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Paper Trail (1.0)


When Howard wrote his Rapture piece two weeks ago, the person he didn’t mention (a Freudian omission?) was his great uncle Anson. You remember: Anson the architect. I’m glad to see that Howie is finally ready to deal with the influence A. C. Tennant has had upon him.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

I didn’t want to be a journalist. Some say I never became one. But the span of this brilliant career lies out there somewhere, a cluster of articles, correspondence, academic writing, transcripts and other scraps of paper.

No one is likely to assemble and organize them, however, until the obligatory memorial service—and possibly not even then. My office—what an old friend lovingly labelled “the place where paper goes to die”—is filled with the stuff, biodegrading as we speak.

In the digital age, so-called paper trails will be harder to construct. Thinking about my great uncle Anson the other day (it was the anniversary of his return from Europe), I wondered about his career in architecture.

Uncle Anson

The Lusitania sinking might have made him a one-hit wonder; Agincourt’s brief entry in the WPA Iowa guide hint’s at that. But the Lusitania went down and spat him back. The world was not yet finished with him.

Before he died in 1968, Uncle Anson and I had several years to get acquainted. I was spellbound by tales of his years in Spain; of his marriage and children (my Basque cousins Mikel, Aliza and Aitor). Stories about the loss and return of his memory; the reunion with family; the return home. Restoration.

Now, so many years later, there is one question I regret not asking: Why had he chosen architecture?


The paper trail for that choice begins at Christmas 1905, when Anson’s little sister Clare had diphtheria and wasn’t expected to live. He decided to build a dollhouse for her and looked about for inspiration among stacks of magazines in the attic. He settled on a house in New Jersey designed by William Halsey Wood, who also happened to have been architect of the second Fennimore County Courhouse in 1888. My great grandfather James Tennant was on the building committee and probably knew Mr Wood, who also provided a scheme for a new Episcopal church that remains unbuilt. 

How does a fifteen-year-old understand and interpret the complex sophistication of a mature architect’s work? Anson was drawn to Wood’s own reduction of the single-family home to a cube, cylinder, cone and pyramid, simplifying it further and using the cylinder as a hinge that allowed the house to splay open for Clare’s dolls and their furnishings. 

You’ll be pleased to know that Clare lived and that her treasured gift from an older protective brother was a feature of the 2007 sesqui-centennial celebration.

Three years after that special Christmas, Anson had graduated high school and worked for Henry Hobson, a local carpenter who built now and then for the family. The Tennant homestead had grown too small for the family (Anson was batching it in the stable to make room for the girls), so Jim Tennant wondered if his son might like to enlarge the house and design a smaller, more manageable place next door for the maiden aunts Sophie and Phoebe. A surviving letter to architect and family friend Lyman Silsbee hints at fatherly pride in a son’s skill and seeks Silsbee’s advice on career opportunities in the field.

I, too, followed Anson Tennant’s path to Chicago, traced his footsteps there, though with a journalist’s agenda and an adulating eye. Tried to reconstruct the city he had known circa 1910; to imagine its sounds, smells and tastes; to be touched as he had been by its energy. And thereby to access the nascent mind of a burgeoning architect.

All these memories surge about me today as I sit in The Commons and wonder at his only major work, the old Agincourt Public Library.

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