Home » 2013 » January

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House

Eric Hodgins’ novel Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House came to life on the big screen, with hilarious performances by Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as New York apartment dwellers Jim and Muriel Blandings.

In their crowded New York flat, shared with two daughters and a maid, the daily convergence of adults and children at the single bath room encourages them to think about relocation. Set in the post-war 50s, Jim Blandings chooses suburban flight and the ranks of commuters over urban homesteading. Exploring rural Connecticut, the comedy of errors involves real estate agents, contractors, well drillers, and their hapless but thoroughly professional architect Bill. The wreck of an “historic house” they acquire makes “Money Pit” seem like a romp in the park. When it essentially collapses, they set about the design and construction of a new house that could have been in “Pleasantville”.

Jim Blandings is an advertising executive and poorly versed in the building arts. Yet, as the lord of his soon-to-be manor, Jim feels compelled to involve himself in all aspects of the project. I’ve always thought that this is one of two films that all architecture majors should see (the other is “Witness”) because it says so very much about the inability of most Americans to understand what design and construction are about.

In one scene with architect Bill strategically not on the premises, a carpenter inquires about information missing from the plans. “These,” he intones in a Brooklyn accent, “don’t say nothin’ ’bout no rabbetted lallies. You want ’em rabbetted or not?” As cost overruns had already become an issue, it seems thrifty for Jim to say “no,” which he does with karmic consequence. But my favorite line is delivered by Muriel Blandings, who notes much earlier in the film “There are those who observe and those who participate”, apropos of what I cannot recall.

At one point I thought Muriel had spoken my epitaph.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Bearing Witness

“There comes a time in your life, when you walk away from all the drama and people who create it. You surround yourself with people who make you laugh. Forget the bad, and focus on the good. Love the people who treat you right, pray for the ones who don’t. Life is too short to be anything but happy. Falling down is a part of life, getting back up is living.”José N. Harris, Mi Vida

I haven’t read José Harris’s book, but this quote peppers my FaceBook feed several times a month, where I’ve often been inclined to click “Like.” And then, for some reason I hesitate and don’t. What is it about this upbeat, life-affirming advisory that nags me each time it appears?

Perhaps it’s the very essence of FaceBook itself and other social media, where we’re enabled to associate with like-minded folks who think and act and vote like we do. Oh, I do enjoy the knowledge that there are people out there who make me laugh and treat me right. It’s also temporarily comforting to forget the bad, but also sanctimonious to pray for those outside my comfort zone; who treat me poorly, if at all; the “others” who have not been labeled “friend.” I do not welcome drama, and I certainly hope not to have contributed more than my share to the polarized political discourse of our time. But I resist withdrawing my bucket and shovel from the sandbox of life to play in a comfortable corner with those of like and likeable mind.

Life is too short to think that my happiness is all that matters, which reminds me of our late friend James Edward Tierney, whose passing eighteen months ago left a gaping hole.

Mabeltainter

With Tea Party single-mindedness, Jim Tierney bore witness to a belief in theater as the salvation of the world. I auditioned once—during my high school years, which I try not to think about—for a Tierney production of “A Thurber Carnival” at the community theater he founded. Whatever I read for him evaporated long ago from my recollection, but I will always treasure the skill with which he drew out the best I had to offer and how gently I was thanked for my effort, with the clear understanding that my future might be in words, but decidedly not those delivered upon the stage.

Several years later, after I had gone to Chicago and joined the dubious profession of journalism through its side door, Jim and I had occasion to talk about a certain actress of local renown. I recall the incision of his observation: “Oh, she’s not acting. Narcissists know only one way to behave.” Jim made enemies—some wouldn’t set foot in the theater while he lived; their loss—but he also made actorsHe made participants of those who had merely observed.

Marine boot camp at Paris Island was child’s play compared to a Tierney production. His casting was odd, eccentric, even exotic; often passing over superficially better actors for a less experienced choice. He risked the untested and tried the untrod. He tamed the unruly and released the inner beast of the mild-mannered and milquetoast among us. [I, presumably, had no inner beast, which is good to know but hard to admit.] Granted, Jim Tierney made both friends and enemies along the way, and on this point he is like the vast majority of his fellow creatures. But he also bore witness to a standard that inspired us all and raised the bar for the community’s cultural life. 

So, I will humbly disagree with author José N. Harris and welcome life’s drama; I will engage both the good and the bad and pray for the perspicacity to see the difference between them.

Life is too short to seek nothing but happiness.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#4)

My friend Howard Tabor is reluctant to talk about his family, the Tennants.

But the extended Tennant clan fascinates me: their family is large and influential; comfortable, if not actually rich. Anson reflected on his high school years once: “Poor students thought I was rich; rich kids thought I was cheap,” he told me. My family, on the other hand is non-existant and inconsequential to all but me: anyone claiming to be related is mistaken; as the only child of an only child, the very idea of cousins is alien. I’m keenly aware of it at holidays.

So it surprised me to see his column in The Plantagenet the Saturday after Christmas.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Holidays with friends and family end the year with a mixture of emotion. Aside from family who are present, there are others we miss, who can’t be here—and others we’d like to miss, but dare not admit that we don’t.

My mother is still in her own home, living each Christmas as though it were her first. And my sister and her children are here from Vermont. But dad’s chair is empty and so is the place vacated this year by our formidable Aunt Phyllis, the family centennarian. Tonight, dangling between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I crave great-uncle Anson’s company, the man who died twice.

It’s only proper that Uncle A had two deaths, since he enjoyed two full and remarkable lives. The first involved his education and brief practice as an architect—not Agincourt’s first but perhaps its best. Knowing him made me think I should follow that example. His works from that period—1907 to 1915—are few but still largely intact. I walk past the old library at least twice a day. I live in the Wasserman Block he remodelled in 1912. And I sometimes meditate in Saint Crispin’s Chapel, his last executed design.

The family thought Uncle A had gone down with the Lusitania and mourned the loss of one so young, so promising. We didn’t know that he’d survived, however, clinging to flotsam in the North Atlantic and rescued by a Basque fishing trawler. As an Iowan landlubber, it came as a surprise that Basques of northern Spain venture as far as Greenland and the Grand Banks to catch the wily cod. What did they make of an amnesiac in striped pajamas among their catch-of-the-day?

Happily, I got to know Anson Tennant before his second death in 1968. The middle name on my birth certificate reads “Alan” but in ’68 I changed it to honor him (without having to replace all those monogrammed towels!). He had that kind of presence. Twenty-one years of his mental fog lifted in the summer of 1936, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Two telegrams preserved in the family albums cancel each other out: the first confirming his disappearance at sea; the second from our State Department announcing his return from the land beyond the Styx.

Charon rows both ways, I guess. And on this return trip the boatman also brought us Anson’s new family, wife Graxi, and my cousins Alize, Mikel and Aitor, who taught me their language with gusto—a Spanish word because I can’t recall the Basque term for infectious enthusiasm.

When the war was over in 1945—the year of my birth—he and his family became bi-continental, living six months in exotic Gipuzkoa and the other six here. I’ve written about his fractured life elsewhere. So today, I simply acknowledge the tangence of our lives; the time we shared, the linkage forged, the torches passed, the presence missed. The void unfilled.

Who’s missing from your life?

“Our Founder”

In San Francisco there is a good deal of public art, sculpture, etc. that enlivens the city’s streets and plazas. One of the buildings that I liked very much as an undergraduate is the Bank of America at 555 California Street, and in its Giannini Plaza there is a rather nice sculture titled “Transcendence” by artist Masayuki Nagare, though most of the natives call it “The Banker’s Heart” (an image reproduced here courtesy of a Creative Commons license at wikipedia). What it may be transcending I cannot say. But BofA’s reputation seems to have earned its more popular name.

Transcendence_-_the_banker27s_heart

The building behind, by the way, is by SOM and was admirable in its day for the way it “met the sky” as well as its juncture with the ground plane, feats not always handled well in the Age of Highrise Masturbation. No wonder architects are said to suffer from an “edifice complex”.

The oldest bank in Agincourt is the Farmers, Mechanics and Merchants or FM&M, a fusion during the Great Depression of the older Farmers & Mechanics State Bank and the Merchants National. Of their relative economic health in the 30s, I can’t say very much, but I am interested in fleshing out their individual and collective histories. One thing I hope is true: that their leadership during the Depression was more exemplary–a model for the shared experience of small town America–than the mercenary bankers of more recent experience, when no one ought to be “too big to fail”.

So, at the FM&M today, still situated at the prestigious corner of Broad and Agincourt (simultaneously #1 Agincourt Avenue NW and #2 North Broad Street), you’ll find the portrait of its president at the merging of the two more fragile institutions and the person who guided it through the troubled waters of those years. He is un-named as yet but I intend to make his an admirable career. What think you of his portrait?

fmmpresident-scaled1000

Benchmark

The project has reached some sort of benchmark, I suppose.

In computer parlance, there are “spiders” working even as you read this, scavenging information from the world-wide web and adding it to various information websites, some of which may even charge for access to what they’ve gathered for free. Oh, we do live in the Information Age.

Needing to gather the random postings I’ve made concerning the Kraus family, Agincourt’s early ironmogers, a google search [odd how that’s become a verb, isn’t it?] yielded an address-book citation for Anton Kraus, founder of Agincourt’s branch of the family. Folks seeking genealogical references to their long lost ancestor Anton Kraus are going to wonder when and why he’d made that detour to northwestern Iowa. Have I done something perverse? I certainly hope so.

Krause Bridge & Iron may very well show up in listings of American business, too. I’m chuckling now, because that would add even more frosting to the cake.

Tony Kraus

The snapshot is too casual, too matter-of-fact, and the object itself is incomplete. But soon I’ll be able to post a more worthy photo of the wrought iron column capital from Agincourt’s 1915 public library. In the meantime, though, there will be time to flesh out the story of its creation—the real one and the one for Agincourt’s historical record.

Six years now I’ve been on a quest for ironmongery, someone who could get into the head of a World War I-vintage blacksmith. Then, last September I was chatting with a second-year student in our department. I wondered how his summer had gone; whether he’d made some cash for school. “No,” he told me, “I spend a lot of time at my forge.” You can search for something very rare, and then, when you least expect it, that rarity knocks at your very door. Christopher Meyer took my miniscule sketch (shown below) for the Sullivanesque wrought iron wreath I’d seen in my head and ran with it in ways I could not have taken. So, believe me when I claim to run with scissors and not play well with others: it makes this collaboration borderline miraculous.

Columncap

There are scarce few people who “get” what Agincourt is about. While all are welcome to come and play, the resonance of some is palpable.

PS: If you want to read a little about the Kraus family, look here for an introduction.

Dominos

Not the pizza purveyor! I mean the metaphor. The image of domino soldiers at attention—attentivewaiting in the long afternoon sun to pass out and be knocked over by the PFC standing next to you, so that you too can fall and displace the next in line.

Dominos

We, every one of us, have crafted these chain reactions. I did it as a kid, and you did too. We wasted (invested?) a tedious hour or more standing the dominos on end, careful mechanical spacing, in perfect patterns that spiral and fork and criss-cross, hoping that none go awry and foil the ultimate tile’s last task. Lately, however, I see that I’m not the puppet master. The pattern isn’t mine. In fact, any patterns are imperceptible from where I stand, because I’m just one of those dominos, going about my business, unaware of that imminent whop up the side of the head. Oddly, the feeling is relief, not dread.

A domino hit me yesterday.

GROU

I’ve blogged earlier about the village of Grou, colonized about 1890 by Dutch settlers from Friesland in northern Holland. I had imagined a centralized, planned community, rather than one that was dispersed and agricultural. North Dakota had a concentration of Dutch in the southeast, as did Manitoba. But other than town names, there is practically no physical evidence of their presence. Cultural geographers have documented evidence for various ethnic farming communities in Wisconsin—some of whom have left signs of cultural spoor. So what might we expect in rural Fennimore county?

During the last third of the 19th century, the Netherlands began to divide along socio-political and religious lines: the rural Protestants were conservative politically, while the urban (and southern) Catholics were liberal; some of the latter group even drifted toward socialism.

But now comes our friend Mr Jonathan Rutter—the domino who struck me Saturday afternoon, though I’m certain Jonathan didn’t see it that way.

Goldenil

He had seen the introduction to Grou and wanted to become part of the story. Apparently, on his mom’s side of the family there was a Huguenot relative who had emigrated to the Netherlands, avoiding religious persecution in France, which I find both fascinating and a confirmation that the Nativists among us—those who imagine ourselves privileged over more recent immigrants to the U.S. I’m a byproduct of emigration to avoid Prussian military conscription. And I may also be a byproduct of emigration caused by the Highland Clearances. How do you account for your own family’s arrival on America’s shores? Irish potato famine? Building a transcontinental railway? Religious persecution? Ethnic cleansing? Civil war?  Every one of us is an emigrant of one sort or another and poorly positioned to fiercely defend these borders from the onslaught on more recent immigrant groups.

Quite aside from those issues, however, Mr Rutter has joined me in the sandbox of history, and I wonder where this Huguenot connection will take us.

Oh, and the windmill above is at Golden, Illinois, beautifully restored evidence of a Dutch colony in the vicinity.

Grou

Rural Fennimore county is currently only a patchwork of people and events. But it wants to be more than a collection of fragments.

There’s the rural cemetery northwest of Agincourt, for example, the earthly remains of the Wester band of LDS converts, a footnote in Mormon history and probably the most notable event in the county’s uneventful past. Odd that so few people know about it

A bigger player in turn-of-the-century county history is the lake country at its western edge, Sturm und Drang, the twin lakes at its heart, have been a resort community since the late 1870s, and an artists’ colony coalesced there in the 20s and 30s.

Four rural communities have developed in Fennimore county, though not all of them have flourished. Muskrat City was the first county seat but low-lying land and a tendency to flood has made it a near ghost town. Fahnstock, on the other hand, is situated seven miles west of Agincourt and has become a virtual suburb, especially following the Tri-County Aerodrome (now the regional airport) locating there in the 20s. Several miles southeast is the community of Nimby, though the less said about them the better. And then there is Grou, a village northeast of Agincourt, near the source of Crispin Creek.

Grou is a Dutch community from about 1890, and to be said properly Grou must be growled deep in the throat. The community takes its name from Grou in the Netherlands, technically in Friesland, Holland’s northernmost province, which boasts its own language. School children in Grou are bi-lingual, learning both Frisian and Dutch. Our AFS son Tjipke hails from Grou and shared with us a Frisian tongue-twister capable of reproduction by only a native speaker and a sure-fire way to identify any Nazi sympathizers during the occupation. It makes “Theophilus Thistle…” sound like a walk in the park.

John W. Reps’ 19th Century Town Planning in America was one of the first books added to my undergraduate bookshelf in the mid-60s and I have been fascinated with the planning impulse ever since. Agincourt itself is an exercise case-in-point, but I have wanted to design something tighter, more focussed, and, perhaps, with overtones of socialism. 

Historically there is plenty of precedent for circular or polygonal town plans. Karlsruhe and Mannheim in Germany come to mind. And there are all those radial schemes by Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban (15 May 1633 – 30 March 1707; look him up, you’ll be astounded) who built fortified towns at the edges of France as a defense against invasion from the German states, the Spanish or those damned English. They didn’t do much to impede Hitler, however.

Vauban_lille_plan_citadelle

Much closer to home (but equally related to The Enlightenment) there are point-generated examples of American towns. Circleville, Ohio may be the best known among them, but don’t go there looking for the circle: over the years reason has whittled away at its original form and imposed rectilinearity with a vengeance. Surveyors just don’t appreciate the circle.

Circleville

So my goal has been to craft a plausible history of another group of Dutch in Iowabut unlike the folks in Pella (who came as Protestants and politically conservative), I hoped for a transplant of the late 19th century’s growing liberalism, even socialism. It turns out not to be impossible and, equally fortuitous, for them to have been Catholic. (I had wanted the original St Ahab’s church to be recycled as a chapel-of-ease at Grou, until its return to become the cemetery chapel.)

My challenge now is three-fold: 1) draft a plausible narrative that brings a Dutch colony to Fennimore county circa 1890; 2) imagine the plat they might have brought with themvery likely in metric; and 3) finally get around to designing the original St Ahab’s which Howard Tabor wrote about several years ago, but is about as tangible as a tone poem.

McCarthy on Main Street

Forty years ago or so, I was on better terms with the Historical Society in Bismarck. Frank Vyzralek was the archivist then, an unapologetic eccentric with mutton-chop whiskers and long Custer-like locks—salt-and-pepper tending to white—and anxious to hit the road with me at the hint of an untrodden path. On those field trips, conversations ranged pretty broadly. One that I recall involved a de facto gift to the NDSHS collections—because no one else wanted it. 

In a lodge hall at Hillsboro—an innocuous town midway twixt Fargo and Grand Forks—someone stumbled on a trunk. No one wanted either the trunk or its contents. Indeed, no one was willing to admit that the trunk may have belonged to anyone in Hillsboro. Its contents? Klan paraphernalia, white robes, conical hats, and all that. Our photographer-friend Todd Strand (I incorrectly attributed this to the equally observant James R. Dean) took a photo of Frank wearing the stuff, cross-armed and blocking the door to his office in the old Liberty Memorial Building. The title “Frank can’t see you now. He’s in a meeting” says it all. 

Wondering about the McCarthy years in Iowa, I was shocked to find an article about the Klan’s presence in Iowa today! Forget about the 50s. Statistics can deceive, but the headline suggests that right now, Mississippi is second only to Iowa in KKK groups per capita. That creeps me out. But it also convinces me that the 1950s in smalltown Iowa might have been sociologically ugly. 

Admitting that the KKK is, indeed, a northern phenomenon, and that Sen Joe McCarthy was from Iowa’s neighbor Wisconsin, I know these themes exist in Agincourt history and that I’ll write about them eventually. But since the project has to do with landscape and narratives, I wonder what the Klan means in the cityscape. Does Joe McCarthy ooze from storefronts on Broad Street?