Grant Elmslie to design the famous (but seldom seen) Woodbury County Courthouse, the only major public structure in the Prairie style in the United States. Steele used variations on the Prairie School idiom for a number of other buildings in Sioux City and the surrounding region for a number of years. His adoption, success, and subsequent abandonment of the Prairie style helps provide an understanding of its appeal in the heartland of America.
William LaBarthe Steele was born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1875 and educated locally before entering the architectural program at the University of Illinois in 1892. Nathan Clifford Ricker headed the Department of Architecture at Illinois and while following many of the Beaux-Arts precepts common in American architectural education also emphasized engineering, introduced German architectural texts and expressed sympathy to some of the new ideas of Chicago architects like Dankmar Adler. After graduation in 1896 Steele headed for Chicago and worked briefly in the office of S. S. Beman and then from 1897 to 1900 he was employed as a draftsman in the office of Louis Sullivan. There is little record of Steele's years with Sullivan though he later became one of Sullivan's strongest proponents; as he later remembered Sullivan's nickname among his draftsmen was the "Sun god." He also developed a close friendship with Sullivan's chief assistant George Grant Elmslie. By 1900 time was running out in Sullivan's office and Steele moved to Pittsburgh to work for Thomas Rodd, the architect for the Westinghouse Company. Subsequently, Steele worked for two other Pittsburg firms, Adlen & Harlow (prior to 1896 Longfellow, Alden & Harlow) who had designed the Carnegie Institute and Library, and then Sidney F. Heckert, who specialized in educational buildings and churches. In 1901 Steel married his college sweetheart, Mariane Greene and their first daughter was born in early 1903. In time they were to have six children. Seeking greater status and financial remuneration Steele looked about for a practice to join and in 1904 he accepted a position with Wilfried W. Beach in Sioux City, Iowa. Beach had come up through the building trades and had a successful practice, but he was getting on in years. Steele with his credentials of education and what appeared to be cosmopolitan experience in the design of major commercial, ecclesiastical and educational structures put the profession of architecture on a new footing in Sioux City. He became a partner of Beach's in 1905, and in 1906 at 31 years of age he opened his own office in Sioux City.
Located at the big bend of the Missouri River where the states of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota meet, Sioux City was the major metropolitan center for the rich farming region of the area. Its economic influence stretched further than the tri-state area into southern Minnesota, North Dakota, western Montana, and even portions of Colorado. Sioux City was the county seat of Woodbury County from its inception. First settled in the 1850s as a supply point for those headed west it grew throughout the nineteenth century into a major trading center; steamboats were replaced by railroads and by 1900 it was serviced by 12 railroads including the Great Northern, Illinois Central, Union Pacific, and Chicago Northwestern. Large wholesale firms with warehouses were established and it became a center with grain elevators, stockyards and meat packing. The city had boomed in the 1880s and early 90s--it even had an elevated railroad--and its nickname was "little Chicago." Then came the disastrous depression of the mid 1890s when it actually lost population. But by 1900 it was on the rebound, the city population stood at 33,111, and the small towns and farms of Woodbury County had 21,474. Major growth took place in the next twenty five years, as Sioux City grew from 47,828 in 1910 to 71,227 in 1920, and 75,411 in 1925. The county population stayed at the same level of approximately 20,000 through these years. But then the growth of Sioux City leveled off, and in 1930 the population had grown only by 2900.
During these twenty five or so years, Sioux City was of a hustling town full of recently earned money and while it was not Chicago or Minneapolis, neither was it that archetype of the rural Midwest- Sinclair Lewis's Gopher Prairie. It was a big-little town, filled with pretentions to sophistication and conscious of its inferiority, it had a sizeable population and yet it retained a small town atmosphere. Filled with boosters, who claimed an ever increasing economy--five hundred more dwellings than last year--a two hundred and fifth percent increase in value of building permits--it was a city conscious of its appearance where the newspaper ran contests asking readers to name the architect, builder, and material supplier of recent houses. Not all was harmony though in Sioux City, it had the most active labor union organization in the state and from 1914 through the early 1920s it gained a reputation as the "Wobblie Capital" when the Industrial Workers of the World (I. W. W.) won several local elections.
In Lewis’s Gopher Prairie, Carol Kennicott could only dream of introducing cosmopolitan ideas but the citizens of Sioux City could go much further. In 1921 the Chamber of Commerce could proudly claim that Sioux City was among the one hundred largest American cities with a rank of ninety-ninth. In 1911 the city had successfully petitioned Andrew Carnegie's fund for $75,000 to help with a new library; the Italian Renaissance design was by Edward Tilton (a former McKim, Mead & White man) of New York, and William Steele was the supervising architect. The growth of the city would necessitate branch libraries which Steele would design. The Sioux City Symphony was established at part of the local Morningside College in 1915 and by 1918 they were giving 6 concerts a year. The Sioux City Society of Fine Arts was formed in 1914 with the aim of holding exhibits of paintings, sculpture and prints borrowed from New York and Chicago galleries and encouraging local artists. The Sioux City Journal noted that businessmen "supposed to be the last one[s] . . . interested," actively supported and headed up the Society. The Society of Fine Arts would claim space in the new County Courthouse though Steele discovered that businessmen could question new ideas on architecture.
The career of William Steele almost exactly coincides with these years of activity; he arrived in Sioux City in 1904 and departed in 1928 and between, he was Sioux City's most prominent architect. During his years in Sioux City Steele and his office designed approximately 250 buildings for the city and the surrounding tri-state area. The successful practice of architecture in a remote area like Sioux City, meant salesmanship, adaptability and the willingness to do work at all sizes and types. Steele wrote reflectively years later: "The small-town architect must have tack and patience." Those who commissioned architecture were money makers, frequently of not great artistic pretensions who would rely on the advice of their architect as long as it did not seem to outlandish. Cost of a building and how well it would fulfill its purpose was uppermost, but this included its appearance and how well it aggrandized the client, either private, or public. Taste in most similar rural cities and towns were based on what was known or had been done elsewhere, new ideas were questionable. The architect had a limited clientele and if he were to survive in Sioux City he had to be willing to compromise, he could not be an ideologue with a commitment to an ideal or a style that was considered out of the ordinary unless he could rationalize it, or as Steele described: "the average client doesn't understand it."
Steele was such an architect, a businessman willing to design what was necessary in a method that would not be too upsetting to the client. Intimately involved in the local business and social scene he belonged to the country club and the boat club, was an Elk, he served as President of the Rotary Club, he was a member of the boards of the Chamber of Commerce, the Library, and the Four Minute Speakers Club, and he served on many municipal committees concerned with building codes and other affairs. Professionally Steele became president of Iowa Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1914, and went on to be a director of the national AIA, and vice-president, narrowly loosing the presidential election in 1922.
Contributing to his Sioux City success were two other factors, family and religion. Several Steele relatives lived in the area and the most prominent, Thomas J. Steele, ran an extremely profitable livestock brokerage firm and was prominent in Democratic politics and served in Congress 1915-17. A number of William Steele's commissions were for his uncle or can be traced to his influence. In religion William Steele was a Catholic and the Catholic Church was expanding rapidly in the area with many new immigrants from German, eastern and southern Europe. In 1902 the Diocese of Sioux City was founded. A significant element of the growth of Sioux City in the next 25 years was an expanding Catholic population that would need churches (eight alone in the city), schools, a college and homes. Although Steele designed for all denominations including their churches, several of his clients can be identified as Catholic. Also he designed for the Diocese itself, the Cathedral, the new (founded 1913) Trinity College, hospitals and parochial schools, both in Sioux City and the surrounding area. His resume lists twenty-four Catholic Church’s in the region, though none were done in the Prairie idiom. Socially he rose to the rank of Grand Knight Epiphany of the Knights of Columbus and would design for them a Consistory very much in the Prairie School style.
Years later William Gray Purcell wrote that the years in Sullivan's office had "apparently no effect on the quality or appearance of the hundreds of buildings he did," and in general this holds true for Steele's work between 1904 and 1914. He designed numerous warehouses for the railroad district that stretched along the river front. His several warehouses such as for O. J. Moore, or the Crane Company both 1910 are straightforward expressions of purpose: solid and impregnable they state their function as the protection of goods. The Davidson Building of 1912 1913 was the city's primary office building when erected and under its Renaissance derived terra cotta decoration there is the Chicago formula with the verticals emphasized and spandrels recessed. His design for the leading newspaper, the Journal Building, 1914-15, was a crisp flat facade of banded windows and brick and terra cotta that recalled the lower floors of Sullivan's Wainwright Building. In house design Steele followed patterns developed elsewhere. The house for O. J. Moore of 1909 1910 is a large comfortable blocky affair, faintly Colonial Revival in feeling. The house for William B. Palmer of the same date reflects the same feeling for large rectangular forms, though it is less overtly revivalist and more horizontal in feeling with the story division, hipped roof, prominent overhand and windows grouped in banks.
Steele's Chicago roots were never far way and in 1911 he addressed the convention of Iowa Cement Users Association claiming in a Ruskinian view: "The history of every nation is written in its architecture with more unerring truth than in the books," and argued that "real architecture has always found its expression in the best and most durable materials available." He argued against imitation of materials in a typically Sullivan manner: "No material is architecturally employed unless in its use if finds its own proper and legitimate expression." Near the end of his talk he specifically mentioned several of Sullivan's buildings and then quoted the master: "`If one has faithfully studied and interpreted the requirements of his structure, expressional as well as practical, and faithfully followed them out, then he does not so much design his building as he watches it grow.'" This was the first of approximately twenty articles that Steele would write in the next twenty-five years that would frequently invoke Sullivan an a prophet.
Steele's first building that can be considered in the Prairie School idiom was the 1914 Livestock National Bank addition to the Sioux City Livestock Exchange Building. The Exchange was an 1892 red brick Italianate structure, Steele's addition was discrete and separate. A solid rectangular form, the bank's elevations were treated as a tripartite division. Set into the deep red brick of the walls were swaths of Sullivanian terra cotta ornament, that did not attempt to appear as structure, but merely as decoration. The huge panel over the front window that contain the banks name is as fully as complex as any of Sullivan's designs, but it lacks a coherence of parts and is probably assembled from a stock design. Steele's sudden shift to Sullivanian inspired motifs cannot be readily explained; perhaps the precedent of Sullivan's recent banks in Iowa and Minnesota and Purcell & Elmslie's numerous banks inspired him.
Exactly contemporary with the Livestock Bank Steele obtained a Carnegie Library job from a small farming town in the center of South Dakota. The Armour Library Board of Trustees interviewed several local architects and then without meeting him, voted to accept Steele as the designer. His Designed and build between May 1914 and June 1915, the Armour Library has a large reading room on the main floor with a fireplace at one end, and a community meeting room in the basement. The exterior form is a basic rectangle with a projecting entry, and a hipped roof with extended eves. The glazed tan brick is set off with red mortar; the limestone used for the basement serves as the entrance panel. Interior trim is simple quarter sawn oak, Craftsman in feeling. There is no Sullivan ornament. While there is no direct precedent for the Armour Library in the work of Sullivan, Wright or other Prairie School designers, the simplicity of form is remindful of the various inexpensive house schemes. These two designs, the Armour Library and the Livestock Bank, mark Steele's emergence as an active Prairie School architect and in mid-1914 he began his maneuvers to obtain the commission for the new Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City.
In February 1914 the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors had decided that the old 1878 three story mansarded County Courthouse had become outmoded, both functionally and also symbolically as the center of a rapidly growing region. In June 1914 the voters overwhelmingly approved the expenditure of $500,000 for a new courthouse. A decision to change the site of the new courthouse to Sixth and Douglas immediately north of the Federal Building took up several more months waiting for voter approval. Meanwhile Steele had been making alliances and on September 1st a committee of trade and labor unions of Sioux City petitioned the Board of Supervisors for the use of local labor and materials in the construction of the new courthouse and also, "The committee advocated the employment of W. L. Steele to draw the building plans." There is no record of anybody else even contending for the job and Board of Supervisors officially selected Steele on January 5, 1915. The Sioux City Journal noted that Steele submitted several "rough sketches” the week before along with traveling extensively to obtain new ideas for a design. Further he would "employ one of the best designing engineers in the country to assist him in drafting the plans." Steele had won the contract without competition and with only a vague notion of what would be built. William Purcell later claimed that Steele first submitted designs for a "conventional style courthouse, with classic orders and tin dome," and this has been reinterpreted by other authors as implying a competition was held. If Steele actually prepared a full design--in contrast to "rough sketches" it was never officially accepted; the board understood that a design would be forthcoming. Needless to say, no competition ever took place. Steele won the commission through his position as Sioux City's leading architect and through his contacts with labor unions who would prove to be very important in the future of the design. Also important was his relationship with Henry Metz, who was the Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors for 1915 and also the head of the Courthouse Building Committee.
Henry Metz (1866 1929) was crucial for new courthouse. Born in Germany, Metz immigrated to the United States and settled in Sioux City in 1886. His profession was a baker and Metz rapidly rose to prominence as the owner of the largest bakery in Sioux City. Intensely interested in public affairs he served on the Sioux City Board of Alderman and in 1914 he was elected to the County Board of Supervisors as the Sioux City representative. Metz and Steele were long time business friends, and Steele had designed for him a house in 1911 and later a group of apartments. Metz was a Lutheran and a Mason, but his wife and children was Roman Catholic. Memories of Metz stress his civic mindness that he viewed the new Woodbury County Courthouse as his finest achievement, and as such he was given credit at the time by the local Journal.
Immediately upon receiving the Court House commission Steele contacted his old friend from Sullivan's office, George Grant Elmslie and asked him to associate on the job. Since there is no reference to an associate other than informing the supervisors that he would employ a designing engineer, it must be assumed that the account was garbled and he meant a designing architect, namely Elmslie. Born 1871 in Scotland, Elmlsie had come to Chicago in 1884 and worked for J. L. Silsbee and then from 1889 to 1909 for Sullivan, become his talented right-hand man. Elmslie left Sullivan to become a partner with William Gray Purcell--who had worked briefly for Sullivan--(and for a short time George Feick) in a firm with offices in Minneapolis and Chicago. Elmslie had recently completed the Merchants Bank of Winona, Minnesota, the Edison Shop in Chicago, and several houses. The Sioux City commission offered him the chance of a lifetime and he immediately came out to Sioux City.
The design of the Woodbury County Courthouse is Elmslie's work, nearly all of the drawings are by him, even down to the final tracings for working plans. Steele's initials appear only on one set of drawings, the tracings for the structural system. Steele acted as the business and political half of the venture, selling the design to the supervisors and getting it built. Time charges from the Purcell & Elmslie office bear this out, by February 23, 1915, Elmslie had spent already 108 hours on the job, and by time of completion he was to spend 1535 1/2 hours.
Although William Gray Purcell was paid only for the 34 l/2 hours he spent in obtaining the services of a sculptor, his contribution in other ways was vital. He probably suggested the basic par tee of a base and tower, he gave Elmslie extensive criticism on his designs, and as the office publicist and a "provocateur" for the new architecture, he would later write on it. He also had a plaster model, and large presentation oil by Frederick Calhoun made, which was displayed at several exhibits. As a joint venture it worked fairly smoothly though there were inevitable tensions. Two group portraits of the Sioux City office show Steele looking directly and firmly at the camera while Elmslie gazes off into space. Purcell later claimed that "Bill [Steele] had a touch of jealousy over George, never very acute, just a sort of feeling George should really have been his partner." Steele with Elmslie's approval had the buildings cornerstone and dedication plaque made with only Elmslie listed as associate architect; Purcell complained and his name was added. In December 1918 after completion of the Courthouse the Supervisors passed a resolution thanking Steele for his role and also Mr. Elmslie, of Purcell & Elmslie.
Elmslie's design solution was arrived at quickly and many of the basic elements can be seen as a rough sketch on railway stationary he made on an early trip to Sioux City. The intention is clearly evident; Elmslie saw the problem as to create a public building containing civic symbols, but in the Prairie School language. A high thick base and office tower are topped by a campanile and a flag staff that is labeled, "a flower in form & color." The County Courthouse was to be seen in contrast to the Federal Building next door, by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, a Richardson Romanesque structure with a tall clock tower modeled on the Palazzo Vechico in Florence. Elmslie's initial scheme was actually worked up but very quickly the excess baggage of the campanile was discarded for the essentials of the base and tower. By March 23, 1915, Steele had submitted and received unanimous approval of the basic scheme for the courthouse. A perspective in the local paper (fig. ) shows essentially what was to be the final building, with a few modifications. Removed were to be the hipped roof and the corner planters, the entrance and sculptural program were to be altered, and a half story basement added. while the tower would lose two stories.
The basic scheme was a great public lobby covered by a dome that would be surrounded in a massively scaled box and out which and covering the lobby was to rise a multi faceted tower. The lobby was to double as a grand meeting hall. The plan was organized so that the offices most sought by the public, the auditor, treasurer, recorder clerk, and supervisors' meeting room were located on the ground floor, while court rooms, sheriff's office and associated quarters were placed on the second floor and the more private offices, county attorney, engineer, superintendent of schools and others were in the tower. Steele noted that the organization of base and tower had a source in the recently completed Oakland (California) City Hall, 1912-14, by Palmer, Hornbostle & Jones. The design recalled a number of elements from Elmslie's previous work; the base resembled his Winona bank, and also, Purcell and Elmslie's 1913 project for Australian Capital, in which the central lobby was the organizing element.
Between late March and December 7, 1915 when the Supervisors gave final approval to Steele and Elmslie's plans, the above modifications were made and groups in the city competed for space and influence on the final courthouse design. In May, the County Bar Association asked space in the tower for a law library, in July the Sioux City Society for the Fine Arts petitioned for space in the tower for a gallery which they received, and in September the Grand Army of the Republic Association received the top floor of the tower as a meeting room.
Meanwhile controversy erupted over the unusual design which culminated in a showdown with the Board of Supervisors in the fall of 1915. Arrayed against the design was a group of businessmen who argued two points: the appearance was wrong, and the tower was nonfunctional. How much of this was a screen for limestone quarry interests who wanted to substitute their material for the locally produced Roman brick is unclear, but certainly they played a role. The basic businessmen's argument was: “The style of the building, everything considered, runs counter to all precedent, and we cannot believe that public opinion does or ever will approve it. We have yet to find a person who expressed a liking for the sketch. . .'" They attacked the tower as wasteful of space. The businessmen's brief went on: "`It is simple a question of architecture, or fitness and taste,'" and they asked for "`a courthouse of ordinary and usual design.'" Noting that important civic buildings were never of brick and that numerous recent Iowa county courthouses followed conventional designs and were built of light-colored limestone, they asked, why couldn't Woodbury County have such a design, instead of "`a very bold experiment'"? Steele it is important to note, was praised by the businessmen as an architect who could certainly give the correct design if only so directed.
Supporting the Steele-Elmslie design were the labor unions who spoke out vigorously for the use of locally produced Roman brick, and local labor for construction. The spokesman for the Trades and Labor assembly contested the businessmen's assertion of no support for the radical design, saying:`"It is strange that none of the 8,000 union men of the city has expressed such an opinion.'" Henry Metz of the Board of Supervisors reported that the contested brick was being tested by two universities. He noted, "`And you know my position.'" The Supervisors moved immediately to accept the design and called for construction bids that were due in February, 1916. Certainly the attack on the design had a stylistic basis but the defense by the unions was economically based.
One controversy that Steele and Purcell & Elmslie lost concerned the height of the tower, originally proposed as six stories. They wanted to add two stories to this, because in Purcell's words, they were "needed to balance the mass values as seen from below." To help promote this Purcell prepared a series of water color studies showing the building at different times of day. Purcell later described the colors he used in the studies, light pinks, blues, and violets, black, as representing "our especial interest in the new color that was just beginning to appear from Scandinavia, Scotland, Switzerland and Austria." The studies remained just that, the new court house was built with a six story tower.
Construction bids were due in February 1916 and after some negotiations Splady, Albee and Smith of Minneapolis were selected as contractors. On July 10th, 1916 the cornerstone laying ceremony took place with the United States Secretary of Labor, William B. Wilson, as principle speaker. Wilson's invitation came through the labor organizations in Sioux City, and he spoke about "A Lamb-Like World," in which all disputes of all men and nations would be solved in courts of law. The Journal reported that a good sized audience attended the exercises, though not as many farmers as had been anticipated: "The farmers were too busy in the fields."
One major decision still remained and that concerned the sculptural program. Initially Purcell developed a scheme of an ideal winged figure symbolizing justice with representations of labor, commerce and etc. at her feet. (Fig. ) This was presented to the Supervisors in December, 1915, but still no sculptor had been decided upon. Purcell attempted to secure the services of Gutzon Borglum who he had met when H. P. Berlage had toured the United States. Borglum's fee was double that allotted and he recommended Purcell contact his former student Alfonso Iannelli who had recently collaborated with Wright on the Midway Gardens. By March 1916 Iannelli's studies had received the approval of the Supervisors and he was hired at the fee of $4,650 to do the major sculptural groups over the entrances. The other sculpture and ornament, the eagle on the tower and the bison heads by the sheriff's entrance as well as the rich terra cotta decoration throughout and the bronze work, was carried out by Kristian Schneider. He had worked closely with Sullivan at the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company and after 1906 at the American Terra Cotta Company at Terra Cotta, Illinois. A problem existed in getting accurate bids on the extensive custom made terra cotta for a building in such a remote location and letters passed back and forth concerning sending somebody out to view the drawings. Murals for the interior took much longer to be decided upon and not until May 1918 was John W. Norton hired and paid $8,500 for the lobby murals. They were installed later that summer.
The building as completed in mid-1918 is a simplified version of the two part base and tower scheme approved by the supervisors in March, 1915. The structure exudes an intensity of elaborate design and lavish ornament. A vigorously polychromed building, the basic exterior material, a warm tan Roman brick with raked horizontal joints is set off by polished granite used at the base, and as lower courses, and as cornices. The lush terra cotta ornament in the various Sullivan-Elmslie modes: vines, geometry, flora, and fauna, (such as butterflies in the eves) are in various colors: blue, white, gold, tan, and dark red. Glazed blue tile mosaics with bits of gold appear over the two entrances. Eight lamp stanchions are arrayed along the two major street frontages. These two facades are composed of a massive lintel and strong corner piers, and a screen of thin piers, creating an incessant rhythm of civic monumentality. Behind the piers wide spandrels indicating the offices within. The back or alley walls are articulated differently and reflect the varying interior arrangements with the first floor as offices and the second floor courtrooms. The tower with the distinctive buttressed or fined top is proportionately more successful, the upward rise is continuous and the different faces that resolve themselves in the prow adds an air of dynamism to the sobriety of the base. While the public elevations of the building break down, into two distinct and somewhat unrelated parts, a view of the rear elevation (now obscured) provides juxtaposition of elements, the sheriff's entrance, the jail, the chimney stack, the base and tower that reflects a more clear relationship.
Inannelli's sculpture takes as its theme the heroic ideal of much civic art of the period, and is clearly influenced by William Blake. They insistently break forth from the wall plane, powerfully molded, they stand in contrast to the essentially linear character of the building and ornament. The major frieze with law as the mediator is dramatic but lacks integration with the architecture. The side entrance sculptures with "man" and "woman and child" appear more integrated. Civic precedent here seems to have indicated figures more in the round and of traditional origins than the "Seccionist" experiments at Midway Gardens.
The richness of the decoration on the exterior literally explodes on the interior to make in one of the most memorable and overwhelming of public spaces. Everything is designed, door hardware, signs, and all window glass. One aspect of the planning of the interior is that the elevators were placed directly on axis with the main entrance while the main stairs, frequently elaborate in public buildings, were given, relatively minor treatment. Given more prominence was a public "Information" counter and an elaborate mosaic clad public drinking fountain. The visitor from either of the entrances passes though low heavily ornamented corridors to emerge into the rotunda space and to be greeted by shining white terra cotta contrasted with the tan brickwork and the high coloration of the murals and the dome. Almost unsettling are the vibrance of the space, the overhanging balconies and the dome and the knowledge of a six story tower rising directly above. (The dome is naturally lighted during the day and is housed in the first floor of the tower which is given over solely for that use; plans never show it as a floor). A rich profusion of terra cotta covers many surfaces, it foliates and emerges as blossoms from piers; it overwhelming opulence produces a feeling similar to that of Wright's contemporary, Imperial Hotel: too much. Norton's murals add a welcome counterpoint with their coloration as does the art glass of the dome. The themes of the city, and country, justice and wisdom are painted in a semi-realistic neo-classical manner; the profile of the Courthouse appears in one mural. Against the overripe, over scaled lobby, the courtrooms become centers of calmness, the terra cotta is relatively non-obtrusive, and the lightly tinted walls, the delicately scaled art glass in large windows and skylight give a warm dusky feeling.
The Woodbury County Courthouse was an impressive achievement, not only for Elmslie as a designer, but for Steele in being able to sell such an elaborate building to the Supervisors. Testifying to his effectiveness is that in spite of some public opposition, the Supervisors accepted the design without a murmur of descent. The initial estimated cost of $500,000 rose to nearly $846,361.37 at its completion. Viewed as a success in all of its functional elements, only one feature never worked as intended, the rotunda as a space for public events. It was used only once when the Vatican Choir visited in 1919, though in 1932-33 it was frequently crowded with belligerent farmers during the farm crisis.
The Sioux City Journal followed closely the progress of the new Courthouse and at its conclusion hailed the building as "proof of the county's progressiveness." Noting that "Any kind of courthouse might have been built," the County Supervisors with Henry Metz in the lead decided to "build right." Not everybody, the editorial noted, was pleased with the appearance of the building, but "Nevertheless the novelty in itself possesses value." The tower which had been so vigorously criticized "is now recognized to be splendid," and overall the building had "plenty of solidity, good looks and the practical modern quality."
Commentary from the architectural press on the completed Courthouse was surprisingly sparse, probably due to its remote location. The Western Architect which was the major supporter of the Prairie School gave it an extensive photo spread in 1921 accompanied by a long essay largely written by Purcell. The other major comment came from the eastern critic C. Matlack Price in The Century Magazine, who identified it as "American Secessionist" and while praising it as a "sincere effort to evolve a new architecture," questioned whether it suggested the requisite civic ideals of a courthouse. In the same article Price questioned the recently announced Nebraska State Capitol design by Goodhue and suggested that any departure from classicism for civic buildings was suspect.
Contemporary with the Courthouse commission Steele produced a number of other buildings that reflect a Prairie School heritage. Elmslie was in and out of Steele's office during this period and must be considered an influence, though there is no record of his actual participation in their design. Some of the terra cotta Steele used was not of his designs, but rather stock from the American Terra Cotta Company originally designed by Elmslie or Sullivan.
The Charles Mix County Courthouse in Lake Andes, South Dakota, 1917-18 is derived from the Woodbury Courthouse design. A small farming town in southern South Dakota on the Missouri River, the new courthouse was the product of a political maneuver to move the county seat from an out-of-the-way town to the slightly larger, Lake Andes. Exactly how Steele obtained the commission is unclear, there was no competition, nor apparently any interviews, he just appears as the architect. Certainly the fame of the still uncompleted courthouse in Sioux City--150 miles distant-- helped in winning the commission. Also, his relative Thomas J. Steele had extensive property holdings in the area and may have been an influence. As a design the basic Sullivan box is broken by Steele into volumetric units and articulated by tall thin piers and wide spandrels. Yellow Roman brick with racked horizontal joints is used on the exterior along with a plethora of Sullivan-Elmslie ornament for capitals, trim, and entrances. The interior recalls the Woodbury design in a plenitude of terra cotta ornament, a large rotunda, balconies, and a low saucer dome with a colorful pattern in art glass. Other window glass in the building has more of an European Art Nouveau quality than is common at the Woodbury Courthouse. The lobby-rotunda is quite clearly intended as a major public space. Terminating the entrance axis is an elaborate mosaic covered drinking fountain.
For Sioux City's commercial area Steel designed a number of stores that in their empathetic statement of frame, ornament and Chicago windows indicate his Prairie School connections. The S. S. Kresge store, 1917, strongly states is frame, uses Chicago windows, and has a rich entablature and pier capitals of white Sullivanian terra cotta. A nearby store for T. S. Martin and Company at 521 4th Street--while partially altered--was covered in white terra cotta. Just across the street, the former H & H Shoe Store uses white terra cotta and white glazed bricks as a skin. Again, an elaborate frieze of Sullivan styled ornament is used.
The H. H. Everist house, Sioux City, 1916 1917 (with a garage addition, 1923) is Steele's major residential design in the Prairie idiom. The L. G. Everist Company was prominent in coal mining, builder's supplies, and contracting, and Hubert H. Everist's house was one of the most elegant houses in Sioux City. Located in "The Height’s” a newly developed section of Sioux City near Grandview Park the Everist house is located on a small rise of ground and built part way into the hillside. Stretching horizontally across the site the building rises up from its out flung terrace walls and the sloping lawn in front, part of the landscape and yet clearly a manmade habitation. Deep overhangs, continuous eve lines, banked windows, elegant tan Roman brick with racked joints, and lush Sullivan inspired terra cotta trim for the terrace coping, and window sill lines all add to the horizontal effect. A long pergola at right angles to the entrance leads from the drive to the terrace and front door, and a porte cochere is located on the rear side of the house. Both in form and plan the Everist house obviously owes something to the long linear houses of Purcell & Elmslie's, the Bradley Bungalow, the Decker house and Elmslie's earlier designs for Louis Sullivan such as the Babson house. But even more interesting as a source is Louis Sullivan's own design, unbuilt, for Carl K. Bennett, Owatonna, Minnesota, 1912, that has the same enforced symmetry, nearly identical living room, hall, dining room treatment, down to the four piers separating the spaces. Very different is the treatment of the elevations, Sullivan's project is severely monumental, while Steele's exterior is more Wrightian and more comfortable. Spatially, the Everist house dramatically illustrates the integration concerns of the Prairie School. An open vista of 80 feet stretches through the dining room, hall, and living room, and with the doors of the enclosed porch and breakfast room open over 110 of clear unimpediated space is visible. Interior paneling was done in mahogany with simple strip moldings. A common band at door head height unites the spaces, along with parallel moldings in the ceiling. Built-in cupboards with a leaded glass pattern are on either side of the dining room fireplace, and in the over mantel was placed a art tile pastoral scene.
The Everist design remains unique in Steele's work, his other residential designs reflects only slightly the concerns of the Prairie School. The 1920 1923 house for Hafto Sve, located in "The Height's" area has some Prairie School characteristics with the low rising hipped roofs, deep overhangs and banked windows, but it still remains an upright boxy house. Materials are a light buff brick and deep green roof tiles. The cross axial plan allows for an ease of circulation, but none of the openness nor integration of the Everist house is achieved. For Harold A. Jacobsen Steele designed in 1928 a bungalow of tan Roman brick and deep green roof tile located in the Country Club area of Sioux City. The deep extended eves and low pitch of the roof and horizontal banding recall Prairie School motifs.
Steele's design for the First Congregational Church of Sioux City, 1916 1918, marks his attempt to personalize the Prairie School idiom. In conception Steele attempted to create a great communal auditorium that could be expanded by moveable partitions to include the reception and Sunday School rooms. The moveable portions are indebted to the "Akron Plan" used in Sullivan (and Elmslie's) St. Paul's Church, Cedar Rapids, 1910-14, and are similar to Purcell & Feick's (just before Elmslie joined) Stewart Memorial Church, Minneapolis, 1909. The front elevation with the heavy corners is reminiscent of William Drummond's recently published First Congregational Church, Austin, Illinois. Steele's contribution is the round headed windows and trim that dominates the side elevation and the dome. The exterior has a pastish quality, the strong rectilinear overall form along with the piers and the elegant tan Roman brick with horizontally racked joints are opposed by the dome and the round headed windows--two different geometries are not resolved. On the interior Sullivan styled terra cotta is used for trim around the dome, alter and as pier capitals. Steele attempted to reconcile too many elements that ultimately would not fit together.
The round headed opening became Steele's motif for public buildings. For the City Hall, 1918 in Hawarden, Iowa, a farming town 45 miles north of Sioux City, the site was on a prominent corner of Main Street, banks occupied two of the other corners. Steele chose the Sullivan small bank--jewel box--form for the building, but articulated the entrance and side elevation with round headed windows. Constructed out of a dark red brick, small square cast stone ornamental blocks containing floppy flowers--certainly not Sullivan in execution--occupied the upper corners and were the only major decoration. Much larger is the Hartington (Nebraska) City Hall, 1922, which occupies also a main street site, across from the Cedar County Courthouse of 1892. The round headed motif is used for the entrance and office pavilion while the main box containing an auditorium is articulated by thin piers that protrude from the wall. A rough faced red-brown brick is the buildings material and raised brick courses on the piers and the attic is the only decoration. The capitals of the piers are square, plain blocks of cast stone, perhaps indicating that Sullivan-Elmslie styled capitals were once intended but cut from the budget.
Steele's 1924 1925 design for the Knight's of Columbus Club Building is basically a large rectangular block that is elegantly yet austerely detailed. Similar in form to some of Purcell & Elmslie's and Sullivan's banks, the tall thin slit like windows contributes to a fortified appearance. The crisp brick detailing with the overlapping skins, cut back piers, and raised panels, has an original quality.
In 1926 Steele received the first of what was to be three branch library commissions. The first, the Fairmont Park, Greenville Branch is an enlarged version of his Armour Library of over ten years earlier. A small hipped roof structure that has the traditional Prairie School emphasis on the horizontal with the entrance articulated by piers and a marquee that is enlivened by the building's only piece of decoration, a swath of Sullivan terra cotta. The main floor was a single room divided for adults and children with a hearth placed at one end. In the basement was a community room and service quarters. A straight forward low budget structure, and Steele's description is relevant: "Its architectural style is entirely modern. There has been no attempt to link it with the past by copying the forms of any period. It expresses its function in its design . . . "The changing public perception of this design can be found in Steele's two succeeding branch libraries. The Smith's Villa Branch completed in November 1927 duplicates almost exactly, the Greenville Branch, which as the President of the Library Board of Trustees described, "proved to be so suitable for library purposes, and so pleasing in both style and setting . . ." However, the North Side Branch of 1928 1929 differs completely from the previous libraries and adopts an Olde English Tudor idiom. (Fig. ) The reason for this stylistic shift was that since the library was "situated in the northeast corner of a city park and among residences . . . the architectural style of the Greenville and Smith's Villa branch libraries were not followed. Instead it is constructed in the style of an individual residence." Actually, both of the earlier branches were located in parks and among residences; however, the residential area of the North Side Branch was considerably more fashionable and substantial. So, if the reasoning of the newspaper report was correct, the "modern" style of the first two branches lacked appropriateness for the better neighborhoods.
One other reason for the shift in style may have been that Steele's new partner, George B. Hilgers, may have taken more of a lead in its design. Little is known of Hilgers background, except that he began with Steele in 1913 as a draftsman, and in 1926 he became a partner.
For Steele time was running out in Sioux City and he was involved with only a few more buildings that partake of the Prairie School idiom. Williges Store of 1929 1931, a woman's dress shop utilizes the glazed white terra cotta he had used ten years before. Elegant Sullivan styled capitals terminate the piers on the facade while a concession to tradition is made by the small gable or pediment. Steele's other involvement was an associate architect with George Elmslie on Forbes Hall of Science at Yankton College, Yankton, South Dakota, 1928-30. Purcell and Elmslie had separated coorgially in 1922. The association was one of convenience, Steele and Hilgers acted as construction architects, but all the designing and drawings were done by Elmslie, or Fred Stravel, an Elmslie draftsman. Steele represented Elmslie at the ground breaking ceremonies in May of 1929. The completed building while containing Prairie School motifs and ornament can be seen as a movement on Elmslie's part, to reinvestigate tradition, and as such, Forbes Hall is a modernized version of the 18th century eastern college halls, such as at Harvard, or Brown universities. For Elmslie's other work at Yankton College, the Power Plant and the Look Dormitories for Men only Hilgers was the associate architect, for in late 1929, Steele moved permanently from Sioux City to Omaha, Nebraska. Work was falling off in Sioux City and judging by his writings at the time, he had grown tired of being a small-town architect.
In Omaha, Steele joined with Thomas R. Kimball and Josiah Sandham in a partnership that did extensive work, but the Depression, the War, and finally ill health from 1946 until his death in 1949, undercut his further career. Of the buildings produced during the Omaha phase, they show little evidence of the Prairie School heritage, but as always Steel remained a prominent public supporter of Sullivan's philosophy. In 1924 he had debated Ralph Adams Cram on precedent in architecture wrote the AIA memorial for Sullivan, and reviewed Elmslie's Topeka Bank. In 1928 he gave a memorial address on Sullivan to the Chicago AIA chapter. His later articles hold the Sullivan banner high. William Steele’ work raises some issues concerning the Prairie School. Not all of his commission have been treated nor surveyed, and he was responsible for more Prairie School designs. Stylistically ambidextrous, Steele continued to use other styles even after his turn towards the Prairie School idiom beginning in 1914. Located in Sioux City Steele was a businessman architect who had to make a living. His work was sound, competent and frequently unexciting; his situation did not allow him to pursue a single consistent theme or style. He had to establish himself with the business and political community, form a base of support before he could try and become an innovator. The Prairie School was accepted in Sioux City and other towns as a style for public and commercial buildings, it had less application for residential design. Its relative late appearance in the heartland reflects the slow spread of ideas and forms to the providences of the Midwest, and the essentially conservative nature of most of the patrons of architecture. The "traditional" or "conservative" aspects of the Prairie School has been noted by some scholars as one reason why it was able to exist. Moreover there were certain motifs that recalled traditional or classical composition: hierarchy, tripartite forms, symmetry, and fragments like attics or pediments. In the Woodbury Courthouse Elmslie and Steele invoked traditional colonnades in the screen of piers, civic virtue in the sculptural and mural program. The monumental base, tower and dome created a building that was understandable as a civic symbol. But at the same time it was different as the businessmen’s committee pointed out. Steele's employment of the round headed aperture motif in his later civic work was quite obviously was an attempt to introduce a more traditional element into the severely liner and rectilinear Prairie School; to soften it and make it more palatable.
In the civic buildings of Steele one element in addition to form and ornament stands out, they were of brick and not the traditional ashlar. Quite clearly the supervisors or councilmen of the different commissions understood this, they were not blind, and their public buildings looked different and were built of different materials from the traditional courthouse or city hall. Brick as representative of a specific political ideology such as democracy (which Sullivan, Wright and some of the other Prairie School figures liked to invoke) can not be supported by the evidence, but it is quite clear that brick as a material, and especially Roman and different colored brick did resonate with some architects and clients as being more representative of the Midwest than ashlar. Essential to Steele's success was the committed client such as Henry Metz, he and his many colleagues in other commissions knew they were not getting the traditional classical or gothic public building, but something very novel.
The avoidance of traditional European based styles was advocated by Purcell and Elmslie in an attack on "The American Renaissance," and also by Steele in his many writings. The planning of several of their public buildings with the emphasis on the rotunda or lobby as the public space, drinking fountains and information counters rather than stairs, all indicate attempt to create a different American public architecture.
At times plodding but also at times inspired and a fervent believer in the message of Sullivan that America should have a unique architecture, Steele represents a small, and yet significant chapter in the Prairie School. He illustrates how some of its architecture was promoted and got built.
* For assistance I am indebted to: Scott Sorenson, Sioux City Public Museum, Peggy Parris, former Director, Sioux City Art Center, the reference staff of the Sioux City Public Library, David Gebhard, University of California, Santa Barbara, Alan K. Lathrop, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota, William L. Steele, Jr, of Omaha (deceased), Sidney K. Robinson, University of Illinois, Chicago, Richard Guy Wilson, University of Virginia, Carolyn Torma and John E. Rau of the State Historical Preservation Center, South Dakota State Historical Society, Gerald Mansheim of West Branch, Iowa."