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Getting a handle on the past


There are so many popular definitions of history–all that “written by the winners” sort of thing–that I’m reluctant to contribute another. Now in my fortieth year teaching architectural history to eagar undergraduates, however, I’ve concluded very few things. Among them are these:

  • Teaching history is exactly like vaudeville: you’ll be successful if you know your material, read the audience and play to the back row; and
  • Technically, there is no history; there is only biography. (Someone famous actually said this or something like it, so I’m just paraphrasing.)

The Agincourt Project has been my exploration of architecture as the inevitable interaction of narrative and the built environment. Culture shapes architecture; buildings tell the story of their owners/users/designers/builders.

People make buildings in a context. So, to design a building in a context other than your own is to engage intimately with circumstances that may no longer exist. In the present case, I cannot design an American public library circa 1914 without some understanding of the context: the place and the people. Having been an arm-chair officianado of the Progressive era, I feel qualified to work within Edwardian notions (albeit on this side of the Atlantic) of socio-political, economic and technological norms. As I’ve written earlier, I also now have a literal physical setting (a 50′ by 140′ lot at the northeast corner of Broad Street and Agincourt Avenue in a northwest Iowa town) and a growing cast of characters, including a building committee with preconceptions, desires and aspirations, and an architect fresh from apprenticeship, anxious to display his prowess (however real or imagined).

My guess is that Louis Henri Sullivan* would not have fallen into the trap of the Carnegie-era library formula. And his young protege Anson Tennant might also have avoided/evaded those knee-jerk tendencies simply because of his youth; formulas being for the middle-aged and insecure. I have yet to write the advertised program for this competition, but my suspicion is that the building committee were intent on something extraordinarily predictable. I also have to believe that at least a few entrants read between its lines and broadened the committee’s notion of the form a modern public institution might assume. My conception for the library took this turn: the library proper would be on the second floor of a building of at least two stories, and the ground floor would be occupied by rental retail space to generate income for the publicly-supported institution above. It might also incorporate an art gallery to memorialize the family making the original gift.

One of the greatest resources for engaging small-town architecture in the years 1880-1920 (which neatly includes my project) has been the common penny postcard. Unlike most histories of architecture–written as they are by architectural (read “art”) historians of an academic bent, where we are shown the best by the brightest, postcards are the most egalitarian architectural history survey course you’re ever likely to take. Breadth of either quality or geography is a recent tendancy in the treatment of building as material culture. I’ll go out on a limb here and assert that history has not only been written by the winners, a number of them are snobs. So, imagine my surprise one day while surfing the web, when I found an image of the late 19th-century public library in Keokuk, Iowa.


Yikes! I had already done preliminary planning for Agincourt and now had physical proof of its validity. (Don’t you love it when that happens? Pardon my smugness; it’s justified so rarely.) I can’t prove it with notarized pages from my sketchbook, but the earliest plan anticipated finding this image by at least a year. I could now proceed with gusto.


*Sullivan’s middle name was “Henry,” though it is misspelled on his tombstone in the French style.

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