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The Ecumenical Parking Lot

Agincourt’s founders philosophical inderstanding of the landscape had physical consequences. They wove a web from the abstract realm of idealism and then, of necessity, applied it to the realities of a physical world, not to mention the illogical, erratic, unpredictable behaviours of our species. They set in motion a domino effect whose ultimate force and trajectory haven’t yet played themselves out. They would be pleased with its latest consequence.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The Ecumenical Parking Lot

Agincourt’s original town plan has been treated here before: a not untypical (get the double negative?) mid-19th century railroad grid–with a transcendental spin.

At Agincourt’s heart the Founders acknowledged core values drawn from a 19th century ideal–the trinity of body-mind-spirit–sensing that our physical wellbeing (our body) exists in a framework of mind (intellect) and spirit (belief). They built these into their plan as places for public assembly (The Commons, The Square), for governance (the courthouse), and for education (The Academy and four school lots), defined by parentheses of spirituality (the four Church Lots).

A general understanding during westward expansion held that no community would be any more stable than the proportion of its families with children, and the stability of those families depended upon  nurturing churches, spiritual familes. So, among the earliest entries in the annals of city government, there is a note about the distribution of the four Church Lots: a lottery among the largest denominational groups represented in the population.

Any interested denomination had to muster twelve heads-of-household (an egalitarian point of view, since it allowed the participation of widows, long before the 19th Amendment acknowledged a woman’s right to vote!). There were six contenders for the four choice lots: Methodists, Baptists of the northern variety, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Someone was going to be disappointed. The lottery was double-blind: a first drawing determined the order of selection. We’re hardpressed to imagine something more fair and balanced.

Each site is a story in itself, but the one that concerns us today is Lot A-5, northwest of the courthosue, where Methodists built the first of three successive buildings. That site has nurtured the spirit of ecumenism more than the Founders could have foreseen.

Hebrews and Muslims and Bears, oh my!

Among our earliest settlers were a miscellany of believers (and, one imagines, a goodly number of the ungodly, as well, but they were ineligible for the lottery!), and among them was at least one Jewish family: the Kabakers, our first haberdashers. Out of necessity they traveled to Des Moines for High Holy Days. It took more than sixty years for Agincourt to accumulate sufficient Jewish population to warrant a synagogue structure, a threshhold reached at the end of World War I. So, in 1920 two places of worship began construction: the present United Methodist church (replacing an 1880s structure destroyed by fire) and also Temple Emanu-El at the corner of James and Third Street NW. From their simultaneous dedication in November 1920, both congregations have shared the parking lot between them, the Jews for Saturday Sabbath and the Methodists on Sunday.

Flash forward to the 1990s, when Agincourt welcomed the first of many African refugees, the initial wave from Somalia and then a second from Darfur, all of them anxious for what we sometimes like to believe is America’s religious tolerance and their own spiritual home. So in late 2003, the Methodist governing board sold the southwest corner of its original church lot “for $1 and other considerations” for use in perpetuity by the Agincourt Islamic Center. And now that parking lot hosts a third religious tradition: the Friday worship of our large resident Muslim population.




Parking — the boon of commerce — has now become its bane. In so many cities, the ratio between parking places and shopping destinations has long since reversed itself; you can park everywhere but shop in fewer and fewer stores. All of which makes Lot A-5 the more remarkable.

The ongoing Middle Eastern situation notwithstanding, somewhere Ibrahim/Avram/Abraham is smiling. His triune descendants have agreed to cooperate on a small plot of land in northwestern Iowa — in a Congressional district represented by Steve King!

Rites of Passage 1.1—Easy Alley

Howard relishes the Agincourt that was. That is both his principal weakness and his greatest strength.

Some time ago I wrote about a trinity of three women instrumental in early Agincourt history. Here starts a three-part series about significant rites of passage in any community—puberty and its unchecked consequences—and those three women.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Mrs Miller’s Enterprise

Opera Alley, a block-and-a-half long passage, runs eastward today from Second Street SW beside the Auditorium and the Blenheim Hotel. When the Auditorium opened in 1895, that stretch of alley was quickly identified with the opera season that occurred every fall and winter for the nest twenty years or so. Eventually, the name “Opera Alley” stuck.

Imagine queued carriages, liveried drivers, stoic horses, nostrils and horse apples steaming in the cold night air, all awaiting their passengers at the theatre or gala events in the Blenheim ballroom. Top hats and tuxedos. Tiaras and sating gowns. Agincourt was that sort of place before the turn of the century.

At the corner of the alley and First Street a tobacco shop once outfitted smokers with a full range of pipes and cigars—perhaps the height of smoking as a symbol of status and masculinity. The proprietor Cassius Hyde Miller hand-rolled cigars and concocted custom blends for his special clientele. He also ran a livery service at the east end of his property, providing carriages for hire—until the winter of 1896, that is, when a November blizzard took him home to Jesus. The nationwide economic panic and bank failures in 1895 had drained the Millers’ small savings, and the social safety net we’ve come to expect hadn’t yet been invented. So Cassius’ wife Annabelle (Belle) scrambled to survive. She knew tobacco and could hire hands to tend the horses. But it wasn’t enough. The situation demanded diversification and Mrs Miller rose to the challenge.

With little investment capital, Belle Miller chose wisely, understanding that her location was prime even in times that were not. In April she added plumbing to the stables behind the shop, making the caretaker’s quarters more comfortable with a kitchen and bath. Then, in late June, she hired builders to convert the hayloft into several rooms, presumably as rental for single folks, some of whom might have worked at the Blenheim then under construction across the alley. A crude drawing of the actual building permit shows a living room and four sleeping chambers, valuable heat coming from the livestock below. A Sanborn Fire Insurance map of 1899 confirms the conversion project. But permits and maps tell only half the story. The U.S. Census for 1900 puts a curious spin on the emergence of Mrs Miller’s Enterprise.



The decennial census for 1900 confirms the conventional wisdom that these quarters had become Agincourt’s first purpose-built House of Ill Repute, though Mrs Miller may have got into “the business” by default. For the sensitive reader, those are euphemisms for whore house. The census taker enumerated two adults living at #14 First Street SW on Tuesday, June 5th, 1900:

  • MILLER, Annabelle / head / widow / F / 40 / tobacconist / IN*
  • SCHERT, Armand / brother / single / M / 34 / cigar maker / IN

And four more living behind at #14A:

  • SPIVEY, Michael / head / single / M / 33 / hosteller / PA
  • PRIMM, Rose / inmate / single / F / 26 / hostess / MO
  • PRIMM, Lucy / inmate / single / F / 24 / hostess / MO
  • BOHLIN, Florence / inmate / divorced / F / 25 / hostess / IA

There are several links in the chain of evidence for census information, things that urge caution in its interpretation: 1) the source of information and, therefore, its accuracy; 2) the ability of that source to speak English; 3) the enumerator’s ability to hear clearly; and 4) the fine art of penmanship, already in decline and today a rare skill. Enumerators received rudimentary training, but were left to interpolate unusual or ambiguous information. How should one acknowledge the presence in their community, for example, of prostitution? Someone’s choice of “hostess” as occupation shows a high degree of tact.

The success of Belle Miller’s Enterprise is the stuff of legend. In fact, the half-block alley running beside her place of business is still called “Easy” rather than “Opera,” to the consternation of our more reputable citizens. There were, no doubt, outbreaks of STD and the occasional failure of birth control, questions that introduce two other characters in this less than holy trinity. But the forbearance it received from law enforcement attests to its high level of professionalism.

Stay tuned for the inter-related stories of Cissy Beddowes and Maud Adams.

The census form for 1900 includes 1) surname, 2) given name, 3) household relationship, 4) marital status, 5) sex, 6) age, 7) occupation, and 8) state of birth; additional information has been omitted here.


Another syzygetic pair, perhaps, signs are not always symbols.

One of my more useful skills has been an ability to detect patterns. Look at enough of anything and commonalities emerge: they seem more intense; they hover above the page. I see things that others don’t, however, which makes me wonder if those patterns are really there. At Medjugorje, does the Virgin appear only to those who expect her?

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Signs and Symbols

On the utility pole behind my great-grand-parents’ garage (it was a stable then and great-uncle Anson once lived in the converted hay loft), someone has carved a crude animal shape. It might be any of several species but my bet is on cat—the long tail, pointed ears and whiskers are a giveaway. But it’s carved well above the height a child would choose or even see. My network of “informants”—not really; we’re just a gang of rogue humanists—tell me there are other similar carvings around and about town that date from the 1930s and 40s, but the hobo life began at least fifty years before, certainly before 1900.

Agincourt was a railroad town, years before the rails skimmed its southern edge on the way to Sioux City. And with the railroad came prosperity and so much more. Especially during the Great Depression, for example, it brought riders-of-the-rails, knights-of-the-open-road, hobos and other euphemisms for citizens, mostly men, who had fallen (or chosen to fall) between the cracks. H.L. Mencken makes an hierarchical distinction among hobos, tramps and bums. Several eminent men chose the preferred hobo life—T.V. host Art Linkletter, poet Charles Bukowski, and writers Kerouac, London, Michener and Steinbeck—though for most it was hardly a choice. As a young boy, I met one who’d settled here, married and had a family, but who enjoyed reminiscing about the open road he’d known in his twenties.



At the top of Mencken’s list, hobos—in the tens of thousands—lived by a Code of Conduct. They also contributed several words to the English language and left coded messages (as simple carved symbols like my great-grandmother’s cat) passing along general information about fundamental issues of shelter and police activity and specifics about homes that were hobo friendly. After Jim Tennant died in 1919, his widow Martha relied on handymen (hobos included) for chores that her husband Jim or son Anson might have done. That was especially true during the Great Depression, when lemonade and pie were offered on dusty afternoons for yard work that didn’t really need doing. Or when the stable loft became an impromptu hostel. Many such Agincourt homes helped build our positive reputation among the hobos. Some saw great-grandmother as an easy mark; I choose another interpretation.

A Kindhearted Lady

“A kindhearted lady lives here” is what the cat symbol meant. Civility is an endangered species these days and with it kindness in short supply. But the kindness of tough economic times cannot ever be the prince tossing scraps to the pauper; no dignity exists there. A more satisfying answer comes from “kind” as noun, rather than adjective: it is our kind-ness—the state of having “the same nature or character”—that bridges the gap between lofty and lowly; recognizes the things that unite us as more significant than those that divide. 

There are hobos today, I suppose—free spirits—and I wish there were more. But there are also genuine parasites in our midst, the bums of Mencken’s list: Wall Street bankers and venture capitalists who sold us a bill of goods, gave us signs and symbols we mistook for truth, and laughed all the way home to Darien, Creve Couer and Edina in time for the cocktail hour. I yearn for the kind-ness of another generation.

Martha Tennant died when I was three and is buried in the family crypt beneath St Crispin’s Chapel; there is the outline of a cat carved on her casket. It’s reassuring to see that symbol as confirmation of my own childhood experience.

That symbol will let God know he’s welcoming a kind-hearted lady.

Civic Duty

If you happen to be in Agincourt on a Tuesday night and are really bored, consider attending a City Council meeting. They start at 7.

Howard got stuck with “study hall” that night–a veiled reference to being held after school–because Phil Arbogast, the reporter who usually covers the Council, took his family to Orlando this week. Seems the wrong time of year to visit Florida, but it’s not my call. Actually, I’m hardpressed to proffer a reason for Florida itself, let alone Florida in August.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Cycles and Seasons

Wild animals caught in a trap have been known to escape by gnawing off their own leg. I can identify.

Tuesday’s council agenda was less than exciting (though not without its moments), consisting (among other items) of: 1) the second reading of an ordinance further regulating fireworks displays (no doubt a consequence of the Tea Party debacle last Fourth of July); 2) ongoing treatment of Dutch Elm disease in the neighborhood of Gnostic Grove; 3) approval of a new plow for snow removal this winter; and 4) the sale of city property for a 28-unit apartment complex so irredeemably ugly that it would have been rejected in Stalinist Russia. During the earlier items, my mind wandered and so did my eyes.



Have you noticed the WPA mural circling the Council Chamber? I had always chalked it up to boilerplate Depression Era rhetoric: private vice versus public virtue; Horatio Alger boostrap levitation; a “we’ll get through this together” sort of thing. But then I began reading the mural as a graphic novel whose bare-breasted brawn insinuates deeper, more particular meaning.

Imagine a story beginning above the mayor’s seat (at the center of the five council chairs), read progressively clockwise around the room to the point of origin. If that ambiguous central figure represents our founding in 1853 as well as the year of it’s painting in 1938, there’s an eighty-five-year narrative here and, just maybe, an editorial without words that hasn’t been “read” since the paint dried.

The clockwise narrative, for example, shows the passage of seasons. But could they mean more than that: from the Spring of our urban origins and the Summer of its first fruits to the Fall (from Grace) of corruption and decay through the Winter of repair, reconciliation and renewal. Was this a reminder of thoughtless repetative pattern or the artist’s simple need to use some green and orange paint?

And are the more than three dozen figures in the mural symbolically drawn from a gallery of ancient archetypes, or might they represent actual figures from Agincourt’s past? I’m especially curious about the jaded and jaundiced pair 180 degrees from the council, just above the chamber entrance–the last reminder we’d see on our return to civic life.

When the meeting adjourned at 9:15, I wrote and filed the “Council Notes” for Wednesday’s Plantagenet. But I also resolved to read that mural as its artist Karl Wasserman may have intended.

Do you think Howard makes this stuff up?

Things I believe…

Faith is a word I don’t often use.

It’s not that I don’t have faith—in tomorrow’s sunrise, human nature, the weatherman—just that faith is a noun. Belief, on the other hand has a verb form—to believe—and I just feel more comfortable around verbs.

Faith and Belief form a syzygetic pair, linked words that appear to be similar but can’t necessarily stand for one another. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this particular pair recently—Faith and Belief—probably because broad brush cultural issues like separation of Church and State concern me, particularly “faith-based initiatives” popular in the Bush White House years. At this point, all I can say is that my faith is pretty shaky, but my belief system is gaining strength every day. That notion of syzygy has become an especially valuable tool for me, not the least reason being its use in cutting through the current political rhetoric.

There is, for example, a vast difference in the following syzygetic pairs; words with similar but hardly interchangeable meanings. Consider: seeing and looking; intimacy and sex; spirituality and religion; justice and the law; power and control; liberty and license; closure and cloture; education and training; theater and drama; being careful or cautious; achieving acceptance or resignation; knowing contentment or happiness. Given a choice, I strive for the former every time…almost. So I apologize to all who’ve known me to choose the latter at some point in our relationship.

Horizons are not boundaries. Love is rare and difficult; lust is plentiful and far too easy. Finding a friend and being one are each hard work but mutually rewarding. Actions and words confirm one another; be very concerned when there is a significant discrepancy between the two. (I see a lot of it these days and often I’m looking in the mirror when I do.) Privilege and responsibility are also closely related; but while privilege begets responsibility, I have never assumed that it works the other way. A really great question is worth 10,000 facile replies pretending to be answers. 

My friend Jonathan Rutter painted my portrait last year—not a simple, single view of yours truly, seen from one vantage point at one particular moment, but nine shards of me, showing pieces-parts I’ve hardly noticed before. The idea was that these could become refrigerator magnets, enabling me to rearrange myself every other day. Seductive notion.

At the core, I am archipelagic, not continental.

I post the above observations because they may help to understand The Agincourt Project—if understanding is important to you.


Death and the Scholar

Some weeks ago I wrote about a small untitled painting I called “Death and the Scholar,” created some time before 1889 (the year artist August von Pettenkofen died); it may have been intended as a study for some larger work. With power disproportionate to its small size, I’ve wondered what story Pettenkofen intended to tell: might it have been based on a fable by Aesop or Grimm? Or a short story by the likes of Maupassant or O. Henry? I’m still looking.

Small things sometimes have such power. Lacking a simple answer (or even a complicated one, at this point), I wonder if a credible and creditable tale can be crafted to match its presence.

Across the desk in his paneled study, a scholar leans toward the standing figure of Death. Scythe in hand, firelight casts the Reaper’s shadow ominously across the opposite wall. Whatever their ultimate transaction, the scholar must be curious. Who does Death work for? Good or Evil? Or is he an independent contractor—the Blackwater of our destiny? For that matter, is “he” a “she”? And given the volume of work to be done, is there only one Reaper or are there many? Faced with my own mortality, I would be brimming with those and so many more questions.

Are the time, place and circumstance of our end fixed or does Death have some latitude fulfilling the task? Between his inquiries, the Scholar must be strategizing a bargain of some sort, probably not for himself, however. A wife? Daughter? A valued colleague? And if there were sufficient time to pass his notes to another, would they be believed?

I’d enjoy seeing the Reaper interviewed by Dick Cavett (though most of y’all are too young to remember who he was). Then we’d have some answers and I would know how to proceed.

I love this image!


What do you suppose Agincourt looks like from the air?

The public library in America and Agincourt in particular…

The United States invented the free public library system. During the 19th century, America set the pattern for public education in many respects: public schools were an important part of westward expansion and an integral aspect of the Northwest Ordinance. Publicly-supported libraries followed close behind, first in New England and then transplanted wherever Yankees took themselves. Ken Breisch has a recent book on the architectural history of America’s libraries, but my favorite introduction to the Carnegie phenomenon was written in 1969 by George Bobinski. It might still be on your own library’s shelves.

The impulse to improve the general level of public education—for K-through-12 children and out-of-school adults—would have arrived in Agincourt with its first settlers, most of them coming from the Mid-Atlantic states through the Ohio River valley. There was no question that Agincourt’s townsite would have provided multiple sites for public schools; if there was debate, it was where, not whether, to build them. A library would have soon followed, though its setting might have varied: sponsorship by a fraternal organization (the Masons, for example), a denomination (very often Methodist), the public school system or the municipality itself. For Agincourt, I can tell you this:

  • The 1888-1889 Fennimore County Court House included a room for the public library, though I suspect it existed somewhere else prior to that building.
  • The library functioned there for thirteen years until a fire at the Masonic Lodge cleared a downtown site and encouraged the community to consider a free-standing structure.
  • The competition of 1914 drew entries from as far away as Omaha, Chicago and Minneapolis.
  • Local son Anson Curtiss Tennant won that blind competition and designed the new library that still stands at the northwest corner of Broad and Agincourt, though the library function itself has migrated to a 1970s building near the Catholic church and now serves a county-wide audience.
  • The library of 1914-1915 has been adaptively used as the law offices of Scanlon, Klein & Coomaraswamy, LLP.

As budget cuts affect all of us in local government, I wonder how the library is faring.

The Agincourt Public Library

Despite two degrees that ought to have led to a career in architecture, I never became one. Many will agree with me that this is a good thing, since I would have been a dismal failure: I am the poster child for procrastination. As with several other interests and activities, I have eternally been on the outside looking in: it’s an interesting but frustrating view from where I stand.

That being said, it also won’t surprise many that I’ve been working on the Agincourt Public Library design since the summer of 2006. But with only thirteen months remaining until the next Agincourt exhibit at the Rourke Art Museum (in October 2012, just in time for the end of the world two months later), I need to put the pressure on and get this baby resolved. In the last three weeks, some interesting developments have occurred, including the donation of a beautiful piece of marble that will become part of a full-scale partial model of the front facade.


Completing this thirteen-foot-high column entails designing and fabricating a wrought iron wreath and learning how to paint faux marble (to match the smaller piece being donated). Who knew that all those references to the Asam Brothers would ever bear fruit!

Hearing Home

Life on the front porch—we call it the Green Room—can be very pleasant until the late afternoon when low sun runs its length and there’s nowhere to hide. The bamboo shade helps a little.

It’s the sound that’s most annoying. Not the disproportionately heavy traffic on a two-block one-way street. Not even the can crunching that carries two blocks from the recycling center on Fourth Avenue. No, it’s that damnable air conditioning unit on Klai Hall just a half block south. It’s f—ing incessant this time of year, exactly when you’d most like to be outside our un-air-conditioned one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old house, reading a mystery and crunching some ice. Somebody ought to call Buildings & Grounds, because no major piece of mechanical equipment making that much noise can be in optimal working order. 

Trying to read this afternoon, I recalled the sounds of the drowsy Chicago suburb of my youth a half century ago, when life may have been less complicated and my hearing more acute. Howard always tells it so much better than I.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor

Hearing Home

As a child I spent much of my time outside: on the way from here to there, running errands, walking slowly to school and quickly back, often in the company of our dog Frank. I often wondered how the world seemed to his sense of smell, four hundred times more acute than mine. Or what he heard that never registered on my sonar. Walking to work early Friday morning—only a block from home on the other side of Broad—I tried to hear the sounds of my childhood.

Old houses are alive with sound and ours was no exception. My room in the family place on West Fennimore, the house where my mother still lives, was in the basement, though it had a wood floor and big window well that helped dispel its basement-ness. Just inside my door there was a floor board mysteriously connected across the room with the closet door: step into the room with your right foot and the closet door popped open twelve feet away—a source of frustration to my sister Catherine the Trickster. I couldn’t have built a better early warning system as a defense against her pranks.

Being so much closer to the furnace, I was intimate with its eccentricities, the whirr and clicks of its cycles, the hum of its health, the wheeze of fatigue and old age. I might have had a career in home heating as the Furnace Whisperer. The water heater and plumbing, on the other hand, were another matter altogether, the gurgle and glug of domestic bowels defying my analysis even today.

Outside, especially on languorous summer evenings, there were the lowing sounds of lawn mowing (old style push mowers grazing like indentured sheep) and the simultaneous smell of freshly cut grass—a pairing of sound and smell that still transports me to the 50s. Until sunset we often played “kick the can” where silence meant survival and extraneous rustling—even heavy breathing—led to discovery and your turn at being “it.” The can, of course, was something big and raucous formerly filled with coffee or cooking oil. When was the last time you heard “Olly Olly Oxen Free” bellowed in pre-pubescent tenor?

Windows were usually open then and a walk down any street revealed the full range of domestic life. Parental strife, teenage angst, competing TV stations, and the gradual shift from radio to stereo. I knew everyone who lived between our house and Van Kannel’s soda fountain, so there were no surprises along the way.

Daytime street sounds were predictable as well and helped to tell the passing time and seasons. Home milk delivery by Fennimore Farms—bottles rattling in a metal carrier—punctuated Tuesday and Friday mornings about 10 a.m. And the clang of Vandervort’s Bakery truck sounded about noon on Wednesday, though I wondered why because the store was only a three-block walk. We were close enough to Darwin School that the bell for class changes carried through our open kitchen window and the Lutheran church bell reminded us it was time to head toward St Joseph-the-Carpenter for 9:30 service. And sirens, of course, brought everyone to the porch or front windows in case we could be of help. It was a regulated sonic world that everyone understood.

Too many of us live hermetically sealed today, ear pods and iPods denying and defying discourse with our fellow creatures, scurrying from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car on the way to a similarly sealed work, play or worship environment. I miss the sounds of youth and the civility it bespoke.