Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2011

Yearly Archives: 2011

Charles Mulford Robinson (1869-1917)

We should be in the midst of a centennial appreciation for the City Beautful movement of the early 20th century–but we’re not.

Two years ago, during the summer of 2009, Chicago celebrated the 100th anniversary of its Burnham Plan with the premier of an oratorio “Plans” based on the writings of Daniel Hudson Burnham in which he so famously urged us to “Have no little plans,” for they have no power to stir our souls, not to mention the short-term good they might do for the infrastructure and the long-term benefit for the improvement of urban life. I attended the second performance (of two; the first occurred in the rain, which I happily avoided) of Torke’s work for chorus, tenor and soprano soloists and orchestra in Millennium Park and had the good fortune to say hello to Torke himself as he circled the seating area to assess the park’s sound system.

Some months before that June 2009 performance, I’d wondered how the City Beautiful had touched Agincourt and conceived a modest project initiated by a lecture sponsored by the Civic Club. The speaker was Charles Mulford Robinson, a New York native and journalist who had become the voice for urban beautification (read “civic improvement”) and had more than a little influence here in the Midwest, particularly at cities such as Cedar Rapids in Iowa and Stillwater, Minnesota. Why not a brief guest appearance in Agincourt.

The consequence of Robinson’s lecture was a work of enlightened self-interest on North Broad Street–not unlike this image of a similar project in Spencer, Iowa of about the same time.

Boulevard001

I had imagined the residents of a two-block stretch of Broad Street (from Fennimore to Ralph avenues) initiating a redesign of those two blocks with narrowed roadways and landscaped central boulevard, underwriting the cost and ongoing maintenance as a special assessment on their property taxes. A short article appeared in The Plantagenet to that effect.

No project is wholly good, however, no matter how altruistic it may seem. Because a few days after the two or three paragraph item (commenting on Robinson’s lecture and the project that grew from it) there appeared a letter-to-the-editor suggesting other motives, more self-serving than altruistic: the Northwest Iowa Traction Company (builders of the interurban line from Fort Dodge through Agincourt and on its way toward Sioux City) was also negotiating a franchise with the city for a local trolley route. That route–the anonymous writer noted–might logically have run north on Broad toward the city limits and then swung west to the Normal School campus on its way back to the terminal at Broad and Louisa. But the writer saw a sinister plan to divert the noise and property devaluation a trolley route might bring to those large homes of prominent citizens onto an adjacent street of more modest means and less political clout. What may seem good and just and beneficial to some may be anathema to another.

So, the two-block boulevarding of North Broad Street–a grand place-making gesture of the early 20th century’s City Beautiful movement–was not without its detractors. Might we interpret this as an example of trickle-down aesthetics?

Architecture is always better than it looks

…and more important, too. My life-long love affair with architecture taught me ages past that buildings are better than they appear–and far closer than they may seem in rear-view mirrors.

A visit (dare I say pilgrimage?) to LeCorbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp in the foothills of the French Alps demonstrated the multi-sensory nature of architecture in skilled hands: I discovered a building I had known only through still images, and found that it demanded my total participation for fullest enjoyment and appreciation. I’ve rambled on at great length elsewhere about the role of time and the five senses required by Ronchamp’s designer, the Swiss-French architect LeCorbusier (a.k.a. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris). [A prospective faculty member once gave a lecture during her interview which proved that it is, indeed, possible to come away from Ronchamp with only the dimmest and most superficial understanding. So my own visit had taught me about both architecture and myself.]

Howard is engaged with is own forensic encounter just now–restoration of the Wasserman Block–and wants to share his own observations about a building more beloved than its appearance might seem to warrant.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Meier and Son and Son and Son

Restoring an old building to productive life is infinitely more rewarding as an investment of sweat equity.

We could, I suppose, have got a bigger construction loan and hired out all the labor, but Rowan and I would have missed all those hours of therapeutic stripping, scraping and spackling each evening and weekend for the past six months. Quite aside from such intimacies, we’d also have learned nothing of the building’s narrative, its story.

We’ve taken special pains with Rooms 205-207, a five-room suite half way down the second floor corridor but substantially different from the clusters on either side. Not only did it bear the stamp of its architect-occupant, that architect was my great-uncle Anson Tennant.

a.c.tennant architect

That’s what the small print says in stained glass in the office door (recently restored by our friend Dan Salyards). But, carefully removed form its frame (the upper panel of a Dutch door), we also found the carpenters names who had built and installed it. Mr Salyards has signed and dated his restoration of the window, just as Meier & Sons had branded their work ninety-nine years earlier. We should all take such pride in our labors.

I didn’t recognize the names, so a 1910 city directory satisfied my curiosity, if only just enough to want more information. The Plantagenet archives yielded more information and led me to a family descendant.

John Meier & Sons were listed in 1910 as both contractors and carpenters with their shop on the southwest side of Agincourt in the old Syndicate Mill. Scattered news items and occasional obituaries offered the identities of other family members and ultimately brought me to Beverly Brandt, John Meier’s granddaughter and, it turns out, a near-neighbor at Sturm und Drang. Small world. Beverly lives in Sioux city, so our paths have only crossed at the lakes’ general store, provisioning for the weekends.

Names and dates are useful but good and worthwhile history always has a face. Beverly gave me a postcard view of her ancestors and another example of their work: the whole crew building a house circa 1910.

Child-labor

In the dining room window is John Meier himself and standing just outside is his father-in-law Jacob Weise. On the scaffolding above are son-in-law Michael Schutz (part of the Schutz clan who built the original Saint Ahab’s, I’m guessing) and John Meier Jr. While up in the dormer are two younger Meier children, Henry and Rolf. Michael Schutz’s younger brother stands at the right of the house with Joseph Connaway, an employee not (yet) married into the family business. This corporate portrait is rounded out with its motive power, two horses named Sally and Gert.

Looking at this job site I had to believe OSHA would have shut them down in a heartbeat. And though the photo is undated, the two boys in the gable cannot be more than fifteen and probably violating some child labor law, now if not then. Life has changed since this innocent photograph was taken a hundred or so years ago, and for some much more than others. What strikes me here is the image of an era where both kinship and pride matter; stable relationships grounded in community and concerned with the quality of work and good repute.

Saturday I went shopping for socks (a preoccupation of mine) and was astonished how difficult it was to find 100% cotton socks, American-made and branded with a family name. I found them—Cabot & Sons of Northfield, Vermont—and rewarded all concerned with my custom: me, because they look and feel so good; deBijenkorf’s Department Store for stocking them; and Ric Cabot, their manufacturer, for holding fast to tradition in tough economic times. Kudos to us all.

Now I wonder what’s become of Meier & Sons.

Hats

People don’t wear hats any more.

Except for baseball and stocking caps, men have foregone the headgear of yesteryear. Forgotten the fedora; banished the bowler. And women (except those attending the wedding of William and Kate or the opening of Ascot) have given up their heritage of head finery as well. This is just one more loss that I’ll have to accept with age and infirmity.

As an eBay addict, I can tell you there are a butt load of real photo postcard portraits of people up for auction, most of whom are tragically unidentified by either name or location. I can also tell you most of them are wearing hats!

Hats01

Turn-of-the-century hats astound us with their audacity. This woman’s hat and car-length coat suggest an outing in the chevy roadster. Let’s hope her hatpins are firmly set; it would be a shame to lose such a finial. It would also be interesting to photoshop her into the Porch of the Maidens on the Erechtheion. I suspect her anonymity will be shortlived; that she is destined to have been an Agincourt resident and to have a story worthy of that hat.

Then, of course, there are people and situations where chapeaux would only get in the way, as in this second card. There’s something going on here that cries out for explanation. Who is this happy hatless mono-bosomed woman? 

Hats02

Fortunately, the card reveals her name, Etta, and the Presbyterian social she’s just served. I’m guessing the pies were delicious.

Oh, and more people need to be named Etta.

Child Labor

Reality is over-rated. 

I spend some time every day in the world of Agincourt, Iowa; harmless enough, even therapeutic, according to Dr Bob.

It’s a made-up place, concocted from experience; drawn in equal measure, I hope, from success and failure; from accomplishment and its opposite, whatever that is. My goal (other than an exploration of the relationship between narrative and place, which has been the heart of the Agincourt Project and remains its stated objective) is creating something more real than real. I want everyone to wonder if they didn’t stop there once on the way back from Omaha and have that phenomenal five-bean soup; of wanting to google the name of the restaurant and write for the recipe.

My investment of time and other resources in this project has been substantial and worthwhile. To remind myself, all I have to do is watch TV and glimpse another world in the process of being made-up: the Tea Party World of tough love, child labor, indentured servitude, real death panels and so much other calculated indifference to the human condition that I keep a plastic pail in the TV room for vomit. 

My grandparents were Republicans when being a Republican was an honorable point of view. We liked Ike, who warned us of the military-industrial complex. We enjoyed a political process where George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey consorted with the likes of Olympia Snow and Mark Hatfield for the greater good of us all. But what are we offered in their stead?

How can I not despair of Rick Perry, Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, for krisake, “family values” candidates whose one-eyed trouser snakes cannot be constrained! Gingrich’s revolving charge account at Tiffany’s is larger than the GNP of several Third World countries.

How many jobs has Senator Rick Bergreputedly among the ten richest members of the US Senatecreated with his personal wealth? How many dollars have been saved by Rick Perry’s electric chair or would have been by Herman Cain’s electric fence? This is a world of fantasy, not imaginationand I make an important distinction between the two. I’ll take the constructive imagination of Agincourt—the collective imaginings of so many students, colleagues and friends—over paranoid delusional fantasy any day.

Election Day 2012 cannot pass quickly enough. And, frankly, I’d welcome a coma until then.

Meier01

Somehow all this angst grows from a recent postcard acquisition: the construction of an unidentified house in an unspecified place; a posed shot with eight unnamed housebuilders and two anonymous horses.

And somehow, also, I suspect my friend Howard Tabor will have something to say about it.

Everything old is new again

Well, not quite everything, present company included.

When Rowan Oakes and Howard Tabor bought the old Wasserman Building, intent on preventing another gap-toothed block in downtown Agincourt, they knew not what they’d wrought. Some of us see the patina of age; others, the crust of corrosion and decay. I’ve got a high threshhold of crud. So does Howard.

Howard saw the project as an obligation, not just an opportunity. Great uncle Anson Tennant had remodelled the Wassermans’ building, enlarged their apartment and bartered services for a favorable five-year lease on his own studio-home: Suite 205-207. Howard described its interior in a sesqui-centennial piece a few years ago when I drove down with Richard Kenyon to offer some advice.

Long before the appearance of magazines like American Bungalow and Style 1900 popularized the Arts & Crafts movement—a deluge of philosophical perspective and practical advice—accurate information for would-be restorationists was hard to find. But Anson came to architectural awareness in the thick of it: Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard were alive and eminently quotable and Anson’s parents subscribed to The Fra. So his studio walls were raw stained plaster; the wood, beeswaxed. His fireplace hood, copper he’d hammered himself. And the office door? Dutch, with a stained lgass panel that set the tone for prospective clients.

Howard and Rowan took liberties with the two other suites, but Anson’s office was inviolate. No detail too small, no quest too obtuse. So, when they asked about stained glass, I recommended my friend Dan Salyards. Just re-leaded, it’s ready for another hundred years and Dan is on to other projects.

Ron1

Next year will be its centennial. Sounds like an excuse for a party.

Collaboration and Coincidence

Afam

Anson’s office door went into production this weekend. It’s been a long time coming, but haste would have been a mistake: so much nuance can only come with time.

The original idea came from Howard’s description of the office itself and focused on its Arts & Crafts characteristics. “Als ik kan,” the A&C mantra, has remained the stained glass centerpiece. Mr Dan Salyards incorporated an architect’s caliper and, intuitively, linked the window with Jonathan Rutter’s portrait of Anson’s mother—completed more than two years ago. When Mark Anthony saw the evolving design two weeks ago, he wondered aloud about Masonic symbolism—the caliper-and-square motif—and suggested adding the carpenter’s square. Dan and I agreed on the addition, me on the door frame and Dan in the window itself, leaded into the glasswork. It was one small step to add the 1912 25-cent piece as the caliper hinge (when a dime proved too small). I then recalled the circumstances surrounding young Tennant’s entry in the Agincourt Public Library competition.

In order for the most desirable site to be available—effectively 100% corner at Broad Street and the Avenue, which was likely one of the earliest built properties in the city since its founding in 1853—there had to have been a disastrous but localized urban fire. At that point our friend Dave Pence (alias Steve Spence or Deisel Dave) came to the rescue without knowing it.

Keokuktheaterfire

Years ago Dave had sent me an unidentified real photo postcard of a small-town urban fire: an evocative smouldering ruin, in this case a three-story building encased in icecicles, which I had filed for future reference. Scanning eBay years later (at least ten or fifteen years, in fact), I ran across a fire postcard that looked eerily familiar. Lo and behold, it must have been taken by the same photographer, a slightly different view of the same smouldering ruin, this time identified as a theater in Keokuk, Iowa. What luck. A follow-up google search added details that played into the story, because the fire had occurred in January 1912, perfect timing for the 1914-1915 framework I’d established for the public library project.

And now the story comes full circle (or full enough for me), because the burned Keokuk building had also been a Masonic Lodge, evidenced by the caliper-and-square motif that appears in the third-floor brickwork—crusted in ice but still legible.

There are times I’m grateful to have a long attention span. This has been one of them.

Suite 205-207, Wasserman Block

Alsikkan

Walk north on Broad Street to the northwest corner of James. You’re standing in front of the Wasserman Block, former home of Wasserman’s Hardware until it closed about 2005. Upstairs were several office suites and the apartment home of Franz and Edith Wasserman and their children. The store sat vacant for three years and the upper floor degenerated into cheap office tenants, until my friend Howard and his business partner Rowan Oakes bought and renovated it.

First door on the left is The Periodic Table, chef Rosemary Plicka’s innovative restaurant opened about a year ago. Howard and Rowan share the old apartment above and adapted the three office suites as bed-and-breakfast accomodations. If you’re passing through, tell them I sent you and ask for the special rate. It’s a considerable step up from motel hell on the strip.

Gemütlichkeit

If you’re lucky, Suite 205-207 will be available. That was Anson Tennant’s original architectural office, opened in 1912 when he returned from school and apprenticeship in Chicago. He was twenty-three and inexperienced, but his dad knew Franz Wasserman had been disatisfied with his new building (finished in 1910 from plans by Joachim & Perlmuter of Sioux City) and wanted to enlarge the cramped corner apartment. So Anson received his first commission and bartered design services for a favorable five-year lease.

Howard described his great-uncle Anson’s office in an article during the sesqui-centennial series, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say it was as close to the Arts& Crafts spirit as Agincourt could muster, with stained plaster walls, stickleyesque furnishings and light fixtures crafted from Indian baskets brough back from the family’s Albuquerque vacation that summer. It’s the office door, though, that sets the tone for what you’ll find within.

The upper panel of the dutch door repeats the mantra of the A&C movement: “als ik kan,” the Flemish phrase branded on Gustav Stickley’s Mission Style furnishings. “As best I can” is a reasonable translation and, frankly, more truth in advertising than we encouter today.

Besides his name and the date (1912), the window is a time capsule of sorts, for there is a caliper (also rendered in stained glass, with a 1912 quarter at its hinge), as well as a 24-inch carpenter’s square once owned by Anson’s maternal grandfather Curtiss Corwin. Anson had learned woodworking skills during summers spent in Grandpa Curt’s carpentry shop near Mason City.

I hope we can show you the window soon and the original dutch door soon after that. The whole artifact will be loaned to the new Agincourt exhibit next Fall, another bit of material culture thay shows us who we were.

The view from my window

Synecdoche was a word I hadn’t known; it created one of those special occasions when the OED stepped down from its keystone position on the shelf.

Figures of speech exist in astonishing array, a good many more than the half dozen we learned in 8th-grade English from Rose Spelman. But synecdoche was patient with me, waiting to enliven the language of old age. I’ve mentioned it here before: a substitution wherein the whole represents the part, or the part, the whole. We refer, for example, to the long arm of the law. You’ve seen an example on TV if you recall the Koehler plumbing commercial where the pretentious client produces a faucet from her purse and challenges the architect to “design a house around this!”

I bought a painting on Ebay, refugee from a flea market, with mine the only bid. Who can say what draws us to a work of art, especially a marginal one with a chunk missing from one edge and an embattled frame that might have been sprayed with radiator paint. These and other blemishes conspired against its sale, but I’m from Chicago, the Second City, and drawn to damaged goods. That’s where character lies, if not charm.

The painting? It’s a landscape, an urban vignette seen from a second-floor window, across a street, a yard, an alley, toward the irregular backs of two-story commercial fronts facing the other way. It’s late winter and the Currier & Ives snowfall has long since crusted with dirt and the soot from soft coal fires. A Christmas tree thrown on the berm (or boulevard or parkway or whatever you call that stretch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb in your neck of the woods) is the only sign of life in an otherwise unpopulated landscape. 

The artist’s palette of red, yellow and blue was dull, muted in the overcast morning light. It’s not the weekday morning of work or the weekend morning of worship. This is the Saturday of sleeping in; of the faint hope that groceries will hold out until market day. A good day to write letters or read that Christmas gift. A good day to paint the view from my window. I have carte blanche here: Neither location nor artist are identified, so the choices are mine. 

The view, I think, is westward across First Street NE. The house on the left and its yard belong to the Hemphill-Folsom mortuary, a once proud house given over to grieving and goodbyes. I can just make out the service stairs and porches of apartments above the Broad Street businesses, but not sure which is which. I know it’s a Saturday morning in February, but what year? Nineteen forty-two, the first year of the war (and three years before I was born), when Agincourt’s first casualties came home to funerals just across the street. This must be the work of Carl Wasserman, too old to have fought in the war, but young enough to know some who did and to mourn. Perhaps this painting was his way.

The palette and technique remind me of Cy Running. Anyone from the Red River Valley knows Running, Saint Cy in these parts, if Lutherans could be persuaded to canonize the recently deceased. Running established the art department at Concordia College where he and his students set the tone of art hereabouts for thirty years or more. The colors, the rough woodcutty brush strokes, even the prosaic small-town subject are his. Wasserman was Catholic, but perhaps the middling Midwest perspective from Main Street trumps religious affiliation. Shades of Garrison Keilor.

Carl’s painting joined the Memorial Collection that year.

Arti-fact

Several years ago I attended a history conference in Wisconsin. Conference organizers were two of the university’s senior faculty who reminded me of Statler and Waldorf—you know, those guys in the Muppet balcony, but with none of the snark. Maybe we had to be better acquainted to see that side of them.

My presentation concerned the Social Gospel, a favorite long-term interest which I hope might yet grow into something meaningful for others. At a conference reception—I can’t recall whether it was before or after my presentation—I had a conversation with one of our hosts; his remarks surprised me and, I suppose, might have revealed the perspective of a generation older than my own. One of them confessed curiosity regarding the proposed title: “Building the Social Gospel: American religious architecture, 1880-1920.” Hadn’t everything about the Social Gospel already been said? he wondered. I hoped not, otherwise why had I driven 450 miles to share my point of view.

These gentle persons represent the Whig view of history: that eventually all will be written about the past; everything that can be put to paper would reduce the future historian to a bookkeeper, updating that record, dotting vowels and crossing consonants, as required. Accountants are gonna have more fun.

What seemed the largest gap between us (Statler, Waldorf and me) was the role of material culture. Many, most or potentially all the orthodox historians of my experience until then began with facts and concerned themselves with interpretation. Humankind have thoughts, share them and then disagree. You know: the five reasons for the Civil War that you memorized in eighth grade American History (taught by the basketball coach). My proposition—that material consequences evidence ideas—was uncomfortable for Messrs Statler and Waldorf.

Where would I be?

The Agincourt Project would not exist except for the notion of material culture. In the first Agincourt seminar a few years ago (a good idea but basically a failed one), the fundamental question was this: What from Agincourt is currently up for auction on Ebay? I’m still engaged with that question. One such artifact plays its role in Anson Tennant’s backstory.

Ansondoor1

Design of Anson Tennant’s office door by Dan Salyards

Anson’s design for the Agincourt Public Library required a prequel, several in fact. So, what might have been Opus One developed precedent. Tennant’s first architectural commission occurred two eyars earlier when he remodeled Wasserman’s Hardward and bartered his services for a low-rent long-term lease on the space that would become his studio office. And that design—the most personal gesture a designer can make—emerged from the story of his family and youth. I can see its interior in my mind’s eye and might still recreate it (were it not for a nearly total lack of computer skills). In the meantime the office door will suffice, an Arts & Crafts product as personal as a signature. Enter Mr Salyards.

Ansonoffice2

Stained glass panel by Dan Salyards

Dan Salyards has designed the stained glass panel of Tennant’s office door, an advertisement for the young architect’s emerging Arts & Crafts philosophy. “Als ik kan” it says in a fraktur typeface. “To the best of my ability” is one translation. And it might have remained one-dimensional, until Dan incorporated a divider or caliper, a draughtsman’s tool that would have lain on Anson’s desk. Dan’s insight eerily parallels Jonathan Rutter’s portrait of Anson’s mother.

Then, when I showed the PDFs to Mark Anthony, he asked “But where’s the rest of the Masonic symbol?” and reminded me that a carpenter’s square would add yet another dimension. A quick trip to Ebay gave us a 19th century square so patinated that the numbers are barely discernable. At Dan’s suggstion, the square will be part of the window, rather than simply being screwed to the door. And that, in its turn, has made me wonder about Anson’s relationship with a grandparent or older family friend, someone handy with tools and, maybe, the foundation for a career in building.

That story is still aborning. In the meantime, enjoy Dan’s drawings and await the next installment.

DSM-V (Part 2)

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Rooster

Marielle Leer (neither her real name nor gender, necessarily) was christened Mary Ellen. But as her persona evolved she contrived an identity congruent with her emerging world and the centrality of her place within it. In that way she was hardly unique.

To be sure, I exert a gravitational effect on others and they upon me. But mine is the light of other stars; I’m warmed by it and reflect weakly to others what’s been afforded me. My system is Copernican, not Ptolemaic.

But Rooster Leer (more about that in a minute) may have been the most Ptolemaic person I’ve ever known: her gravitational force was unilateral. All were warmed by her light, save those she elected to deprive with solar storms, inert dependent satellites, and other convenient cosmic dust and debris. If she worshipped anything, it was Jonathan Edwards’ fickle god, “Who spake all things from nothing, and with ease // can speak all things to nothing, if (s)he please.” And it did please her often to do just that. I learned of one case two years ago and now a Chicago friend tells me of another.

Even before she was Marielle, she was Rooster, a nickname obvious to all. Her intense natural red hair spoke of north German and Irish heritage and its thickness may have paralleled a skin impervious to touch or even sensitivity. Her encouter with Ken Tucker had been both final and fatal. But, oh so briefly, it seemed the tables might have turned.

While Chicago reporter Tom Milauskas researched the Lenny Brookes murder case (barely news in Chicago and scarcely mentioned by the wire services), Milauskas stumbled on a brief mention of Marielle Leer. Ten years into her theatrical career in the Second City—then as now a major venue for theater—Leer died under mysterious circumstances. Roles were coming less often to the aging ingenue, so one wondered how natural the cause of death had been. A memorial service was announced at Fourth Presbyterian, the fashionable but always socially involved church on North Michigan Avenue—one of those churches that live the admonition to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Leer’s brief notice in the Tribune, though, was circumspect about her end. At least it had honored the actor’s creed: “I don’t care what you say about my performance. Just spell my name correctly.”

Within a few days, however, there was a retraction of sorts. Leer had been out of town (auditioning in New York, no less) and some spurned lover, it was intimated, had siezed the opportunity for revenge. For Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express,” there was the easy answer and the other one. Here, too.

Knowing Rooster Leer years ago—while she postured and I was pimply—I can imagine the public story was true: that someone repelled from their orbit about her had taken umbrage, less than passively. But I can also imagine a fading starlet going supernova! How better to regain luster for a declining career than to let it blink and burst anew. Leer could easily, even eagerly, have planted the story to accomplish two goals: catapulting her name into the firmament (once again and insuring its proper spelling), while simultaneously casting another into the farthest reaches of darkness. Whatever answer, it was for her a win-win scenario, the only measure that mattered.

Soon after, she performed “Madwoman of Chaillot,” though few in the audience were aware the title role had been cast by type.