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A matter of public record

Nineteenth century Whig historians presented the past “as an inevitable progression toward ever greater liberty and enlightenment”; as “a story of progress toward the present.” By 1900, historians of the Whig persuasion–both British and American– actually believed that history had already been written. It simply remained to keep history up to date by adding the record of current events. The 20th century historian’s role would be reduced to accountancy. 

One of my favorite authors James Carse describes the past in two ways: either finished (as in the Whig point of view), a solid foundation for building the present; or unfinished and awaiting reinterpretation, re-writing and completion in our own time and terms. I’ll take Option B.

With resources like google.books and other OCR-readable online databases, the availability of historical material expands daily. I find it in my own homespun efforts to understand simple things like the professionalization of architecture or the design of turn-of-the-century churches. Perhaps this has become the reason I delay writing anything: there’ll be another tidbit tomorrow to change the direction of my thought.

Agincourt

Imagine the array of imaginary resources for telling the story of an imaginary place, much of it from the public record. Newspapers and other periodicals tend to disappear, especially when they are short-lived. [This has been especially true of small town newspapers in Dakota Territory.] But other document types are more likely to survive: deeds and contracts, certificates of birth and death, of marriage and divorce, lawsuits and transcripts of trial–not all of them necessarily in a agreement. Then add photographs, drawings, art and all the rest of non-verbal material culture. Finding a story to connect these pinpoints of light has been something I approach with a healthy mix of caution and excitement.

During a particularly tedious afternoon meeting, this postcard of Adams Restaurant (otherwise unidentified) spoke to me. Peter Vandervort’s knowledge of costume history had set the scene circa 1910. I was comfortable borrowing this building and its three ladies for a site in Agincourt. But every building tells a story and this could be no exception. So, in the next hour I wrote three news items from The Daily Plantagenet about the women posed at its entrance.

Adamsrestaurant

Maud Adams, the older woman on the left, was the owner of Adams Restaurant which she operated with her daughter Amanda (Mandy), in the center. The aproned girl on the right was Mary Riley, an Irish immigrant working her way west across America. This photo was an opportunity to tell several tangent stories: of a young widow thrust unexpectedly into the world of business circa 1890; of a daughter who knew only one parent; of a foreigner in a nation of immigrants. Their connected histories could be outlined in three typical news items: a death notice, a fuller obituary, and a letter to the editor from a friend unable to attend the memorial.

Adamsrestaurant02

Situating the building and imagining what lay behind its spotless windows was a tentative step toward understanding how cities evolve. And the story from those three clippings grew to touch many other imagined lives and change their trajectories, as it has my own.

Where were you in ’42?

The week before Thanksgiving 2008, Howard wrote a piece related to Agincourt’s wartime experience; how the war had affected people on the home front.

WWII

Victory, one tomato at a time

I don’t get out of town often enough. Except for a Minnesota Twins game in June, I haven’t been away overnight for nearly a year. Agincourt seems to be my world.

So when Bobby and Melissa Frobisher suggested hitting some estate sales in Omaha last weekend, Rowan Oakes and I were glad for the chance to tag along and, just maybe, snag some stuff that may show up in our own estate sales some time hence. Bobby found a banjo; Rowan, an Arts & Crafts area rug; Melissa some sheet music from the ‘teens. I bought a World War II uniform from the widow of Frank Ferris, a serviceman who had landed at Omaha Beach for the liberation of Europe. My conversation with Mrs Ferris turned to Tom Brockaw’s recent book The Greatest Generation, the very generation that her husband represented with such distinction.

During lunch at the Bohemian Cafe the four of us began a list of Agincourt’s war efforts on the home front; from selling war bonds and foregoing meat several times a week to knitting socks and walking—everywhere. The war was borne on the backs and feet and in the stomachs of ordinary citizens. War was a shared experience endured every day by every one. How different from the conflicts of recent experience.

Crossing the Broad Street bridge on the way home, another local effort came to mind: Agincourt’s “Victory Gardens” that once stretched half a mile west of the bridge, along the sunny north bank of Crispin Creek.

Growing up just after the war, I recall my mother’s hoard of old magazines in the attic; a stack of Your Victory Garden was among them. I was just learning to read and these had more pictures than text. Monthly issues treated topics that would find eager and appreciative audiences on HGTV today—propagation and planting; insects and blight; drying and canning—each topic aimed at spreading the burden of wartime deprivation more equitably. Mom had a plot along the creek; so did her sisters and aunts. But it wasn’t entirely women’s work.

Our “Victory Garden” had already been the scene of casual horticulture, so the county commissioners in September 1942 only made official what had been common practice for several years. Janice Mainwaring, head of the the Domestic Arts division at the Fennimore County Fair, was the genius who made it work. With paramilitary precision, Janice surveyed the area south of Milwaukee Road, between the bridge and mill raceway, dividing it into 25-by-25 foot allotments. Then, with assistance from the Department of Public Works, they installed a watering system at 100-foot intervals along the road, with several two-horsepower engines drawing water from Crispin Creek. Remarkably, some of those improvements are still working after more than sixty years.

Janice’s original notes, correspondence and drawings preserved at the historical society tell the rest of a fascinating story. A few folks had squatter’s rights, holding on to plots they had gardened for years, while everyone else waited for a Thanksgiving lottery to allocate the rest.

A quick comparison of Mainwaring’s list with our 1943 telephone directory tells me that nearly half the households in town participated. From March 15th thorugh Labor Day, the street wailway company offered free service to the creek after 6 p.m. and all day on the weekends. School groups competed for free books, movies and ice cream treats at Van Kannel’s soda fountain. It was a family affair.

Plowing, planting, pruning; watering and weeding; harvesting and canning. These shared activities strengthened our sense of community. They also reinforced the idea of continuinty through the seasons and cycles of Nature. I was too young to help but young enough to enjoy its benefits; a unity of purpose, an awareness of America as “us.” There was neither “red” nor “blue”; just “purple,” like the Purple Heart won by Frank Ferris, a stranger whose uniform fits me like a glove, but whose shoes I could never fill.

If there is an Afterlife, I suspect Ms Mainwaring and Sgt Ferris have recognized the purpose common to their lives and have become good friends.

Howard’s article is crafted and grafted from experiences I’ve had, from people I’ve known—and some I still hope to meet.

A good pair of pants

On the eve of Thanksgiving 2010, here is Howard Tabor’s column from The Daily Plantagenet of November 29th, 2008, the Saturday after Thanksgiving that year.

Giving Thanks

My sister Catherine and her husband Jim LaFarge were home for the holidays. They brought a generous supply of the maple syrup they manufacture in the woody thickets of rural Vermont. Business is precarious right now, there as everywhere, so I’ll put in a plug for their brand “Allouette” and hope you find some on store shelves in your neck of the woods. There’s love in those jars.

Thanksgiving dinner was lively. We had eighteen family members, plus friends and strays, for a ginormous feast that won’t be repeated soon. Conversation turned, as it inevitably does in a strange and unwieldy family like ours, to absent guests–all those members of the extended Tennant clan who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be here: where they are, what they’re doing, how they got there. It’s astonishing to think how far-flung the family has become; what distant shores have welcomed weary emigrants from this lonely spot in northwestern Iowa. But it also caused me to recollect the diverse and disparate souls who have wound up here in Agincourt during the last one hundred and fifty eyars. Some fairly impressive flotsam, not the least of whom was a modest Hungarian tailor.

At dinner Thursday night I happened to be wearing a pair of my dad’s pants. When he died in ’95, mother resisted having a garage sale. She kept most of Warren’s things exactly where he’d left them, but allowed me to have the pick of his wardrobe. I chose, among other well-crafted items, the pants I wore at Thanksgiving dinner. Pants he had worn for thirty-five years. Pants that may be part of my own estate sale when that time comes. Pants from the legendary Agincourt tailor Sandor Zsolnay. What right did we have to the considerable talents of such a man as Zsolnay?

Hungarians reverse the order of their names, putting the surname first. So it was Zsolnay Sandor who arrived here in 1920, a forty-year-old custom tailor from the recently collapsed Hapsburg Empire. He almost immediately became Sollie Sander, a nickname that stuck through a forty-year presence in our community. Zsolnay was widowed and had a twelve-year-old daughter Erszébet in tow. They spoke practically no English. Erszébet became a friend of my mother.

The folks at deBijenkorf needed a tailor in their men’s department and had advertised in Chicago and elsewhere, hoping to lure the best, as they did in all things. Sandor Zsolnay came with credentials beyond their hopes. He’d been born in Pecs, Hungary in 1880, at the height of Hapsburg power. At eighteen, Sandor became a tailor’s apprentice in Budapest (technically on the newer Pest side of the Danube) and subsequently moved upstream to the Imperial capital Vienna and the auspicious haberdashery of Knize & Co. Who can say that he didn’t accompany his tutors to the Palace in 1913 and record the metric length of His Imperial Majesty’s inseam, noting whether the Jewels of Empire hung left or right. [In the 19th century, a man’s most intimate experiences might have been with his tailor.] But that twilight could not last. A World War and cousins in Chicago brought him to America and deBijenkorf brought him to Iowa. Europe’s loss was Agincourt’s gain.

DeBijenkorf’s management team knew they had snagged a treasure. At forty, his hair already tinged with grey at the temples, Zsolnay brought the cosmopolitan to the American hinterlands. His talents would have been wasted on cuffs and collars. They encouraged him to double the men’s department, using his Old World connections to bring us quality that surpassed what even Des Moines and Omaha could offer. But those halcyon days of haberdashery were also not to last. The portent of “Better living through chemistry” in the1950s must have saddened him, as wool, leather, cotton and silk gave way to nylon, rayon and vinyl. We no longer clothed our bodies so much as upholstered them. When Sandor Zsolnay retired in 1960, another era had ended. But his pants live on and that may be the finest revenge of all. 

Zsolnay died in 1968, the same year that my great-uncle Anson Tennant left us wanting more of them both. And Warren Tabor, my dad, was one of six pallbearers–each of them clad in a Zsolnay suit–who carried our tailor legend to his grave at St Ahab’s Cemetery.

There’s love in those pants and in my sister’s maple syrup, too.

There is much to mourn these days–and the corruption of quality is not the least of it–but there is also much to be grateful for. Like a good pair of pants.

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with friends and the stuff that makes memories.

Urban Rivers

Urban rivers are always interesting.

Cuyahogafire

Large rivers handle boat traffic but are often exploited for industrial development. Witness the Cuyahoga in Cleveland, which has on occasion caught fire due to high levels of chemical pollution. As a boy, I recall the mighty Chicago River bubbling on hot August afternoons, so much organic matter had settled on its bottom. Smaller streams discourage industrial use but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve escaped abuse. Agincourt’s river is the mighty Muskrat, a middling stream that has avoided most of the evils that come from urbanization. Luckily, the Industrial Revolution largely bypassed Iowa. 

Before 1850 as settlers from the Atlantic seaboard crossed the Appalachians and moved into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, they brought with them well established ideas about water, both as a means of transport and a source of power. New England’s textile mills, for example, were water powered. This wave of settlers were also children of the Canal Age–the Erie, Kanawha and other canals having been funded by Congress or state legislatures as components of America’s emerging infrastructure. So I wondered how a smaller tributary of the Missouri, serving a small watershed in northwestern Iowa, might have been exploited by Agincourt’s first settlers in the late 1850s.

Surprisingly there were a large number of water-powered mills in Iowa. I found a website with photographs of many. So I was perfectly comfortable imagining the Syndicate Mill and exploring the details of side-shot water wheels for manufacturing. But I’ve lately become fascinated with the recreational aspects of both the Muskrat and Crispin Creek, which form the west and south edges of the original Agincourt townsite.

Through the Civil War era, the creek and river banks would have been a source of wildlife–both game and fish and, perhaps, the occasional turtle. And though the Muskrat is within easy walking distance of everyone in town, I thought its scruffy trees and mangey shrubs might have afforded a pleasant place for evening and weekend getaways. Could there have been a colony of squatters along it opposite bank? Cabins and boathouses of no particular architectural merit other than their sense of quaint decay and eccentricity? I imagined a loose association of friends–The River Rats–who carried that tradition into the early years of the 20th century.

Blueriver01
Blueriver02

My imagery comes from postcard views of the Blue River in Kansas City, which I hope to merge into a composite painting this winter. Ain’t this place sweet?

Stewardship

Tell me I’m wrong to think this.

Of all building types in current use–for housing, commerce, education, industry, entertainment, or religion–the one that seems least environmentally conscious is the last one: structures purpose-built for religious activities. (I exempt here buildings adapted for religious activity from some other purpose.) Most of them are, in my view, exactly what architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham said about the new Coventry Cathedral (though I happen to disagree with him): he called it “A gosh-awful, ring-a-ding God-box.”

Now here’s the irony: One of the lessons often preached in those buildings is stewardship. We’ve seen the passion that can be aroused on that topic among ELCA Lutherans, who have lost congregations due to their denominational statement on genetic engineering. But why, he inquired rhetorically, do the structures in which stewardship is taught more often than not fail to meet the standard being preached inside them?

At brunch last Sunday my friend Pastor Carol suggested part of the issue involves original texts from which this biblical para-principle is drawn. I have neither the original text at hand, nor the appropriate dictionaries to translate, but I gather that the smoking gun–in either Hebrew or Greek–has been translated over the centuries as both “stewardship” and “dominion.” Ah, there’s the rub. All this fruitful multiplication we’ve been doing can be viewed from either perspective: we can inhabit this planet with an awareness of our presence or be heedless of any consequences because it is a Divine Plan. As an SOB from the 60s, I’m disinclined to see humanity having dominion over anything, certainly not our passions and specifically not our divinely-sanctioned self-centered greed.

As a glutton for self-inflicted punishment, I wonder if there might be an Agincourt project in all this.

Googling every possible word or phrase that might illuminate the notion of stewardship in an architectural context has turned up some interesting stuff. Clearly there are folks out there eager to engage my question and anxious to offer an affirmative reply. From all this material I’m intent on crafting a client who speaks the unthinkable: let’s imagine a church/synagogue/mosque/temple/etc that practices what it preaches. I have little doubt this project will present a challenge (that’s what studio projects are suppposed to do, aren’t they?) but, also, that it may offend. Treading the fine line between those two reactions won’t be easy for an oaf like me who should never have been loosed in the china shop of ideas.

Any and all who would like to contribute toward the success of such a project are invited to share.

The same goes for those of you who’d like to piss on it.

JFK

Ask anyone of my generation where they were on Friday afternoon, November 22nd, 1963. Anyone! I’ll bet they have a quick and very specific reply. I was in the shower of Kingfisher Hall, a dorm in the Woodrow Wilson Center at the University of Oklahoma. It was the first semester of my Freshman year.

It had been a studio all-nighter, so I’d come back to the dorm for a quick shower before the Friday afternoon class. Standing with my forehead against the wall and the shower running down the center of my back, I heard a muffled voice from down the hall. I said “What!?!” and they repeated something I still couldn’t understand. Finally I turned the water off and asked again. This time it was perfectly clear: “The President has been shot,” and our lives were irrevocably altered. JFK was 47 years old, exactly a month and a day older than my father; I was eighteen and hadn’t yet voted in my first national election.

It’s difficult to describe just how somber the nation became–instantly. WKY, the Oklahoma City radio station dropped its top-40 format and played mostly Mozart for a week. Classes were disrupted to a degree, but the semester ended on time, if not with the same bravura that it might.

Those were interesting times. Among other speakers at OU while I was a student there were Louis I. Kahn, Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr.), Paolo Soleri, and a host of the decade’s other architectural movers and shakers. But I also heard Timothy Leary (the guru of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” counterculture generation), as well as Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother, about six weeks before he, too, was assassinated.

The 1960s were difficult years for America: confronting the Soviet foothold in Cuba; the growing problem of Vietnam; the political chasm that opened wider at the ’68 Chicago Democratic convention. The issues were different then but the division of our people today seems remarkably similar.

I hoped that our country had grown up.

Political Correctness often isn’t

Several years ago fifth-year thesis projects at NDSU were distributed more or less evenly among all available faculty. This meant a spring semester commitment to five or six students, helping them design what were not yet known as “capstone” projects. For certain administrative peculiarities, the thesis still isn’t our departmental capstone. But that’s another story.

The matching of student and faculty was a mystical, even kabbalistic, process so complex and arcane that I seriously believe it would have defied the folks at ITS. Yes, it was that complex, though perhaps only due to its organic nature. Milt Yergens and I served on the Thesis Committee a couple of times, so I can only tell you how we did the divvy.

At that point students had submitted a thesis proposal, already screened for appropriateness and degree of difficulty; sounds like the Olympics, doesn’t it. So there was on file a summary statement of what the student wished to design, why s/he wished to undertake the project, and where it would be located, plus a summary of their previous design studio experience. Faculty had also posted a one-page statement of  interest and ability, in case students were unfamiliar with any of us; fat chance of that. So far, so good.

Students were then polled for their faculty preferences and asked to rank at least half the available staff on a scale of, say, one to six if there were a dozen of us. A ranking of one was the most highly preferred. While students undertook this triage, faculty reviewed student proposals and indicated one of three possibilities: yes, I would welcome the opportunity to work with this student/project; maybe, it will be OK to establish a relationship here; or, no, for unspecified reasons I would prefer to work with others. Milt and I were then left with two piles of opinion and charged to maximize the ensuing shot-gun weddings.

Very quickly the process evolved into an enormous spread sheet, with students across the top and faculty down one side; each cell represented the potential for relationship and was then filled with a letter and number taken from the expressions of preference. There were eighteen possiblities ranging from 1/Y (for a top-ranked and enthusiastic faculty member) to 6/N at the other end of the spectrum. There was also a nineteenth option: N/0 (which looks seductively like “no”) for the unranked faculty member who would rather die than deal with a particular student/project type. It was amazing how well these pairings made our job easier than you might have expected: The 1/Ys and N/0s took care of the extremes, so that it remained only to work toward the center and fill everyone’s dance card. Surprisingly few dipped “below” a 3/- or 4/M. And only twice did we have to contact anyone privately to negotiate a change in their original rankings (once for a student and once for a faculty member, who shall both remain nameless). It was a logical system that worked and seemed to satisfy all concerned.

I only mention this as a context for two thesis relationships from my own experience:

  • One was effectively a smallish office building, a project type and size unlikely to pass muster today without some complicating or enriching factor. The site was Denver, Colorado; the client, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, an organization currently located at Colorado Springs (not incidentally, the city ranked “Most Religious” in a recent Men’s Health survey). Why that student was willing to work with me remains a mystery, since James Dobson had already gone on record, saying that all Gay people should be rounded up and put in concentration camps as a matter of public health and safety. I never asked–it would have been politically incorrect to have done so–what the student felt about that policy statement from his very real pseudo-client. So, for a semester and a half, I dutifully met and (dare I say it?) collaborated on a project whose ersatz client wished to strip me of all civil rights and lock me up. Habeas corpus can get f**ked.
  • A second project involved rebuilding the Temple of Solomon on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Never mind that a significant number of Pentacostal Christians then, and a hugely increasing number today, believe that the Second Coming can occur only when Solomon’s Temple has been rebuilt and the spotless calf (which is currently being bred on a ranch somewhere in Kansas; no, I’m not kidding) is sacrificed there–at Jerusalem, not Kansas, I mean. Once again, I endured several months of daily inculcation with Christian eschatalogical claptrap that guarantees I will sauté in a friggin’ lake of fire for eternity. Apparently Armageddon can’t happen soon enough for some.

Why do I do this? I could have said “No” to either project. But there is something about the practice of architecture by my generation that says, simply and unequivocally: I am a professional and will to the best of my ability serve my client’s needs within the bounds of accepted ethical standards and personal behaviour. Albert Speer is the only architect who seems to have pushed the limits of this definition. [See Abraham Flexner‘s 1915 article on the complex sociological process of professionalization. I’ve got a copy here somewhere if you can’t find it.]

One of my colleagues Mark Barnhouse quotes Stanley Fish who says that “critical thinking” is redundant. Thinking is, by its very nature, critical. After forty years in the business, I fear that critical thinking is an endangered species, driven into hiding by the PC Police. There will be inevitable, perhaps ugly, consequences for my present shift in attitude, to the degree that I express it openly. Shall we find out together?