Rationale…as if I needed one

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.”
― Richard Feynman

We take sustenance where and when we can. Mine came this afternoon during a phone call from a good friend, of the sort who know you all too well and yet remain your friend anyway. You know what I mean: The scales of give and take always seem imbalanced in your favor; how can you receive so much and feel so keenly the deficit of giving so little in return. Get over it.

My friend sent a clipping (from the New York Time, I think) showing a pleasant afternoon at a county fair in Colorado. Family groups scattered around the Ferris wheel looked either at the camera or admiringly at those in the gondolas over their heads. Absolutely nothing unusual going on—except for white robes and pointy hoods: nary a face showing among the lot of them. This was “Klan Day” at the fair in 1925; an ordinary family outing of no consequence. Ninety-plus years later, two observations come to mind: 1) we’ve come a long way since then, and 2) we haven’t come very far at all. George Santayana got it spot on: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And we’re suffering a cultural amnesia like none other in my lifetime.

Knowing plays a huge role for those of us playing in the sandbox of history. Successful play requires three sorts of knowing: 1) what you do know; what you don’t know; what you can’t know. Anyone writing about the Roaring Twenties, for example, shouldn’t be tainted by an awareness of Black Friday. Likewise, public health concerns—pandemics that purge the gene pool periodically—ought to come as complete surprises while we negotiate the local historical narrative.

At the same time, these had enormous consequence for each community, regardless of size or stature. The influenza epidemic of 1918, for example, influenced the project in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Who knew that “patient zero” was a returning World War One doughboy at Fort Dodge, another Iowa town only fifty miles east of Agincourt. How easy would it have been for the virus to traverse those few miles—given the inter urban railway we’d created only ten years before. What mechanisms would have spread it throughout the population and how high would the death toll have reached. Children and the aged were most at risk, so whole families could be decimated; history’s course shifted a fraction; the trajectory of survivors’ lives redirected. And for me, narratives rewritten or erased.


So what of the Ku Klux Klan?  Until this afternoon, my familiarity with the Klan had been kept well beyond arm’s reach—both theirs and mine. I learned, for example that it’s name derives from the Greek word κυκλος (“circle”), innocuous enough but now tinged with evil. It reminded me of a local story, more than thirty-five years old, involving Frank Vyzralek, former curator at the State Historical Society (when I was on better terms), a story yearning for adaptation. Frank is gone but I believe he’d approve.

Charles Mulford Robinson, et al.

A trilogy of urban design influence is represented by 1) Messrs. Hegemann and Peets, authors in 1922 of The American Vitruvius; 2) Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, creators of Letchworth, the world’s first “garden city”; and 3) Charles Mulford Robinson, journalist-turned-planner, who was active throughout the region as a lecturer and planning consultant — in Minnesota and the Missouri River valley. Influential in Agincourt, I should add, because they have been influential in my own thinking about what makes cities livable.

Frank Lloyd Wright is unlikely to have received a commission in Agincourt; his pre-WWI domestic work was simply too extreme for any but the most cosmopolitan. Yes, Wright did a few early projects in Iowa — the bank-hotel in Mason City, foremost among that small group — but the majority of “Prairie School” work in the state was done by others: the Griffins, Barry Byrne, William Drummond, Arthur Heun. There is another architect, a near contemporary of Wright with a shirttail connection to the “Prairie School”, who receives very little air time, yet who during his career was undoubtedly better know by the general public (rather than the architectural intelligentsia) than Wright was. That was the affable, low key architect Lawrence Buck [1965–1929].

Roycemore School, Evanston, IL (ca1917) / Lawrence Buck, architect / gouache rendering

Both Wright and Buck were skillful in using women’s magazines (Ladies Home Journal, House Beautiful, House & Garden) to promote their services to a middle-class audience. Buck was simply better at it. In the years between 1900 and WWI, Buck’s modest single-family residences can be found from Upstate New York and Pennsylvania to the Dakotas and California. Buck exhibited extensively in architectural clubs from Ohio to Oregon. And his skill as a delineator (an architectural illustrator) recommended him to possibly a dozen other architects. As a Chicagoan myself, and an admirer of Buck’s work for at least forty years, I can invoke him here for the simple reason that he, too, contributed design skills to multiple Iowa communities: there were four of his houses in Dubuque and three more in Cedar Rapids. And his single-family residences have more in common with the architectural work of Parker and Unwin. Witness this group of houses at New Earswick, near York in the north of England.

Row of houses, New Earswick, York, UK / Parker & Unwin, architects (1902)

A case can be made, in my view, that Buck was aware of, and strongly connected with, the British Arts & Crafts movement and incorporated more of its characteristics that he did of his contemporary Wright’s exoticisms. Is it even possible that he owned a copy of the 1901 P&U book The Art of Building a Home. All of this despite the fact that for several years Wright and Buck officed in Chicago’s Steinway Hall and without doubt shared numerous uncomfortable elevator rides on the way to work.

Since Lawrence Buck designed at least seven houses in Iowa, it is not at all farfetched that his designed three in Agincourt: a large house for Aidan and Cordelia Archer; a cottage for school principal Rose Kavana(ugh); and one of many duplicates of a house published in both the LHJ and the HB.

Oh, and that purported connection with Charles Mulford Robinson

Mea Culpa

It’s been one of those mea culpa days. They come over me on the way to a massively depressive funk and there’s no way to get out of it. Just one of those things I have to ride through. Too bad others are often along for the ride, which is usually a bumpy one.

I had a conversation with a student the other day about depression, and they were either acquainted with a fellow sufferer, depressive themselves, or simply nodding patronizingly until I got through my harangue and on with questions about grading.

Depression and I are on reasonably friendly terms: it announces its arrival, giving me plenty of time to batten down those psychological hatches, and then becomes my personal Sheridan Whiteside, the uninvited guest who overstays his welcome. I’ve played that role often enough and have little room for complaint. So as I steel myself for this impending bout, let me ruminate briefly on the one place in Agincourt I would most like to visit: Walden Retreat.

If you’ve never been in the vicinity of Bristol — and who would; it’s overshadowed by proximity to Bath and, so, rarely on tourist itineraries — try to remember Blaise Hamlet, a cluster of eight cottages built in 1811 as retirement homes for employees of a local Quaker banker — the epitome of the picturesque (the cottages, not the banker). John Nash provided the plans, made all the more remarkable by his simultaneous involvement with the Prince Regent and the development of Regent Street as one of the most significant urban renewal projects of its day. Blaise is at the opposite end of “urban design” and scarcely looks architect-designed at all. You might actually spot a large waistcoated rabbit on his way to tea.

Each time I sit down to imagine Walden Retreat, it comes out far too architekty: complex, contrived, anything but the effortless place it ought to be, given the reason for its guests being there. I could use a week at Blaise right now, if for no other reason than to absorb Nash’s most reticent work and learn how to avoid the pitfalls of overwrought design thinking. [I could name names but I won’t.] And my mental health is guaranteed to improve.

Ordnance Map showing Blaise Hamlet, near Bristol, UK / John Nash, architect (1811)

Blaise, by the way, is that peanut-shaped group of houses just left of center.

The Fennimore County Fair

Soon after the county’s founding in 1853, the Fennimore County Agricultural Association would have organized and begun to scout sites for a fairground. Some sort of operation must have coalesced at Muskrat City until the courthouse moved to Agincourt. Muskrat City was established on lowland with ongoing flood issues; the town itself eventually faded from sight, with the exception of a store and post office, and that eventually closed during the Depression. All that remains today is one house and the foundation of the original bank.

I have some idea of the sequence of acquisition and evolution of the fairgrounds — the original quarter section became a wide triangle, reshaped by highway construction and a property swap — but only a vague notion of what buildings would have been built and in what order. Two things specific to the Fennimore situation: 1) the late 19th century Chautauqua Movement established a shed for their summer lecture circuit, and 2) after 1909, the Northwest Iowa Normal School developed a cooperative relationship and expanded their athletic facilities on the fairgrounds.

Hall of Philosophy, Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, NY

Its location across the river also made an opportunity for the new city trolley line to build a spur for seasonal service to the grounds — and a permanent pedestrian bridge for the normal school students. The Muskrat isn’t quite as deep as the trestle required here, but it would also have been produced by the seat-of-the-pants engineering.

Just imagine the alcohol-induced encounters between students and this bridge before A.D.A.

De Bijenkorf (1.2)

De Bijenkorf’s Beginnings

Prior to WWI, department stores in smaller communities were oriented toward female shoppers. Except for the handful who worked outside the home (teachers, secretaries, nurses, primarily) most were homemakers and mothers whose purchasing needs were predictable: fresh food, in an era before predictable refrigeration; and ready-made clothing or, more likely, the fabric, notions, and patterns to build from scratch or to alter the hand-me-downs. Shopping was fit somewhere into the regular rhythm of the week (laundry, floors, windows, defrosting the fridge, tending the garden). For farm families, shopping trips were usually coordinated with dad’s visit to the hardware, implement dealer, and courthouse. These would have been de Bijenkorf’s target audience.

The family business began simply, selling yard goods, patterns, and notions (i.e., buttons, thread, ribbon and lace trimming) which, for a town of Agincourt’s age and size would have fit comfortably in a twenty-five-foot storefront. It might have looked something like this:

Even a four-block commercial zone along Broad Street — five, if you count the Squares — would have developed clusters of like businesses: banking, business, fraternal organizations, and barbers; meat markets, greengrocers, bakers, and confectioners; restaurants, cafés, and entertainment (of the socially acceptable sort); and a scattering of furniture (who were often the morticians, as well), decorative arts, books and stationers. Clothiers were clearly separated by gender: haberdashers (men) and dress shops for the ladies. Hats were often a separate enterprise, while jewelers dealt in the sale and maintenance of time pieces as much as they did precious metals and gems. In such a world, de Bijenkorf might have begun at the southern, less glamorous end of Broad Street, at #3 or #5, a mid-block storefront close enough to the Squares for some of that prestige to rub off. And from that modest start, they could have expanded their offerings into numbers 1, 3 and 5 by 1920, ready to blend three late Victorian stores into one.

Pliny’s Purse

“Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.”

― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

pliny's purse

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past #24: Pliny’s Purse

Alexander Pope tells us that anonymity is a donor’s wisest course. I wonder what Pope might say when the donor is equally ignorant of his charity.

In the year leading to Agincourt’s 150th anniversary, a wide range of topics occupied this space. And among the earliest was a piece about our Founders, the five investors who planted the seed of Agincourt in 1853. That group included the three Tennant brothers, their banker and a brother-in-law. I repeat this historical nugget for just one reason: of the three Tennants, Numbers 1 and 3 stayed on, while Number 2 went west — swallowed by the gold fields of California. But Pliny Tennant left a larger mark on the community than he imagined.

Pliny’s profit from the sale of lots accumulated while he was absent. After three years, with no word from the frontier and every reason to believe he wouldn’t return, the others created a fund called “Pliny’s Purse”, intended for charity and specified as anonymous.

Very few of us were even aware of the five Founders, let alone one-hundred-and-fifty years of benefaction. I called in some favors, applied the little leverage left to me, and —well, yes — I even begged for some insight to the operation of Pliny’s Purse….and didn’t get very far. Frankly, I took all of that as a very good sign Tennant’s legacy is in good hands. Secrets are notoriously hard to keep. Here is as much as I can say.

#1) Three Tennants, Horace and Virgil and their sister Helen, were the first of a self-perpetuating “committee” evolving through recruitment of others from the community. At any one time, there have been as few as three and as many as five, all sworn to a secrecy that remains unbroken.

#2) Their mission from the outset was to follow Alexander Pope’s advice: “Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.” Help those found to be in need. Do it such a way that no one notices, not even the recipients.

#3) Let generosity be tempered, alone, by discretion and good stewardship.

That model seems to have functioned well in a community of our size, where invisibility is difficult and want can be more easily distinguished from need. I’m told that medical expenses, medications and treatments, have been covered. Foreclosures forestalled. Loved ones reunited. The hapless helped. The vulnerable assured. All of which put me in mind of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur Dent and his fellow travelers meet the Man who Rules the Universe:

“The Ruler of the Universe is a man living in a small shack on a world that can only be reached with a key to an unprobability field or use of an Infinite Improbability Drive. He does not want to rule the universe and tries not to whenever possible, and therefore is by far the ideal candidate for the job. He has an odd, solipsistic view of reality: he lives alone with his cat, which he has named ‘The Lord’ even though he is not certain of its existence. He has a very dim view of the past, and he only believes in what he senses with his eyes and ears (and doesn’t seem too certain of that, either): anything else is hearsay, so when executive-types visit to ask him what he thinks about certain matters, such as wars and the like, he tells them how he feels without considering consequences. As part of his refusal to accept that anything is true, or simply as another oddity, ‘…he talked to his table for a week to see how it would react.’ He does sometimes admit that some things may be more likely than others – e.g. that he might like a glass of whiskey, which the visitors leave for him.”

The keepers of Pliny’s Purse deserve your thanks and their invisibility.

First Baptist Church

For the life of me, I can’t fathom why so many small towns bother to number their churches. Isn’t it a lot like banks? If you can’t be “first”, why bother.

Christian Scientists do it. In fact one of my favorite C.S. churches is 17th Church of Christ, Scientist in Chicago, a building of the 60’s when I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. Its architect Harry Weese has always been a favorite. [So many of these churches have closed — Christian Scientists have a notoriously low birth rate; too busy making money to make babies — that you wonder if they don’t have to renumber their congregations. Weese’s building might be #12 or #11 by now.]

17th Church of Christ, Scientist / Harry Weese, architect (1968)

As I prepare for the seminar on minimalism next semester, Weese’s 17th Church seems a good example of the directness in constructional expression that influenced my own architectural youth. And it echoes the comparable simplicity of an early 19th century Universalist church at Holland Patent, NY. This RPPC postcard view shows up often on eBay, so often I couldn’t avoid borrowing it for the Baptist church in Agincourt.

It’s astounding that the Holland Patent building still stands, though it apparently no longer serves as a place of religious fellowship. Still, its dignity fits the profile of early Agincourt and especially its carpenter-builder Amos Beddowes. From this limited documentation, do you suppose I’ll be able to abstract any of the underlying proportional principles from Holland Patent — presuming there are any, of course. I’ve been around long enough to see in it what Mrs Avery Coonley described in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work: “the countenance of principle,” a rare enough commodity these days.