Louis Sullivan (and his office staff) designed a number of single-family residences. Those that date from the Adler & Sullivan years (pre-1895) are interesting for their spatial qualities, their modularity and interpenetrations. I hadn’t known very much about these until the publication of The Complete Works of Adler & Sullivan, a book that went out of print almost immediately (they must have printed an incredibly short run, as it now retails for $450 or you can find a copy in the OP market). Many of those early houses were for Dankmar Adler’s relatives and friends — names like Adler, Kohn, Felsenthal. All of those houses are long since gone to rubble and kindling, but happily many were photographed and a handful were even measured by architectural photographer Richard Nickel.
The later houses, those that interest me for qualities more applicable to the Agincourt library project, are roughly contemporary with Sullivan’s small-town banks of 1908-1919 and are similar in scale to Carnegie libraries of those same years. Since you may not be familiar with them, let me post a few photos here, both as information and as sources for Agincourt.
The Henry Babson house stood in Riverside, Illinois and is an almost exact contemporary of Wright’s Avery Coonley house, a near neighbor in the same Chicago suburb. The Babson house is sadly gone, doubly frustrating since it stood while I was in high school. I could have seen it!
The Babson property must have been about the size of the Coonley site, because the site plan survives and shows extensive lawns and outbuildings–one of which, the stable, survives as a single-family home. The house plan is a freight train of a building with porches, living, dining and other social spaces strung out like so many cars in a long train; some accessible along a central axis, others “in line” but reached by a parallel corridor. From the time that I saw its plan forty or fifty years ago, I have loved this place.
The long pure shape of its brick rectangle is violated by Richardsonian arched openings and a large second-story porch looking for all the world like the sidewheel cover of a Mississippi River steamboat. While the hosue compares very favorably with Wright’s Coonley design (Wright comes out on top in terms of livability), the Babson house perhaps ought to be seen against Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s “House for a Lover of the Arts”. I’ve only recently come across an image by Richard Nickel of the sidewheeler under demolition, a sad commentary on Sullivan’s value to mid-century Modernists.
For Agincourt’s purposes, Babson was a likely inspiration for Anson Tennant, a building he could have seen during his brief period of study in Chicago (when the house was virtually new and, potentially, a topic of conversation) and also conveniently published in The Architectural Record.
I’m embarrassed to admit growing up fewer than five miles from the Babson house—even less distance as the crow flies—but it disappeared in 1960 when I was fifteen and barely sentient.
There are as many solutions to any problem as there are seekers. Indeed, any designer is likely to imagine multiple solutions to the same problem; it all depends, doesn’t it. Time. Place. Circumstance. I can help students along that path, but I cannot take the first step for them. Nor do I want to. But it’s as painful to watch that hesitancy in others as it is in me.
From where I stand, the most difficult task is, indeed, articulating the problem itself. Many years ago we had a lecturer from the American Society of Landscape Architects Foundation—I think his name was Gary Robinette—who enabled me to learn at least one very important thing. “The true professsional,” he said “understands that the solution to a problem may not be possible with the skills you have to offer.”
Consider, for example, the couple who approach an architect for the design of a new home. The perceptive designer will do his client an enormous favor by suggesting that a new house will not save their marriage; that psychological counseling just might. Likewise, a new factory will not improve production, but eliminating one vice president and replacing another would be a significant step toward increased efficiency. The problem with problems is that we often pursue their solution within the wrong skill set.
The Agincourt Public Library and Tennant Memorial Gallery has been my exploration into the mind of architect Louis Sullivan. His death in 1924 and my birth in 1945 have complicated our communication. And, frankly, one recent scholar hasn’t helped. To a certified INSP, it is the work itself that speaks. The code is there for the conscientious intuitive observer. Would that were me.
Though the impetus for this project was the cluster of Sullivan’s smalltown banks—Owatonna, Grinnell, Sidney, Cedar Rapids are my favorites—I realized that they weren’t the most likely source for inspiration. It was Sullivan’s houses (most of them are too early and the late ones are failures of domesticity) that have offered a wealth of ideas. Four of his late houses date from the period of the banks: the Henry Babson house in Riverside, Illinois; the Bradley house in Madison, Wisconsin; and unbuilt projects for Carl Bennett at Owatonna—especially interesting because Bennett also commissioned the most famous of Sullivan’s banks—and a summer house on Lake Geneva for a client named Goodrich. It has been their scale, their materiality, their sequencing of space that have helped me along my own path toward a solution to the library.
Inevitably, the process of design is also Freudian. During nearly fifty years, I’ve encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of designers and wannabees (I was one of the latter). And my own therapy has seasoned those same years. So it’s clear that the Agincourt Library says far more about me than it does any honor to Louis Sullivan.
Andrew Carnegie—the Bill Gates of his age—underwrote the construction of 1,800 college and community libraries in the U.S., Canada and other parts of the English-speaking world. And as you might suspect, such a substantial body of work in roughly twenty years has generated a “type” so widely recognized that it’s assumed all Carnegie libraries look alike; that they came from a common source, rather than having evolved into a family of solutions to the relatively new problem of the public library. I chose consciously to avoid those formulas (which I think Sullivan would have as well) in two ways: 1) the Agincourt library would be locally financed, rather than Carnegie funded, and 2) the program would be hybrid, including a memorial gallery and commercial rental space. I wanted a tougher row to hoe; something to push against that might actually push back.
I wasn’t sure that was even a word, so I had to look it up. Pasticheur: one who mimics the literary or artistic style of another. Like a poseur, only worse. Is that what I am? Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.
So, the 50×140-foot ground floor serves three functions: a building association and insurance agency; an entry to the library and the gallery. The library reading room and stacks sit above the rental space and, in a split level scheme, a women’s club and community space are situated above the gallery. The distinction between formal and service stairs takes its cue from Sullivan’s Charnley house. And my reliance on tartan grids is a “default” I share with Sullivan.
Though much remains to be done, somehow, I think the scheme is almost there. What say you?
Odd that you’d hit me up yesterday. I was just thinking about Mies van der Rohe and how he might be an influence on Agincourt in the 1920s. The Tugendhat house is too late, but there are earlier Berlin projects.
If you’ve been following along, a Viennese psychologist came to Agincourt in 1926 and built a private clinic two years later called “Walden”. Not coincidentally, it’s located at the east end of Thoreau Avenue.
So, thanks for rattling my cage and getting me back into a Miesian frame of mind.
Most of us have little opportunity to wrap our tongues around the Welsh language. As a partial Celt, I often enjoy taking a shot at it.
Among the aglutinative languages (those, like German, that form words by ramming others together, so many box cars in a three-engine freight train), Welsh may be the poster child. Take the name of a train station in the island of Anglesey at the principality’s northwest corner—Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—which boasts the longest officially recognized place name in the U.K. Don’t ask me what it means.
Not far from there is the village of Llangollen, with a pair of very characteristically Welsh double-Ls which are pronounced like an L with an H in front of it. [Frank Lloyd Wright’s middle name should properly be pronounced “Hloyd”.] And just outside the village is an eccentric country house named Plas Newydd, presenting us with several more Welsh peculiarities: the W and the Y as vowels, and the double-D as a TH.
I mention all of this for two reasons: 1) Welsh is a beautiful language reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkein’s invented elvish tongue, and 2) Plas Newydd was the home of two ladies you ought to know.
Growing up in 18th century Ireland—when women had less control over their destinies than even the Tea Party might approve (i.e., none)—Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby lived three miles from one another. Despite a sixteen year difference in their ages, the ladies found common cause to resist the marriages arranged by their male heads-of-family. Translation: they said “no” in an age when arranged marriages were not optional. Intending to avoid such indenture, they decided to settle together in England, but ended up in Wales, where they pooled modest resources, purchased a decrepit property and set about “restoring” it, 18th century code for turning something vaguely Renaissance into something remotely Gothic. The result was Plas Newydd (not to be confused with the nearby and similarly named house of the Marquess of Anglesey—not nearly as interesting) and a local legend concerning the notorious “Ladies of Llangollen” was born.
Let it not be said that I shielded you from the quaint and curious.
You might know this would eventually lead to Agincourt. Most things do.
One of the models in the new Agincourt exhibit will be the home of Rose Kavanaugh (which I have sometimes spelled “Kavana”). Miss Kavanaugh was principal of Charles Darwin school in Agincourt’s northwestern neighborhood. She was a composite of teachers I had known throughout elementary school and represents a generation of what I call “secular nuns”—women from the ‘teens and 20s who chose career over marriage. Single women became teachers and nurses and secretaries—and nuns—rather than wives and mothers. Ask your grandparents if you don’t believe me.
Miss Kavanaugh also became a vehicle to explore modest single-family housing stock from the 1920s. And now, as the scale model develops, I wonder about Rose. While it’s not only possible but also very likely to lead a full and satisfying life as a single person, I thought Miss Kavanaugh might have been half of Agincourt’s own “ladies”.
Without making any judgment on the reputations of two single women sharing a modest home, there’s an expanded story forming. And photographic evidence to back it up.