Ricker House Neighborhood—Fellows House

Fellows House (ca. 1915). Courtesy Drake Community Library, Grinnell, IA.

Fellows House (ca. 1915). Courtesy Drake Community Library, Grinnell, IA.

Today’s Grinnell stretches much further north than did the Grinnell of the early twentieth century. As the 1912 photograph of Ricker House shows, when the Rickers’ new brick home went up on lots 1, 2, and 3, it stood alone on the east side of that block of Broad Street. In fact, lots 4, 5, and 6 remained vacant throughout the 1920s and much of the 1930s, a consequence, perhaps of economic hard times as much as anything else.

The situation was different on the west side of the street, however. Even though the next block south in Merrill’s Third Addition had not yet been fully

1922 Fire Insurance Map of Grinnell, North Broad Street

1922 Fire Insurance Map of Grinnell, North Broad Street

built, already in 1908 houses went up on lots twelve and ten, north of Tenth Avenue and across from Ricker House.  At 1503 Broad A. J. Sibley raised a large clapboard classical revival home valued then at $7000 (roughly half the cost of Ricker House), and Nicholas Wiltamuth built himself a house (also classical revival) at 1515 Broad (lot 10), costing about $5000.  Then, in 1911 (the same year that work began on Ricker House) Wiltamuth raised still another house, this one on the empty lot (11) between these two.  As a result, when Ricker House was completed, houses stood on the three lots immediately across the street, but the three northern-most lots on both sides of the street were unoccupied, and farmland abutted the north boundaries of town.

This situation soon changed. In August, 1912 Jesse and Maude Fellows purchased lots 7, 8, and 9 on the west side of Broad Street with the aim of building themselves a fine house which, like Griffin’s Ricker House, would confirm the owners’ financial and social success.  Like B. J. Ricker, Jesse Fellows was a Grinnell College graduate, but about ten years younger.  Fellows was born in Vinton, Iowa in 1878, and his family moved to Grinnell in 1889, so Jesse did most of his schooling in Grinnell, including Grinnell College, from which he graduated in 1901. In another replication of Ricker’s profile, immediately after graduation Fellows left town, moving to North Dakota where he began his business career. In 1905 he married another Grinnell graduate, Maude Young, and two years later the couple returned to Grinnell, where Jesse pursued business interests. Initially he partnered with another Grinnellian, Elbert W. Clark, Jr. (Grinnell College, ’00), in a local lumber company, but before long he transferred his interest to the Grinnell Washing Machine Company, of which he was a long-time secretary/treasurer. Like Ricker’s glove company, the washing machine company prospered in these years, helping catapult Fellows into the upper reaches of Grinnell business society.

Jesse Fellows (1920).

Jesse Fellows (1920).

Jesse Fellows was one of a small group of local businessmen (including B. J. Ricker) who helped incorporate Billy Robinson‘s airplane company; Fellows was also president of the local automobile club, a member of the Poweshiek Club, president and co-founder of the Grinnell Kiwanis club, and in 1922 was elected president of the American Washing Machine Association, a national trade group.  In short, he was very successful, and the house on North Broad was intended to help showcase that success.

Given the similarity with Ricker’s profile and the attention that Ricker’s new house on Broad Street attracted, it seems reasonable to wonder whether Fellows might not also have asked Walter Burley Griffin to design his house as he had Ricker’s. Certainly Fellows had opportunities to meet Griffin.  According to the Grinnell newspaper, in September 1912 (shortly after Fellows purchased [with his wife’s money] the property on north Broad Street) Griffin was a house guest of the Rickers, and Griffin gave a talk (on the Single Tax, unexpectedly)  to one of the Grinnell clubs to which Fellows belonged, so it would certainly have been possible for Fellows to discuss the idea with Griffin.  Furthermore, Griffin had already been in at least indirect contact with Fellows over plans for the Janney Addition, a speculative investment that Elbert Clark and Jesse Fellows took over in 1910 and for which Griffin supplied a new plat intended to better suit the topography (more on that in a future post).

But the timing was not propitious for Fellows to hire Griffin, who had only recently won the international competition for design of the proposed new Australian capital and whose thoughts increasingly turned toward Australia.  In 1912 Griffin was planning a trip to Australia—where he’d never been—and had even decided to interrupt work on Rock Crest/Rock Glen in Mason City, his largest community plan to date. Consequently, whether Fellows tried to hire Griffin or not, Griffin was not likely to accept a commission for Fellows house when so many other, more important demands were being made on his time.

If not Griffin, then who? Several Des Moines architectural firms had designed residences in Grinnell—Proudfoot and Bird, for example, was responsible for several houses on Broad Street alone—but Fellows did not pursue them.  Instead, for reasons not immediately apparent, Fellows turned to a firm that had designed no buildings—commercial or residential—in Grinnell: Sawyer and Watrous.  Ralph Sawyer and Charles Watrous had both studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where they became friends. After working for several years in Sawyer’s native Boston, Watrous returned to his hometown, Des Moines, where in 1905 he set up a partnership with his school chum, Ralph Sawyer. At first Sawyer remained in Boston, doing most of the drawing and design; Watrous, on site in Iowa, apparently oversaw construction. As their business flourished, however, Sawyer moved to Des Moines where the firm succeeded in winning a series of important commissions. But how (or why) Jesse Fellows decided upon this firm remains a mystery.

The April 5, 1913 issue of American Contractor announced that Sawyer and Watrous had designed a two-story residence for “J. E. Fellows” [sic] in Grinnell. Described as featuring “brick veneer on hollow tile, shingle roof, hardwood finish and floors, mosaic, gas and electric fixtures,” the design was at first estimated to cost $15,000, about the same as Griffin’s Ricker House. However, when the Grinnell Register in mid-July announced that architects’ plans for the house were complete, the paper estimated that “The house…will cost upwards of $30,000, making it one of the finest residences in the city.”  Indeed, when bids were opened two weeks later, the Grinnell Herald reported that the low bidder was Van Dyne Construction of Des Moines, who agreed to build the house for $28,650, a fabulous sum that was about twice the cost of Ricker’s house. (The news from the Grinnell Register was even more shocking; according to the paper, Van Dyne’s bid did not include plumbing, heating or electric wiring!) Other contractors submitted bids that were even higher than Van Dyne’s, an indication of the palace imagined by the design.

Perhaps the price startled even Jesse Fellows, because, despite the earlier announcement, work on the house did not begin immediately, and the project was put into “abeyance until spring.” But in spring 1914 the news reported not the resumption of last year’s plan, but an entirely new plan of a new architect—Seth Justin Temple (1867-1949). At the time, Temple was partnered with Parke T. Burrows in a Davenport association formed in 1910 after an earlier partnership with a third architect was dissolved. Temple & Burrows went on to design many buildings, but in 1914 they had designed only a few private residences and nothing outside the Quad Cities area, so exactly how they came to the attention of Jesse and Maud Fellows  is of interest.

Seth Justin Temple (ca. 1915?). Photo courtesy of Mr. Don Glenn.

Seth Justin Temple (ca. 1915?). Photo courtesy of Mr. Don Glenn.

As it happens, Seth Temple had a history with Walter Burley Griffin. Temple was born in Winona, MN and attended Columbia School of Mines, New York, where he received his architecture degree in 1893. He taught briefly in New York, and then received a fellowship that allowed him two years’ travel in France, Spain and Italy, where he sketched numerous buildings and examples of architectural ornament. Upon his return to America in 1896, Temple accepted appointment to the faculty at University of Illinois, where Griffin had enrolled as a student the year before.

At Illinois Temple taught five courses: Architectural Drawing; Architectural Perspective; Architectural Design; Renaissance Design; and Design of Ornament. Griffin took all five courses, and Architectural Drawing—not one of Griffin’s strengths, evidently—twice.  In all these courses Griffin scored very well, especially in Design of Ornament, a course very close to Temple’s own interests. Consequently, it is clear that Griffin and Temple were very well acquainted before Griffin’s 1899 graduation and his move to Chicago where he soon came into contact with Myron Hunt, Dwight Perkins, and Frank Lloyd Wright, all of whom were helping chart a new course for American architecture. Seth Temple, very much under the influence of European architecture, continued to teach at Illinois until 1904, when he moved to Davenport and into private practice. So how did Jesse Fellows find him?

In his work for Grinnell Washing Machine Company, Fellows traveled widely, and Davenport was one of his stops. It is possible, therefore, that someone there put him in touch with Temple & Burrows. Such a possibility, however, is no more likely than Fellows having met some Des Moines architects, and the slight experience with residential housing evident in the Temple & Burrows portfolio makes it hard to imagine what persuaded Fellows to commission the Davenport firm.  But if Jesse Fellows had in fact earlier approached Griffin about designing his house, might Griffin have mentioned Seth Temple to him?

Certainly the two men, whatever their previous relationship, followed rather different design philosophies. Having run Frank Lloyd Wright‘s practice in 1905 while Wright was in Japan and having increasingly absorbed the ideas that came to inform the Prairie School architects, Griffin created buildings dramatically different from most contemporary American architecture, much of which was still in the thrall of European precedent. Temple, on the other hand, deeply influenced by beaux arts European architecture and ornament, produced buildings that, however grand, borrowed heavily from contemporary European design. So, if Griffin mentioned Temple, it was not because the two men shared a similar design philosophy.

Nevertheless, they had been well-acquainted with one another, and Seth Temple was now practicing architecture in Iowa. Recommending his former teacher to a potential client at a time when Griffin was losing interest in his American practice is easy to imagine.  But one more coincidence gives additional reason to think that Griffin might have played a role in getting Fellows to commission Temple. In 1913 the University of Illinois decided to appoint a new professor of architecture. The university sought someone of accomplishment who, by his standing and renown, could lead the department into a new era of success. One of the first persons to whom they turned was Walter Burley Griffin, newly famous for having won the Australian competition.  However, as the correspondence between the university president and Griffin shows, Griffin—by this time in Australia—did not seriously contemplate accepting. Riding the excitement of what promised to be a career-defining opportunity in Australia, Griffin declined. The university responded by appointing an acting head, but continued to seek a high-profile appointment.

In 1915 a new name entered the search—Seth Temple. In March of that year, Harry Robinson, an Oak Park alumnus of the University and a veteran of both Frank Lloyd Wright’s and Griffin’s architectural studios, wrote President Edmund James to urge the reappointment of Temple as professor of architecture, describing Temple as one of the university’s most successful teachers. James took the recommendation to heart, and contacted Temple not simply about reappointment, but about becoming chair of the department.  James and Temple exchanged a number of letters, considering the appointment and compensation.  Temple seemed about to accept when quite suddenly he changed course and declined, expressing a preference for remaining independent of the sort of schedule that a university appointment would bring. Of course, by this time Fellows had already selected Temple as his architect, so the prospective appointment at Illinois had no impact upon the Grinnell building. But the fact that both Griffin and Temple, student and teacher, rose to the top of the candidate pool for the Illinois position proves that in these years the two men shared a similarly high reputation, even if their design philosophies differed radically.

In any event, by the spring of 1914 Temple & Burrows had prepared a new design for Maude and Jesse Fellows. The announcement soliciting bids described the house as stucco over hollow tile with a tile roof, not obviously more economical than the earlier design. However, the winning bid, from Arthur Errington, a Des Moines contractor, came in well below bids submitted a year earlier on the Sawyer and Watrous design—$18,868. Construction began that summer, and Fellows clearly expected to move in sometime in early 1915, since in January he listed his old home for sale. Although the details remain unclear, things did not proceed smoothly; whether because of a shortage of materials or other issues, Errington abandoned the job before having completed all construction, and therefore Fellows won a 1919 suit against the contractor and his insurance company.  According to the complaint (upheld by the court), Errington had not finished the house by the date specified in the contract (February 1, 1915) nor had he paid all bills for materials supplied, leaving Fellows to satisfy suppliers. The court awarded Fellows some $2700, but the net result was that construction was not complete until 1918.

Jesse & Maude Fellows House (2009).

Jesse & Maude Fellows House (2009).

All the same, the Fellows’s new house was—and is—stunning.  Like Ricker House, Fellows house stood on three lots, the building itself spanning lots 7 and 8, with the southernmost lot—9—landscaped to match the Mediterranean design of the building. Unlike Ricker House, which did not receive a garage until 1916, an automobile garage was part of the original design of Fellows House, built into the west wing with a billiards room installed above it on the second story. A two-story porch constituted the south wing; the downstairs porch opened off the living room, while upstairs the porch (complete with a built-in Murphy bed) opened from the master bedroom.

Despite the very European character of the exterior, the Fellows House interior borrowed a great deal from the arts-and-crafts movement—leaded glass bookcases lined the living room walls on both sides of the tile fireplace; stained-glass doors separated the dining room from the hall; and crafted oak woodwork decorated the entire interior, including the dining room where a leather-like material lined the walls above the chair rail and built-in cupboards. In short, the new Fellows house was a stunner and, like its Griffin-designed cousin across the street, announced the success and importance of its owners.

The Fellows were not slow to capitalize upon their new home. In mid-October, 1916 Maude Fellows hosted sixty guests for an “elegant four-course luncheon” at her new home, the meal being served by four college women.  Quantities of autumn foliage were liberally distributed throughout the downstairs rooms, and “Cecil Brunner roses with maiden hair fern” decorated each table.” “Tables for bridge were arranged in the spacious billiard room on the second floor, while those not caring for cards spent the afternoon hours in a delightfully informal fashion downstairs.”  The luncheon provided Mrs. Fellows with an opportunity not only to display her new, spacious and modern home; it also gave her the occasion to present the Fellows’s liberality and financial success to sixty of the most well-placed families in town.  It could not fail to impress, especially within the walls of their grand new home on north Broad Street.

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