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Inheritance and Legacy 1.1

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

On this spot…

The sesqui-centennial series began here in October 2006. Continuing off and on since then and following the celebration itself a year later, this column has helped me know our community better than I could have imagined.

So much more pleasure than responsibility, writing “A few figs from thistles” has never been a chore. And thanks to loyal readers like you–your queries and comments, suggestions and criticisms–I am no longer able to walk from home to office without thinking of people and the marks we leave along the way. Special thanks must go to the late Hal Holt, friend and mentor who was always forthcoming with wisdom and gentle corrections to my ignorance. I may be no smarter than I was five years ago, but I’m a damned site better informed.

Now I can share with you last week’s conversation with Antonia Benedetti.

Footnotes

To celebrate the anniversaries of her great-grandfather’s birth and the founding of their family business, Toni announces a competition. She proposes combining two simple ideas:

  • Staff at the Fennimore County Heritage Center are already working with students in all levels of our public and private schools. Their goal is a local history unit–an ongoing teaching tool–and their process involves writing stories; uncovering the exceptional events of ordinary lives and understanding how they shaped this place.
  • Phase Two (here’s the competition) invites the artistic talents of our people to show those stories in cast metal; not sculptures that block our path but relief panels that become it. We’re invited to interpret those stories as (pardon the political incorrectness) manhole covers! The artists’ maquettes at 6-8 inches will be cast as full size iron disks and be placed throughout the city near the life or event they celebrate.

Imagine the richness of a city and its narrative complexity told this way. Cross a street and find a link between Agincourt and the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Pay your power bill and see the trolly cars that once drove through the building you just left behind. Park you car and know that thirty feet away a whorehouse once met our carnal needs–outside the law.

Footnotes. The places where we live and work, worship and learn, shop or entertain ourselves will be footnoted. The past will be present in ways this humble human interest column could never achieve.

Toni Benedetti’s gift will be ourselves.

Inheritance and Legacy 1.0

Howard has reached that part of life preoccupied by yet another syzygetic pair: inheritance and legacy. Psychologists call these “Age and Stage” issues. He wonders what he’s accomplished with the investments made in him by family and friends. And he’s equally curious about life’s detritus, the residual effect of our time here. What will he leave behind? I suspect that this piece concerning Kraus Bridge & Iron may be the first of a series guided by such questions.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

KB&I

I had lunch yesterday with Toni Benedetti, president and CEO of Kraus Foundry, though most of us still know it as Kraus Bridge & Iron. She spoke with me about the old KB&I building at the foot of Louisa Avenue, birthplace of her family’s business one hundred and twenty-five years ago in 2013. She also spoke of a project the company has in mind for its future.

Anton Kraus, Toni Benedetti’s great-grandfather, had come to Agincourt in the mid-1880s with wife Emma and two small children. He wasn’t our first blacksmith, but Anton was surely our most artistic monger of metal. His wrought ironwork can still be seen around town: column capitals and desk lamps at the Farmers Merchants & Mechanics Bank, light fixtures at St. Joseph-the-Carpenter, a pair of entry gates at the college, among many other examples that make the twisting and turning of iron look as easy as tying your shoes but more graceful than the most meticulous spider’s work. By 1900 his smithy had grown; the boys, Klaus and Anton Jr., had learned the trade and joined the family business, now casting metal into utilitarian shapes as well as coercing it into more purely ornamental forms. Their breakthrough project–the one that put them into competition with foundries in Sioux City and Omaha–was the interurban depot project of 1909, still ornamenting the southwest corner of Louisa and Broad. Anton’s great-granddaughter Antonia and I sat in the window of Adams’ Restaurant across the street, admiring the glazed arcade where trollies once received and deposited passengers on the journey between Fort Dodge and Storm Lake until infernal combustion made them dinosaurs in an automotive age.

Antonia shared two ideas, one that I want to pass along to you.

On this spot…

Next year Kraus Foundry will celebrate two anniversaries: the 150th year since Anton Kraus’s birth in the German state of Thuringia and the 125th since the formation of his business here in Agincourt. The company has long since relocated to the Industrial Park west of the river but kept the old foundry out of nostalgia, I suspect. Toni’s board of directors proposes to give it to the Art Center, renovated as studios for artists-in-residence, galleries for their work and classrooms for the Fennimore County schools. Formal announcement will come next week, after details have been worked out with the school board.

Among the artifacts still preserved in the old building are the earliest casting beds for making things from molten metal–both iron and bronze. Toni is working with the folks at the Art Center on a competition to put those antiques to better use. I’ll keep the details of that project for my column next week. In the meantime, recall the palimpsest we inhabit, think about the stories layered in the streets and neighborhoods we walk about each day without thinking how they got to be that way.

These days, I have my doubts that even Agincourt is a place of sense. Antonia Benedetti proposes a way to at least heighten its sense of place.

And, by the way, the rhubarb pie at Adams is still legendary–with or without the vanilla ice cream.

Personal Pronouns

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Personal Pronouns

We’re born into a Ptolemaic world. Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe and Keppler notwithstanding.

For the first years of life, each of us is the self-centered focus of a personal universe. I am Ptolemy; hear me roar! Meanwhile our arsenal of pronouns grows; it shifts from me (the object of all attention; of gifts bestowed by parents, siblings, caregivers) to my (as possessors of all that comes within the tender but tenacious grip of developing motor skills) as it slowly grows into the difficult adult maturity of I. Gradually we become just one of many agents active in the ever growing Copernican world of others, everyone and else. The infantile barrage of “Bridezillas,” “Jerseylicious” and worse–our me-oriented, so-called reality TV–speak against my premise. But they also reinforce it.

Someone recently passed a manuscript to me–a work-in-progress that I’ve been asked to review–which also depends upon personal pronouns. But it is their absence, not their presence that sets the work apart from the few autobiographies of my experience. My friend has begun an autobiography, a self-referential accounting of the writer’s own life, but has chosen to exclude those most personal of words: I, me, my, mine. Reading the author’s strange intention in the foreword, I wonder how such a thing is possible. Could I narrate the story of my life without mentioning myself? 

Lives can be reflected, indirect, obtuse, self-evident; mirrored in others, seen through the lens of family, neighbors, colleagues, mentors, co-workers, enemies and friends, heroes and passers-by. Lives are seasoned with experience, with rhythm and routine, wrong turns and accident. They are told with accomplishments; opportunities lost and found; accoutrements, things and just plain stuff; with failure, loss and waste; with admiration and disdain. Aspiration, desire, belief, regret, despair; grace (both with and without a capital G). What we know or don’t or thought we did; what we hope, hate and haven’t got a clue–all can be acknowledged, admitted, and allowed. Must be, in fact, if we’re to tell the Truth. Auden says that every autobiography “is concerned with two characters, a Don Quixote, the Ego, and a Sancho Panza, the Self.” Can a life be told one more step removed? Without any direct reference to itself?

It’s not about me. 

That’s the working title of the manuscript on my desk. I know the author, not well, but well enough to make some distance, a measure of objectivity between text and reader. What should we expect?

I’m anxious to explore.

Danzig, Lübeck, Bergen…Agincourt

Outside the aboriginal population, most of us are mongrel. And I suspect the degree of my hybridity goes well beyond the nationalities of parents and grandparents. In fact, I’ll go as far as suggesting that anyone claiming “purity” should be challenged to have their DNA tested for racial and geographic origin. I’ll pay half for testing White Suprematists.

During the 19th century being a hyphenated American was not only typical, it was normal. The remnants of that remain—albeit quaintly—as fraternal organizations, sokols, vereins, and their various cooperative offspring for mutual aid, insurance and the support of widows and orphans, or just hanging out and chatting in your native language. Ongoing Iowa festivals of ethnic pride include the Czechs of Cedar Rapids and the Dutch at Pella, but there must be dozens of others. So I chose to consider a larger and more pervasive presence: Americans of German ancestry.

Germania

[Chicago’s German Club at the corner of North Dearborn Street and Germania Place]

There were Germans long before there was a Germany. In fact, the nations we know as Germany and Italy are both fabrications of the 19th century. As a kid in Chicago—one of the most ethno-centric cities in the U.S.—I often stumbled upon neighborhood festivals, and recall particularly the architectural overtones of many streets. Witness the Germania Club on Chicago’s near north side (coincidentally, now the home of Tiparos Thai Cuisine and Sushi Bar!). In larger American cities social institutions and banks of this sort were commonplace.

[As a side note, if you taxi to Goethe Street in Chicago, you’d better tell the driver that you want “GO-thee.”]

Hansa House

Agincourt’s German-American presence is celebrated with a commercial establishment, the Hansa House—pardon the mixed linguistics; technically, it should be “haus” but I’m hung up on symmetry—home office of the German-American Insurance Co. and its related shipping agency. Their turn-of-the-century building afforded me an opportunity to investigate the Hanseatic League, a trading alliance among several ethnic groups along the North and Baltic seas that thrived from the 13th to the 17th centuries. The Hansa linked at least eight modern European nations from Estonia to the Netherlands and dominated shipping and trade in that region for 400 years, producing a distinct style for their utilitarian commercial waterfront architecture. Consider this pair from Rostock, in Germany.

rostock.JPG

Flickr.com (one of my default and favorite websites) provided so many examples of the so-called Hanseatic style that I had little difficulty avoiding an exact copy—or so I thought. The standard 25-foot mid-block commercial front I designed differs from its neighbors in being four stories, rather than the more usual two or three. It was in materials, proportions and detailing that I had the most fun. So you’ll have to believe me when I say that six months or so after I had imagined Hansa House, a postcard on eBay caught my attention, a fire station in Coatesville, Pennsylvania that makes me out a plagiarist. There is a chicken and egg here, but not in the way you might assume; it all goes back to an earlier blog about inspiration versus imitation.

Hansahouse01

The plans for Hansa House are evolving and might show up here in the more general context of pre-WWI office planning—lightwells, plumbing and all that. At this point I’m content to have filled a 25-foot gap on North Broad Street.

PS: Each day is an opportunity to add flesh to Agincourt’s bones. My fetish for all things Hanseatic has given a boost to this post from 2011: A Masonic Lodge in Mattoon, Illinois (on the banks of the Mississippi) intimates the Hansa, so I append it here to reinforce my design choice.

ILmatoonAF&AM.jpg

PPS: Wonderful Germanic designs keep showing up. Witness this mixed-use building in Eau Claire, WI, which must have had a substantial German population, despite the French name that must have been assigned by early explorers.

Mendacity, a noun

Two years of high school Latin during the early 60s have served me reasonably well.

More than half the time I can fake my way through a vocabulary test by recognizing a Latin root lurking somewhere within the word in question. I wonder if Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) had Latin. “Mendacity” was the word du jour a couple days ago when Rep. King praised the new speaker John Boehner for possessing mendacity in exemplary quantities.

“Mendacity” actually sounds fairly benign. Think of all those other wholesome English words that have “mend” in them. There is mend itself and also making amends, something we all need to do now and then. The House of Representatives had just completed reading the entire Constitution (with a couple significant omissions, I gather), including its several amendments. And as a faculty member, I’m often asked to write letters of recommendation. All of which are misleading analogies.

While often outspoken, I hope to be misspoken far less often. Mendacity, it turns out, comes from the Latin “mendaci,” meaning fault, mistake, blemish or error. So Rep. King was hardly paying Speaker Boehner a compliment. With cell phones, digital recorders and the internet ever present in the lives of even ordinary citizens like me, I wonder if Rep. King wishes he had looked before speaking. That blackberry in his pocket would have proved a wise investment.

English is a living language, so malaprops such as “refudiate” and “misunderestimate” may well find their way into common usage–despite the confusion they may cause (though I am a fan of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”). But the mangling of perfectly good words tends to grate. We already find bi-annual and semi-annual being used as synonyms. They’re not, and no amount of misuse can make it so.

Language in Agincourt

As soon as I’d chosen Agincourt as the name of my fictional community in Iowa, I knew that it would be mispronounced: “EGG-in-cort.” After all, there’s Desplaines, Illinois, which is purposely mispronounced (if you’re French), and Lima, Ohio, pronounced like the bean, not its namesake city in Peru. For that matter, Peru, Illinois is “PEE-roo.” Houston is “hew-ston” in Texas and “how-ston” in New York City. There’s also a street in Chicago named for Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, but if you want a taxi to take you there, ask for “GO-thee” Street, please. 

I need to verify which Congressional District includes Agincourt. Perhaps it’s Rep. King’s.

French homonyms and Japanese etymology

Let it not be said that I’ve misspent the semester break.

The state of my office hasn’t changed appreciably (sad to say), but the pile of books-in-progress at the side of my bed has diminished by half. At this point there is one minor observation I can offer: learn a second language. Two books have made the point.

Kenya Hara’s White (a thoughtful Christmas gift from Mr Jeremiah Johnson) offers an Eastern perspective on minimalism, a topic explored in a seminar last semester and one that continues to fascinate as a multi-disciplinary phenomenon ricocheting under various identities among literature, art, music, and architecture for at least a century. Hara–who is also the author of Designing Design, both published by Lars Muller–uses the etymology of shiro (white) and several related words to explain the nuance of “white” as a concept in tradition Japanese culture. Estimates of the number of words in the English language vary between 600,000 and one million, but I wonder how many of them can equal the subtlety conveyed by shiro.

The Facts of Winter by Paul LaFarge plays wonderful games with language–French–in a dense story-within-a-story work of fiction. I had heard many years ago that French has many sentence pairs that have different meanings (some of them pure nonsense) but which are pronounced identically. Witness these three phrases that each play a role in the layering of LaFarge’s tale:

  • les faits divers (the diverse facts)
  • les faits d’hiver (the facts of winter)
  • l’effet d’hiver (the effect of winter)

As someone who dropped Introductory French three times, I’m singularly ill equipped to read these aloud with conviction or authenticity. But LaFarge attests to their identical sound.

Both of these books brought other foreign word games to mind, such as a Frisian tongue twister that helped the Dutch reveal Nazi sympathizers during WWII (told to me by our AFS son Tjipke Okkema). Or linguistic curiosities like Gaelic, where both one and two are singular; apparently in the Highlands of northern Britain you’ve got to have three of something before it reaches a status worth boasting. They also raised old questions that still intrigue, like the possibility of Chinese crossword puzzles and what English sounds like to someone who doesn’t understand it.*

At sixty-six, there probably isn’t enough time for me to master even the rudiments of another language, and I feel the loss acutely. Don’t make my mistake.

*This last question—what English sounds like when you don’t understand it—has been nicely answered by an Italian television variety program. Search “what English sounds like” on youtube and be prepared to wet yourself.

riddle, mystery, enigma

Snowed in, more or less, for the New Year weekend has been a chance to do some (re)reading. Paul LaFarge’s last book The Facts of Winter winked at me from across the room last night and I was glad to respond. Winston Churchill’s characterization of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” also describes LaFarge’s three novels: multilayered encounters with stories inside stories, fiction within fiction. Three works are not enough. I want more.

I also wonder what he reads.

Worlds in Little

Writing the short history of St Ahab’s parish opened a world: The first church building would, of needs, be replaced with something larger, each of them a cloudy vision in my head. But replacing the second church–probably a non-descript Gothic Revival effort of the early 1880s–became the opportunity to channel the imagined talents of Francis Barry Byrne (a real but deceased architect) and the real ones of Richard Kenyon (alias Crazy Richard, a sometimes unreal but very much alive friend from Connecticut). Other characters so far added to the mix: Ahab, saint and martyr; Frances/Francis Manning, priest; Doc Fahnstock, physician; Bp What’s-his-name, a real guy; Mrs Breen, housekeeper; Frei & Harmon, actual designers of some awesome stained glass windows, possibly some of our best in the 1940s and 50s; Emil (sometimes Emile) Farber, another priest; and Karl Wasserman, an artist. Which brings me to today’s topic: Stations of the Cross.

Architect Barry Byrne often worked with others. His church at Pierre (Sts Peter and Paul) has windows by Frei & Harmon; his churches at Tulsa, Kansas City and St Paul each have elements by Alfonso Iannelli, who worked in a boggling variety of media. I thought it would be cool to invoke some creativity from Agincourt itself. Enter Karl Wasserman, youngest offspring of Franz and Edith Wasserman, owners of Agincourt’s largest hardware store and early clients of the legendary Anson Tennant. Karl–sole member of the art faculty at Northwest Iowa Normal–would design Stations of the Cross for the new church of Christ the King. But, of course, there had to be a kink. So somewhere on a misplaced jump drive is the story of Father Farber’s fall from the roof of St Ahab #2, a fall that caused Farber’s sight to fail. 

If I had a nickel for every American church that has had to retrofit for accessibility, retirement would not be a question. Older churches have necessarily had to endure the expense of accommodating their aging congregations. But when is the last time you saw a clergy member who was disabled in any way? Blind, deaf, physically limited–fuggedaboudit. It’s one of the many hypocrisies of organized religion. 

I imagined the stoic Farber and his accomplice Mrs Breen concealing his deteriorating eyesight. And that his parishioners would have become complicit, realizing that an old, comfortable, blind priest was preferable to an eager-beaver, sighted one. How long could they carry on the deception? 

Farber’s condition also put an interesting condition on the commission for Stations of the Cross. I’ve seen many sets of Stations–literal and abstract, schlock and sublime, but all of them exclusively visual. Could I imagine Stations in braille? And what’s more, do I have the chutzpah to craft them for the next Agincourt exhibit? Time will tell.

The life of St Ahab, short as it is, has begotten other stories, engaged other minds, involved other skills, afforded new challenges. I’m grateful. 

Happy 2011!