The Hester Quest

Further candidates for the Hester quest showed up recently on the auction site that dare not speak its name.

Among this new group of candidates—#s 4, 5, and 6—I’m drawn to #5 because she looks to be the right age and the dour expression on #4 is downright off-putting.

The Tontine

In 1793-1795 Boston architect Charles Bulfinch proposed an elegant crescent of sixteen houses, inspired by similar urban schemes he’d seen in Paris. And like the French prototypes, he intended it to be a novel financial model called a tontine. Essentially the investors contract with one another that, upon the death of each, that share is divided among the survivors until the entire project is owned by the sole survivor. Ghoulish, isn’t it. The Massachusetts courts were uncomfortable with such an innovative arrangement and refused to permit it, so the project depended upon Bulfinch’s wits alone. Despite that, it was among the most sophisticated urban schemes in the early Republic.

Called “Franklin Place”, it survived just sixty-five years, demolished in 1858, though the graceful curve remains. Georgian cities like Edinburgh and Dublin are rich with similar forms—but I doubt they were also examples of tontine ownership. Architecturally, however, there were few other projects of such unity and elegance found in the early United States.

I can appreciate Boston’s Tontine Crescent (the way histories consistently reference it) at three levels: 1) as a work by  Bulfinch, whose career received little if any treatment in history surveys; 2) in the context of Georgian Bath or the “Regent Street” projects by John Nash; and 3) as a rare instance of tontine ownership. The last “tontine” I can recall was a bottle of Napoleon brandy, which was drunk by the surviving investor—with considerable smugness, I suspect.

Agincourt has its tontine; you knew it would, just because it’s exotic in the American architectural experience. But it is also considerably less elegant: a humble lake cabin at Sturm und Drang in which Howard and Rowan own a share. I’ve neither designed that cabin nor found a suitable “donor” but the night is young, as they say. In the meantime, I thought you ought to know about Boston and Mr Bulfinch, simply as a curious moment in U.S. architectural history. It also makes an interesting scrabble word.


PS: Like the so-called Ponzi Scheme, named for a swindler in the U.S. and Canada of Italian ancestry, the tontine is named for Italian Henri de Tonti, a soldier, explorer, and fur trader in service to the French. I simply point them out as both having been Italian and both having developed financial schemes that bear their names.

The eyes of others…

“Seeing through the eyes of others” by C.S. Lewis

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

“My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charges with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog…

“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myraid eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/1992), 140-141.

And then there is another point of view:

“You don’t have to see through the eyes of others, hold onto yours, stand on your own judgment, you know what is, is—say it aloud, like the holiest of prayers, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Part 3, Ch. 4.

I think I’ll go with Option “A”.

Hester Tennant Farnham

Hester Tennant Farnham

Great Aunt Hester’s summer house at Mantaloking, NJ

Hester Farnham (née Tennant) may have been the sister of Horace, Pliny, and Virgil Tennant. Her husband Ellis Farnham and their attorney-banker Morris Hirsch were among the Founders of Agincourt in the 1850s. The Tennant family tree seems to be getting needlessly complex but that’s simply the way my head works these days. While all of this gets sorted out, perhaps you can help me settle on a picture of Aunt Hester. Do any of these work for you?

Aunt Hester lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but summered at Mantoloking, where Anson and the other members of the family enjoyed her hospitality in 1912. It was there that they worshiped in a small Episcopal church, St Simon’s-by-the-Sea, designed by William Halsey Wood. Wouldn’t you know I’d find another way to work him into the story.

Candidate #1 is perhaps too young but I like the pose and the dress

Candidate #2 seems about the right age

Candidate #3 is maybe a little too old

And lest you think I deal in stereotypes, Morris Hirsch grows from a childhood experience in Chicago. Once isolated on a tiny triangle of pavement where West Wacker Drive does a dogleg to follow the Chicago River and what used to be South Water Street peels off to the right heading east, there was a fascinating sculpture by Laredo Taft of George Washington shaking hands with two other figures: Robert Morris and Haym Salomon, two financiers who underwrote the Revolutionary War. The statue has been moved to a more pedestrian-friendly location, so you can now appreciate it without being creamed by a taxi. I honestly don’t know which of these is Salomon.

It’s embarrassing to learn that Congress reneged on their debt to Salomon, an immigrant Polish Jew, and he died penniless at the age of forty-five. I’ll gladly claim him as one of my ancestral countrymen.


Cimetière du Père Lachaise

The Cimetière du Père Lachaise is one of a half dozen urban cemeteries around the world that need no introduction. I must confess to having a fascination with cemeteries in general and this select group in particular because they confirm for me a Truth: that such places of interment are not for the dead, but for those they leave behind. My favorites are Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, and Père Lachaise in Paris—the others remain on my bucket list. But Père Lachaise plays into the Agincourt story in an obscure way: it’s the burial place of Clothilde Sobieski, first wife of Kurt Eugene Bernhard and mother of Howard’s step-cousin (is there such a thing?) Eugene Casimir Bernhard.

Mme Bernhard, her husband and son were living in Paris when German forces occupied the city on 14 June 1940, poorly documented in Ronald Rosbottom’s book When Paris Went Dark. I don’t know the circumstances surrounding her death but it was war-related and her ashes are interred in one of the columbarium niches there. Howard has never visited the place but he’s recently established contact with the children of her brother Adam and sister Irena — relatives so distant and disconnected that a even a genealogical chart won’t help — and is anxious to meet them as soon as travel can be arranged.

What will it mean to Anson, do you think, when he and Rowan are able to bring flowers and place his hand on the square green marble capstone that records her name and dates? Family is an odd phenomenon for anyone (like myself) who has none, so I envy Howard, whose own family is so large and dispersed.

Anthony Vlahakis (1926–2008)

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

VLAHAKIS, Anthony [1926–2008]

Canal Saint-Martin, Paris


oil on canvas / 14 inches by 18 inches

Vlahakis was born in Greater New York City to emigrant Greek parents. He joined the U.S. Marines in 1943 and saw active duty in Saipan and Okinawa, receiving an honorable discharge in 1945. He then attended The University of Mexico, the Art Students League of New York and the Academy de la Grand Chaumiere¹ in Paris. His obituary identifies him as a “multi-lingual world traveler, a strong supporter for human rights and social justice and the autistic community”.

This undated and untitled work — probably a study of the Canal Saint-Martin which inspired other artists like Alfred Sisley — was created during his time in Paris in the early 1950s.² The painting has a nostalgic connection with the Bernhard family who once lived at #65, Quai de Valmy, on the canal’s west bank, in the 10th Arrondissement.

cana saint martin 3

Canal Saint-Martin, Paris

¹ The Academie de la Grand Chaumiere was established in 1904 as an economical alternative to the École des Beaux Arts.

² Emigration records document Vlahakis’s 1951 departure for France and his U.S. arrival in 1953, which probably bracket his time at the Academie.

Spite (1.2)

Pay no attention to the words; just the image.

Opera Alley is one of Agincourt’s named service lanes; perhaps its first. Running along the south side of The Auditorium (whose first season was in 1895, if memory serves), the adjacent alley became convenient for carriages awaiting those out for a night of dinner and entertainment, this was especially true after the Blenheim opened across First Street, when the two buildings were linked by a pedestrian bridge. Those two conjoined buildings may be among our few claims to big city pretense. So imagine everyone’s consternation when a cat house opened next door. You know what I mean: a “sporting house”, as my grandmother used to say; a house of ill repute; a brothel.

Stockholders in the Blenheim hotel project hoped to enhance their property, increasing the number of rooms by acquiring Mrs Belle Miller’s tobacco shop and thereby achieving a full southern exposure. Mrs Miller’s husband had died suddenly (of pleurisy) in the fall of 1895, leaving few resources beyond her wits. Their shop and the drayage he had operated from a stable at the rear of the property were more than she could manage, so her brother Armand Schert arrived (from Memphis or Vicksburg or some other Mississippi river town) to guide his big sister toward financial stability. His suggestion? Bring some girls and set them up in the remodeled haymow. He would continue the drayage below. And act as Mr Madam?

The Blenheim’s architects had proceeded on the basis of a fourth exposure, so Schert had them over a barrel. It came down like this: The Blenheim would get its bonus rooms. Ten feet would be shaved from the Miller tobacco shop and stable, creating the new alley and giving Miller her own “new” facade (and better access for the horses and wagons); and the Blenheim would pay Miller’s remodeling costs. Everybody won—everyone except the hotel, however: they hadn’t counted on the whores.

See how spite works?

Agincourt’s tradition of “alley culture” (a current buzz concept in my town, too) often attached names related to their circumstance. This stubby stretch of pavement became “Easy Alley” almost overnight and for obvious reasons.