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.
[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.”]
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.
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.
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.
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.