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204-206, Wasserman Block


Several blogs back, I wrote about Anson Tennant, young architect for the new Agincourt Public Library of 1914-1915 and of his ill-fated trip to England to visit the homeland of the Arts & Crafts. It was important for me to develop his character, to seek out the sources of his emerging design perspective. So I began to create backstory, part of which was the conception of his own architectural offices; the place where he met clients and designed architectural solutions to their problems. The front door of that office and its stained glass window will become an artifact in the 2011 exhibit.

I thought you might enjoy reading Howard Tabor’s article of Saturday, May 5th, 2007. Enjoy.

A few figs from thistles…

Howard A. Tabor

204-206 Wasserman Block

A spiritual landscape surrounds us, one that is rich with cultural meaning and infused with personal association. The Ancients (Greeks, Romans, Celts) knew it; those outside the Western tradition know it now (witness feng shui and Native American perspectives on stewardship of the land). Even we in the Muskrat Valley can understand this sense of place, this wholeness, in a local context. At a personal scale, fewer than 400 feet from my office, there is such a space, one that will resonate with an important family anniversary next Monday.

On the 7th of May, 1915, the steamship RMS Lusitania slipped beneath the Atlantic, a victim of German torpedoes and Anglo-American hubris. And with it—we thought—went one of Agincourt’s own, my great uncle Anson Tennant. Uncle Anson had recently completed architectural studies in Chicago and returned home, intent on beginning of an independent architectural practice. His office had opened at #204-206 Wasserman Block; his competition-winning design for the new Agincourt Public Library was under construction and new clients were knocking. Consider a family’s grief at the loss of a child, and admire their curious response.

“Anson has taken rooms in the Wasserman Block.” James Tennant wrote this to David Benson, chair of the library building committee. In the parlance of the time, Anson had rented an office suite above Wasserman’s Hardware. It was a good address—a door on Broad Street but a window to the south—and the building was new. His five-year lease afforded remodeling privileges, so Anson set about making an architectural statement, a living-working environment that spoke of his new philosophy even before he could speak of it. He’d gone to Chicago aware of the Arts & Crafts Movement and had returned convicted of its Truth. “Als ik kan” in stained glass greeted callers at the door; a scene even Gustav Stickley might admire awaited them within. If truth is plain, these three rooms were the most straightforward in Agincourt, a testament to Anglo-American trends in architecture and design—with an emphasis on the Anglo. In fact, he sailed on the Lusitania (with fellow passengers Elbert and Alice Hubbard, founders of “The Roycrofters”) intent on witnessing the achievements of the great William Morris himself.

Tennant’s offices had also been influenced by a 1912 family vacation, a two-week trek that brought Anson, his parents, and three sisters to New Mexico and Arizona in their statehood year. American anthropology was discovering our own ancient roots, and coincidentally giving the Arts & Crafts here a characteristic American spin. Popular culture was full of it, from the National Geographic to the Ladies’ Home Journal, as the rooms at 204-206 bore witness. These were the rooms where he lived and worked, where he designed the competition-winning Agincourt Public Library, where he entertained (modestly) and invited (generously) all to use his library. And these were the rooms that waited his return.

What were James and Martha Tennant to do? To vacate those rooms would have been an admission of ultimate loss; to maintain them, frozen, a denial of ultimate truth. So they did what seems so evident now: they wove an asset from adversity and created an Arts & Crafts Society. Classes in the art of craft; lectures and receptions; exhibitions; accommodations for crafters passing through; these things and more occurred in fewer than 700 square feet above a hardware store. And when the lease ran out? It was renewed—annually for twenty-one years! Until, that is, Anson came back to be with us again.

The story of his survival and amnesia, of his marriage and children, of his return to family and friends has been told before. What’s important on this anniversary is simple: space can be empty or full, devoid of presence or crammed with meaning. I’ll take the latter every time.

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