Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2011 » November

Monthly Archives: November 2011

Collaboration and Coincidence

Afam

Anson’s office door went into production this weekend. It’s been a long time coming, but haste would have been a mistake: so much nuance can only come with time.

The original idea came from Howard’s description of the office itself and focused on its Arts & Crafts characteristics. “Als ik kan,” the A&C mantra, has remained the stained glass centerpiece. Mr Dan Salyards incorporated an architect’s caliper and, intuitively, linked the window with Jonathan Rutter’s portrait of Anson’s mother—completed more than two years ago. When Mark Anthony saw the evolving design two weeks ago, he wondered aloud about Masonic symbolism—the caliper-and-square motif—and suggested adding the carpenter’s square. Dan and I agreed on the addition, me on the door frame and Dan in the window itself, leaded into the glasswork. It was one small step to add the 1912 25-cent piece as the caliper hinge (when a dime proved too small). I then recalled the circumstances surrounding young Tennant’s entry in the Agincourt Public Library competition.

In order for the most desirable site to be available—effectively 100% corner at Broad Street and the Avenue, which was likely one of the earliest built properties in the city since its founding in 1853—there had to have been a disastrous but localized urban fire. At that point our friend Dave Pence (alias Steve Spence or Deisel Dave) came to the rescue without knowing it.

Keokuktheaterfire

Years ago Dave had sent me an unidentified real photo postcard of a small-town urban fire: an evocative smouldering ruin, in this case a three-story building encased in icecicles, which I had filed for future reference. Scanning eBay years later (at least ten or fifteen years, in fact), I ran across a fire postcard that looked eerily familiar. Lo and behold, it must have been taken by the same photographer, a slightly different view of the same smouldering ruin, this time identified as a theater in Keokuk, Iowa. What luck. A follow-up google search added details that played into the story, because the fire had occurred in January 1912, perfect timing for the 1914-1915 framework I’d established for the public library project.

And now the story comes full circle (or full enough for me), because the burned Keokuk building had also been a Masonic Lodge, evidenced by the caliper-and-square motif that appears in the third-floor brickwork—crusted in ice but still legible.

There are times I’m grateful to have a long attention span. This has been one of them.

Suite 205-207, Wasserman Block

Alsikkan

Walk north on Broad Street to the northwest corner of James. You’re standing in front of the Wasserman Block, former home of Wasserman’s Hardware until it closed about 2005. Upstairs were several office suites and the apartment home of Franz and Edith Wasserman and their children. The store sat vacant for three years and the upper floor degenerated into cheap office tenants, until my friend Howard and his business partner Rowan Oakes bought and renovated it.

First door on the left is The Periodic Table, chef Rosemary Plicka’s innovative restaurant opened about a year ago. Howard and Rowan share the old apartment above and adapted the three office suites as bed-and-breakfast accomodations. If you’re passing through, tell them I sent you and ask for the special rate. It’s a considerable step up from motel hell on the strip.

Gemütlichkeit

If you’re lucky, Suite 205-207 will be available. That was Anson Tennant’s original architectural office, opened in 1912 when he returned from school and apprenticeship in Chicago. He was twenty-three and inexperienced, but his dad knew Franz Wasserman had been disatisfied with his new building (finished in 1910 from plans by Joachim & Perlmuter of Sioux City) and wanted to enlarge the cramped corner apartment. So Anson received his first commission and bartered design services for a favorable five-year lease.

Howard described his great-uncle Anson’s office in an article during the sesqui-centennial series, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say it was as close to the Arts& Crafts spirit as Agincourt could muster, with stained plaster walls, stickleyesque furnishings and light fixtures crafted from Indian baskets brough back from the family’s Albuquerque vacation that summer. It’s the office door, though, that sets the tone for what you’ll find within.

The upper panel of the dutch door repeats the mantra of the A&C movement: “als ik kan,” the Flemish phrase branded on Gustav Stickley’s Mission Style furnishings. “As best I can” is a reasonable translation and, frankly, more truth in advertising than we encouter today.

Besides his name and the date (1912), the window is a time capsule of sorts, for there is a caliper (also rendered in stained glass, with a 1912 quarter at its hinge), as well as a 24-inch carpenter’s square once owned by Anson’s maternal grandfather Curtiss Corwin. Anson had learned woodworking skills during summers spent in Grandpa Curt’s carpentry shop near Mason City.

I hope we can show you the window soon and the original dutch door soon after that. The whole artifact will be loaned to the new Agincourt exhibit next Fall, another bit of material culture thay shows us who we were.

The view from my window

Synecdoche was a word I hadn’t known; it created one of those special occasions when the OED stepped down from its keystone position on the shelf.

Figures of speech exist in astonishing array, a good many more than the half dozen we learned in 8th-grade English from Rose Spelman. But synecdoche was patient with me, waiting to enliven the language of old age. I’ve mentioned it here before: a substitution wherein the whole represents the part, or the part, the whole. We refer, for example, to the long arm of the law. You’ve seen an example on TV if you recall the Koehler plumbing commercial where the pretentious client produces a faucet from her purse and challenges the architect to “design a house around this!”

I bought a painting on Ebay, refugee from a flea market, with mine the only bid. Who can say what draws us to a work of art, especially a marginal one with a chunk missing from one edge and an embattled frame that might have been sprayed with radiator paint. These and other blemishes conspired against its sale, but I’m from Chicago, the Second City, and drawn to damaged goods. That’s where character lies, if not charm.

The painting? It’s a landscape, an urban vignette seen from a second-floor window, across a street, a yard, an alley, toward the irregular backs of two-story commercial fronts facing the other way. It’s late winter and the Currier & Ives snowfall has long since crusted with dirt and the soot from soft coal fires. A Christmas tree thrown on the berm (or boulevard or parkway or whatever you call that stretch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb in your neck of the woods) is the only sign of life in an otherwise unpopulated landscape. 

The artist’s palette of red, yellow and blue was dull, muted in the overcast morning light. It’s not the weekday morning of work or the weekend morning of worship. This is the Saturday of sleeping in; of the faint hope that groceries will hold out until market day. A good day to write letters or read that Christmas gift. A good day to paint the view from my window. I have carte blanche here: Neither location nor artist are identified, so the choices are mine. 

The view, I think, is westward across First Street NE. The house on the left and its yard belong to the Hemphill-Folsom mortuary, a once proud house given over to grieving and goodbyes. I can just make out the service stairs and porches of apartments above the Broad Street businesses, but not sure which is which. I know it’s a Saturday morning in February, but what year? Nineteen forty-two, the first year of the war (and three years before I was born), when Agincourt’s first casualties came home to funerals just across the street. This must be the work of Carl Wasserman, too old to have fought in the war, but young enough to know some who did and to mourn. Perhaps this painting was his way.

The palette and technique remind me of Cy Running. Anyone from the Red River Valley knows Running, Saint Cy in these parts, if Lutherans could be persuaded to canonize the recently deceased. Running established the art department at Concordia College where he and his students set the tone of art hereabouts for thirty years or more. The colors, the rough woodcutty brush strokes, even the prosaic small-town subject are his. Wasserman was Catholic, but perhaps the middling Midwest perspective from Main Street trumps religious affiliation. Shades of Garrison Keilor.

Carl’s painting joined the Memorial Collection that year.

Arti-fact

Several years ago I attended a history conference in Wisconsin. Conference organizers were two of the university’s senior faculty who reminded me of Statler and Waldorf—you know, those guys in the Muppet balcony, but with none of the snark. Maybe we had to be better acquainted to see that side of them.

My presentation concerned the Social Gospel, a favorite long-term interest which I hope might yet grow into something meaningful for others. At a conference reception—I can’t recall whether it was before or after my presentation—I had a conversation with one of our hosts; his remarks surprised me and, I suppose, might have revealed the perspective of a generation older than my own. One of them confessed curiosity regarding the proposed title: “Building the Social Gospel: American religious architecture, 1880-1920.” Hadn’t everything about the Social Gospel already been said? he wondered. I hoped not, otherwise why had I driven 450 miles to share my point of view.

These gentle persons represent the Whig view of history: that eventually all will be written about the past; everything that can be put to paper would reduce the future historian to a bookkeeper, updating that record, dotting vowels and crossing consonants, as required. Accountants are gonna have more fun.

What seemed the largest gap between us (Statler, Waldorf and me) was the role of material culture. Many, most or potentially all the orthodox historians of my experience until then began with facts and concerned themselves with interpretation. Humankind have thoughts, share them and then disagree. You know: the five reasons for the Civil War that you memorized in eighth grade American History (taught by the basketball coach). My proposition—that material consequences evidence ideas—was uncomfortable for Messrs Statler and Waldorf.

Where would I be?

The Agincourt Project would not exist except for the notion of material culture. In the first Agincourt seminar a few years ago (a good idea but basically a failed one), the fundamental question was this: What from Agincourt is currently up for auction on Ebay? I’m still engaged with that question. One such artifact plays its role in Anson Tennant’s backstory.

Ansondoor1

Design of Anson Tennant’s office door by Dan Salyards

Anson’s design for the Agincourt Public Library required a prequel, several in fact. So, what might have been Opus One developed precedent. Tennant’s first architectural commission occurred two eyars earlier when he remodeled Wasserman’s Hardward and bartered his services for a low-rent long-term lease on the space that would become his studio office. And that design—the most personal gesture a designer can make—emerged from the story of his family and youth. I can see its interior in my mind’s eye and might still recreate it (were it not for a nearly total lack of computer skills). In the meantime the office door will suffice, an Arts & Crafts product as personal as a signature. Enter Mr Salyards.

Ansonoffice2

Stained glass panel by Dan Salyards

Dan Salyards has designed the stained glass panel of Tennant’s office door, an advertisement for the young architect’s emerging Arts & Crafts philosophy. “Als ik kan” it says in a fraktur typeface. “To the best of my ability” is one translation. And it might have remained one-dimensional, until Dan incorporated a divider or caliper, a draughtsman’s tool that would have lain on Anson’s desk. Dan’s insight eerily parallels Jonathan Rutter’s portrait of Anson’s mother.

Then, when I showed the PDFs to Mark Anthony, he asked “But where’s the rest of the Masonic symbol?” and reminded me that a carpenter’s square would add yet another dimension. A quick trip to Ebay gave us a 19th century square so patinated that the numbers are barely discernable. At Dan’s suggstion, the square will be part of the window, rather than simply being screwed to the door. And that, in its turn, has made me wonder about Anson’s relationship with a grandparent or older family friend, someone handy with tools and, maybe, the foundation for a career in building.

That story is still aborning. In the meantime, enjoy Dan’s drawings and await the next installment.

DSM-V (Part 2)

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Rooster

Marielle Leer (neither her real name nor gender, necessarily) was christened Mary Ellen. But as her persona evolved she contrived an identity congruent with her emerging world and the centrality of her place within it. In that way she was hardly unique.

To be sure, I exert a gravitational effect on others and they upon me. But mine is the light of other stars; I’m warmed by it and reflect weakly to others what’s been afforded me. My system is Copernican, not Ptolemaic.

But Rooster Leer (more about that in a minute) may have been the most Ptolemaic person I’ve ever known: her gravitational force was unilateral. All were warmed by her light, save those she elected to deprive with solar storms, inert dependent satellites, and other convenient cosmic dust and debris. If she worshipped anything, it was Jonathan Edwards’ fickle god, “Who spake all things from nothing, and with ease // can speak all things to nothing, if (s)he please.” And it did please her often to do just that. I learned of one case two years ago and now a Chicago friend tells me of another.

Even before she was Marielle, she was Rooster, a nickname obvious to all. Her intense natural red hair spoke of north German and Irish heritage and its thickness may have paralleled a skin impervious to touch or even sensitivity. Her encouter with Ken Tucker had been both final and fatal. But, oh so briefly, it seemed the tables might have turned.

While Chicago reporter Tom Milauskas researched the Lenny Brookes murder case (barely news in Chicago and scarcely mentioned by the wire services), Milauskas stumbled on a brief mention of Marielle Leer. Ten years into her theatrical career in the Second City—then as now a major venue for theater—Leer died under mysterious circumstances. Roles were coming less often to the aging ingenue, so one wondered how natural the cause of death had been. A memorial service was announced at Fourth Presbyterian, the fashionable but always socially involved church on North Michigan Avenue—one of those churches that live the admonition to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Leer’s brief notice in the Tribune, though, was circumspect about her end. At least it had honored the actor’s creed: “I don’t care what you say about my performance. Just spell my name correctly.”

Within a few days, however, there was a retraction of sorts. Leer had been out of town (auditioning in New York, no less) and some spurned lover, it was intimated, had siezed the opportunity for revenge. For Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express,” there was the easy answer and the other one. Here, too.

Knowing Rooster Leer years ago—while she postured and I was pimply—I can imagine the public story was true: that someone repelled from their orbit about her had taken umbrage, less than passively. But I can also imagine a fading starlet going supernova! How better to regain luster for a declining career than to let it blink and burst anew. Leer could easily, even eagerly, have planted the story to accomplish two goals: catapulting her name into the firmament (once again and insuring its proper spelling), while simultaneously casting another into the farthest reaches of darkness. Whatever answer, it was for her a win-win scenario, the only measure that mattered.

Soon after, she performed “Madwoman of Chaillot,” though few in the audience were aware the title role had been cast by type.

 

DSM-V

The American Psychological Association has released its long-awaited revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The on-line draft is available for review and comment until its publication in May 2012.

Dr Bob voiced reservations about a few of the changes, some of them substantive, but those that affect me will remain relatively intact. I was especially interested in diagnosis #301.81, Narcissistic Personallity Disorder, because I know people with the affliction. If you know an NPD, you know why it might be worthwhile staying abreast of the latest professional perspectives. Among all the classes and categories of psychological dysfunction, NPDs may be among the least likely to seek treatment because they simply don’t see themselves as ill. There is surprisingly little you can do for an NPD except put as much distance between the two of you as possible.

A couple years ago Howard wrote two articles about an NPD of his acquaintance, Marielle Leer, whose story has an update.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Last week I got a letter from an old friend in Chicago, someone I worked with forty years ago at the start of my career in journalism. Tom Milauskas hired me for a newspaper job right after college and shared his investigative and research skills with a kid who knew less than nothing. I’m forever grateful to Tom for his wisdom and his friendship.

Two years ago I wrote here about Mary Ellen Leer, a high school classmate of sorts, who had only come back to life through an anonymous packet of receipts and snapshots that reconstructed a tragic weekend. Tom Milauskas had helped me locate information on Leer in Chicago and he recently found another odd footnote to her story.

An eye for an eye

Crime is no stranger to Chicago. Gang-related activities, racial tension, the growing disparity between those who have and who have not; they are endemic to large populations (and, perhaps, the stuff of “class warfare”?). I had come to Chicago shortly after the Summer of 1968.

One of the crimes I recall long after I had returned home for an opening at The Plantagenet was overlooked by many, I suspect: the murder of Lenny Brookes, a Black man found dead in the serviceway of a southside three-story Chicago apartment building. The neighborhood was scheduled for “renewal,” though the sort of “improvement” that would rise there was hardly a paradigm of social housing. Newer ain’t necessarily better.

Brookes had been found in the morning, with a single stab wound—from something like a screwdriver or ice pick—deftly swung upward through the ribs directly into the heart. Brookes had barely enough time to realize he was about to die. Inept police work sought a convenient candidate for a short and inevitably dirty trial. Public sentiment in the 70s wanted quick justice and, in this case, they got it. Mike Gerulis, a serviceman for the power company—Commonwealth Edison—had made a service call at that address late in the afternoon and some of his tools were found in the dark passage that lead to a rear stairway. Gerulis’ trial was a showpiece of judicial theater: an eye for an eye, with little concern for whose eye was put out. 

“An eye for an eye.” Few people ever complete the biblical quote, however, which goes on “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord of Hosts.” But that’s an article for another day. Gerulis remained in jail for more than ten years, an American Death Row domino on the slow track to vengeance, and was executed twelve years after the crime. So much for Mike Gerulis and his family—except that fellow Lithuanian-American and journalist Tom Milauskas was on the case.

Long before “cold case files” became popular TV fare, Tom pursued the case of his countryman Gerulis. A police contact in Florida wrote to share the story of Dale Sims, a woman who had died in Florida’s “redneck Riviera” in 1998. Sims had made a deathbed confession to a crime she’d committed decades earlier: a murder on Chicago’s south side while she worked as recruiter for a modeling school.

Sims had an appointment one evening with a family who hoped their child might get work modeling for catalog companies like Sears, J C Penney and Montgomery Ward. Fearful of evening meetings in downscale neighborhoods, Sims habitually carried an ice pick in her purse. That evening, suspecting something foul about the situation, she held the pick firmly in her hand while following the directions she’d been given. Halfway along the unlit corridor, a man lunged and she countered with a swift upswing of the pick.

Tom has verified much of the story passed on by Florda authorities and has posed this alternative story almost thirty years after the facts. Gerulis may yet be vindicated. But hidden in his files was a minor revelation about Marielle Leer.

More about that next week. In the meantime, make your judgments with due diligence. Please.

Franchise

There are very few topics that don’t interest me. And war is at the top of that list.

When I came to NDSU, Archer Jones was on the history faculty. Jones was a Southern gentleman, always conservatively dressed—I never saw him in anything but a suit, light-colored for sultry nights on the Charleston battery—and groomed to a level beyond “manscaping.” AH-chuh, as his wife called him (even when he was standing next to her), was a Civil War scholar.

For me there is nothing more tedious than second guessing the battlefield strategies of third-string generals, but this was mother’s milk for Dr Jones. So as a novice faculty member at the university, I attended some of his presentations—though I suspect being seen in the audience did me neither harm nor good. I did, however, observe a very characteristic faculty type.

My historical preferences and predilections are catholic. And some of them are probably as noxious to you as the Battle of Sunken Heights would be to me. I’m inordinately fond of the Social Gospel, for example, and the Progressive Movement. And I can develop a real lather over the Etruscans, as well. But the Agincourt Project has pushed me in often uncomfortable and sometimes unexpected ways—like the history of franchising.

 

Sh1

 

Franchising, I was surprised to learn, began in the Middle Ages, though its modern form (Pita Pit, etc.) began in the 19th century. Drug companies may have been among the earliest nationwide corporations to offer local companies the benefit of volume buying and a brand name. Van Kannel’s Sanitary Drug could hardly buy aspirin in quantities large enough to compete with the price of an identical bottle at the Rexall. So, many Agincourt businesses affiliated with gusto to enjoy the franchise advantage.

But there is a big difference between a home-owned business (Theo Van Kannel lived three blocks from the Broad Street storefront he owned) and the Big Box retailers of our time. His profits (minus the franchise fee, of course) were plowed back into the community he served—on the board of the Presbyterian church, as a depositor at the FM&M bank, and a regular customer at many local shops. Wally World does employ local people and it does pay local taxes (unless, of course it’s been given a five year tax holiday to encourage its very presence in the community!). But Wally’s profits vanish into corporate coffers connected with a post office box in Delaware.

So (he inquired with a pregnant pause) what has been Agincourt’s experience with business franchising? When did the Dairy Queen beat the hell out of Tastee Freeze? How have Adams’ Restaurant and the Bon Ton held their own against Highway Host and Micky D? Then there is the matter of automobile dealerships? Even the YMCA is a franchise of sorts. Uncomfortable as these questions may be, this is why I get the proverbial big bucks.

Any thoughts on the franchise phenomenon during the 20th century will be most welcome.