Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2011 » February

Monthly Archives: February 2011

Sleep-walking through the Second Great Awakening


The roots of Agincourt are firmly planted in the Enlightenment; its plan is a last gasp of the intellectual framework that also wrought our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. My friend Howard Tabor has written elsewhere about Agincourt’s original plat as a physical consequence of that philosophy. The 1683 plan for Philadelphia is its inspiration, which partially explains my reaction to the recent rightward religious turn of American politics.

I’ve actually done a major study of the Philadelphia plan developed by William Penn and his surveyor-general Thomas Holmes (who should receive far more credit than he has heretofore been granted). If you’d like to see the antithesis of Philly’s 18th century rationalism, take a look at Ave Maria, Florida–an exclusive urban religious “theme park” circa 2005 for those who would have a theocracy in the United States–and may achieve it soon enough. The New Urbanism can be creepy, especially when it privatizes the public realm.*

Agincourt has to exhibit the fullest range of religiosity, a reality I will not ignore and cannot deny. As our nation may find itself in the midst of a Third Great Awakening, I have wondered how this corner of Iowa would have been affected by the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, the religious intensity instrumental at its founding and settlement. Three years ago my friend Howard touched on this theme in a sesqui-centennial piece about the Wester Cemetery in the northwest corner of the county.


A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor


Don’t Blink

County Road 22 crosses the Muskrat River about eleven miles northwest of Fahnstock. It’s an uneventful stretch of two-lane country road. Unless, of course, you turn left just after the bridge abutment onto a pair of ruts obscured by a mangy cottonwood clump. Then travel upstream for a thousand yards or so toward what may be Fennimore county’s closest brush with national notoriety. Pick a long summer day for your visit, but wait until late afternoon and bring a picnic basket to explore the Wester Cemetery. Its permanent residents won’t mind.

The Wester Cemetery lacks the usual grid-like organization common to rural burial sites. The rhythm of its headstones is spastic and disjointed, yet they’re identical, like a military cemetery. Surviving inscriptions tell a grim and saddening story: everyone died on the same February day in 1846–six years before the founding of Fennimore county itself; even before ratification of the U.S. government’s treaty with the Sac & Fox that opened the area to settlement. The story told at Wester is a footnote to the Second Great Awakening, those tumultuous years of religious experimentation at the beginning of the 19th century. It also connects us with one of the Awakening’s most controversial innovators, Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–better known by us Gentiles as Mormons.

Ben Wester

The last of Joseph Smith’s heavenly visitors, the angel Moroni, revealed a set of metal plates whose translation became the Book of Mormon–and, not incidentally, gave the new church its popular name. Translating the plates, organizing an administrative hierarchy, and raising funds for its promotion attracted men who became Smith’s closest collaborators–men with whom this latter-day prophet shared the inner-most revelations of the new dispensation. Some of Smith’s associates became life-long true believers; others fell by the wayside as new church practices became more controversial. Hindsight suggests that at least one convert joined the church with less-then-wholesome intentions.

Benoni Wester, a miner in Pennsylvania coal country, left home and family to join the LDS church at Kirtland, Ohio, the first stop on its gradual westward migration. Proselytizing along the road to Kirtland, Wester preached Mormon theology he had learned from the popular press and a copy of the Book of Mormon (one of the first off the press in the 1830s). He, too, attracted converts with their own personal agendas, all expecting to be welcomed to the Ohio fold on arrival. But Wester’s journey was more than mere mileage: he began to experience his own ecstatic visions, to receive his own revelations, which diverged from LDS orthodoxy.

Smith and his followers found enemies wherever they settled. Forced from Kirtland, members traveled west to Johnson County, Missouri, revealed as a promised land for the church. But they were equally unwelcome there and retreated to Nauvoo, Illinois, where Smith was assassinated in June 1844. Ben Wester and his band were always a few months behind their moving target. With his own declining resources and ever-diverging doctrine and practice, Wester took Smith’s assassination as a sign to lead his group–by this time called “Westerlings”–to their own appointment with destiny.

What the Westerlings believed is scarcely documented. But their leader brought them to northwestern Iowa in the spring of 1846. Howard finished their story in his next column.


Notes to Self

Lately I’ve become a list-maker:
  • Measure twice; cut once. Or try not to cut at all.
  • Read more than you speak.
  • Share energy and enthusiasm; keep opinion to yourself.
  • Wear your heart in public but vent your spleen alone.
  • Don’t keep lists of disappointment.
  • You can touch people at a distance while not feeling someone close at hand.
  • The dictionary often has more truth and wisdom than does Holy Writ.
  • Be careful not to bury dreams and aspirations too quickly; they often only appear to be dead.
  • Teeth placed beneath your pillow turn to cash; don’t buy candy with it.
  • Bask in friendships whether they last a week or fifty years.
  • Intimacy requires no physical contact.
  • Political correctness is always political but rarely correct.
  • Wisdom is simply the dawning awareness of ignorance.
  • Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, criticize.

A few of these I wrote myself. Remind me, when I return to old ways.

By any other name

The cycles of personal names have been tracked in recent years by the New York Times, showing a clear link between popular culture and how we tag our offspring. Tiffanys abound lately (in various spellings), though I suspect that moniker has passed its prime. Movie stars have been a common source (Heath, for example) or the characters they play on the big or more often the little screen (Hannah, as in Montana, will probably spike this year). If you’re searching for a top choice–or wish, on the other hand, to avoid popularity like the plague–I recommend a U.S. government website that lists the twenty most popular names by year since 1879. Enjoy.

When’s the last time you met someone under the age of forty named Leonard or Edna? It only confirms the addage: “Nothing seems so old as that which only recently seemed so new.” My given name, for example, was supposed to be Roy, like my father and grandfather. But Marge would hear nothing of it, so Ronald I was labelled. More’s the pity. I loathe my name and always have. If you must address me, make it “Ronald,” rather than “Ron.” Never, please, never call me “Ronnie”–that was and will forever be a president who I took great pleasure in voting against.


A postcard recently came into my possession, a real photo studio card of a stylish young woman. It is postmarked 1912, which seems confirmed by her ensemble–if not virginal white, then some pastel shade of a refreshing summer sorbet. “Boo,” she writes to her friend Ella Martins in Peoria, “does this scare you most awfully?” The card is simply signed Esmay and sent from Allerton, Iowa, in the south central part of the state near the major railroad hub of Creston. I visited the train station there once.

Ancestry.com has not been forthcoming with any likely candidates to have been this charming young woman, but I haven’t given up. With or without further biographical detail, Esmay has already become part of the Agincourt community, certainly someone’s daughter-wife-mother-friend-lover-confidant-etc. Time will tell.

And, if not, I will.

Agincourt’s newest citizens

As the only child of an only child (on my father’s side, that is), I’m mesmerized by large families. Fotoula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos’ character in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) speaks of her cousins in double digits–and that’s just the first cousins.There is, of course, the family you get and the family you make, which is clearer to me than it would be to Toula.

A wide variety of people have populated Agincourt during the last five years, though perhaps not as broad a range as our own experience. I must confess to creating residents of admirable character, if not saint-like, because those are the people I know.

To date there have been no mass murderers.*

The complex relationship between and among personality traits, social interaction and the built environment eludes me. I tried several entries earlier to illuminate the creation of Neil Klien, Agincourt’s grave digger, which afforded an opportunity to wonder about the many citizens he buried, and that, in turn, opened the door to some editorializing he might have done. There is still more to harvest in that story. Agincourt’s newest “residents” have come about in a different way.

Kenneth and Rachel Goodall

America’s 24/7 garage sale–the ongoing on-line auction site that shall not be named–brought two beautiful portraits to my attention. These delightful oil paintings of husband and wife–he in the American military force that liberated Italy; she presumably tending the home fires–came up for auction two weeks ago with an embarrassingly low opening bid. I won them uncontested.


Who could have allowed these to go beyond family ownership? I don’t get it. But then I don’t get a lot of things these days; Perez Hilton, the Tea Party and Black Republicans, among other things, mystify to the point of irritation.

The portraits are fully identified (Kenneth F. Goodall and Rachel Antoinette Bentley Goodall) as is the date of their creation (March 1944) and the artist (Signora Edinina Zambrini of #35 via Salvatore Cognetti, Bari, Italy). There are even labels from the Harbour-Longmire Co. of Oklahoma City, who provided the frames. Ordinarily, I have names and stories that require faces. Here, I’m challenged with names that have faces of character.and charm. Will I do them violence by trying to weave Mr and Mrs Goodall into the Agincourt Project? I hope not.

Not incidentally, if anyone in the Goodall family would like these treasures back, you can contact me at plains.architecture@gmail.com. I will gladly repatriate them.

*I must confess to be developing a consumately reprehensible character who is proving most difficult to integrate with the story so far.

Domestic Arrangements 1.2

312 East Agincourt Avenue

buck houses

The house at 312 East Agincourt Avenue (on the right in this photo by Ploiphan Saengporm) was built circa 1911 from plans by Chicago architect Lawrence Buck–an excuse to rummage in the Arts & Crafts Movement, as if I needed one. At this stage I’m usually sorting through a series of options for documenting the house and the various people associated with it. The outline is beginning to take shape.

  • Aidan Archer was born circa 1870 in the neighborhood of Rockford, Illinois. With a high school diploma (more than most had in that era) Archer began working in a Rockford manufacturing facility of some sort; don’t know what sort, but Rockford was replete with them.
  • Archer worked his way from the assembly line into a supervisory role, attracting the attention of management.
  • David Parmelee owned the company, one of several manufacturing interests his family operated in northern Illinois.
  • Archer married the boss’s daughter, Cordelia Parmelee (born 1878), in 1899.
  • Expanding his business interests into Iowa, David Parmelee built a small factory at Agincourt to manufacture enamel cookware—durable sepia-speckled pots and pans called “Hearthstone.” Archer was offered the position of plant manager.
  • The Archers, five years and two children into their married life, relocated to Agincourt in 1904, taking rooms at the Park Hotel while they searched for housing. They rented a home in the northwest quad near the Darwin School in 1905.
  • Archer’s father-in-law David Parmelee built a Rockford home designed by architect Lawrence Buck (yes, there really was a Lawrence Buck; he did have offices in both Chicago and Rockford; and he did design a substantial home for a client named Parmelee in 1910).
  • Parmelee gifted his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren with a new house, one that was also designed by architect Buck. I suspect additional children were crowding the Archers out of their first home.
  • Construction began in the Summer of 1911; the Archers moved in to celebrate their first Thanksgiving that fall.

I’ll use the Archer home to explore domestic life circe 1910-1920: relationships among family and friends; the likelihood they have a live-in. Will they remain in town through the 1920s and experience the Market Crash and its consequences? I’m fortunate to choose the periods when and where I can design. Perhaps I choose the easy ones.

Domestic Arrangements 1.1

The Archer house is large but no larger than other homes I’ve seen in comparable Midwestern towns. Imaging these clients is the merest tip of a sociological iceberg, however, because it opens a door to the whole range of Edwardian domestic life. An entire family profile is needed–and so much more.

In the upper right (northeast corner) of this first floor plan, for example, is a room. Will I be able to delineate its occupant–a maid–without resorting to the defaults of ethnicity, intellect and aspiration? Was her work (yes, she had to have been a “she”) difficult? Did the Archers appreciate her efforts? Did she and her family write often? How did her friendships develop? And, on Saturday night, after six long days of laundry and linens, dusting and dishes, did she walk with her beau to a concert at The Commons and an ice cream later at Van Kannel’s? I’m curious.


More will follow in the next day or two.

Domestic Arrangements 1.0

It’s safe to say that I could live in any house I’ve ever designed. But then I constitute fifty percent of the total number of people who ever asked me to design one. Sounds like a topic for discussion with Dr Bob.

Several years ago I wrote a brief assessment of an old house in Grand Forks, one of those good addresses that had fallen on hard times. One can be hard of hearing but in this case most of its recent owners and occupants had been hard of seeing: many of its finer qualities had been overlooked or ignored and whatever had happened to it–or didn’t–had been driven by return on investment, one of the ugliest phrases in our language. Some folks see their kids the same way.

Binary thinkers among us might be tempted to say that a community’s housing stock was either architect-designed or not. But while writing the above-mentioned report, such scales were lifted from my eyes as I learned that there is, indeed, a broad range of sources for the variety of single-family housing in typical Midwestern communities like Agincourt. More than a handful of houses are designed by an architect–more than you’d think–because an architect one hundred years ago would have been far more inclined to accept modest commissions for middle- and working-class homes, as well as the eccentric conspicuous-consumptive cliff-hangers of our own day, each shouting “Look at me, Peasant! I’ve got taste or the ability to buy it.” The array of design circumstance is actually quite reassuring.

There has always been the custom-designed home, tailored to a particular client’s needs (four bedrooms), tastes (a Great Room, thank you very much) and requirements (I’m 68 years old and don’t like stairs). But the vast majority of these McMansions today are the creative product of builders and are quite often formulaic, despite their pretension. Genuine architectural individuality is harder to find, much of it coming from the four decades stradling 1900 when Robber Barons set the bar and income tax was only whispered. At the other end of the housing spectrum are humble working-class homes huddled on land that stinks or floods or worse. But between these extremes, the vast majority of our housing stock comes from diverse origins.

Prefabricated, pre-cut or “kit” homes were marketed regionally by several companies. Sears, Roebuck & Co. is the best known among them. Your home arrived on a flatbed rail car and included studs, joists, rafters, windows and doors, lath and plaster, everything but brick and cement, which could be got locally. Sears homes were available in a dizzying array of size, style and cost.

Pattern books have also been a design source since the 16th century for houses of all sizes. During the 19th century here in the U.S. they were published by both architects and builders and account for some of the deja vu we feel driving into a new town: “Didn’t we just see that one in Keokuk?” Those pattern books found their way into lumber yards and the back pockets of local builders, accounting for a substantial amount of pre-1900 homes. After 1900 it was the mass-market magazine that offered inspiration, so-called women’s journals like House Beautiful, Ladies’ Home Journal and House & Garden. Even Frank Lloyd Wright used the LHJ as a mechanism for developing a new clientele. Which brings me to the case in point: the 1908 Aidan and Cordelia Archer house on The Avenue in Agincourt.

312 East Agincourt Avenue

As a citizen of America’s “Second City,” my sympathies have always lain with the also-rans of life. History takes very good care of its winners–those who win, place and show at the finish line of life. I, on the other hand, have always had a special place in my heart for those who ran the race but crossed the finish line too late for recognition or a cash reward. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright, McKim, Mead & White and their ilk, for example, have filled libraries; one wonders what more could be said of them (quite a bit, it turns out). But the blips on my radar screen are more likely to be William Halsey Wood, M.E. Beebe, Burnham Hoyt or Josef Plecnik. So, because his work was widely treated in House Beautiful and LHJ–coverage that attracted clients from New York to South Dakota and California–it’s reasonable to imagine that Chicago architect Lawrence Buck had done a house in Agincourt. Actually, it’s more than reasonable, because he designed at least six Iowa houses, three each at Dubuque and Cedar Rapids.

Buck’s residential work is so distinctive that you can spot it at a hundred yards; I could write a book. So inventing a client for the house below–my homage to Lawrence Buck and the American Arts & Crafts–is the task at hand.


The recent hard-line plan at one-eighth scale has to be redrawn (my lettering is shitty) and the third floor is still aborning. But in the meantime, comment and criticism are always welcome.

Historic Preservation

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Historic Preservation

A friend in North Dakota writes to tell me about an historic preservation issue in the central part of his state.

The solons of McLean County have chosen, it seems, to demolish their 1908 court house at Washburn, a Missouri River town about forty miles north of Bismarck, the state capitol. Those interested in preserving the court house are assembling a collection of essays on the merits of historic preservation, so I’ll offer a one-page contribution. All things considered, the mechanisms for preservation may differ from place to place and time to time, but the intentions are more likely to be universal. Perhaps my words will matter.

Preserving the Past

Nothing gives more satisfaction or greater utility than a bulleted list: four principle reasons for the Civil War or three structural differences between the Romanesque and the Gothic. Sadly, PowerPoint has become our default. But while my rationale for preserving historical artifacts defies that sort of reductionist tidiness, it may be the consequence of a disordered and indecisive mind.

As a political phenomenon, historic preservation has been around since the 1960s when the federal government weighed in with Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Perhaps the upcoming bi-centennial was an incentive. Just as likely, though, it might have been a response to the bulldozer mentality of post-war planning, urban renewal, suburbanization and the ongoing implementation of the interstate highway system. The past is always in the way of progress and change is rarely comfortable. But before I make my own unintentional bulleted list, here are a few observations from someone who’s been at the front lines of preservation from time to time.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the 1966 act that established, among other things, the National Register of Historic Places, a glance in the rear view mirror suggests that historic preservation was hardly new. There had been, for example, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association which coalesced in 1853 to save George Washington’s home from development as an amusement park: a private group resisting capitalist development when government–at any level–was decidedly laissez faire.

Other buildings and sites important to the nation have been spared the wrecker’s ball and asphalt. But until World War II, preservation was highly selective and comparably exclusive in the message it conveyed about who we were or where we were going. Washington and Jefferson–almost a dozen presidents in all–were owners of other human beings, yet their homes often concealed the reality of slave quarters behind privet hedges, as lunch rooms, gift shops and restrooms. Fortunately, we grew as a nation and matured to understand and accept the often inconvenient or uncomfortable truth of that story.

Not every building can or should be a museum; the past is not a theme park to be visited on family outings. The past is here, there and everywhere in between, underfoot and overhead. Our infrastructure of architecture and engineering, of open space and public land must also be understood as an investment. We reap the dividends, but the principal belongs to those unborn.

Our collective national memory is with us every day, like the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights or the Emancipation Proclamation. And it is likewise manifest in the diversity of neighborhoods and homes across the nation; in regional variants and ethnic and racial difference; why you order pancakes in one part of the country and flapjacks in another. Look at the back of a dollar bill: E pluribus unum. The conversation of what to save and how to do it is a necessary public act of self-examination; a dialogue that will inevitably remind us of an often overlooked fact: that becoming one cannot deny the many that we remain.

We are at pains today to define the United States anew, a complex, diverse, conflicted nation state in a post-national world. Reinvention, like any change, is difficult. But the preservation of signposts along the way may help to chart our course.


The session with Dr Bob last week was productive. I’ve learned that life is a constant state of becoming (trite but none-the-less true), and self-awareness is a multiple-edged sword: I regret much of who I was, appreciate who I am, and enjoy occasional glimpses into my future.

Three years on this particular couch reveal two things: 1) I prefer to be in a classroom over any other place in the known universe; 2) the creation of Agincourt, Iowa has been the most productive and satisfying personal creative experience of these sixty-six years.


Molly Yergens telephoned tonight to ask about Agincourt. She’s just begun an MFA program and wondered whether this project might offer some guidance for a seminar she’s taking. The question du jour is modern mythology and its creation/manufacture/fabrication. Maybe I can help.

In the meantime, check out Molly’s blog and follow her progress toward the MFA. It will be an amazing journey and fun to eavesdrop.