The Richardsonian Romanesque

It’s not an especially round number, but this year will be the 180th anniversary of H. H. Richardson’s birth. When September 29th rolls around, will you join me for a beer?

There were actually two Romanesque Revivals during the 19th century: there was the Rundbogenstil, which (as you might gather from the name) was Germanic and included elements of both the Renaissance and the Byzantine. Then there was a late flowering of Romanesqueness courtesy of the great American architect Henry Hobson Richardson and the style that bears his name—if not his personal imprint. The irony of the Richardsonian Romanesque is that it had less and less to do with the direction of Richardson’s own developing style. Which is to say that, ultimately, the Richardsonian Romanesque wasn’t particularly Richardsonian. If he’d lived beyond his forty-eight years, who knows how discrepant they might have become.

Paul Clifford Larson has explored what HHR’s work had come to mean in the Midwest: his influence can be felt from the Superior shore of the U.P. to the courthouse squares of Iowa and Kansas. Locally, it appears in Fargo at “Old Main” on the NDSU campus. But would HHR have approved or even recognized himself in it? I wonder.

One of Richardson’s more exotic disciples was William Halsey Wood, who I chose as the architect for Agincourt’s Fennimore County courthouse of 1888-1889. Once again, my planning is better than the three-dimensionality and detailing of it. But I will admit more than subliminal influence from the Cerro Gordo courthouse at Mason City. Ultimately, I hope my design shows more of Wood than Richardson, but a defense of that claim will have to wait.

Cerro Gordo Co. C. H., Mason City, IA (1903; demolished 1962)

Williams Co. C. H., Bryan, OH (1891) / E. O. Fallis, architect

Asbury UMC

I pretend that what goes on here matters to others. My latest dilemma concerns Asbury United Methodist church, a 1919 building fronting the courthouse square (actually, the courthouse irregular pentagon), an example of the Akron-Auditorium plan, possibly among the very last ever built. Architects for the design were Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen of Des Moines (a real firm), there being no resident architect in Agincourt at the time.

The design is, if I can be immodest, not bad. There are still a couple glitches that need to be worked out but I have the matter in hand and will modify the plan some time very soon. In the last couple months, my biggest concern was in elevation, not in plan. I spend far too much time in the former and believe naively that elevations will work out in the long run. this means, of course, that I put them off until it was too late; they resolutely refused to resolve themselves. I scrounged everywhere I could for inspiration: what would a Midwestern Gothic Revival design look like, especially if brick and terra cotta were the predominant materials? Nothing on the interweb was forthcoming—until late last week.

Serendipity plays an exceptionally strong part in the development of this project, as it did last Thursday. Searching for something completely different, I stumbled on a book I’ve know for more than forty years; there was a copy on the shelves of the Architecture Library at OU. It documents a competition sponsored by the Hydraulic Press Brick company to promote their products, and sought designs from architects for “The Brick Church and Parish House”. The date is 1915, which puts more than thirty examples at my fingertips to see what was on the minds of relatively Progressive designers at the very time I was working. The one that caught my eye is by Edmund S. Campbell of Park Ridge, IL—about whose career I know bupkis.

This is still way too orthodox for an A-A church—which it is, but only in the most remote way. But it does put me on a path that is relatively comfortable and strewn with fewer obstacles.

Squatters Rights

The river where I live is the very reason there is a place to live. Without its course and the limits (during the late 19th century) of its navigability, the railroad would not have chosen this as most convenient and economical crossing, creating the nexus of exchange between two modes of transport. From that time—circa 1870—to the present, the river has been variously curse, blessing, or general nuisance. Those thoughts must have been at the back of my thinking about the mighty Muskrat when Agincourt was in the early stages of development. Some postcard views of the Blue River, in the Greater Kansas City, MO urban area, had also become a more conscious part in shaping the Muskrat’s role in the city.

I had always imagined the west bank of the river, opposite the city, as a convenient place to recreate and, in the process, erect confabulations like this ramshackle pile. As a non-fisher, I hope you will both approve and also set me straight.

Wasted Space

Looking at architecture of any size or species, I often hear the wee small voice of my grandmother Clara Markiewicz Ramsey speaking about what I see. “Dust catchers!” she would exclaim about extraneous doodads, gewgaws, gimcracks, and thingamabobs likely to accumulate crud and require her attention. Wasted space was another comparable irritant. In fact, I’ve come to think of Clara as a proto-minimalist.

So you can imagine my discomfort designing the second Fennimore County Courthouse at Agincourt: more that one-third of its volume consisted of attic beneath a massive hipped roof and cupola. Sure, I placed several secondary county functions up in that cavernous space: miscellaneous dormered meeting rooms; portions of the county law library; even a meteorological station to monitor weather conditions and keep records. Was that the act of a desperate man? Imagine my relief when examples have shown up to justify my initial design instincts.

The former Christian Church in Marion, Iowa has a massive octagonal roof, but it is likely to be open to the sanctuary below (even if it seems not to be skylit. Then, yesterday, the city hall in La Salle, Illinois helped even more: it sports one of the simplest and most massive roofs I’ve seen on a public building—that is, not designed by Imhotep the Wise for his pharaoh client.

Christian Church, Marion, IA

City Hall, La Salle, IL (1907)/ Victor Andre Matteson, architect

Neither of these gets me completely off the hook, but I thought you might find them interesting.


The weighing of the heart


It was a normal Sunday at Asbury UMC, yesterday. By which I mean Pastor Varenhorst challenged her congregation to think. Her sermon was drawn from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Hollywood films of the 1930s have not only colored our understanding of ancient Egyptian religion; they’ve prejudiced us to imagine the Egyptians preoccupied with death. But Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the avenging mummy, kept alive by the distillation of three tana leaves, has as much to do with Egyptian salvation as fruitcake does with the meaning of Christmas.

At the British Museum, there is a copy of the Book of the Dead prepared especially for Hunefer, a scribe of the 19th Dynasty (ca 1275 BCE). In addition to spells and incantations meant to evoke the favor of the gods, it also includes the list of forty-two questions that will be asked of the deceased in his or her pursuit of the afterlife. Hunefer lived knowing the questions he would eventually be asked. And he knew the consequences for providing replies that were either unsatisfactory or untruthful. Frankly, they make the Ten Commandments look like a CliffsNotes study guide. Try your hand at them today—but its O.K. to keep the answers to yourself. My current score is well below fifty percent.

  1. I have not committed sin.
  2. I have not committed robbery with violence.
  3. I have not stolen.
  4. I have not slain men or women.
  5. I have not stolen food.
  6. I have not swindled offerings.
  7. I have not stolen from God/Goddess.
  8. I have not told lies.
  9. I have not carried away food.
  10. I have not cursed.
  11. I have not closed my ears to truth.
  12. I have not committed adultery.
  13. I have not made anyone cry.
  14. I have not felt sorrow without reason.
  15. I have not assaulted anyone.
  16. I am not deceitful.
  17. I have not stolen anyone’s land.
  18. I have not been an eavesdropper.
  19. I have not falsely accused anyone.
  20. I have not been angry without reason.
  21. I have not seduced anyone’s wife.
  22. I have not polluted myself.
  23. I have not terrorized anyone.
  24. I have not disobeyed the Law.
  25. I have not been exclusively angry.
  26. I have not cursed God/Goddess.
  27. I have not behaved with violence.
  28. I have not caused disruption of peace.
  29. I have not acted hastily or without thought.
  30. I have not overstepped my boundaries of concern.
  31. I have not exaggerated my words when speaking.
  32. I have not worked evil.
  33. I have not used evil thoughts, words or deeds.
  34. I have not polluted the water.
  35. I have not spoken angrily or arrogantly.
  36. I have not cursed anyone in thought, word or deeds.
  37. I have not placed myself on a pedestal.
  38. I have not stolen what belongs to God/Goddess.
  39. I have not stolen from or disrespected the deceased.
  40. I have not taken food from a child.
  41. I have not acted with insolence.
  42. I have not destroyed property belonging to God/Goddess

In some translations of the Forty-two Principles there is one I particularly like: Is there one upon the Earth who is glad thou hast lived?

At the far left of the scroll shown here, Hunefer is being escorted by Anubis, the god of the dead, to the scale of ma’at [pronounced “may-et”], where the deceased’s heart will be weighed against the single feather of Truth. Whether personified or shown as an ostrich plume, Ma’at refers to the ancient Egyptian concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice. A heavy heart will be eaten by Ammit, “the devourer of the dead”, and the deceased will cease to exist. But a successful weighing will bring Hunefer one step closer to eternity in The Fields of Bullrushes.

For a full treatment of the subject, I heartily recommend:


Lud Heat

Lud Heat is a 1975 book by Iain Sinclair, a work I encountered thirty-three years ago and with which I have never quite come to grips.

The format is unusual and episodic but it is essentially a psycho-geographic exploration of the spatial relationship between and among the churches of English Renaissance architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. For me, as a fanatic of anything Hawksmoor, its most notable spawn has been Peter Ackroyd’s historical novel Hawksmoor, which I also highly recommend for some dark and stormy night when you’re unable to sleep. It won’t help, but you’ll thank me.

“Lud” is a curious word, with biblical intimations— “And Lud languished in the belly of the sturgeon” —as well as with English slang. One might wish it to have a connection with Luddites—much on my mind these days for obvious reasons—but that rebellious retrograde movement is named for Ned Ludd, though the temptation to connect them is strong. Sinclair’s Land of Lud consists of the eastern or Tower Hamlets, an economically disadvantaged set of inner boroughs (formerly Stepney, Poplar, and Bethnal Green) merged in 1965. Many of you will know it from the BBC series “EastEnders”. The contention is that Hawksmoor’s churches form a psycho-geographic pattern rich with arcane and forgotten meaning. the term itself was coined in 1955 by Guy Debord to focus “on our psychological experiences of the city, and reveals or illuminates forgotten, discarded, or marginalised aspects of the urban environment.” Iain Sinclair accomplishes this in a more or less poetic framework, though “poetry” as you may not recognize it.

If there is anything psycho-geographic going on here, someone else will have to discern it.

And somewhere in the house I have an original copy of Sinclair’s book, which is apparently worth a bloody fortune!

The Syndicate Mill (1.2)

Water is Power

Other than finding Iowa had a substantial number of water-powered mills—for grain production most likely, but also possibly lumber manufacture—its surprising how few photographs or drawings there are distinguishing the three principal types: 1) over-shot, 2) under-shot, and 3) side-shot. I can’t say why I chose the side-shot variety for Agincourt’s Syndicate Mill, but it’s what I designed back in 2008 when the project was young.

Side-shot wheels, as you might suspect, lie on their side and the water passes them on the left or the right—does being in the Northern Hemisphere make any difference?—and then transfers the power directly up into the mill, where various cogs and belts transfer it to as many places as practicable. I can’t say what proportion of 19th century wheels operated this way; clearly, if photographs are to be believed, the other two types were more popular. Then, again, side-shot wheels aren’t especially photogenic. This image comes from an article at

Though I’m hardly an authority on 19th century industrial technology (where’s Elliott when you need him?), the general idea was that water from the mill pond would be diverted as high as possible on the contours and then split, passing in two raceways beneath the building’s first phase on its way back to the river. Phase Two mirrored the first, with an administrative “hyphen” between them; imagine a similar element reflected off the right side of the plan below. But would a river like the Muskrat have produced enough power for such a large facility? Until someone tells me otherwise (and even if they do) I’m sticking with this first gut reaction.