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The Tribe in Agincourt

During the opening in October 2007 someone asked about a temple in Agincourt: had we considered the presence of a Jewish community in that part of Iowa. I said “yes” and that I had made some notes. It’s almost four years later but I have to admit the project is still not ready for birthing. If you have time, some thoughts on these ideas will be welcome.

Since Agincourt was founded in the mid-nineteenth century (1857), the likely suspects for Jewish settlement would have been Ashkenazim, merchants from Central Europe. Both small department stores in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up were owned by families with that background, and I have read about other similar enterprises throughout the Midwest. There would certainly have been a sprinkling across northwest corner of Iowa. But in sufficient numbers to warrant a temple? Throughout the 1870s and 80s, I’ve assumed the High Holy Days would have been celebrated in the home; perhaps a rabbi traveled from Des Moines or Sioux City. I’ll try to have a conversation with Rabbi Kabrinsky to explore an appropriate narrative….

Agincourtsynagogue01

The site is an ecumenical one. Agincourt’s founders took a peculiarly 19th century transcendentalist view toward town planning: framing the civic core of government, commerce and education, they set aside four blocks for religious institutions; four “Church Lots” that were doled out by means of a lottery. Block “B” has evolved as the setting for three houses of worship: remarkably, it is shared by the Methodists, the Jewish community and the new [ca.2000] “Agincourt Islamic Center” built to accommodate a growing population of Somali and Sudanese refugees who have come to work at the canning factory.

As you know, this entire project grew from a desire to play in the sandbox of architectural history, so two opportunities came to mind. The first grew from a postcard I got on eBay: a 1930-ish real photo, black-and-white card of a Masonic Lodge, the sort of small-town “civic” architecture that speaks of “institution” without being overly symbolic. I thought that with a very few modifications, it could easily have been a temple; perhaps with an inscription at the entry (the congregation’s name in Hebrew and English) and some incised ornament suggesting presence of the Torah within. The challenge for me as a designer has been imagining a reasonable interior layout that coincides with the exiting arrangement of windows and doors. Incidentally, postcards have become a mainstay of the Agincourt story—a way of simulating (borrowing?) reality—hence my wish to adapt such a wonderfully Midwestern building as the one in this card. The other opportunity involves two know designers from the past.

Agincourtsynagogue02

In the spectrum of American architectural history, there are two architects who stand out (in my mind, at least) as designers of temples: Henry Hornbostel of Pittsburgh (working primarily in the ‘teens) and Erich Mendelsohn (German emigré who took refuge here between the wars). You may know his Mt. Zion Congregation on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I have assumed the local building committee would have been familiar with Mendelsohn’s work in the Midwest—St. Paul. St. Louis and Cleveland…and Dallas—and had approached him with a more modest proposal. How might Mendelsohn have adapted his Modernist imagery of the late 1940s and 50s for Iowa?

Agincourtsynagogue03

Finally, I have also taken up the challenge of a contemporary structure, a “here-and-now” design under my own name, rather than as a surrogate “channeling” the intentions of others. That design seems to be growing from the Ethical Culture aspect of Judaism, something that resonates with my own unrepentant Modernist perspective.

[Picture here to follow]

The intention here is a Miesian universal grid, economical and efficient, but with a single deviating element. I thought to abstract the Twelve Tribes as a gathering of twelve columns defining the sanctuary: a dozen columns, unevenly spaced, vaguely forming an irregular polygon, with each column unique (made of a different material or shaped in some very particular way).

I’m inclined to go ahead with all three scenarios.


1 Comment

  1. R.H.L.M. Ramsay says:

    For some earlier material on early Jews in Iowa, see the piece on Moise Cohen from 24 October 2010.

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