Home » A few figs from thistles » A. C. Tennant, Architect

A. C. Tennant, Architect

It’s fair to admit that I live a large part of my design life through the students in our program at NDSU on their way to become successful professionals. I’m grateful that they’re willing to allow me access to their energy and enthusiasm. Without them, I’d have fossilized decades ago.

Howard continued his piece on the Wasserman Block a few weeks later, on June 9th, 2007, giving us a little more detail about his great uncle Anson’s office, a man he knew during the first 18 years of his life. 

A few figs from thistles…

Howard A. Tabor

All history is local history

Historic preservation is a relatively new enterprise. But as a product of the 1960s, with almost fifty years of evolution, the field today barely resembles its high-style origins. Preservation used to mean the fashionable homes of bankers, doctors and other movers and shakers in any community; the people who set taste are those who most often can afford to. Lately we’re far more likely to appreciate values at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum and all that lies between. The Wasserman belongs in there somewhere.

Last year I asked Ron Ramsay, a professor of architecture at Fargo, North Dakota, to drive down and look at the Wasserman Block, since Rowan Oakes and I were interested in renovating the place. Professor Ramsay brought his friend Richard Kenyon, an architect from Connecticut, and the four of us spent several days getting acquainted and taking a critical look at the building. (You should watch Ramsay glide across the old wood floor in stocking feet, reading irregularities like a phrenologist.)

From a quick trip to city hall and the historical society we learned that the Wasserman Block had been built in 1910-1911 from plans by Joachim & Perlmutter, architects from Sioux City. J&P (or Hans und Franz as they were known locally) seem to have done a bunch of Agincourt work during the years before WWI (as immigrant Germans or Austrians—and that would have been an important distinction then—their work fell off somewhat after 1914). J&P’s design for the Wasserman Block was a very typical two-story 25-foot storefront and was still in pretty good shape, considering it had been vacant since 1999. Family association with one of the apartments (#204-206, Anson Tennant’s first architectural office) gave the project a special place in my heart. Without doing more extensive on-site research—probing beneath lath and plaster with sharp things—Ramsay and Kenyon believe Uncle Anson modified the J&P design in 1913, personalizing his own office-studio and adding a third floor to the Wasserman’s apartment, probably offering his design services in lieu of rent.

The ground floor is unremarkable: standard open planning with intermediate cast iron columns at about twenty-five foot intervals but perfect for a gallery/restaurant we have in mind. The second floor is far more interesting and idiosyncratic: the Wasserman’s former two-story apartment at the front street corner and the three office suites. Suite 204-206 is half way down the hall. 

Anson Tennant’s former studio is amazingly well preserved, rife with earmarks of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Lots of quarter-sawn oak trim and hard maple floors. And the plaster work has a grainy, porous quality, like they’d added too much sand. There is no paint; the color is simply a stain that had simply been added to the wet plaster before application—a treatment Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard would have applauded. Some early black-and-white photos from family albums show it fitted out with Navajo and other plain woven rugs, Indian baskets as light fixtures, and, best of all, the original stained glass door panel with the inscription “Als ik kan,” the mantra of the Arts & Crafts movement, which translates loosely from the Flemish as “As best I can” or “I’ll do my best.” This was also the motto by which he had tried to live—and, presumably, die. That stained glass is still in place.

What we preserve is sometimes a matter of public policy; sometimes a question of personal preference. In this case it was a matter of the heart.


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