Architecture and transistors – the American Dream comes true for one Grisdale Family

Posted: June 30, 2014 in Architecture, Family History
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The vast majority of American immigrants didn’t find the land of their dreams. For most life as an immigrant was hard and sometimes brutal. But at least there was always the prospect that things would get better, at least for their children and grandchildren. One family for which the American Dream did seem to come true was that of Charles Grisdale, a son of Lake District butcher turned farmer John Bird Grisdale. Charles did well for himself and his sons did even better. This is a part of their story.

Temple Sowerby

Temple Sowerby

Charles was born in 1878 in the Westmorland village of Kirkby Thore. He was the illegitimate child of farmer’s daughter Margaret Anne Metcalfe and a butcher called John Bird Grisdale from the nearby village of Temple Sowerby. He was registered under the name Charles Metcalfe – his parents married three years later and two sisters then arrived. Shortly after Charles’s birth his father, John Bird, started to cattle farm, probably with the help of his father-in-law James Metcalfe who had been a farmer himself. The family farm was called Spittal Farm in Kirkby Thore and still remains a dairy farm to this day. In 2005 the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald announced:

The Cumbria Grassland Society held the awards night for its annual silage competition at the Stoneybeck Inn, Penrith, where Andrew Addison, Spittal Farm, Kirkby Thore, learned that he had taken first place.

This is where Charles grew up. I will tell more of the earlier family history towards the end of this article, for now I want to concentrate on Charles and his move to the United States.

s/s Umbria

s/s Umbria

As far as I know it was Charles’s carpenter uncle George who first went to America in the early 1880s (his brother Thomas went separately too). George had settled in Chicago and married Indiana-born Jemima Atchison there in 1886. But George came back on at least one occasion to visit his family in England. On a visit in 1895, leaving his wife in Chicago, he obviously waxed lyrical about the prospects for the family across the Atlantic. One of the family who listened was nephew Charles, because when George returned to the States on the ship Umbria from Liverpool to New York in late March 1895, sixteen year-old Charles went with him, both giving their destination as Chicago.

The 1890s were an extraordinary decade for Chicago, perhaps the only period in the city’s history when its status as a “world city” would be disputed by few. The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in 1893. “Prairie-school” architects like Frank Lloyd Wright began to acquire a measure of fame. Novels like Sister Carrie were inspired by the city’s peculiar mixture of wealth and squalor–and by its astonishing growth. It is often said that Chicago grew more quickly in the second half of the 19th century than any large city in the modern history of the Western world. In the 1890s alone its population increased by 600,000. In 1900, with 1.7 million people, Chicago was, by some measures, (briefly) the fifth or sixth largest city in the world.

minn

Minneapolis in the 1920s

Charles probably spent the next few years in Chicago with his uncle, but soon for reasons I don’t know he moved to Minneapolis in Minnesota and he married there in 1903. His wife was Illinois-born Francis Ruth Orvis. Their first son John Thomas Grisdale – to be known as Jack – was born in Minneapolis in 1904, followed in 1908 by Richard Orvis Grisdale. In 1905 Charles was working as a ‘Cashier’ in a packing company, as he was in 1910. As the years passed and the two boys were growing, Charles progressed to be a ‘bookkeeper’ and then an accountant in ‘Mobile Oils’ in 1920. He then worked for La Pray & Graning before joining the Minneapolis City Comptroller’s office as an accountant, where he stayed till his retirement. The family moved continually and I won’t trace all their moves here. Suffice it to say they lived, as far as I can tell, in nice ‘middle class’ residential areas. Charles registered for the Army draft in late 1918 but probably didn’t see any service; he died in Minneapolis in 1962.

Central High School, Minneapolis

Central High School, Minneapolis

I’ll now leave Charles and pass on to his sons: John Thomas and Richard Orvis. It seems they were both bright boys and were sent to school at the prestigious Central High School in Saint Paul. John graduated in 1922 and was admitted to the University of Minnesota to study architecture. He lived at home while studying but also worked as a ‘draftsman’, probably to help pay for his studies but also no doubt for the experience. After graduating in 1926/7 with a bachelor’s degree in Architecture, John went to take a M. Arch at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, from where he graduated in 1928.

John’s younger brother Richard Orvis seems to have been an early star. The Central High School yearbooks are positively gushing with their praise. His list of honours and achievements goes on and on and when he graduated in 1926 his long entry ends with the words: ‘He is a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.’ Crikey, that’s something of a burden to live up to! He studied first at the University of Minnesota then won a scholarship to go to Harvard where he studied Chemistry ‘with strong quantum theory interests’ as he later said. On graduation in 1930, Richard was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to undertake further study at the University of Oxford. I guess he did.

The first transistor from Bell LabsLater Richard worked at Bell Labs on the development of the first electrical transistors and later at General Electric as an engineer. There is much more to tell about Richard, but for the moment I will just finish by saying that he married Margaret Griswold in New York in 1932 and they had a son called Michael L Grisdale in 1940. Michael has only recently died. During his career Richard travelled a lot. When he visited London he stayed in the salubrious Savoy Hotel and the equally up-market RAC Club. He died in 1982 in Short Hills, New Jersey.

Let us return to John Thomas Grisdale, the architect. Having finished his studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1928, John spent the next ten years working at his trade with the architectural firm of Mellor and Meigs in Philadelphia and then with Paul P. Cret until 1943.

But John obviously travelled too, because years later one of his colleagues from the Central High School in Minneapolis wrote an article in which he tells that while on a ‘sojourn’ in the ‘wilds of India’ in 1932 he meet a group of lion hunters which including John Grisdale.

In 1945 John entered into partnership with his University of Pennsylvania classmate J. Roy Carroll under the name Carroll & Grisdale. They were joined in 1946 by Pennsylvania alumnus W. L. van Alen  and the firm of Carroll, Grisdale and Van Alen was born; it continued to operate successfully until 1973.

lib 5

Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen’s Library Company of Philadelphia building, 1965

Now it wasn’t John’s fault that when he studied architecture and started to practice at a time when the so-called ‘International style’ was in vogue. Taking its inspiration from European architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, in the United States the style was popularized by Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnston.

The stark, unornamented appearance of the International style met with contemporaneous criticism and is still criticized today by many. Especially in larger and more public buildings, the style is commonly subject to disparagement as ugly, inhuman, sterile, and elitist. Such criticism gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th Century, from academics such as Hugo Kükelhaus to best-selling American author Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House, and contributed to the rise of such counter-movements as postmodernism.

The International style has left us many blots on the landscape, not just in the United States but everywhere in the world. Below I show just four examples of Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen’s work; you can judge the aesthetics and functionality of these buildings for yourself. The firm’s full archive is kept by the University of Pennsylvania.

Youth Study Center, Philadelphia, 1953

youth 3

State Office Building, Philadelphia

state office

  Doylestown Court House, 1962

court house 1

Franklin Building, University of Pennsylvania

frank 3

In my view somewhat better than these designs was John T. Grisdale’s own house in Delaware, which he designed himself.

John Grisdale's house in Delaware, 1949

John Grisdale’s house in Delaware, 1949

John married Catherine Hanford and they had one son called Hanford Gillespie Grisdale in 1943. John Thomas ‘Jack’ Grisdale died in Radnor, Wayne County, Delaware in 1985 aged eighty and is buried in St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.

For those of you interested in the earlier history of this Grisdale family perhaps a few words are in order. As I mentioned, Charles Grisdale’s grandfather George was born in Penrith, Cumberland in 1826, the son of poor agricultural labourer Thomas Grisdale and his first wife Elizabeth Charters. By the time he was fourteen George had been sent to work in a lead mine, though which Cumberland lead mine this was I have yet to ascertain. George’s parents died at a quite young age and George, having surreptitiously married Margaret Warwick at Greta Green in 1846, somehow ended up in the Cumbrian village of Temple Sowerby working as a tanner.  As we have seen the couple’s fourth child, John Bird Grisdale, became a butcher in Temple Sowerby before becoming a dairy farmer in Kirkby Thore. It was all about cows – tanner, butcher and dairy farmer.

If you are interested in Thomas’s own route back to Matterdale I invite you to contact me.

Lead Miners

Lead Miners

By way of a genealogical aside, Thomas Grisdale’s first wife, Elizabeth Charters, whom he married in Penrith in 1821, was the younger sister of Mary Charters who married my own 3rd great grandfather, the Penrith ‘Dancing Master’ William Grisdale, in 1815 (see here).

So here we have a story of the progress of one Grisdale family from child labour in a Cumberland lead mine to a Rhodes scholarship and architectural success in just three generations!

Finally a word on how paths may cross. In Minneapolis in the early decades of the twentieth century (and later too), Charles and his family were not by any means the only Grisdales in the city; there were quite a few more. Of course they were all related and all found their roots in Matterdale, but had they ever met did they know of their relationship? Let me mention just one such relative: Charles Gideon Grisdale. This Charles Gideon was the great grandson of Wilfred Grisdale who had arrived in Canada as early as 1816/7 (see here) and who, just by way of example, was the Chief Engineer at the Liquid Carbolic Company in Minneapolis around 1920. This Wilfred Grisdale was the brother of my own 3rd great grandfather, the Penrith Dancing Master William Grisdale, who, as already mentioned, had married Mary Charters who was the sister of Elizabeth Charters who married Thomas Grisdale, the great grandfather of immigrant Charles Grisdale and 2nd great grandfather of architect John Thomas and chemical engineer Richard Orvis. I hope you’re keeping up? It’s a small world.

John Bird Grisdale was a butcher before turning to farming

John Bird Grisdale was a butcher before turning to farming

 

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Comments
  1. se.lancaster@rogers.com says:

    Please change my email to se.lancaster@cogeco.ca Thank you, Shirley Lancaster Hobden

    Enjoy your stories. My late husband was related to some of the Grisdales from Cumberland who emigrated to Hudson, Quebec. He also flew with the Squadron that flew over Germany in WW II. He was one of the lucky ones to return. Shirley

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