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Monthly Archives: April 2011

City of Falling Angels

“Solitudine non é essere soli, é amare gli altri inutilmente”

Mario Stefani [translated as “Loneliness is not being alone; it is loving others to no avail” in City of Falling Angels] 

Six degrees of separation (Part 1)

For a number of very personal reasons, I am fascinated by the idea of connectedness: the multiple, often overlapping ways that we are linked to one another, to the past and into the future. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that “six degrees of separation” is pessimistic: everything’s a lot closer than that.

Some time ago I acquired a 19th century architectural drawing, the kind of study in pencil, ink and watercolor washes that were typical of architectural education 100 years ago. This one was done at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the place for Americans to study architecture following the Civil War. Richard M. Hunt and H. H. Richardson pioneered the way and they were followed by dozens, if not hundreds, until the Great Depression. The drawing I bought was probably created about 1900 (because of the Art Nouveau lettering style used for the title) and the student draughtsman was someone named “J. Hébrard.” Not content to simply own a piece of the past (or have temporary possession), I set about discovering its origins.

Google.com is truly amazing if you know how to tweak it. I’ve become pretty adept. So, “J” could be Jacques, Jean, Joseph or Jules, among popular French boys names (I presumed it was a he). Within a matter of moments I had linked the drawing to Jean Hébrard and discovered he had been born in France circa 1878-1879, which would, in fact, put him at the École about 1900. But it gets even better.

Provenance is the art historian’s fetish for tracing any work of art or antiquity to its creator/origin–an unbroken line that only enhances the work’s value–the sort of research that would lead to some fairly predictable conclusions in this case and a quick dead end. But as the Red Queen observes to Alice, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”: the sort of connection that intrigues me is omni-directional.

Jean Hébrard, for example, proves to be enormously interesting. Yes, he did graduate and become a French architect. His Beaux-Arts education helped in that regard, but it also made him marketable beyond traditional architectural practice. American schools, for example, were anxious to emulate the École and hiring Beaux-Arts graduates as faculty was a natural way to do that. Hébrard got a faculty appointment at Cornell University in 1907 and stayed until about 1911. I lose track of him during the war years, but he shows up again on the University of Michigan faculty during the 1920s and 30s. And here’s where it gets seriously kinky: during the mid-20s, one of Hébrard’s students was the young Raoul Wallenberg, subsequently the Swedish diplomat credited with saving 15,000 Hungarian Jews from Nazi concentration camps. Until a few days ago I had no idea Wallenberg had trained to be an architect. Perhaps it’s best for everyone that he didn’t become one.

The years between Hébrard’s teaching gigs (Cornell and Michigan) weren’t wasted either. He returned to France and worked with his older brother Ernest, also an architect, on a major publishing venture. Ernest had become involved with Hendrik Christian Andersen in promoting the idea of a World Capitol–predating even the League of Nations proposals after WWI. Andersen the artist-theorist genuinely believed that art could change the direction of society and that a world-wide governmental system was both inevitable and necessary. The Hébrard boys provided graphic talent and probably some of the theoretical framework as well. The result was a 1913 limited-edition publication that seems to rear its head whenever scholars are writing about recurring proposals for super-governmental centers, not unlike what Brussels has become for the European Union.

H. C. Andersen (not to be confused with the one who wrote “The Little Mermaid”) is a curiosity in his own rite. Born in Norway, with a Danish spelling of the family name, the Andersen’s emigrated to Rhode Island when H. C. was a child. He became a naturalized American citizen, but lived most of his adult life in Rome, producing art there and promoting his “Centre for World Communication.” Eventually, Andersen died and was buried at Rome and left his home-studio to the Italian State; you can visit the museum today and encounter his vision in the creative environment he designed. Andersen maintained a large correspondence, including the great Henry James and may even have had a homo-erotic relationship with him–evidenced by their correspondence published under the title Beloved Boy. Is this great stuff or what!

hebrard2.gif

The Andersen+Hébrard team did bear some more direct fruit. Ernest happened to be in Greece in 1917 when the city of Thessaloniki burned to the ground and he was immediately appointed to head the rebuilding effort. Take a look at Thessaloniki on google.earth and you’ll see the strangeness that resulted: the geometric order of a Parisian core imposed where there had once been a hybrid Greco-Roman/Medieval organicism. So at least some of Andersen’s ideas about urbanism saw more than the light of day. I’m not sure where brother Jean was during this time, but stay tuned.

Does any or all of this make my drawing more valuable? In monetary terms, probably not. But it did allow me to become a little less ignorant.

“Sleep” by Charles Anthony Silvestri

“The evening hangs beneath the moon

A silver thread on darkened dune

With closing eyes and resting head

I know that sleep is coming soon.

 

“Upon my pillow, safe in bed

A thousand pictures fill my head

I cannot sleep, my mind’s a-flight

And yet my limbs seem made of lead.

 

“If there are noises in the night

A frightening shadow, flickering light

Then I surrender unto sleep

Where clouds of dream give second sight.

 

“What dreams may come, both dark and deep

Of flying wings and soaring leap

As I surrender unto sleep,

As I surrender unto sleep.”

…An astonishing poem, even without the background story.

Choral composer Eric Whitacre had set Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to music before seeking permission from the Frost estate. Surprised to find that they would not grant him the privilege (the poem is protected by copyright for a few more years), he sought poet Charles Silvestri’s help. The result is “Sleep,” which you must hear in Whitacre’s setting to get the full impact of the poet’s task.

Too bad, Robert Frost. You lose. We win.

Exploring!

I had gone on a short business-related trip with my father, who ran a gas station in suburban Chicago. This would have been in 1950; I was five years old.

Whatever the transaction, it must have been too long for my limited five-year-old attention span, because I grew tired of waiting and began to walk home, knowing neither direction nor distance. This was definitely not the nice part of the city. I had walked quite a few blocks along a busy industrial street, apparently in the right direction, when he found me. I don’t recall being disciplined in any physical way (which is another topic for conversation here, but it will have to wait for another time); he just hoisted into the passenger seat of the truck and told to never do that again.

This was the beginning of my insatiable desire to explore new places, to enlarge the “familiar” world of a small child. It was also the beginning of my expansive love affair with the City of Chicago, which has never diminished in all the intervening years.

It is clear now that I left home at the age of five and have been leaving ever since….

 

Does anyone read books any more?

Ten Year Plan

Whenever we want to clean the house, it’s necessary to have a party. Without that impending Saturday night deadline, I simply won’t attack the intimidating piles of books, paper and art that are strewn about the place in an order that makes no sense to anyone but me. Finding anything is an archaeological dig.

Perhaps the largest category of stuff in what I jokingly call a collection are books; I never met a book I didn’t like.* And the largest single category among my books are titles about architecture, its history and related fields. I know what’s there in general terms and many specific titles of frequent reference, but I’ve never inventoried them nor approximated their value. For me and my purposes, they have been of inestimable value and utility. So here’s the dilemma du jour: WTF do I do with them in my Ten Year Plan?

As a now-and-then visitor to our Architecture Library in Klai Hall, I sense that our students visit even less frequently than I. These lifelong companions that have served me so well have no apparent future audience. But I’m unwilling to let them simply be a part of my posthumous garage sale. So, if anyone–I mean anyone–has a suggestion for what to do with Fargo-Moorhead’s largest private architecture library, give me a call.

*This is a patent exaggeration. Despite my prurient interest in their point of view, I have never purchased a book by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter, nor would I accept copies of any, thank you very much indeed. Far better that their caloric value be put to a higher social purpose.

Plausible

…from the Latin plausibilis (deserving applause), from plausus, past participle of plaudere (to applaud). I had liked this word and have used it now and then in the first of three meanings found today–

  1. Seemingly or apparently valid, likely, or acceptable; credible
  2. Giving a deceptive impression of truth or reliability
  3. Disingenuously smooth; fast-talking

but will be more cautious now, knowing the other ways it might be understood. Verisimilitude doesn’t serve me any better. So what is Agincourt, anyway?

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Sister Cities (Part 2)

Members of the Schütz family have done me a great kindness.

Rummaging through albums and packs of letters, they’ve shared with us this photograph of Mike Schütz taken in 1919 just before his return to the United States after his service in the Great War. Mike is standing in the ruins of the Church of St Ahab, in Azincourt, France. The picture was taken by Fr Gaston Cornot, the parish priest.

Silvry

Since he spoke no French, Mike’s communication with Fr Cornot must have been limited—exchanges of pleasantries and gratitude for Cornot’s hospitality—but once the priest learned that Schütz, despite a German name, had come with the American Expeditionary Force to rid France of the Bosch and had been born in an Iowa town with the same name, all of Azincourt’s doors were opened.

The packet of letters sent to Mike’s wife Adele (still tied with a lavender ribbon and preserved in order of their arrival) reveal that the French priest was put immediately in contact with our Fr Farber (another German, dammit), who fluctuated in the spelling of his given name (Emil/Emile) for reasons that may now be clear.

One letter in particular tells of Ahab’s relics having been removed from the church only hours before an air strike that destroyed the church roof. The saint spent several months in a nearby dairy barn, where services continued among lowing livestock until the church could be repaired. Will heaven be like that, do you suppose: the quiet contentment of cattle; rumination without end?

Buildings can be more readily repaired than lives, however. Besides the exchange of gifts between our two communities —icons, paintings, quilts and such—I wonder in what other ways two rural towns helped each other heal.

Thanks again to the Schütz family for helping us remember.
 

Nimby

Agincourt is situated along the western edge of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, represented by Congressman Tom Latham. Latham recently voted for the Tea-Party-inspired budget resolution, which will (if signed into law) shift the shape of our future in ways that Iowans may regret. Only time will tell. I’d like to say that Fennimore county is an oddity in its part of the state—that Agincourt is more like Congressional Districts 1, 2 and 3 in eastern Iowa, each represented by a Democrat—but I know that isn’t likely.

Ten miles southeast of Agincourt lies the hamlet of Nimby, one of four rural villages, each special in its own way. Let Howard explain Nimby to you.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Not in my backyard

There are two views of history. In one, the past is complete and the future will be soon enough; the past cannot be allowed to influence what is yet be. In the other view, the past is incomplete, an open book of stories half-told; crying quietly, sometimes shouting, to be resolved. My sympathies lie with the latter point of view.

In the current political rhetoric, the past is being rewritten in curious ways. Historical facts are conveniently distorted or downright ignored; geography morphs to suit the situation. Critical thinking is an endangered species. In fact, there are some who say that “critical thinking” is redundant; that thinking is, by its very nature, critical. The loss of that skill bodes poorly for us all.

 

War_on_poverty

The Great Society

Many social programs grew from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Among them was WICAP—the Western Iowa Community Action Program—intent on bringing the benefits of a Great Society to the least, the last and the lost. I knew two young people who joined WICAP in the mid-1970s, Mick and Cindy Berringer, classmates of mine at the University of Iowa. Mick worked with home improvement programs (plumbing, insulation and the like), while Cindy used her degree in education to bring opportunity to rural children. As we hasten to abandon, deny, neutralize and scrap those programs today, I’m reminded of a conversation long ago, a tear-filled tale unworthy of the 20th century. At the risk of offending any neighbors who might have been involved, I’d like to share it with you today.

Cindy Berringer was charged with educational outreach in a six county region, part of which included a survey of children with disabilities. Lunching one day at the Koffee Kup in Agincourt, Cindy heard of a physically challenged eight-year-old—perhaps a club foot or other similar birth defect—who hadn’t enrolled in school. Cindy went out the next day to southeast Fennimore county, a few miles beyond Nimby, and drove cautiously into the family farmyard. Identification in hand, she approached the modest well-kept house, knocked on the screen door and spoke with the farm wife. No, she was told, Cindy must be mistaken. No child here matched that description. Or none hereabouts either. But thanks very much indeed for your trouble.

On the drive back to the office in Fort Dodge, Cindy made a few other calls, being careful to skirt the matter of her recent encounter. It soon became clear enough: The ——— family did includes a ham-footed child, but the ———s were members of a fundamentalist sect. Nothing involving snake handlers, mind you, but a church inclined to see physical non-conformity as a curse from God; punishment for some unspecified, unidentified infraction of the Rules. She was told to “let it be,” to let the ———s bear their shame alone, just as they bore their arms as defined and defended by the Second Amendment.

For a twenty-something in the 70s, it was as though Cindy had stepped through a time warp somewhere between Agincourt and Fort Dodge, where she might just as easily have interrupted a witch-burning, and it saddened her to tears. She and Mick nearly left the WICAP team because of what had happened that afternoon, but toughed out the last eight months of their contract, knowing at least one Iowa child was caught somewhere in the 15th century.

Under other circumstances I’d say this story was fiction, but it’s not. Some names and places are disguised, only because I do not know them. The tale is all too true and all too surely being played out again and again.

Dogs and such

As a child, I wasn’t allowed to have a pet; my grandmother Clara would never have permitted an animal in the house. But Roy always had a dog at the gas station—watchdogs; often dropouts from the police dog academy. The best of them was old 66.

When I was about ten years old and 66 was at least that age and deaf and blind, my dad found a farmer near Momence, about sixty miles south of Chicago, who was willing to give 66 a home for what remained of his life. We knew a lot of Southern Blacks, families who had migrated north along the Illinois Central line from Mississippi and Tennessee to find work in Chicago factories, but many maintained their ties with the land. A farm seemed the best reward for such a loyal family friend as 66.

One morning, weeks after 66 had gone to his retirement home, I went out the door for school. Who should I find waiting at the curb beside my dad’s car but 66! Much later we learned that he had left the farm and found his way north—at least sixty miles and across several major highways—with the sense of smell his only remaining asset, eager to be home and fulfilling the only job he knew, guarding the family business. 66 had been on the road at least two weeks.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Dogs and other good habits

This week some old friends lost their young dog. There is little I can say to stay their grief, except that I have been there, too.

Frank was my father’s hunting dog. Each year he yearned for the scents of autumn, the nip of frost, a thick coat of sodden leaves mouldering on the ground—desires I could just as easily claim for my father. Warren hoped to make a hunter of me but understood when I preferred the company of books. So, for all those months between hunting seasons, Frank was my constant companion.

My childlike wanderlust was insatiable and Frank enjoyed the quest as much as I. It would be inaccurate to say he followed me everywhere. Rather, he knew my pattern as well as I did, anticipated my destinations and, as often as not, met me at the front door to the old Public Library or the back door of Darwin School.

I had shown him my world and Frank repaid that gift with revelations of his own: a sunny spot on Crispin Creek where old shells could be dug from the bank; a secret garden on the flats while the carrots were tender and sweet. Padding along beside my bike, it’s hard to say which of us was in training. Walking, running, timely toilet breaks—I was a better child for the rigor Frank gave me; and I’m a better adult for having been that child.

Better mannered than several humans of my experience, Frank was welcome where some of my schoolmates had been banned. Mrs Fahrenthold, for example, let Frank lie beside my feet in the library reading room. He seemed also to enjoy regular visits to Krohn’s Barber Shop and to the meat market, which held a special place in his heart; two packages always awaiting us there, a big one for the family, the small one for Frank.

When I went away to college, Frank couldn’t come with me, but he could not be put away with other “childish things.” It was Thanksgiving of my sophomore year: I had come home for the family celebration and Frank was there awaiting me, seeming older than I had remembered him. Saturday night he lay down beside my bed and Sunday afternoon we buried him near the rhubarb patch.

In my sixty-six years I have known many dogs, all of them admirable fellows. Would that my acquaintance with humans had been the same.

Urban Phrenology

Everything we do and say is layered with meaning. We stand, not alone, but on who and what has gone before. I can see farther because I look out from the shoulders of giants.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Palimpsest

I had lunch yesterday with Bob Roebuck. He teaches history at the college.

We reviewed your suggestions for the sesquicentennial series, the growing pool of ideas from readers like you that will keep me busy for years. During the discussion, Bob used a word I hadn’t known (one of oh so many): “Palimpsest–παλιν + ψαω = (palin ‘again’ + psao ‘I scrape’),” he said. I enjoyed its unwieldy string of consonants in the middle and wanted to know more.

Before the age of paper (Remember? The stuff that was supposed to disappear in the Age of Computers?), medieval scribes wrote important documents on parchment, a durable material made from animal hide, usually sheepskin. Because letters took so long to send on a journey so precarious, correspondence was written on these skins, folded over and sealed with wax. Their cost made parchment sheets too valuable to use just once, however, so scribes laboriously scraped off each message and reused them for a second or third or fourth time. But the residual ink lingered on throughout the process, so that today we can read multiple messages that had built up on (and into) the surface of a former farm animal.

Analogies with life abound. Last week’s column about The Obelisk is a case in point.

A one-hundred-fifty-year-old choice to erect a windmill and watering tank served purely utilitarian purposes for the first years of its life. And those objects might have disappeared with the advent of municipal water. Someone unknown to us made another choice: to give the mill frame a more abstract purpose, whose nobility was confirmed with the second courthouse and ratified by the third.

And when the second Fennimore county government center burned (was burned, some say), it too left a residual footprint: the basement of the 1889 courthouse morphed into secure parking, while the first floor became a plaza with flagpoles, inscriptions and other paraphernalia of civil religion.

Later that day, at home, I brewed a pot of Earl Grey and looked at my own home–painful at times because so many well-intentioned projects remain undone. Yet there it was, in the slant light of afternoon: a subtle shape in the wall where I’d closed a pointless door; sheetrocked, taped and painted to match, but lingering still like the small scar on my left eyebrow when I fell down the stairs at the age of ten.

So, “Agincourt as Palimpsest” will be my watchwords. How does this place tell the story of our habitation here, no matter how humble or slight our presence may have seemed? I’ll leave the last few words on that score to the Persian poet-mathematician Omar Khayyám:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The Obelisk

In the year preceding the 2007 Agincourt Sesqui-Centennial, Howard Tabor wrote fifty-two columns exploring a miscellany of community-related topics: people, places and events that stood out in his sense of local history. His column in The Daily Plantagenet of Saturday, October 21st, 2006 was the first of that series.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

The Obelisk

Change is a fact of life. It’s certain and may be the primal urge to wake up and face the new day, each sunrise impossibly like another, each sunset unique as a snowflake. Like all things pervasive, change is also subtle. Ask me what was different today along my usual path to the office and I’ll fall back on easy observations: the weather, a new pain in my left hip, the sudden startling appearance of Mrs Schoenfeld’s cat.

All too often the physical world is a simple stage set for our lives. So, I scoured the town Wednesday afternoon with wider eyes, wondering how much of this visual background noise could vanish without notice. What do I take for granted that, if it disappeared tomorrow, would create an indefinable, unsettling void? During the next weeks, as we gear up for the sesquicentennial, I’m going to make some nominations and invite our readers to do the same. Today’s candidate is The Obelisk.

newman obelisk.jpg

Driving toward Agincourt from Fahnstock, there are signs of imminent arrival: the quick right turn on Route 7 a mile west of twon, the wiggle where it crosses the Muskrat River, the gentle left curve that realigns us with the urban grid. And, then, there it is! A soft grey vertical, silhouetted in the gap between the Fennimore county buildings. I hadn’t ever wondered about the Obelisk until Wednesday afternoon. How could anything so pointy be so obviously pointless?

Unlike its distant relative in the nation’s capital, our obelisk commemorates nothing; no person, no event that anyone can recall. Twice struck by lightening and once again when a team of horses was spooked by swarming hornets, the Obelisk (why do so many of us feel obliged to say it with capital letters?) should have vanished with everything else that lacks purpose. Yet there it is, an exclamation point on the way into town from the west.

How many of us have given it more than a passing glance? Walk up to is sometime–though the county fathers haven’t made that very easy, offering no paved surface within twenty-five yards!–and discover an object that rewards each step with revelation.

Up close and personal, the Obelisk proves to be more tactile than you’d expect. It is surfaced with diagonal scales of cement asbestos siding–the type popular for houses in the 1940s. There is one small opening on the east side. Sticking my head in, it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dim light filtered through the cracks. To my surprise, its origins became suddenly clear: the Obelisk is built on the carcass of an old windmill!

Curiosity drove me to call Hal Holt at the Fennimore County Historical Society and confirm my suspicion. Indeed, Hall says there are early photos of the first wood-frame courthouse showing a windmill on the very same spot, and next to it a trough for watering livestock. Apparently in the decades before municipal water, the county erected the mill to provide its courthouse and jail with water, a reward for those driving to town on business, refreshment for their teams on dusty summer afternoons.

Hal couldn’t immediately say when the windmill made its transition from public utility to civic monument, but it must have happened before 1888 when courthouse No.2 was built. Architect William Halsey Wood used its pristine whiteness as a foil for his own crusty grey and red Romanesque pile. And courthouse No.3 brought the axis through the site, across The Square and into The commons. The tension between Obelisk and Academy clock tower is palpable.

The Obelisk also defines the centerline of Second Street West, and 45-degree axes connect it with the entries of both Asbury United Methodist and First Baptist churches. What a powerful but under-appreciated presence in our midst. How do simple things attain such power? I, for one, have been won over and will defend it from anything short of natural disaster.

Will anyone with information on the Obelisk please write me (htabor@dailyplantagenet.com)? I’ll share it with Hal Holt and our readers.

So began Howard’s four-year-long series of local human interest columns.