Life in a Prairie School architectural gem

The Purcell-Cutts House
The Purcell-Cutts House is set back from the street, creating a beautiful front yard and also affording a maximum amount of daylight to reach the home’s interior. Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

“The neighbors must have thought this was an asylum for trolls,” quipped Mia’s Jennifer Komar Olivarez as we neared the end of our tour of the Purcell-Cutts House near Lake of the Isles.

Architect William Gray Purcell’s masterpiece, now part of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s collection, had its window openings temporarily filled with a mish-mash of glass scraps to hold off winter’s cold so the Purcell family could move in by Christmas of 1913.

At the time, the neighbors might have thought that such an absurd palette of colors and patterns was actually the final window product — the construction process leading up to that point had already revealed characteristics of a home that most had likely never seen and certainly didn’t conform to their own homes.  The “troll glass,” however, was only temporary and eventually was replaced with the refined art glass visitors see today.

Purcell, with his partner, George Grant Elmslie, designed the dwelling as a showpiece for their firm that challenged status quo Victorian-era design and embodied tenets of Prairie School-style architecture.

The asymmetrically composed (nearly) flat-roofed abode is set back from the street significantly more than its neighbors. The siting creates a beautiful front yard progression to the front door but also allows a maximum amount of daylight to reach the interior. A gracious entryway invites the outdoors in, then redirects attention to an expansive vaulted ceiling and open living zones — free of walls, but bifurcated into two levels with a prow at the center.

Down a half flight of stairs, the living area melds to the outside. The recently restored art glass windows look onto a sunken reflecting pool where summer evening dinners often occurred. Further liberating the function of dining from the dining room, the Purcell family regularly ate breakfast in the living area — going so far as to bring the toaster out of the kitchen and plug it in near the hearth. The living area also hosted piano concerts as well as the family’s Christmas tree (which threatened to burn the home down one year — a fairly common hazard in those days as electric lights were just coming to market). A built-in desk inconspicuously tucks away behind the prow’s base and has a window — set just at the right height when a person is seated at the desk — that offers a unique perspective to the outdoors.

Up the other half flight, the dining zone overlooks the living area and carries into a west-facing screen porch. Charming built-ins, intricate woodwork and custom furniture adorn the area. Clerestory windows carry across the south wall of both levels — unifying the two and bringing a variety of light throughout the day to both spaces.

Passing by the kitchen — not all of the spaces were as liberated — a switchback stair ascends past servants’ quarters and a guest room to what appears to be two bedroom doors: one to the children’s room and the other to the parents’. Inside, however, it’s wonderfully clear that the two can combine into a single room by sliding open a partition screen. Whimsy carries into the details of the children’s beds, which are based on Pullman train cars — complete with tuck-under drawers and pull-out desks.

It is impossible to truly appreciate the depth of design and progressive insight the home offers Southwest without experiencing it in person. While the Purcell-Cutts House is wonderful to visit anytime of year, it’s particularly special during the holiday season as it’s adorned in period decor. As you absorb the details, see if you can spot the single remaining “troll window” from the first holiday season celebrated in the home over 100 years ago.

Adam Jonas is an architect at Locus Architecture at 45th & Nicollet in Kingfield. Visit locusarchitecture.com to learn more.


See the winter lights

Experience a progressive Christmas of 1915 at Mia’s Prairie School house with tours offered by docents in period finery.

When: Dec. 28, 29; Jan. 4, 5

Where: 2328 Lake Place, via Mia shuttle

Cost: $5 for adults, $4 for students, free for children under 12

Info: tinyurl.com/purcell-cutts-house