Anson was the second of James and Martha Tennant’s four children and their only son. Born into the late Victorian era and coming to self-awareness in the Edwardian, he was devoted to his three sisters Lucy, Mollie and Claire, but may have spent a good deal of time in his own company. His father Augustus James Tennant was an Agincourt businessman, though I suspect more intimate with his children than typical males of that generation. But women nonetheless shaped the Tennant household: a mother, three sisters, and two maiden aunts, Sophie and Phoebe.
Domestic life was genteel in a house built the same year of Anson’s birth (1889). Jim Tennant had known Chicago architect J. Lyman Silsbee through mutual friends, the Cochranes. The Tennants’ Shingle Style house soon welcomed two more children and set the stage for Anson’s introduction to architecture. Two specific events mark his path toward the eventual choice of that profession: the winter of 1905 when little Claire contracted dyphtheria and was’t expected to survive into the New Year, and the summer of 1908 when father James commissioned an addition to their Silsbee-designed house. I sometimes wonder why I also chose that path (though never fulfilled it) and often ask students when and why they had done so. The answers are as diverse as the respondents. In Anson’s case, it was important to establish a backstory for the library competition of 1914.
The delicate health of his littlest sister affords an introduction to what architecture meant in a middle-class family. I imagined the fifteen-year-old wanting to do something extraordinary for what everyone expected to be Claire’s last Christmas. So it was easy to see him alone in the attic, surrounded by piles of old magazines–The House Beautiful, Ladies Home Journal, and even the Scientific American Architects’ and Builders’ Supplement–on rainy fall afternoons; to imagine his discovery in one of them of a house (a design by New Jersey architect William Halsey Wood) that Anson would adapt, simplify and construct as a Christmas gift for Claire. She loved that dollhouse, now a family heirloom. [You all will be pleased to learn that Claire survived her affliction and lived a long and productive life.]
Three years later Anson Tennant had graduated from high school and found work with a local builder of homes. Father also encouraged him to pursue a professional cereer, blending carpentry and woodworking skills with a long hidden artistic bent. So Anson was invited to enlarge their house and design a place next door for Jim Tennant’s unmarried sisters, still living in the “old place” on the corner and no longer able to maintain its excessive Italianate-ness–brackets and finials falling all around them. Anson responded with his own interpretation of the late-Shingle Style, drawing heavily from a study of Silsbee’s published work. He even took a field trip to Chicago, met Silsbee and no doubt sought the elder architect’s guidance on entering the profession.
So, in the fall of 1910 young Tennant packed for Chicago and coursework in architecture at the Art Institute, a place where he encoutered arguably the most progressive environment for art, architecture and design in the U.S.; a place where he undoubtedly knew and may even have met the great Louis Sullivan. A fuller treatment of Tennant’s life (and double death) will follow. But for the time being this may be sufficient basis for his entry in the open competition for Agincourt’s public library.
[…] 1889—Anson Curtiss Tennant was born to Augustus James Tennant and Martha Corwin Curtiss, the second of their four children. His sisters were Lucy, Mollie and Claire. […]