Career and practice
Purnell was a wonderfully eclectic architect whose repertoire included Chinoiserie, Italianate, Modern, Neo-Classical, Queen Anne, Spanish Mission and even what would be described today as Post-Modern.
Always eager to move with the times, he designed ornate Queen Anne-style houses in his thirties and plain ranch-style houses in his seventies. He also designed many factories, offices, shops and warehouses. A large number of these still exist, including the Melbourne landmark Michael’s Corner (1915) on Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.
Purnell’s commissions frequently reflected his own interests. As a lover of sport, for example, he designed an amazing variety of sporting facilities, including the Clifton Springs Golf Club (1926), the grandstand at Western Oval (1929), a greyhound-racing track at Tottenham (1927), the Olympia Sea Water Swimming Pool at South Melbourne (1937) and the Rosebud Yacht Club (1939). Indeed, he is perhaps best remembered for his last major commission, the Olympic Stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (1953–1955).
Regrettably, many of his best buildings have been demolished, such as the Wattle Path Palais De Danse & Café (1922), perhaps better known as St Moritz Ice Skating Rink.
Purnell initially set up on his own in the Nicholson Chambers at 101 Swanston Street. The practice gradually grew, so he moved to larger premises in Phair’s Buildings at 327 Collins Street. In 1915 he went into partnership with Isadore George Beaver, a Manchester-born architect 19 years his senior. They moved office to Altson’s Buildings at 82 Elizabeth Street. In 1925 the partnership with George Beaver ended and the following year Purnell moved to the Equitable Building at 314 Collins Street. In 1928 he went into partnership with Eric Hazel Round and William Alfred Graham.
Purnell had a long-standing and a close and cordial client-architect relationship with one Alexander George (‘Alec’) Barlow (1880–1937), a trailblazing, somewhat shady, Melbourne car dealer. Redesigned car show rooms, racing stables and a house were amongst the work completed by Purnell for Barlow.