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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Charles Mulford Robinson (1869-1917)

We should be in the midst of a centennial appreciation for the City Beautful movement of the early 20th century–but we’re not.

Two years ago, during the summer of 2009, Chicago celebrated the 100th anniversary of its Burnham Plan with the premier of an oratorio “Plans” based on the writings of Daniel Hudson Burnham in which he so famously urged us to “Have no little plans,” for they have no power to stir our souls, not to mention the short-term good they might do for the infrastructure and the long-term benefit for the improvement of urban life. I attended the second performance (of two; the first occurred in the rain, which I happily avoided) of Torke’s work for chorus, tenor and soprano soloists and orchestra in Millennium Park and had the good fortune to say hello to Torke himself as he circled the seating area to assess the park’s sound system.

Some months before that June 2009 performance, I’d wondered how the City Beautiful had touched Agincourt and conceived a modest project initiated by a lecture sponsored by the Civic Club. The speaker was Charles Mulford Robinson, a New York native and journalist who had become the voice for urban beautification (read “civic improvement”) and had more than a little influence here in the Midwest, particularly at cities such as Cedar Rapids in Iowa and Stillwater, Minnesota. Why not a brief guest appearance in Agincourt.

The consequence of Robinson’s lecture was a work of enlightened self-interest on North Broad Street–not unlike this image of a similar project in Spencer, Iowa of about the same time.

Boulevard001

I had imagined the residents of a two-block stretch of Broad Street (from Fennimore to Ralph avenues) initiating a redesign of those two blocks with narrowed roadways and landscaped central boulevard, underwriting the cost and ongoing maintenance as a special assessment on their property taxes. A short article appeared in The Plantagenet to that effect.

No project is wholly good, however, no matter how altruistic it may seem. Because a few days after the two or three paragraph item (commenting on Robinson’s lecture and the project that grew from it) there appeared a letter-to-the-editor suggesting other motives, more self-serving than altruistic: the Northwest Iowa Traction Company (builders of the interurban line from Fort Dodge through Agincourt and on its way toward Sioux City) was also negotiating a franchise with the city for a local trolley route. That route–the anonymous writer noted–might logically have run north on Broad toward the city limits and then swung west to the Normal School campus on its way back to the terminal at Broad and Louisa. But the writer saw a sinister plan to divert the noise and property devaluation a trolley route might bring to those large homes of prominent citizens onto an adjacent street of more modest means and less political clout. What may seem good and just and beneficial to some may be anathema to another.

So, the two-block boulevarding of North Broad Street–a grand place-making gesture of the early 20th century’s City Beautiful movement–was not without its detractors. Might we interpret this as an example of trickle-down aesthetics?

Architecture is always better than it looks

…and more important, too. My life-long love affair with architecture taught me ages past that buildings are better than they appear–and far closer than they may seem in rear-view mirrors.

A visit (dare I say pilgrimage) to LeCorbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp in the foothills of the French Alps demonstrated the multi-sensory nature of architecture in skilled hands: I discovered a building known only through still images that demanded my total participation for its fullest enjoyment and appreciation. I’ve rambled on at great length elsewhere about the role of time and the five senses required by Ronchamp’s designer, the Swiss-French architect LeCorbusier (a.k.a. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris). [A prospective faculty member once gave a lecture during her interview and also proved that it is, indeed, possible to come away from Ronchamp with only the dimmest and most superficial understanding, so my own visit had taught me about both architecture and myself.]

Howard is engaged with is own forensic encounter just now–restoration of the Wasserman Block–and wants to share his own observations about a building more beloved than its appearance might seem to warrant.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Meier and Son and Son and Son

Restoring an old building to productive life is infinitely more rewarding as an investment of sweat equity.

We could, I suppose, have got a bigger construction loan and hired out all the labor, but Rowan and I would have missed all those hours of therapeutic stripping, scraping and spackling each evening and weekend for the past six months. Quite aside from such intimacies, we’d also have learned nothing of the building’s narrative, its story.

We’ve taken special pains with Rooms 205-207, a five-room suite half way down the second floor corridor but substantially different from the clusters on either side. Not only did it bear the stamp of its architect-occupant, that architect was my great-uncle Anson Tennant.

a.c.tennant architect

That’s what the small print says in stained glass in the office door (recently restored by our friend Dan Salyards). But, carefully removed form its frame (the upper panel of a Dutch door), we also found the carpenters names who had built and installed it. Mr Salyards has signed and dated his restoration of the window, just as Meier & Sons had branded their work ninety-nine years earlier. We should all take such pride in our labors.

I didn’t recognize the names, so a 1910 city directory satisfied my curiosity, if only just enough to want more information. The Plantagenet archives yielded more information and led me to a family descendant.

John Meier & Sons were listed in 1910 as both contractors and carpenters with their shop on the southwest side of Agincourt in the old Syndicate Mill. Scattered news items and occasional obituaries offered the identities of other family members and ultimately brought me to Beverly Brandt, John Meier’s granddaughter and, it turns out, a near-neighbor at Sturm und Drang. Small world. Beverly lives in Sioux city, so our paths have only crossed at the lakes’ general store, provisioning for the weekends.

Names and dates are useful but good and worthwhile history always has a face. Beverly gave me a postcard view of her ancestors and another example of their work: the whole crew building a house circa 1910.

Child-labor

In the dining room window is John Meier himself and standing just outside is his father-in-law Jacob Weise. On the scaffolding above are son-in-law Michael Schutz (part of the Schutz clan who built the original Saint Ahab’s, I’m guessing) and John Meier Jr. While up in the dormer are two younger Meier children, Henry and Rolf. Michael Schutz’s younger brother stands at the right of the house with Joseph Connaway, an employee not (yet) married into the family business. This corporate portrait is rounded out with its motive power, two horses named Sally and Gert.

Looking at this job site I had to believe OSHA would have shut them down in a heartbeat. And though the photo is undated, the two boys in the gable cannot be more than fifteen and probably violating some child labor law, now if not then. Life has changed since this innocent photograph was taken a hundred or so years ago, and for some much more than others. What strikes me here is the image of an era where both kinship and pride matter; stable relationships grounded in community and concerned with the quality of work and good repute.

Saturday I went shopping for socks (a preoccupation of mine) and was astonished how difficult it was to find 100% cotton socks, American-made and branded with a family name. I found them—Cabot & Sons of Northfield, Vermont—and rewarded all concerned with my custom: me, because they look and feel so good; deBijenkorf’s Department Store for stocking them; and Ric Cabot, their manufacturer, for holding fast to tradition in tough economic times. Kudos to us all.

Now I wonder what’s become of Meier & Sons.

Hats

People don’t wear hats any more.

Except for baseball and stocking caps, men have foregone the headgear of yesteryear. Forgotten the fedora; banished the bowler. And women (except those attending the wedding of William and Kate or the opening of Ascot) have given up their heritage of head finery as well. This is just one more loss that I’ll have to accept with age and infirmity.

As an eBay addict, I can tell you there are a butt load of real photo postcard portraits of people up for auction, most of whom are tragically unidentified by either name or location. I can also tell you most of them are wearing hats!

Hats01

Turn-of-the-century hats astound us with their audacity. This woman’s hat and car-length coat suggest an outing in the chevy roadster. Let’s hope her hatpins are firmly set; it would be a shame to lose such a finial. It would also be interesting to photoshop her into the Porch of the Maidens on the Erechtheion. I suspect her anonymity will be shortlived; that she is destined to have been an Agincourt resident and to have a story worthy of that hat.

Then, of course, there are people and situations where chapeaux would only get in the way, as in this second card. There’s something going on here that cries out for explanation. Who is this happy hatless mono-bosomed woman? 

Hats02

Fortunately, the card reveals her name, Etta, and the Presbyterian social she’s just served. I’m guessing the pies were delicious.

Oh, and more people need to be named Etta.

Child Labor

Reality is over-rated. 

I spend some time every day in the world of Agincourt, Iowa; harmless enough, even therapeutic, according to Dr Bob.

It’s a made-up place, concocted from experience; drawn in equal measure, I hope, from success and failure; from accomplishment and its opposite, whatever that is. My goal (other than an exploration of the relationship between narrative and place, which has been the heart of the Agincourt Project and remains its stated objective) is creating something more real than real. I want everyone to wonder if they didn’t stop there once on the way back from Omaha and have that phenomenal five-bean soup; of wanting to google the name of the restaurant and write for the recipe.

My investment of time and other resources in this project has been substantial and worthwhile. To remind myself, all I have to do is watch TV and glimpse another world in the process of being made-up: the Tea Party World of tough love, child labor, indentured servitude, real death panels and so much other calculated indifference to the human condition that I keep a plastic pail in the TV room for vomit. 

My grandparents were Republicans when being a Republican was an honorable point of view. We liked Ike, who warned us of the military-industrial complex. We enjoyed a political process where George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey consorted with the likes of Olympia Snow and Mark Hatfield for the greater good of us all. But what are we offered in their stead?

How can I not despair of Rick Perry, Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, for krisake, “family values” candidates whose one-eyed trouser snakes cannot be constrained! Gingrich’s revolving charge account at Tiffany’s is larger than the GNP of several Third World countries.

How many jobs has Senator Rick Bergreputedly among the ten richest members of the US Senatecreated with his personal wealth? How many dollars have been saved by Rick Perry’s electric chair or would have been by Herman Cain’s electric fence? This is a world of fantasy, not imaginationand I make an important distinction between the two. I’ll take the constructive imagination of Agincourt—the collective imaginings of so many students, colleagues and friends—over paranoid delusional fantasy any day.

Election Day 2012 cannot pass quickly enough. And, frankly, I’d welcome a coma until then.

Meier01

Somehow all this angst grows from a recent postcard acquisition: the construction of an unidentified house in an unspecified place; a posed shot with eight unnamed housebuilders and two anonymous horses.

And somehow, also, I suspect my friend Howard Tabor will have something to say about it.

Everything old is new again

Well, not quite everything, present company included.

When Rowan Oakes and Howard Tabor bought the old Wasserman Building, intent on preventing another gap-toothed block in downtown Agincourt, they knew not what they’d wrought. Some of us see the patina of age; others, the crust of corrosion and decay. I’ve got a high threshhold of crud. So does Howard.

Howard saw the project as an obligation, not just an opportunity. Great uncle Anson Tennant had remodelled the Wassermans’ building, enlarged their apartment and bartered services for a favorable five-year lease on his own studio-home: Suite 205-207. Howard described its interior in a sesqui-centennial piece a few years ago when I drove down with Richard Kenyon to offer some advice.

Long before the appearance of magazines like American Bungalow and Style 1900 popularized the Arts & Crafts movement—a deluge of philosophical perspective and practical advice—accurate information for would-be restorationists was hard to find. But Anson came to architectural awareness in the thick of it: Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard were alive and eminently quotable and Anson’s parents subscribed to The Fra. So his studio walls were raw stained plaster; the wood, beeswaxed. His fireplace hood, copper he’d hammered himself. And the office door? Dutch, with a stained lgass panel that set the tone for prospective clients.

Howard and Rowan took liberties with the two other suites, but Anson’s office was inviolate. No detail too small, no quest too obtuse. So, when they asked about stained glass, I recommended my friend Dan Salyards. Just re-leaded, it’s ready for another hundred years and Dan is on to other projects.

Ron1

Next year will be its centennial. Sounds like an excuse for a party.