Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Sanguine

Language being what it is, sanguine is a color — which I recognize from conté pencils purchased from Dick Blick — which is difficult to describe, because it resembles dried blood, though I don’t think that’s its source. What that has to do with another of the dictionary definitions (optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation) I can’t quite fathom. Unfortunately, the O.E.D. isn’t handy.

For a split second I flashed on Donald Trump and tried to imagine him uttering the word “sanguine”, and deemed it improbable, despite it having just two syllables, because it involves introspection, an intellectual exercise beyond his capability because it is also beyond his comprehension. Odd, because I wonder if sanguinity may come with age; he is but seventeen months younger than I. Like other mental states that involve being on the cusp, the edge, a point of change or transition, it comes with reflection that more of life lies behind than ahead.

I wrote in a recent application for promotion of a difference between myself and the college committee that had reviewed my dossier. “My guess,” I wrote to the university provost, “is that the median age of the committee might be thirty-six.” [University committees are populated with mid-career faculty whose “service” will reinforce their own quest for advancement.] I went on, “But I am seventy-two and can tell you that a career ahead looks remarkably different from one substantially in a rearview mirror. And also that my promotion and my death are likely to be a photo finish.” I made a point, but probably at a cost yet to be paid. And so, as I complete my seventy-fifth circuit round our sun, waxing nostalgic, reminiscing, reflecting, resigning, yes, I’ve become sanguine: of what lies in the past and does not; of what lies before me and cannot. Therein resides my sanguinity.

LOOSE ENDS

My seventy-fifth birthday is six months from last Wednesday, and, though I’m enjoying moderate good health, this has become a time to plan…. <more on this a bit later> …and tie up all those loose ends.

When the time comes…

…and it will all too soon, and should you wish to memorialize me in some modest way, may I make a comparably modest suggestion. We have established a fund at the F-M Area Foundation named for my grandmother, The Clara Frances Markiewicz Fund, set up to support causes dear to my heart: 1) medical research (heart disease, cancer, and alzheimer’s); 2) social justice (voter’s rights, anti-discrimination); 3) architectural education; and 4) the arts (museum support, commissions). The Fund is generating about 3%, contributions are tax exempt (to the extent provided by law, i.e., for the time being), and it is administered by a committee of three good friends, all connected with the Department in some way and committed to the same goals (you’d recognize their names).

I’m just saying.

Birthing a Bilding

…or is it berthing a bilding?

Planning Agincourt’s Public Library

Beyond his role in the public library movement — he underwrote the cost of 1,800 libraries between 1889 and about 1920 — the frugal Scot Andrew Carnegie felt that large amounts of ink, paper, and time were consumed preparing documents, and that a significant savings in all three categories could be achieved if we just simplified the spelling of the English language. In 1909, concerned that the early stage of his library benefaction had been misspent, Carnegie hired someone to analyze the program’s expenditures and rein in its excesses. James Bertram contributed mightily to its reform and, for the first time, provided guidance, rather than money alone, and it was Bertram who penned a simple two-fold pamphlet title “Notes on Library Bilding” which used the reformed spelling favored by Carnegie and a few others.

You may be surprised to know that a Carnegie grant was the result of a formula based on population in the last U.S. Census, provision of a centrally-located site, and commitment to annual support equal to ten percent of the grant. Carnegie played no role in programming the new library, nor were his staff involved with architectural selection. The pre-1909 result was monumental design that failed to work: Grandiose lobbies and Carnegie’s name in massive Roman letters, but poorly organized spaces that might have been more appropriate for an art museum.

There were 101 Carnegie-funded public libraries in Iowa and another seven for academic institutions. They range from 1892 until 1917, so there was no lack of enthusiasm for library construction, nor an absence of precedent. Indeed there were other libraries not underwritten by Andrew. I elected to fund the proposed Agincourt Public Library from local sources for two reasons: #1) it afforded greater latitude in design (e.g., I could add program elements beyond the library itself), and #2) it generated an exclusively local narrative. Also, by delaying the project until about 1915, Louis Sullivan had time to complete his five Iowa projects, and the Neo-Classicism that dominated earlier library design had passed its prime.

The clear majority of Iowa’s public libraries were Classical Revival or Neo-Classical in style, a logical result of influence from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This example from Iowa Falls is more extreme than most, but it illustrates the problem that Bertram uncovered: he found that grandiosity trumped functionality in far too may cases. Local building committees construed Carnegie’s benefaction as a wish for architectural immortality. They were wrong.

Iowa Falls is also typical in being a free-standing structure, splendid isolation on a prominent site, they have an almost suburban character, rather than genuinely “urban”. Examples in dense settings are rare, indeed, and may be limited to major urban areas like Pittsburgh or New York City. In many ways, these buildings are formulaic, so much so that many people actually believe they were built from a single prototype. They’re wrong, too.

You can see why I was fascinated, imagining an unconventional approach Louis Sullivan might have taken.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” ― Walter Cronkite

“From coast to coast, elementary and high school libraries are being neglected, defunded, repurposed, abandoned, and closed.” This is the first line of a 2015 article that documents a situation which can only have deteriorated during the last four years. Remember, we were still in the midst of a political campaign then that has brought us to the brink of a new Dark Age. If that seems pessimistic, you haven’t been paying attention.

I prefer the view of Jorge Luis Borges — someone probably from one of those “shit-hole countries”, so pay him no heed — who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” but he continued, expansively: “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” Eat your heart out, Herakleitos.

At odd moments during the last two years, I’ve wondered [as someone educated to be an architect but who never followed through, for obvious reasons] about the Donald John Trump Presidential Library. Where will it be located, do you imagine? Who will be its architect? That is, who will have the cojones (or lack of good judgment) to even seek the commission, let along have their name and repute linked with it for all time? Putting all that aside, if you can, try to form in your mind’s eye an image of the completed building; I’ve tried and have only a migraine for my trouble. It is even more frustratingly amusing to conceive its contents. I briefly considered developing a studio design project for the DJTPL but realized it would be the end of my so-called career in higher education. These are perilous times to have socio-cultural views measurably left of center — especially when you are suckling at the Public Teat.

If you fear an ongoing treatise on the decline of American culture, rest easy: This is merely the politically-loaded introduction to some thoughts on the origins of the Agincourt Public Library.

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, Rio de Janeiro / founded 1837; constructed 1880-1887

America’s public library movement during the 19th century had its roots in New England about 1850. Earlier libraries were “social”, joint stock companies providing access to those who could afford a membership. Libraries supported by taxation, and thereby accessible to the public at large, began in 1849 in New Hampshire and spread rapidly westward. It was Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s influence, however, between 1880 and 1920 that shaped the library networks we enjoy today.

Efforts toward a public library in Agincourt date to about 1880; prior to that time there were small lending libraries in churches (the Methodists and Episcopalians primarily). Planning for a new county courthouse begun in 1886 — the earlier stately Italianate courthouse was wooden and had long since been outgrown — afforded inclusion of a library room (at county expense) which would be centrally situated. It would be readily accessible during normal business hours and some evenings by arrangement with the Ladies Literary Society. Indeed, the new courthouse, dedicated in 1889, evolved into a genuine cultural center: courtrooms were used for lectures and recitals (and the occasional religious service); the northwest corner room was dedicated to the G.A.R. (a gathering place for Civil War veterans to reminisce while their numbers dwindled); and the newly-formed library collection. So, beyond its use for civic business and law enforcement, the second courthouse welcomed a broad audience of adults and children before the suffrage movement and while Victorian norms consigned children to the home and the care of mothers, older sisters, and maiden aunts.

Like the Community Collection of art, which originated there (in 1912 in the increasingly ceremonial G.A.R. Hall), the library collection began in much the same way: with no formal organization or source of financial support, the shelves filled slowly from family donations and the occasional business. Newspaper and periodical subscriptions were divided among a core of contributing families; books arrived from overcrowded shelves at home, for the first dozen years or so. The library functioned this way, informally, for almost twenty years. But my 1910, still in the early years of “library science”, the growing collection required an orderly system of shelving and circulation other than the honor system. A trained librarian was sought.

At about the same time, the first “library board” was established, in a loose affiliation with the city council, and discussions began in earnest for a free-standing, self-sustaining library on another central site. Several were suggested, but none had suitable “prominence”, and those that did were beyond the budget — until the tragic Masonic Lodge fire of New Year’s Eve 1911. Before the smoldering ruins cooled, what may have been the ideal site was suddenly open, a gift from the A.F. & A.M. Lodge “…in the interest of Civic Virtue.”

The next installment of the story will outline the planning process for the new library: developing a professional program within budgetary constraints; interviewing architects; and the actual construction process which yielded the building we enjoyed for fifty-five years.

Sully

“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
Robert Frank

Agincourt has needed a photographer almost from the beginning. And try as I might to interest an actual photographer in helping create one, none were forthcoming. In one case, I got the impression he was offended. Ah, well.

I tackled the easy part several years ago, placing a photographer’s studio on a north-facing second floor, above Van Kannel’s Sanitary Drug, at the corner of Broad and James. I’ll bet you’ve walked past it several times but failed to look up and admire the enormous skylight — still in place, though the studio has been vacant for years. Now I “simply” have to populate the space with a professional.

Through the second half of the 19th century, every community of even modest size enjoyed the services of a wet-plate photographer. Posed, studio photographs were the norm, largely, I guess, because the apparatus for taking images was so cumbersome. There was also an inordinate amount of paraphernalia—tables, chairs, chaises longues, easels, trunks, vases and urns, brackets and shelves, etc., and a variety of theatrical backdrops, curtains, carpets, tapestries, and drapery. The photographer might even have provided costumes of humorous or patriotic sorts. I can’t even imagine the amount of time required for a typical session, the number of poses and images taken.

The studio above—the “busman’s holiday” when the photographer is the subject—is the simplest I could find; the most modest and, in my mind’s eye, at least, more likely to represent a 19th century photographic studio in the American Midwest.

“SULLY”

I consulted a list of well-known American photographers, the sort of compendium Wikipedia enjoys, and wasn’t at all surprised to note how few names were obviously women. Which is all that’s required to set my mind in motion: Agincourt’s resident photographer will be a woman. And for some reason her surname will be Sullivan, known to her friends as “Sully” and perhaps unmarried. In 1901, the Ladies Home Journal featured six women as “The Foremost Women Photographers in America”, though I haven’t seen the actual article. I do know that one of them was Zaida Ben-Yusuf. The field has opened considerably since then; one website has put together a list of twenty-one “you need to know”. Which makes me proud that Ms Sullivan was a pioneer in her profession.

What kinds of stories do you suppose might grow from such simple circumstances?

Henry Humphrey Moore [1844-1926]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

MOORE, Henry Humphrey (1844–1926)

“Pandora’s Box”

1918

oil on canvas / 21 inches by 16 inches

Were it not for its late date, “Pandora’s Box” might be considered an example of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, whose subjects tended toward the medieval or mythology. Here, Pandora curiosity will open the box holding all the evils of the world.

Henry Moore is of interest beyond his abilities as a painter. Born deaf in New York City, he studied art at Philadelphia with Samuel Waugh, father of Frederick Waugh — yet another link between our collection and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art — and with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux Arts. Moore then spent several years painting in both Morocco and Japan.

“Pandora’s Box” is on long-term loan to the Collection from Agincourt’s own locksmith, Pandora Lock & Key, through the generosity of its proprietors.

Charles B. Keeler [1882–1964]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

KEELER, Charles Butler (1882–1964)

“Cogollos-Vega, Spain”

ca1929

aquatint on laid paper / 11 3/8 inches x 14 7/8 inches / #14 of 75

Iowa native Charles B. Keller was born at Cedar Rapids in 1882. Keeler received his Bachelor of Arts at Harvard in 1905 and continued studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as printmaking with Bertha Jacques and B.J.O. Nordfeldt. A Keeler aquatint received honorable mention at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

“Cogollos-Vega, Spain” represents one of several European trips made by Keeler. It was acquired from the decorating department of J. L. Brandeis and Sons in Omaha some time during the early 1930s.

Edward L. Palmer [1877-1952]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

PALMER, Edward Livingston, Jr (1877–1952)

“August”

two-color wood cut on paper / 8.2 inches by 6.5 inches

1930

E. L. Palmer was a well known architect and city planner in Baltimore who also produced a remarkable number of woodcut prints such as “August”, a work from the 1930s. Neither the extent of Palmer’s output nor the time he may have devoted to printmaking are known.

There was a time when the boundaries between artist and architect were indistinct; in academe, students of architecture often crossed disciplinary lines to take courses in various artistic media. Because “draughting” was an integral part of the architectural design process — apparently no one “draughts” any more — print media were particularly appropriate. Indeed, Palmer’s first academic degree was a B.A. earned at Johns Hopkins in 1899, followed by a B.S. Arch in 1903. Curiously, Palmer’s Wikipedia bio says nothing about his work as an artist.