Already you can tell that Anson Tennant was not like others of our kind: He has two death dates.
With the enthusiasm of youth and inspiration derived from a year of study at Chicago’s Art Institute, Tennant had entered a competition to design the new public library for Agincourt, his home town in Iowa. The competition was organized (under terms suggested by the American Institute of Architects) to be scrupulously neutral, with anonymous entries and an outside professional advisor. Normand Patton, one of the most prolific library designers of his generation, fulfilled that advisory role. But, until notes from the library committee’s private meetings come to light, let’s give them the benefit of doubt and say that Tennant’s solution was both innovative and also directly responsive to the program requirements. So, in the Spring of 1914–the Spring brought to a horrible end by the outbreak of World War I in August of that year–young Tennant won the competition and set about developing a full-blown solution to his community’s need for its first purpose-built public library–a building, incidentally, funded locally, without outside aid (or interference) from Andrew Carnegie.
So far, so good. I had set a number of design parameters in place and was fully prepared to work within them and to learn, in the fullness of time, what they might mean.
What quickly became apparent, however, was that I had entered a path at its middle; I had some notion of where it was going, but had no concept where it had begun. Even at the age of twenty-four, Anson Tennant needed a past.
- Had he designed anything prior to this commission?
- Where had he studied and apprenticed?
- When, in fact, did he first utter those fateful words “I want to be an architect”?
I had positioned myself at a point in a complex process that required backstory before it could go forward. To know who Tennant was at twenty-four, I had to meet him at eighteen. Even before that, I had to be aware of the doll house he had built for his little sister Claire in 1905, the Christmas she had diphtheria and was’t expected to live. I selfishly projected onto and into him some of my own experiences with magazines and hanging around construction sites. Perhaps Tennant in 1900 was not so different form me in 1956.