June 13, 2024

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Historic Purcell-Cutts house near Lake of the Isles in Mpls. reopens for tours

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After a two-year pandemic-related hiatus, the historic Purcell-Cutts House near Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis has reopened to the public.

The Prairie School jewel, designed by architects William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie for Purcell and his wife, Edna, was built in 1913. The home was bequeathed to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) in 1985 by Anson Cutts Jr., son of the house’s longtime owners, Edna and Anson Cutts. After a careful restoration, overseen by Minneapolis-based MacDonald & Mack Architects, the house was opened to the public in 1990.

The pandemic pause allowed the museum to take on preservation projects, including the task of refinishing woodwork throughout the house. The time-out also gave curators the opportunity to rethink the tour dialogue. While the house’s architecture remains at the forefront, the conversation now includes a look into the way health concerns influenced the house’s design, and the roles played by local women pioneers in architecture.

Jennifer Komar Olivarez, Mia’s Head of Exhibition Planning and Strategy and Interim Curator of the Purcell-Cutts House, offered a recent tour, where she revealed that the house. …

… Doesn’t feel old, despite its 109-year age: “Purcell wanted a house for a modern family,” said Olivarez. “He was thinking of breaking out of Victorian conventions and living life in a more informal way. That’s one of the things that really resonates with visitors when they come here. They feel like they could live here, even though it’s obviously a museum. The scale, the flexibility, the open plan, the connection between the indoors and the outdoors, it’s all part and parcel of what he talked about.”

… Was built for $14,000, which is about $385,000 in today’s dollars: “That was a lot of money, considering that the cost for a middle-class house was around $2,500,” said Olivarez. “It ended up being a pretty expensive endeavor. With the level of detail, it all adds up. Part of the [Prairie School] philosophy was ‘good design, for all,’ but Purcell had a hard time reconciling that with the lack of customization that he thought was so important.

“To design a house that could be plopped anywhere was sort of antithetical to the way he approached design, because for him it was about the siting, and the light, and the client. He wanted to design types that could be made available on more of a mass scale to middle-class Americans, but he never achieved that goal.”

… Was home to the well-to-do Purcell family for just a few years: “Purcell sold the house in 1919, and then the Cutts family had it for 66 years,” said Olivarez. “They didn’t really make any permanent changes. The Cutts really understood what the house meant to Purcell and how important it was as a work of architecture.”

… Is filled with delightful built-in design details: “Purcell and Elmslie named the house ‘The Little Joker,’ because it has a playfulness,” said Olivarez. “It wasn’t meant to be too serious, or conformist. The more you look, the more you see. Elmslie designed the windows, and if you look carefully, you’ll see playful details, like foxes. If you bend down and look in the fireplace, the mortar joints have iridescent glass that reflects light when there’s a fire. “

.. Is furnished with reproductions, mostly: “But the built-ins and the pendant light fixtures are original, and the [fireplace] mural is original,” said Olivarez. “The kitchen and the upstairs bathroom are original, which is pretty extraordinary.”

… Features built-in responses to heating and cooling concerns: “In the summer, it does get really humid in here, but with the roof overhangs it can feel cooler,” said Olivarez. “Upstairs and downstairs, there are cross breezes in a number of directions. The tree cover also provides passive cooling. That was really important to Purcell.

“There was a pretty good coal furnace, and the Cutts family added some strategically placed radiators as part of a supplemental heating system. The humidity gets really low in the wintertime. You don’t even want to know about my saga with ferns. But I refuse to do fake plants, because Purcell would roll in his grave.”

… Has connections to contemporary health concerns: “I started thinking about public health campaigns, and the last time we had a pandemic,” said Olivarez. “A hundred years ago, during the flu pandemic of 1918, it was the same stuff that we’re hearing now: Wash your hands. Get fresh air. Purcell suffered from tuberculosis, and he incorporated that public health guidance into the built environment.

“Which is why, when you walk in the front door, that little closet has a sink in it. You’d put your hat in there, hang up your coat and then wash your hands. The poured magnesite floors in the bathroom and kitchen are easy to clean. And Purcell and Elmslie put a lot of sleeping porches in their houses, with the theory being that the more fresh air you got, the healthier you would be.”

…. Is a work in progress. “Like anyone who owns a home, we have a list of projects that we’re working on,” said Olivarez. “There’s always something going on.”

… was Olivarez’s home — she was its resident caretaker — in the mid 1990s: “It was a fabulous place to live,” she said. “The more you’re in here, the more you can appreciate the house, and the more details you see and can point out to other people. Although I did sometimes feel like I was living in a fishbowl. There were a couple of times when I would come downstairs with my robe on, and people would be looking in the windows. I wasn’t scared, but they were: They thought they’d seen a ghost.”

If you go

The Purcell-Cutts house is at 2328 Lake Place in Minneapolis. Guided hourly public tours are held on the first full weekend of every month (including May 14-15 and June 11-12) and run 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday and noon-3 p.m. Sunday. Cost is $10 ($8 for museum members) and free for ages 17 and under. Reserve at tickets.artsmia.org or 612-870-6323. Portions of the house are inaccessible to some people with limited mobility.

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