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Mining Irony

“Humor brings insight and tolerance. Irony brings a deeper and less friendly understanding.” — Agnes Repplier

If Irony were an element in the Periodic Table, it would be toward the bottom among the heavy metals. But unlike its namesake Iron, Irony is unstable. Exposed to air it oxidizes into the more stable compound Coincidence. But when it comes in contact with Sanctimony and Hubris, explosive reactions are likely to occur. Within the boundaries of Fennimore county, large veins of Irony exist below the fertile topsoil and have been known to affect local compass bearings, other electro-magnetic phenomena, and the perception of self-importance.

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.

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 Staurday, 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.

Copernicus and Ptolemy: a miscellaneous thought on Wright

Two thousand and nine passed with only a marginal note about its connection with Frank Lloyd Wright: it was the fiftieth anniversary of Wright’s death. I had hoped to do a seminar focussed on his long, productive and controversial career, but it didn’t happen.

I was fourteen when Wright died. I saw him interviewed on Public Television (or what passed for it in those days) and still recognize his voice as an old man. Fifty-one years in the grave, he is still alive in my mind, a statement fewer and fewer of us can make. soon he will be just another dead White guy, like Brunelleschi and Mnesikles.

These 51 years of aliveness have permitted me to witness the wondrously shifting patterns of both Wrightian journalism and scholarship, much of it hagiagraphic, which is a shame because he’s more interesting than Wright himself would have led us to believe. Fundamentally, it boils down to a choice between two cosmological systems: those of Ptolemy (Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος) and of Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik, in his native Polish).

The Ptolemaic universe is Earth centered. Around the Earth revolve the moon and the planets in tidy concentric circles, all within the enclosing sphere of the Firmament. Ptolemy conceived us as a large cosmic onion.

Fifteen hundred years later, science rattled Rome’s theological cage and proposed an alternate view based upon rational observation and mathematical computation. That revolution courtesy of Galileo and Copernicus gave us the foundation of a modern universal perspective, with the Sun at the center of our system, the planets revolving about it (eventually in eliptical orbits, thank you Tycho Brahe) in an open-ended Universe with no known boundaries. Wright scholarship has been fundamentally Ptolemaic, rather than Copernican, and ought perhaps to be reconsidered.

The problem with Wright is that he is always seen as the center of his own cosmology. Others in that universe are uniformly treated as satellites revolving about him concentrically and dependent upon him for their illumination; they reflect Wright as the primary source of light. Figures like his mistress/consort Mamah Borthwick Cheney (until some recent letters turned up in the Swedish Royal Archive) was a virtual cardboard cutout propped beside Wright among the supporting cast of characters in his personal drama. We have been preoccupied with what Wright said about and claimed for himself and allowed other perspectives fall by the wayside.

In a Copernican universe Wright could be considered as one of many objects in orbit around central ideas, abstractions, points of view. They would illuminate him and those around and about him.

Inspiration versus Imitation (Part 2)

During forty years of teaching and seven (yes, seven) years as an undergraduate, I’ve met a broad range of students. The range has been fairly constant but the variety has changed with the generations. Writing about the differences between inspiration and imitation revived memories of someone I knew at the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s. In the interest of privacy, let me call him/her Mango.

Mango was in the class ahead of mine, so we shared few courses. We did run into one another during a technical class, however (plumbing, I think), where Mango did not do well, not even well enough to pass. He/She had taken the course the year before and had to take it again the year following, for which I felt unbounded sympathy, since it was taught by Professor Joe Smay. I mention Joe–now safely gone to that great draughting board in the sky–because Professor Smay was one of OU’s genuine and most eccentric treasures. He lectured with a cold and soggy cigar in his mouth, a cigar that was never lit. It goes without saying that a cigar cramped Joe’s lecture style. Also (and I say this with caution) Joe was OLD. How old, you ask? Joe was so old that he had Oklahoma architectural license #0001. That’s saying something.

Professor Smay was also not the sort of person who welcomed criticism. You learned quickly, for example, not to challenge his grading. Inquire about points lost on a test question and Joe was more than willing to admit he might have been in error. But it would only be fair to regrade your entire exam–just in case he might have made an error elsewhere. Sure enough, a point or two might be gained on one question, but I can guarantee that more points would be lost somewhere else. The net result of any challenge was that your score inevitably went down. In that learning environment, Mango was doomed. As far as I know, he/she never completed that course or any other where number crunching was required.

Mango and I did share a one-semester studio experience–third year, I think. Before discussing that encounter, let me say something about Mango’s physical presence: tall, very tall, Ichabod Crane tall, and thin, Alberto Giacometti thin. Mango was also inclined to dress for comfort: trench coats and sandals were a common costume that always left one wondering, like the Scotsman, what other clothes, if any, might be hidden beneath. It was creepy.

I came into studio one afternoon, a few weeks into the semester, and found Mango (a studio no-show up to that point) aggressively sanding his/her desktop. Remember that we actually draughted then and all that that entailed: lots and lots of pins to hold multiple sheets of paper in place. Wooden desktops were pocked with thousands of small holes that sometimes required filling with wood filler and a cover of heavy green paper. Mango labored on that surface for the better part of three weeks until it was satisfactorily prepared for actual work.

That work finally began with the design of a smallish fire station for Norman, Oklahoma, on a site within walking distance of campus. I arrived one afternoon to find Mango kneeling on the desk, ass skyward, and draughting with a crow quill pen, desperately trying to make straight lines without benefit of T-square or triangle. I offered to lend some of my tools, but was rebuffed with an icy “Tools are a crutch!”

Trying NOT to watch Mango became a genuine contest for everyone in the vicinity. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I sneaked a peak: Mango’s fire station had slowly taken shape–a very familiar shape, the precise shape of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1908 design for Unity Temple. Two opposing sides of Wright’s design, however, now sported large overhead doors, large enough for fire trucks. Wright’s balconies for overflow church attendance had been repurposed as sleeping quarters for fire fighters, while two of his stair and mechanical towers now served hose-drying and a shiny brass fire pole.

At this point you need to know that Mango’s parents had been connected with Taliesin, Wright’s architectural office in Wisconsin, and that Mango claimed to be Wright’s illegitimate offspring. So, perhaps those same creative juices flowed in my classmates veins. It was not for me to judge.

There is a bottom line here, however: Strong design personalities like Frank Lloyd Wright attracted many to bask in the circle of their influence, but few were able to break free of that strong gravitational pull and achieve anything other than the status of a satellite.

Strange Bedfellows

Based on budget, lot size and orientation, S. S. Beman produced a wonderfully innovative series of church designs for Christian Science. The church at Davenport, Iowa, though wider than it is deep, at least represents the architect’s attitude toward style: he preferred simple Neo-Classical buildings that could be erected in masonry or wood, with a uniform covering of stucco in greys, pinks, robin’s-egg blue, and other pastel after-dinner-mint shades. Perhaps his work for this new denomination called for a kit or architectural parts; for an approach that was wholesale, rather than retail. I can dig it.

Davenportia

Bernard Maybeck, on another hand, focussed extraordinarily on the craft of architecture, the relationship between design and material; on how the work comes from the working. His Christian Science church at Berkeley, California is a monument to the Arts & Crafts and, simultaneously, a paean to economies that can derive from ordinary industrial building materials. Make certain your next visit to the Bay Area includes a stop at 2619 Dwight Way.

Xtianscienceberkeley

If the melding of these two approaches to design weren’t difficult enough, I had also become intrigued by the Etruscans, the overshadowed source of ancient Roman architecture. Rome can sometimes be treated unjustly as merely derivative of Greek architectural style. Though no Etruscan temples have survived intact, however, we can appreciate them from surviving tomb paintings, medals and models. Here was an easy going Tuscan style in decided contrast to the exquisite finicky refinements of Greek Doric.

Etruscantemple

I could imagine an Agincourt church design drawn from these disparate sources.

Inspiration versus Imitation

About thirty years ago, Hermann Pundt spoke at the Department of Architecture (the Landscape Program hadn’t been established yet). Pundt was a Karl Friedrich Schinkel scholar who had published a book on Schinkel’s career, one of the first reconsiderations in recent scholarship. That was the subject of his formal evening presentation. But it was his less structured talk the following afternoon that I recall more vividly: titled something like “Frank Lloyd Wright and Willem Dudok, a duality of difference.”

Those of you familiar with the Dutch modernist’s work know that Dudok suffers, on this side of the Atlantic, from a too-close comparison with Frank Lloyd Wright. Why is it that we habitually evaluate the work of someone aware of Wright and potentially influenced by him as an “also ran” in the history of architecture? It’s neither fair nor even accurate. Professor Pundt enlightened us about the potential of that influence: we can either imitate or allow it to inspire us. It should go without saying that the path of inspiration is difficult but so much more rewarding, though an opportunity to apply the principle didn’t arrive until I considered Agincourt’s Christian Science Church.

With apologies to followers of Mary Baker Eddy, I cannot hear her name without recalling the knee-jerk observation of Fred Schellabarger, the OU professor who taught the first half of the architectural history sequence at Norman; you can blame Fred for many of my deficiencies. He was a card-carrying Episcopalian whose disdain for non-liturgical denominations of Christianity was obvious. Of Christian Science he often observed, “Neither Christian nor scientific!” in verbal parentheses.

Mrs Eddy offered Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures to all branches of the Christian faith, but none would have it. Reluctantly (one imagines), she founded her own denomination, one with a spin that I find enormously interesting: quite aside from praying yourself out of illness, Christian Science played its own special role in the women’s movement at the end of the 19th century. Her church has no ordained clergy, its services being conducted by two readers, one male and one female. Its buildings also bear little orthodox symbolism. In fact Christian Science architecture tended to be dominated by a handful of regional designers. In the Midwest that was S. S. Beman.

Beman’s churches for Christian Science bear a strong family resemblance; variations on a powerful theme drawn from the Neo-Classical “Mother Church” in Boston. The church in Fargo and the one in DeKalb, Illinois are virtually interchangeable, as the new church in Agincourt would have been circa 1908. Beman designed literally dozens of churches, however, and his influence would be far too dominant on any interpretation of Christian Science corporate imagery. Something should be added to the mix; I wanted to increase the “degree of difficulty.”

Another architect prominent at that time was Bernard Maybeck, key figure in the Arts & Crafts movement in the Bay Area. But while Beman had designed dozens of churches, Maybeck had effectively designed only one, in his hometown Berkeley, California. (Incidentally, both Beman and Maybeck were converts to Christian Science.) My challenge was to conceive how their two very different styles might have blended and to imagine the circumstances in which that could have occurred. The result of that miscegination appears below.

Xtianscience

North elevation, First Church of Christ, Scientist (1908-1909), Agincourt, IA

I’m pleased with the result. Let me know what you think.

The Agincourt Public Library & Tennant Memorial Gallery

Last month was the unheralded ninety-fifth anniversary of the Agincourt Public Library, the last and best example of Anson Tennant’s brief architectural career. Can’t imagine how it slipped my mind.

Apltmg02

As I continue to prepare drawings for Jeremiah Johnson’s model-building prowess, I thought you might like a preview of its elevations to put beside the very preliminary plan published here several weeks ago. Lacking the ornamental skills of a Louis Sullivan (I shouldn’t feel so bad; even Frank Lloyd Wright couldn’t do it), the ornamental flourishes on the ground floor columns are giving me fits: I can see them in my mind’s eye but fail again and again to render them for public consumption. Vince Hatlen has told me of a wonderful metal crafter in the Twin Cities who I hope to interest in frabricating one for the 2011 exhibit.

Sissy Beddowes

Howard Tabor has written several articles about an incongruous trinity of women important to turn-of-the-century Agincourt: Maud Adams, Annabelle Miller and Sissy Beddowes. Attend the tale of their odd affiliation.

Maud Adams (née Baldwin) came to Agincourt in 1888 when her husband B.F. won the masonry contract for Fennimore county’s second courthouse. He fell from faulty scaffolding, ruptured his spleen, a died a dew days later, leaving his pregnant widow with small savings and no social safety net. Soon after the birth of their daughter Amanda in 1889, Mrs Adams accepted an offer from her neighbors to open a restaurant that would highlight her baking skills. In short order she returned the favor, employing a series of young women in a virtual finishing school that continued to her death in the 1940s.

Annabelle Miller (née Schwert) would seem to be Adams’ antithesis. The Millers ran a tobacco shop behind the old Hazzard House Hotel, aptly named for the number of fires that eventually caused its demise. Mr Miller died in 1893 or 1894, probably from tuberculosis, and also left his widow with little means of support. Her brother Armand Schwert came to Belle’s questionable rescue, remodeling a stable at the rear of the property, adapting it as a House of Ill Repute and making his sister a de facto madam. A comparable number of young women passed through Mrs Miller’s dubious employment. 

 

Circe_offering_the_cup_to_odysseus

 

Sissy Beddowes, the third leg of this odd triangle, was the wife of carpenter and former U.S. Indian Agent Amos Beddowes, a Connecticut native who had settled on the banks of the Muskrat River years before there was an Agincourt. In his government role, Amos had worked closely with the Sac and Fox tribes, earliest inhabitants of this part of Iowa; so closely, in fact, that he married a young Native woman whose name translates She-Listens-to-the-Moon, medicine woman to her people. The connection between the moon and medicine suggested Circe, Greek goddess associated with each of those ideas, as her English name. Circe morphed into Sissy, whose knowledge of seeds, herbs and roots easily exceeded the local medical profession’s. In 1910 she even shared her herbal wisdom at Chicago’s homeopathic college.

How, you might well ask, did these three disparate lives intertwine? That’s easy: sex and its unregulated consequence.

Some of Belle Miller’s employees inevitably became pregnant. If Sissy Beddowes’ concoctions couldn’t terminate the pregnancy, then Maud Adams would shelter the girls through their “lying in” and work with Doc Fahnstock to legitimize the birth and place the child through private adoption. Tres discrete! [Read earlier blog entries for the story of Neil Klien, who entered life precisely this way.]

My point here is to put nineteenth-century pharmaceuticals in perspective: Folk wisdom was the basis for drug conglomerates of the twentieth century, but it never entirely disappeared. I remember my father accepting folk remedies–mustard plasters, corn squeezins and sheep-shit tea–from customers at our gas station, Black emigrants from the South who had come to work the factories of Chicago; people I knew who were at most three generations from slavery. I also recall that these homespun remedies worked!

Community-based folk wisdom was effective; it had a multi-generational record of success. “Snake oil” wasn’t, because it was ephemeral, opportunistic and motivated by greed.

De-regulation

The prospect of a 21st century economy unhindered by regulation “in the interest of public health and safety” reminds me of an early Agincourt impulse I had: snake oil.

Snake-oil

During the 19th century Americans could and did put anything on and in their bodies. Whether cosmetic, curative or nutritional, our markets were no only free, they were wide open. Regulation of food and drugs curbed a colorful segment of the free market; but until that happened, the advertised claims for such products knew no bounds. And, as you might imagine, the hordes of customers waiving fistfuls of cash were boundless. Ah, fools and their money. Be it ever so sacred.

Surely some industrious Agincourter capitalized on the gullible or the desperate. What was required? A cellar, shed or stable; paper-labelled bottles, jars or tins; interestingly-colored smelly stuff. Oh, and of course, shamelessness. I know–let me repeat: I know–that an industrious Iowa entrepreneur availed him- or herself of this unparalleled unregulated opportunity. There is a story here–a typical 19th century American tale–waiting, nay crying out, to be told.

From the outset of this project I have wanted to create labels, bottles and full-blown P.T. Barnum-esque advertising for Agincourt’s spin on the snake oil phenomenon. Any ideas on how I can find someone to craft these bottles? Your advice is welcome.