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William Halsey Wood


Among my several spastic blogs, the two most active have been those devoted to Agincourt and William Halsey Wood. But like “Ghostbusters”, who warned what could happen when their energy streams cross, I knew in my heart that something of the sort would happen here one day.

That day has come.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

The County Courthouse—Act II

Fennimore’s first purpose-built courthouse — a two-story Italianate cube whose cupola blew off in the same storm that gave us Saint Ahab — served the county’s needs until 1888. Growth can be a good thing, but it had also stressed the buiding’s court rooms and vaults well beyond capacity. Change was afoot.

In the spring of 1888 the commissioners decided to seek funding for a new courthouse. And to save time, they trolled for architectural interest, which brought, of course, the usual regional suspects, Agincourt having no resident practitioner at the time. Luckily, Father Cooley was serving a stint at Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter and he suggested an architect of his acquaintance in the East — William Halsey Wood — who had proposed the design for a new Saint Joe’s. By the time a bond issue passed, Wood had the commission and Agincourt was about to receive its own Great Pyramid.



I recall the second courthouse very well, a pile of masonry unlike any I had seen before or known since. I applied for my first driver’s license there; I cast my first presidential ballot there in 1960 (for JFK, I’m proud to admit). And I renewed my fishing license there each year until the summer of 1966 when lightening reduced its burly majesty to romantic ruin. I hadn’t actually known much about the building, though, until last Tuesday night when Professor Ron Ramsay, a friend from Fargo, North Dakota, lectured on his passion for William Halsey Wood at the old public library.

Born in 1855 but dead at the age of forty-one. That’s incredibly sad.

William Halsey Wood designed almost sixty religious buildings in his brief career, including an unbuilt design for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. But with churches aplenty and a bundle of handsome homes, public buildings constituted the architect’s smallest category. So our courthouse of 1888-1889 may be his only government building. I wonder which building committee would be more difficult: the elect(ed) or the righteous? These days it’s difficult to tell the difference.

The architect’s compact mass of brick, granite and limestone can still be seen as an outlined plaza on the courthouse square. Six cylinders bulged from a one-hundred-fifty-foot square, like so much clay oozing between the fingers of a clenched fist. At its heart, though, a 3-D cast iron grid laced with stairs paid homage to Piranesi. I remember climbing them at the age of twelve when dad got called for jury duty and brought me along for a civics lesson.

Windows cut deep into the masonry walls only emphasized their thickness. Some were colored and leaded in the style of Tiffany, but from cheaper suppliers in Chicago or Saint Louis, I suspect. Transoms carried light far into the interior, though I remember it as a dim echo chamber of hard surfaces and creaking floors. The walls themselves seemed woven in red, orange, black, pink, grey and tan like an old Indian basket. As Professor Ramsay spoke Tuesday evening, I genuinely missed its crusty charm — like a well-dressed bachelor uncle with a potty mouth.

Several dormers punctured the massive pyramidal roof but there must have been enough room left under its grey-green slates to house a dozen families. And the final flourish? A wrought iron weather vane masquerading as mediaeval archer. Shades of Arthur Mächen.

Wood’s career thrived at a time when architects related to the building industry in a fundamentally different way. He could specify a rich palette of materials in remarkable variety; forms and colors suiting his sense of hue and texture. Today we are ever more limited to what suppliers are willing to make and only then in economical quantities that fit tight budgets in a flagging economy. Also, new materials and new ways of building challenge builders to bid on the side of caution to cover their inexperience.

It’s no wonder we admire architects and builders of Halsey Wood’s generation. Their design and craftsmanship are irreplaceable.

William Halsey Wood is real, though his contribution to Agincourt is convenient fiction. In this case, however, I’ve carried the fiction another step by also inventing my lecture to the Fennimore County Historical Society. Forgive me for entering my own fictional world. It’s comfy there.

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