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Predicting the Past

“The hardest thing about being a Communist is trying to predict the past.”–Milovan Djilas

Anson Curtiss Tennant’s life was conventional, like yours or mine, a brittle little bridge from birth to death (albeit in his case with a hiccup along the way that we’ll get to later). But I had created him in retrospect, at the point we met circa 1914, when he won the competition to design Agincourt, Iowa’s first purpose-built public library. There were two tasks at hand for me: 1) imagining how he got to the first major commission of his professinal life in 1914, and 2) tracing the trajectory of that career. First things first.

A life had begun–the life of a young aspiring architect. But a degree of logic, perhaps inevitability, was required. So, I had given him parents, siblings, extended family, all of whom could play their respective role in shaping how and who he might become. I had also provided the rudiments of social contact, relationships that might bear unexpected fruit, and the educational foundation for a life in design. Anson was becoming “whole,” in my mind at least; the sort of person whose growing confidence brought him home after two years of school and a sketchy apprenticeship in Chicago, just in time for the announcement of a public competition. Good timing! Before he could enter, though, young Tennant needed a commission or two among his own people. And an office. Tennant needed an office to show his professional face to the world.

Agincourt circa 1910 may not have had a resident architect, at least as we’d understand the title today. Anson Tennant would be its first resident practitioner and he therefore required a space remade in his emerging self-image; the extension of a design philosophy. Perhaps a suite of rooms above Wassermann’s Hardware, just off Broad Street with a sunny bank of south-facing windows.

Wassermann’s had been built in 1909 from plans by Joachim & Perlmutter, architects of Sioux City about ninety-five miles to the northwest. Typical twenty-five-foot street frontage; a store at the front and shop at the rear of its ground floor and four suites of office space above. By 1913, however, the Wassermann’s (Franz Josef and his wife Edith, nee Kolb) were already dissatisfied with their living accomodations, a badly planned apartment which needed enlargement. Anson approached them (perhaps through his father) with a proposition to redesign their quarters and barter his professional services for a long-term, low rent lease on one of the office suites. His first commission, then, had done triple duty: a prominent building to call his own (if only partly), an office/studio remodelled to his own taste, and a presence among his family, friends and fellows.

These offices at 102 North Broad Street launched the promise of his creativity.


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