Andrew Kay Womrath (1874-1953)


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

WOMRATH, Andrew Kay (1874-1953)

European Couple by Day*


woodcut / 8 inches by  6.25 inches / #6 from an edition of 25

Philadelphia artist Andrew Kay Womrath was born on St Crispin’s Day in 1874. He studied and collaborated with Japanese woodcut master Yoshijiro Urushibara but is little known in the United States today. Indeed there is a good deal of conflicting biographical material, including erroneous birth and death dates.

Womrath lived most of his productive life in France, but travelled frequently between there and the United States, England and Italy. Small landscapes are more typical of his output, as are Art Nouveau posters in the style of Theophile Steinlen. During 1914, he offered a class in “Decorative Design and Decorative Composition” at his studio in New York City — which indicates that considerable research needs to be done on this artist.

* There is also a nighttime version of this print.

The Founders

“The city is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.”

— American architect Louis I. Kahn

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor


October 25th is an ordinary day in most places; it falls on a Thursday this year. But in Agincourt the date serves double duty: as the Feast Day of Crispin and Crispinian, patron saints of leatherworkers (and more recently of sadomasochists), and also as Founders’ Day, our local celebration of Agincourt’s origins in 1853.

Other than a parade and an evening of fireworks, the only prominent marker is the fountain at the west side of Broad Street near the courthouse. Few know that it once stood in the middle of the street, installed at the exact center of the original townsite in 1907. But that original plan, laid out in 1853 and the municipality that incorporated four years later, is the subtler evidence of Agincourt’s origins, something that can only be appreciated from the air.

Comparisons with Philadelphia are inevitable: in addition to similarities of form, all five Founders lived in the Delaware water gap of Pennsylvania and western New Jersey — though just one of them ever saw the Original Townsite. Pliny Tennant acted on behalf of the other four: his brothers Horace and Virgil, their banker Morris Hirsch, and brother-in-law Ellis Farnham, all of them canny traders in the spirit of William Penn’s Quaker town. Pliny Tennant camped near Gnostic Grove and supervised surveying, then abruptly pushed farther west into the white-out of the western mining fields.¹ Their surrogates — the Oracle Land Company — carried the investment plan into reality.

Without the diaries of Harmony Barker Bledsoe, we’d know very little about those earliest days, between the platting of 1853 and Agincourt’s eventual incorporation four years later. Her journals and letters to family in Ohio record a miscellany of weather, diet, celebration, birth and death, and the inconvenience of unpaved roads and outhouses. An 1859 letter to her sister in Ohio records an incident few of us can now imagine but was very real:

Little Marcus [her five-year-old grandson] was missing at supper yesterday and we feared foul play. George, the Fletchers, and other neighbors organized a search but attention soon turned to the convenience [a euphemism for outhouse], suspecting he had fallen from the seat and into the pit! God’s be Praised! We soon found him safe and wandering on the Commons.

She also recorded the curious distribution of the Church Lots, the four large blocks bracketing the four civic squares. A stable population, families rather than itinerant singles, were the foundation of a community, so the proprietors gave building sites for churches, stipulating that construction begin within one year. To make the distribution equitable, they conducted a double-blind lottery, with eligibility based on membership: those with twenty-five households could participate. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Catholics qualified and drew lots to establish the order of choice, then drew again for the actual sites. Four of those congregations continue to occupy their lots, framing the courthouse, the square and commons, and the academy site—now a nursing home. And all of them together represent the transcendental balance between body, mind, and spirit that was a common view in the early nineteenth century.

The names of Bledsoe, Farnham, and Hirsch are faded from public memory; descendants of the Tennants, however, are still represented in the community—myself included—so my enthusiasm for Founders’ Day may be suspect. But it is surely satisfying to acknowledge the sense of their intentions and to celebrate the patterns of civic life they set in motion.

¹ Pliny Tennant disappeared but his yield on the investment was banked for his return. It remains today, a charitable fund for civic projects, known as Pliny’s Purse.

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to your questions.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Isn’t it time for a haunting?

If I had any photoshop skills, it would be relatively easy (I think) to patch the bottom of this card, replicating something like grass, sidewalk, etc. Eastlake is a style that I don’t know very well, bot I recalled the Winchester house in San Jose, California is both Eastlake and haunted. Ergo, it’s time for Agincourt to acquire its first certified spirit presence. So feel free to share your ghost stories as I search for a logical site where this beauty may still stand.

PS [15March2018]: Our friend Jim verDoorn, maestro of PhotoShop, has “fixed” the Eastlake house photograph so i won’t have to think about buying it.


My Friend

My friend shared a story that made him sad. He apologized for not also sharing a disturbing image that had so affected him, his word-picture spilled into my mind and my gut churned in sympathy. I felt his words swell and overflow whatever it is that contains our emotions until we can no longer endure the mounting evidence of our inhumanity.

He described what might for many have been a binary situation: a person with authority over others, exercising that power as though the world consisted of white-black, yes-no, good-evil, and we had to choose between them; as though there were no spectrum, no scale of values and appropriate action. The choice they imposed—because they could—brought grievous harm to the innocent, the unknowing. I was not there, in the situation my friend described in four intense sentences. But I would choose to have been anywhere else; to have been ignorant rather than powerless. Social media invite knowledge of such happenings to our doorstep every day and we welcome them in, because there is always the potential to encounter the good and uplifting, perhaps even the noble; to witness the evidence of our better selves.

My friend’s words accomplished what words can do: resonate with the human condition; remind us that life is over-rich with difficult decisions. That existence and affirmation and empathy and compassion are better than their opposites. They opened his soul—not the soul that survives death, but the one that endures while we live. Possibly without intending to, my friend had written a poem, which, like the best poetry, took me where he is, to what he saw and felt; a handful of words I might prefer not to have read but which I cannot now unread and reclaim my comforting complaisance. He invited me to acknowledge our common cause and I could do nothing but accept, because there is work to do and truth to write. And that is why he is my friend.

Just Desserts

Since 2007 I’ve run at least four design studios wholly or partially set in Agincourt, i.e., the sandbox of history. They’ve been at the third-, fourth-, and fifth-year levels. I can tell you that they have been a very mixed bag. The first of them, in 2007—simply because we had no idea what we were doing—was, in my mind, an unqualified success. Subsequent studios, not so much. I’ve fretted a great deal about these discrepancies and drawn some tentative conclusions—which I ought to keep to myself.

The first studio in 2007 had practically no guidelines; any building type in any appropriate time period was fair game, so long as the design is consistent with the style, building technology, and socio-economic conditions of that decade, and the building had to tell a story. Did we always meet those criteria? Frankly, I wasn’t keeping score, because the level of student enthusiasm exceeded my expectations and that counted for a lot. Project types ranged from a barn to a business college but a few still stand out in my fading memory: a carousel pavilion by David Rock; a ’50s burger-pizza joint by Mitch Dressler; a “Prairie School” transit depot that made me weep and whose designer I cannot recall. There was a barn—too simple, you say?—that not only narrated the barn as a type, but also its evolution through time, and, most important, it also told the story of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.

Subsequent studios stumbled, I think, not so much from the work itself, nor the stories it told. The problem is largely mine, because I have not fought sufficiently for the presence of actual design principles in our curriculum. We simply don’t talk often enough about abstractions like composition, proportion, balance. They were a part of my education but have passed into the scrap heap of history, as indeed I shall soon enough. Consider the lengthy title of John Beverley Robinson’s 1899 treatise Principles of Architectural Composition and its extension, an attempt to order and phrase ideas which have hitherto been only felt by the instinctive taste of designers.

Am I the only person with a copy of this on my desktop?

There was a comparable series of articles in The Architectural Record in its earliest issues [photocopies exist somewhere in my mismanaged files], perhaps by Russell Sturgis, I forget. The issue seems to be that students have a difficult time coping with 19th and early 20th century styles that depend more heavily on abstractions such as these.

Then there is the even more basic topic of space planning, particularly of the single-family house—not a major building type for architects today or in the likely future careers of current students, but one which is, in my mind, a litmus test for planning and anthropometrics in larger, more complex building types.

Realizing the antiquity that I have myself become, and understanding that under the best scenario I have at most three more years as a teacher, I should file these ideas under “Q” for quaint.


An addendum to the working lunch

Even before I’d posted the consequences of our working lunch, there were more contributions on the horizon. Without dropping names (and risking offense or seeming to apply pressure), here are a few more possibilities for October.

Saint Ahab

Agincourt’s Roman Catholic church was dedicated to Ahab, an obscure 4th century saint. You’ve probably heard his name nowhere else but here, because there are just two churches bearing his name today: one in Azincourt, France (yes, the French spell the name differently than the English), where his relics are preserved, and our church here in Iowa — at least until the name change circa 1950. Two exhibition pieces are connected with Ahab.

First, someone has been working on an Orthodox icon of Saint Ahab—at least it began that way (egg tempera on olive wood, in true Eastern Orthodox style) but appears to have drifted toward the Pre-Raphaelites, an absolutely intriguing prospect as far as I’m concerned. The very idea of blending those two iconic styles (no pun intended) whets the appetite. So with any luck and a good tail wind, Saint Ahab will join the festivities.

Christ the King

The original St Ahab’s church exists only in my imagination. It was outgrown by the 1890s and replaced with a Victorian Gothic non-entity that was, in its own time, replaced by the mid-century modernist masterpiece by Chicago architect Francis Barry Byrne—actually by friend-of-the-project Richard Kenyon who has been a contributor from the start in more ways than I can say. Drawings of the Byrne–Kenyon collaboration were displayed in 2007, and I had hoped to build a model of it for 2015 but that didn’t happen. Imagine that: me biting off far more than I can chew. Now, however, as recently as this afternoon, there are intimations that Christ the King will be part of the mix. Color me excited.

Asbury UMC / Temple Emmanu-El

With the Episcopalians (St Joe’s) and Roman Catholics (St Ahab and then Christ the King) represented, I’m almost forced to balance the scales with some other religious building of a different sort. The Agincourt Islamic Center was part of the 2007 show, as was Christian Science. I don’t recall if the Lutherans were there, though they do have a building to show for their presence; meanwhile, the Baptist church—besides being the oldest continuously occupied church in Fennimore county—has been described but only sketchily designed. But the Wesleyans of Asbury UMC and the Jews of Temple Emmanu-El are closer to inclusion than most other faith traditions. In this case, the follow-through rests with me.

This chunk of town, just west of the Square, shows several prominent public and semi-public buildings: the second county courthouse (in blue), the opera house and Federal Building, just south; the Baptist church (the yellow diagonal), the Methodists (in orange), Islamic Center (west of the Methodists, also in yellow) and the synagogue (on the north side of that same block, in blue). That single five-sided block, by the way, surrounds the justly famous “ecumenical parking lot” shared by Muslims, Jews, and Methodists on, respectively, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Let it not be said that Agincourt is not at the leading edge of diversity.

By the way, what would you call “an addendum to the working lunch”? Dessert?

A working lunch…

Lunched today with Milton Yergens and brainstormed Agincourt #3 next October. The date is set (October 25th) and the galleries assigned (the Gustavian and Katherine Kilbourne Burgum galleries on the second floor), about 120+ linear feet of display. So the panels and pieces have to be carefully selected to tell a cohesive story. Essentially, the space determines the pieces, and the pieces set the theme. At least that’s the way it will have to work this time.

Baptismal Basin

Among the newest contributions will be the baptismal font installed this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Agincourt’s Episcopal church, Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter.For the first forty years, St Joe’s used simple enamelware for baptizing, waiting for funds (or a donor) to purchase something more appropriate. Good things came to those who waited, because in 1908 they acquired a copper bowl, the “Trillium” pattern, from the Roycrofters in East Aurora, NY, Elbert Hubbard’s American answer to the Arts & Crafts philosophy of William Morris in England. It stood on the older wood stand that had held the earlier kitchen basin, though both Morris and Hubbard would have applauded the honesty of either vessel.

So, for one hundred years that basin served the Episcopal right of baptism, until 2008, when it was stolen from the unlocked church one weekday afternoon. Another utilitarian enamel basin stood in, once again, until a replacement could be found.

As the parish approached its sesqui-centennial this year, an anonymous donor came forward to commission a baptismal basin in the spirit of the Arts & Crafts. Various options were considered—materials ranging from beaten copper, carved or turned wood, and ceramic—when an exhibit of the raku ware of Carrin Rosetti and Richard Gruchalla came to the vestry’s attention. Gruchalla and Rosetti are potters in Duluth, Minnesota, who sell their work through galleries in the Twin Cities (not that far from Agincourt, as the crow flies) and also travel to various street and craft fairs. A chance encounter at one of those exhibits led to a commission. While we don’t yet know the details of the piece, it will be in the spirit of some of their newest work:

We’re excited about the prospect and will share the end product with you in October as part of the parish 150th anniversary celebration.

Stained Glass Window

At the beginning of the last century, as the kindergarten movement of Friedrich Fröbel spread across America, Agincourt got its first kindergarten in 1904—a response to an exhibit on childhood education at the 1904 St Louis world’s Fair. A purpose built kindergarten was constructed adjacent to St Joe’s Episcopal church, though it was non-sectarian and staffed by teachers from several spiritual communities. The 1904 building in the domestic “Shingle Style” was enlarged in 1912, when a full-time teacher was hired to oversee the school. At that time a stained glass window was installed in the main assembly space, based on the traditional British puppet show that would probably be considered politically incorrect today due to its violence:

The window is based on “Punch and Judy”, a stencil decoration by Margaret Lloyd which appeared in the January 1905 issue of The Studio, a British magazine focused on the Arts & Crafts:

Rose Kavana’s Table and Chairs

When Anson Tennant returned home in 1936, following twenty-one years of amnesia in northern Spain, he never returned to his former architectural life. Rather, he turned to woodworking, skills he had sharpened while recuperating; working in his new father-in-law’s carpentry shop in Donostia was a sort of physical therapy which he continued upon his return. Several old friends stepped forward with “commissions” for new pieces—very likely to keep him busy and aid his integration with a community he barely recognized. One of the first of those commissioned works was a writing desk and two chairs requested by Miss Rose Kavana, who had become principal of Anson’s old elementary school, Charles Darwin. Miss Kavana’s furniture and some of her other decorative artifacts (a stained glass lamp and some of her book collection) will form a tableau in the new exhibit:

Crafted in cherry, the chairs nestle beneath the table like a mother hen and her chicks, a folksy analogy that probably never crossed the mind of either Tennant or Miss Kavana.

Among Tennant’s other crafts was the manufacture of children’s building blocks, possibly influenced by the above mentioned Fröbel, but he would have already been fourteen when the kindergarten opened and probably beyond the German educator’s reach. In 1912, Tennant had crafted a set of blocks based on a church he had seen during a summer in Mantalocking, New Jersey, and his newest sets include one based on the house that inspired a dollhouse he had made in 1905. Both the dollhouse and the building blocks will be displayed:

Preliminary design for a set of wood blocks based upon the C. S. French house by architect William Halsey Wood

The wrought iron column cap from Tennant’s 1914 design for the Agincourt Public Library will also be on display (as it was in 2015).

Tabor Air

Finally, some of the manufactures of another branch of his family—Tabor Agribusiness and Tabor Air—will join the show. This time, it will be a scale model of the bi-plane from the 1930s using Ford engines and components of grain bins adapted for flight and first flown by pioneer aviatrix Phyllis Tabor, twin sister with Ella Rose, Agincourt’s very own “Daughters of Flight”.

My guess is that a few other pieces will materialize along the way. At least I hope so.

See you on October 25th!