Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Harvey Ellis, architect, artist, designer.

Harvey Ellis had a varied career, he was a noted painter and teacher, a draftsman for several firms and an Architect. He finished his career and his life in the employ of Gustav Stickley. His father, thinking that young Harvey needed more discipline had him enrolled in West Point. He was discharged on January 12, 1872 for tardiness, personal untidiness and gross neglect in his French assignments. There is also some indication that Ellis's downfall was the result of a forbidden affair with an actress. Soon after the expulsion from West Point, Ellis's father sent him to Europe. Because I guess that is what you did in the 19th century when you got kicked out of college for having an affair with an actress and neglecting your french, you get sent to Europe... go figure.
His marriage annulled, his future uncertain, and exiled in Europe, Ellis developed a passion for painting that he would pursue for the rest of his life. His time in Europe was not long, and in 1872 he returned to his family, now living in Albany, NY. Family relationships were soon strained and Ellis moved to New York in 1875 where he was employed by an engineering office and studied architecture under Arthur G. Gilman. Dissatisfied by this static position, Ellis left New York in 1877 for Albany where he met and grew to admire the architect Henry H. Richardson, whose Romanesque style inspired Ellis's later work.
Ellis accompanied his family when they returned to Rochester in September, 1877. Shortly thereafter he and his brother Charles established the architectural office of H. & C.S. Ellis. The firm was quite successful and Harvey Ellis was able to spend his time designing while Charles Ellis attracted new clients. Many commercial and residential buildings were designed by the office, the most important commission being for the new Federal Building (now Rochester City Hall) built in the Romanesque style.
In 1885 mounting friction between the Ellis Brothers prompted Harvey to move once again, first to Utica, NY then to St. Paul, MN. In 1886-87 he was employed as a drafsman by the St. Paul firms of J. Walter Stevens, Mould & McNichol, and Leroy S. Buffington. Buffington claimed to be the originator of the metal skeleton frame that made building tall structures feisable and he took out a patent on the process. His claim to be the inventor of the skyscraper was refuted, but using the designs created by Harvey Ellis, Buffington is credited with playing a pivotal role in refining the new method of construction.
Ellis continued to design houses, churches, banks and pubic buildings (many never built) for Buffington and submitt renderings to architectural offices in St. Paul, St. Louis, MO and other Midwestern, and perhaps Southwestern, cities. He returned to Rochester in 1894 and rejoined his brother's firm. At some point he was married and lived in a rooming house on Lake Avenue with his wife. The economic depression meant fewer architectural commissions, but Ellis found employment decorating interiors.
Ellis's appreciation of the aesthetic principals of the Arts and Crafts movement is apparent in the designs he created during this period. He was a founding member and president of the Rochester Arts & Crafts Society, one of the earliest such organizations in the country. In 1894 he helped organize the Society's first exhibition, a display of Japanese prints and modern French posters.
In 1903 Harvey Ellis made the arrangements to display in Rochester's Mechanics Institute an extensive exhibition of arts and crafts decorative arts. The display was organized by Gustav Stickely and first shown the previous year in Syracuse. Following the exhibition Harvey Ellis, now separated from his wife, moved to Syracuse at the invitation of Stickley to write for The Craftsman. Ellis published several articles that included his designs for arts and crafts homes and interiors. Ellis's use of curves and inlays brought a more elegant and lighter style to Stickley's rectilinear furniture.
Harvey Ellis died on January 2, 1904 at the age of 52 due, in part to acute alcholism. He was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Agnes cemetery in Syracuse. A marker was placed on the grave in 1997 by the Arts and Crafts Society of Central New York.

From the January 1904 issue of The Craftsman.

In the death of Mr. Harvey Ellis, which occurred on January 2, The Craftsman lost a valued contributor to its department of architecture. Mr. Ellis was a man of unusual gifts; possessing an accurate and exquisite sense of color, a great facility in design and a sound judgment of effect. These qualities were evidenced in his slightest sketches, causing them to be kept as treasures by those fortunate enough to acquire them. As a teacher, Mr. Ellis was very successful, while many of his fellow students, among whom are several eminent painters of the country, have acknowledged their debt to him lying in the counsels and criticisms which he gave them. As an architect, Mr. Ellis showed style and distinction; his ability having received public recognition through the award of the first prize in the design competition for the tomb of General Grant. Mr. Ellis was, further, a connoisseur of Japanese art, the principles of which he assimilated and practised. Altogether, he is to be regretted as one who possessed thes acred fire of genius.

Mr. Ellis's design was never used for Grant's tomb. It seems that he had alot of influence in the architectural, art, and design world in his short, trouble filled life. In the year that Ellis worked for Stickley he designed some of the firms most enduring furniture. You can tell his designs by the use of inlays, a nice height to the piece, and the use of exagerated curves. My favorite Ellis design in the single door glass front bookcase. I made this one from the plans in Robert Lang's Shop Drawings series. I used "water glass" instead of plain sheet glass for the bookcase to give it an older look, I also had the stained glass shop make the top panels leaded from 4 pains just like the original. The case has the 1:1.6 ratio of the "golden rectangle" of perfect proportion. The details such as the pinned through tennons, the small plinth block at the top edge, and the bottom arch all combine to make this one exceptional design. The flash in the photo to the left show's clearly my lack of skill when it came to sanding this piece, I think I was a victim of wanting to get some color on this piece and get it moved out of the shop. Every evening when I see it I wish I had spent a few more hours sanding and checking every edge. I've learned quite a lot about sanding and scraping in the two years since I made this piece. While it is one of my favorite projects, I wish I could have a "do over" on this one. The joinery and wood selection was just fine and the color of the finish was what I was shooting for, but a lack of attention to detail makes what would have been a great piece, into just a good one. Luckily its only something that me or you would notice, most people don't even see it. Have you ever looked back on a project and thought, "If I only know then what I know now"?

A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success.

Elbert Hubbard


Anonymous said...

Another well done article Treefrog. The effort you put into these is evident and appreciated. I look forward to the next one.

Anonymous said...

Brad, I am the publisher of a very small paper in St Joseph, MO. I decided in my 2nd publication to focus on the wonderful architecture here. I stumbled across a magnificent home that stood out amongst the rest. Every corner rounded, deeply inlaid windows, simply stunning. I decided to focus on this house and started to do some research. I found the home in an older article and as it turns out it is a Harvey Ellis home. I am going to try to get inside to take pictures, but I found a striking crest in an archway that had a baby's portrait in the middle of it. Anyway, I would like to publish your findings in my paper. Please contact me at editor@thecompassonline.net. Thanks. B. Land - thecompassonline.net

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the article contains a number of factual errors that have been widely circulated in recent decades. A full biography (364pp.)of all aspects of Ellis and his work has been available for nearly five years: Reconfiguring Harvey Ellis (2004) by Eileen Manning Michels. It corrects the errors, and the real Ellis is even more interesting than the mythical Ellis.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the article contains many factual errors that have been widely circulated for several decades. There now exists a full biography and critical assessment (364pp)of all aspects of Ellis and his work: Reconfiguring harvey Ellis (2004) by Eileen Manning Michels. The real Ellis is even mor interesting than the fictional Ellis.