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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.


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