Children and art. That’s the lesson—for me at least—of “Sunday in the Park with George”. I can’t claim the former, so my legacy will be the latter.
I spent almost two hours Thursday afternoon talking with someone about bequeathing my art—more accumulation, really, than collection—when I’m gone. Anyone who’s been to the house knows there’s boat load of it. Is it hubris to think the collection could avoid the obligatory estate sale? I recall my father’s wake, when people I scarcely recognized stood with me at his coffin and said “You know, your dad always wanted me to have [fill in the blank].” If he’d wanted them to have it, they would.
My friend spoke with me about the impermanence of permanent collections. No surprise there. What I’ve accumulated during the past fifty-plus years bears the stamp of none but me and any institution accepting it has no obligation to maintain that integrity. It may represent my eye, my discrimination, but no institution will (or should) keep the collection together for my sake alone. My motivation is simple: these things have brought me joy; perhaps they can do the same for others.
These days another collection is on my mind: the Community Collection on display intermittently at the Tennant Memorial Gallery in Agincourt. Emily Weise, the collection’s keeper, is busy selecting fifty pieces, more or less, as a loan exhibition to us here in Fargo-Moorhead. Emily tells me there are two ways to see the role of art in any community. The first is equivalent to “trickle-down” economics; the notion that a small place like Agincourt needs Great Art as model for emulation. “Top down” institutions abound. Far fewer are those grass roots galleries driven by the spirit of “Let’s get together, hang out and figure out what art is.” Agincourt is fortunate to have evolved one of those.
From its simple beginning as the 1912 GAR Exhibit, to its 100th anniversary last year, the Community Collection has been guided by no one and everyone. And I, for one, am anxious to see what that might have meant. Amity Burroughs Flynn*—you remember her; Ed Flynn’s widow—might have come to town with that big city top-down attitude, setting standards for the masses. But I suspect she was just trying to please Ed. Once he’d passed from the scene, Amity chilled and made amends. Indeed, her greatest legacy (in the spirit of Stephen Sondheim) wasn’t children; it was art.
Is it vanity to walk in Amity’s footsteps?
*Mrs Flynn’s portrait, by the way, will be in the loan exhibit. Since posting this image some months ago, our conservator Steve Johnson has taken a swab of cleaning emulsion to Joseph Newman’s portrait of about 1925 and found that her “mopcap” turned out to be waxy buildup. Nicely cleaned and reframed, she is even more handsome and a worthy centerpiece to the show.
Is it even possible for an entire nation to go mad? I believe mine has.
Both Canada and the United Kingdom have closed their borders to members of the Westboro Baptist Church and I think they’d be well advised to extend that courtesy to the remaining population of the United States. Quarantine seems in order.
This week the Kentucky legislature (over the governor’s veto) decided to exempt its citizens from obeying any law found to be in conflict with deeply-held religious beliefs. And my own state of North Dakota passed (with the governor’s signature) the most expansive trinity of anti-abortion laws yet seen in this country. The irony of all this? These come directly from the efforts of people terrified that Sharia Law will gain a foothold in America. That these are Sharia Law will be lost on them. Then add the recent assassinations of Texas District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia, very likely by White supremacists the AG’s office was investigating.
Far be it from me to plant a seed in this overly fertile wacko-sphere, but will it now be possible for the parents of a minor girl child who becomes pregnant without benefit of marriage–or who marries without benefit of parental consent–to stone that child in the spirit of the Old Testament simply because they hold to these deeply held, albeit Stone Age, beliefs? Will virtually anyone who encounters a person bold enough to admit his or her homosexuality be similarly able to exact Biblical justice and escape civil consequences. And then there are dietary restrictions! Will there be a gauntlet of shame for all those exiting Red Lobster? Questions have been raised about pharmacists withholding “morning after” pills from victims of rape; this is not small potatoes, but I’m of the opinion that this will reach even greater depths of irrationality before Kentucky’s and North Dakota’s nonsense is seen for the Sharia Law that it is and be overturned.
Somewhere in the pile of books beside my bed is Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, said to be his best non-fiction work. I can’t say, being only forty pages or so into it. I bought it to better understand a 1969 opera of the same name by Krzysztof Penderecki. The opera was drawn from a stage play of 1969; and Ken Russell made a controversial film in 1971. Each of these tells some aspect of real events in the early years of the 17th century when a sort of religious hysteria overtook the French village of Loudon. I think of all these tonight and wonder what “Huxley” will tell the story of our own times.
This ominous watercolor comes form an exhibit that raised money for Mind, a creative therapies fund that serves England and Wales. Perhaps we can get a chapter here. Until then I shall continue to wallow in the Agincourt Project for its own therapeutic properties and welcome you all to join me there.
Art and Therapy
One component of the next Agincourt exhibit that I had hoped to achieve was a puppet theater. Agincourt’s own resident mental health therapist Dr Reinhold Kölb served the community from the mid-1920s until his death, innovating both art and drama therapy. And its resident theater director Seamus Tierney performed much the same service during an overlapping period. It occurs to me that there may be other characters who’ve healed minds in their own ways at those and other times.
“I believe John Ruskin, William Morris, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Leo Tolstoy to be Prophets of God, and they should rank in mental reach and spiritual insight with Elijah, Hosea, Ezekiel and Isaiah.”—Elbert Hubbard
When RMS Lusitania left its birth on May first, 1915, who knew the fate of the decorative arts in America was aboard. Elbert Hubbard—socialist-anarchist, publisher and founder of the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, New York—sailed with his suffragette wife Alice Moore Hubbard for Liverpool, just three years after the ill-fated Titanic. Irony sailed with the Hubbards, too, because he had written so eloquently about the heroic Ida Straus who chose to remain with her husband Isidor on that other sinking ship, rather than take space in a lifeboat.
Hubbard and Gustav Stickley were arguably the leaders of the Arts & Crafts movement in America. And Hubbard himself was linked by marriage and business relationships with John H. Larkin, founder of the Larkin Soap Company, and other company officers William Heath and Darwin D. Martin. All three—Larkin, Heath and Martin—would be clients of the young Frank Lloyd Wright. Do you imagine that Wright and Hubbard themselves might have collaborated if the ship hadn’t sunk?
In addition to his periodicals The Fra and The Philistine, Hubbard had established an art and craft workshop in suburban East Aurora, New York (just beyond Buffalo) in the spirit of William Morris. His workshops produced fine bindings, metalwork and other decorative arts to improve the American domestic environment. So it was with another dose of irony that St Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal church in Agincourt had recently acquired a copper bowl to serve as its baptismal basin.
Remember Episcopalians baptize by sprinkling, not total immersion.
Remember also that Anson Curtiss Tennant sailed for England that same May day, except that his death was only supposed. Brought back from the dead, Howard was able to know his great-uncle Anson well—as well as he was willing to be known. I forget to ask Howard if the young Tennant had met the Hubbards aboard the ship or remembered very much at all of the sinking. Perhaps he’ll write about it some day.
So now the Roycroft basin has been stolen, as I search for someone to craft its replacement, adding another chapter to the story of St Joe’s.
That’s what I’m having: much more fun than I ought to. Really. But let me step back and tell you about a trip to France several years ago.
Between two legs of an NDSU summer study tour, Joe Odoerfer and I invested a few days traveling together. We met in Frankfurt—in a very accidental way that I’ll have to write about another time—and decided on a pilgrimage to two of LeCorbusier’s buildings: Notre Dame du Haute at Ronchamp and, not terribly far away, his convent called La Tourette. Other than the Carpenter Center at Harvard University (Corbu’s only building in the United States), I hadn’t experienced any of his work. So our two-day excursion to France was mouth watering.
Getting to Ronchamp by public transportation in the late 20th century must be like walking to Santiago de Compostela in the 13th. About half way between Belfort and Vesoul in eastern France, Ronchamp is linked to the outside world by a toonerville single-car trolley that reminded me instantly of the Push Me/Pull You in “Doctor Doolittle”. But no matter which way you depart—from either end of the line—the car leaves at 6:00 a.m. and jerks into Ronchamp about forty-five minutes later. Neither Joe nor I spoke a word of French, however, and the village was hardly awake by the time we got our bearings. So on blind faith—faith, by definition, is blind—we followed a sign pointing toward “La Chapelle” and arrived at a large asphalt parking lot after a twenty-minute uphill stroll punctuated by crowing roosters and church bells. Without a Michelin guide, who knew the chapel only opened at 10! Two-and-a-half hours in an empty rural French parking lot gave Joe and me a chance to get much better acquainted and solve some of Western Civilization’s minor problems. Finally, the gates opened and we made the final assault on an icon of the 20th century. For two hours we were the only people on the grounds.
Take me out for a drink some time and I’ll fill in the details. My point here is to tell you how my understanding of architecture made a quantum leap that day. As a shallow undergraduate, I “knew” Notre Dame du Haute, its crusty pock-marked walls and swooping concrete roof. And it was this visual feast that I had anticipated. But as Joe and I sat in the silent sanctuary (taking photographs despite a sign in multiple languages advising us to not be so rude as to disturb the meditation of others), I realized that Ronchamp is an acoustic environment as well as a visual one: the shutter on my SLR made more noise than a guillotine, ricocheting around the room for minutes after the camera clicked. I began to understand what LeCorbusier had done.
It would have been all too simple to pad every surface and absorb my acoustic arrogance, allowing me to remain unaware of myself as a source of disturbing sound. Instead, he hardened floor, walls and ceiling, amplifying the very wale of my corduroy pants as my chubby legs brushed together. I heard myself breathing.
Sitting in the small island of pews to the right of the altar, I decided to become a different sort of pilgrim and move toward the rail for an imaginary communion. After a few feet of concrete floor—divided by expansion joints, no doubt proportioned according to LeCorbusier’s modulor, all aimed toward the east—I crossed an invisible line, one not delineated by an expansion joint, and felt myself drawn forward, downward toward the altar. Stopped by curb and rail, I knelt as though participating in the Mass and rested on the rail, only to discover that it was not wood but, rather, brown-painted steel with a shape abstracted from Ionic volutes perfectly curved to fit my forearm and folded hands. Communion complete, I returned to my seat but felt the up-hill slope of the floor pulling me back to God. For a moment, I was Marcel Marceau, walking against the wind, resisting an invisible gravitational force that refused to let me leave.
And all the while, the air was tinged with the scent of incense and beeswax votive candles. If only the communion wafer had been stuck to the roof of my mouth, the engagement of all five senses would have been complete. What I had expected to be a singular visual encounter—seeing the chapel I had known from Bill Burgett’s architectural history class—turned into a multi-sensory experience reshaping the way I think about architecture. I had seen, heard, felt, touched and almost tasted Ronchamp in ways that could not be accidental. LeCorbusier had me at the train station and skillfully manipulated my experience each step of the way. Two things were clear: 1) LeCorbusier was a more skillful architect than I had guessed, and 2) architecture is a lot better than it looks. Test these notions out on buildings you thought you knew.
Which brings me to Agincourt. You knew it would.
The way things work
My friend Howard Tabor has written several times of his own parish church in Agincourt, St Joseph-the-Carpenter, a 19th century Gothic Revival building with Arts & Crafts modifications in the years before World War I. St Joe’s will be represented in the September exhibit by a handful of artifacts and an abbreviated narrative. Our friends Sara and Pi are crafting the model; some drawings from my sketchbook will be enlarged on the wall, along with an altar triptych by Philip Thompson. A good start, but still not enough. How might this virtual trip to Agincourt be as multi-sensory as Ronchamp had been? Your ideas are most welcome.
If you’ve read Howard’s columns from the Plantagenet, you’ll know that the original baptismal font was a green enameled wash basin, a humble vessel standing in till something better came along. And it did in 1915, when St Crispin’s chapel was added on the chancel’s south side, commemorating Anson Tennant’s disappearance with the Lusitania. A large copper bowl by the Roycroft Workshops in East Aurora, New York, came as a gift in Anson’s name. But last year someone entered the unlocked church and stole the bowl; the green basin coming out of retirement and going back into God’s service until a suitable replacement could be found.
I’m pleased to report that a new font is on the way, however, for that’s the way things work in Agincourt. Moorhead artist Dwight Mickelson is crafting a new font in the spirit of St Joe’s, a new work that will be revealed in September before its installation in the church—which still, but the way, leaves its doors unlocked. Faith is still blind.
Well, technically, there are many more reasons to stop working, but I’ve been thinking about two of them recently.
- You quit working because it isn’t fun any more; or
- You quit working because its more fun the ever, except no one else is having any fun with you.
This latter situation is where I find myself.
Some years ago I began writing an autobiography, not from vanity, but because I thought it would be more interesting to write than read. “Challenge” has been my watchword lately; in this case the challenge was, well, challenging: to write my own life without using any of the first-person personal pronouns, “I” “me” “my” or “mine”. Give it a try. It’s hard to write about self without them.
My thought was to define who I am through my surroundings. The people I know and love (and some I dislike); the objects and artifacts that surround, tempt, frustrate, offend or fascinate me; the literature and art and music that give me joy and satisfaction; am I the intersection of all that? The working title—”It’s not about me: an autobiography”—still seems a good idea.
So, here I am, writing about characters—people, really—who inhabit my imagination. They have been just as hard to define, especially when I can’t actually show them to you.
Miss Rose Kavana, for example, is an amalgam of several teachers in my experience. All of them come from grades one through five, those impressionable years. Miss Hletko and Miss Rapp set the stage, but then things turned dark when my mother left and parents divorced; teachers assumed a larger role (though they didn’t know it). I now recognize them standing in for the missing Marge. A composite of these women (they were all women) may yet appear on eBay, but until then her home and some of its decor will have to present Miss Kavana to the world.
Howard visited Miss Kavana’s home once, delivering something from his mother; he might have been eight or nine. I could feel him standing at her front door, nervous, self-conscious, studying a stained glass window above the bench that defined her stoop; then ringing the bell and smiling when she looked down to see him. It would be years before he could fully appreciate her invitation to step in, her gracious acceptance of the package he’d carried so carefully. She asked him to remove his cap and invited him to sit; offered to brew some tea; materialized a plate of ginger snaps; inquired about his father—who she had also taught—and then presented an envelope to take back with him for Mrs Tabor. He asked what was playing on the phonograph and learned of Frederick Delius’ “Brigg Fair”. It may have been the first occasion when he felt at ease in the world of adults. Howard left feeling taller somehow and remembers his visit even today, not something half a century behind.
What other memories might return before the show is hung? What other artifacts arrive?
For the time being, I’m curious what was in the box he brought and the envelope that went home with him.
Now and then, now and again, I am compelled to write about the way my head works—the intuitive process of Agincourt evolving and growing as a sense of place; a place of sense. I had a dream last night and a vision soon after that has suddenly become part of the story.
Each chapter in the Agincourt story is a puzzle. The pieces aren’t even recognizable as pieces when they arrive, and I’m certainly unaware how they could be part of a larger pattern. It’s more of that INFP behavior. Five years ago, the project acquired a painting by Mike Welton, a Minneapolis artist who paints an ongoing series of what he calls “urban extracts”, one of which caught my fancy.
Architects (and many other designer types) tend to work deductively, from the top down, from the outside in, from the general to the specific. Rarely, do we work the other way, inductively, from the specific to the general. There’s an example of this that you all have seen on TV: the commercial where the clients, husband and wife, tour an architect’s office—the architect, turtle-necked, dressed in black, the epitome of “architect”—and finally, seated at the conference table, he inquires solemnly, “Now, what can I do for you?” The client opens her purse, produces a faucet, and challenges him to “Design a house around this!” Remember? Some day I will ask students to do precisely that: open a box, extract an artifact, and set them the task of designing a building around whatever is inside. Moving from the specific to the general. Would that be cruel?
Mike Welton’s painting has been hanging on my library wall for several years and each time I pass I wonder if a building could emerge from his “urban extract”; I knew it would, just not when. In the show window on the left is a mannequin draped in a 30s dress. But as an architect (by inclination, not title, so back off!) I’d have some difficulty adapting this to Agincourt: Mike’s view is upward from the sidewalk to a shop clearly a few feet above grade; the sort of shop front you’d find in Boston or New York or Philadelphia; something dating from the the 1850s when a small Iowa town had those aspirations but lacked the resources. I’m not sure that even Des Moines could have boasted such a storefront. Let that be my problem, not yours.
Flash forward to the 1930s when Agincourt would surely have had a dress shop. DeBijenkorf’s Department store had a ladies department, though I can’t say who was in charge. But the city population justifies a specialty shop like the one in Mike’s painting, though it lacked a proprietress and a backstory—until this morning, it did.
Dressmakers were commonplace in larger urban areas before the Second World War. Even small-town America had stitchers and, especially during the Great Depression, most women made their own and their children’s clothes. Agincourt needs one of these women. Enter Grace Arbogast.
One of Peter Vandervort’s favorite obscure musicals is “Flora, the Red Menace”, set in Depression-era New York, when Communist sympathies were high, some would say with good reason. Could Grace have been swept into those revolutionary circles? Could a plain girl from northwest Iowa, a girl treated poorly by her schoolmates; a girl with talents other than looks; could she have left her hometown, migrated to a city like Chicago or New York, apprenticed as a stitcher and blossomed into a designer of clothes for the One Percent? I say yes. But then what? Would that girl—Grace Arbogast—have thought to return to her village on the prairies and open a shop? Again I say yes. So some time in the late 1920s or early 30s, a stylish Grace Arbogast returned to Agincourt and rented the shop on East James. The shop shown in Mike Welton’s painting.
Some women are beautiful; others are handsome; a handful are stunning despite their physical appearance. Grace was such a woman, because beauty is only skin deep, but bitch goes all the way to the bone. Grace came home to confront those B-word ladies who had abused her in so many ways; the cruel ways that only children know. How many people, do you suppose, remembered her? And her revenge would be delicious: to nurture younger women like herself, such as she had been. With her ongoing New York couture business, Grace took “from each according to their ability” and gave “to each according to their need.” She became the community’s Karl Marx of Millinery, its Communist Couturier. Circumstances shape us and we, in our turn, return the favor.
Her wealthy Eastern patrons—even during the Depression a la The Great Gatsby—continued their custom and Grace reciprocated, adorning Agincourt’s young women with gowns they could not afford and offering subtle lessons in deportment they did not know would serve them well in the wider world. No “Prom dress from Hell” left her shop; no Mother-of-the-Bride horror bore her label. The story is yet forming in my mind.
I present this modestly today as another example of the way things work.
I suspect, Grace’s shop will find space in the new Agincourt exhibit and at least one of her creations will walk the floor that opening night.
Architect Robert Venturi famously learned from Las Vegas. My lot in life? Intuiting Louie. Say it out loud. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
The challenge I set for myself—to design in the style of Louis Sullivan a building type he had never engaged—has occupied me for seven years and shows no sign of abating. Type A personalities out there (you know who you are) would have approached this in an orderly methodological way: collecting analogous building types; subjecting them to forensic analysis; spread sheets. If only I worked that way. We B types depend on intuition over logic; we wallow and wade where the A‘s, scalpel in hand, make thoughtful strategic incisions.
My wallowing began more than fifty years ago, shopping for my grandmother at Carson Pirie Scott, Sullivan’s State Street masterpiece that began its life as Schlesinger & Meyer. His Auditorium was threatened then and I must have become aware of historic preservation in the context of efforts to save it. [Mission accomplished, by the way, since the Auditorium and its exquisite acoustics still serve their original purpose and the surrounding hotel and office building work marvelously as Roosevelt University.] The Loop was peppered in the late 50s and early 60s with many more buildings by Adler & Sullivan, Burnham & Root, Holabird & Roche and even Purcell & Elmslie. On weekends, the Loop was my playground. If only I had known then what I know now.
Sullivan’s houses are another matter altogether. I recall once traveling to Lake Park Avenue to find the house he’d designed for his brother Arthur, and being the only White person for several blocks; I recall a Black child about my age asking what I was doing there, even calling me “White boy”. Such was Chicago in the 1950s and such was my bumptious naivete. And that was perhaps the least impressive of my architectural exploits.
There was also the Henry Babson residence in fashionable Riverside—where I would have been the only poor kid for several blocks—but I never did go to see it and have regretted that error ever since. Of course I could never go into any of those homes and there were few books about Sullivan that I could have found at Kroch’s & Brentano’s, whose art and architecture section on the mezzanine was ably staffed by Mr Henry Tabor (who lives on, by the way, as an aspect of Agincourt journalist Howard Tabor, my avatar). I was a regular at K&B where Mr Tabor must have been curious about a high school student with such an interest in architectural history. I began giving them my custom at age fifteen. [Google Henry and you’ll find that he was an institution at K&B. Sorry I missed his funeral; he should have “lain in state” in that balcony. Like Henry, K&B is no more.]
All of this floods back tonight with The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan on my lap. My waders are on as I wallow in lush duo-tone images from the Richard Nickel archive of buildings long gone before even I set out to find the elusive Sullivan. If I had been just five years older, Nickel’s path and mine might have crossed and I would have another reason to mourn his death while photographing demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange—crushed by the very building he was recording.
So! Having laid the foundation of Agincourt’s public library seven years ago in the mist of intuition, I see now the connection between my first scheme and several of Sullivan’s lesser projects—some built, some not—and a couple of them unknown to me. I claim no clairvoyance here, but I am pleased with my understanding of Sullivan and the possibility, the very remote possibility, that I could actually understand him.
Posterous.com is shutting down in a little over a month. I has several blogs there, though most of them had no more than a half dozen entries. I’m migrating some of them here to wordpress, with the hope that I can flesh them out in the spirit of Agincourt. One of those soon-to-be-defunct blogs was devoted to the Episcopal churches of Dakota Territory, my homage to Fargo architect George Hancock and his collaborators Rev B. F. Cooley and the first bishop of the diocese, Rt Rev William D. Walker. I’ve got enough material on these guys and the phenomenon of that handful of buildings to write a book. [It would be appropriate at this point for you to break into wild guffaws. Go ahead; you know you want to.]
The first and only entry in that blog follows. It has nothing to do with Agincourt—yet.
“A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.”
So wrote British architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner* in the introduction to An Outline of European Architecture. He further defined architecture as a word that “only applied to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.” From the book’s publication in 1943, and well past the author’s death forty years later, subsequent editions have maintained that position. The discipline of architectural history, however, has evolved considerably since Pevsner’s important work and it has reconsidered what looks today like an elitist point of view. By the turn of the 21st century, a vast number of churches have been erected that are unworthy of being called architecture in Pevsner’s sense. [I could name names.] Contrarily, there are some elegant bicycle now sheds adding grace to our world. These observations say as much about shifts in the profession of architecture as they do about new perspectives for interpreting and appreciating its products.
This blog is devoted to one big idea (the relationship between spirituality and its outward physical expression as built form) and a very localized application of that notion. The subject here may, on its surface, interest very few, because it will focus on the Episcopal church architecture of North Dakota during a very limited period of its history, the decade just prior to statehood in 1889. The story of a handful of buildings (a little more than a dozen) in Dakota Territory, however, can be the vehicle for telling the story of a generation of settlers; be a window for understanding the impact of their collective lives on the American frontier–and on one another.
We hope you will visit here often and follow the trail of our investigation. Enjoy the narrative of another time and place; contribute your own insights or new information to what you find here; and challenge the interpretations we offer. That’s what blogs are about.
*During the summer of 1971 I attended an English summer school focused on country house architecture. One of the guest instructors that year was none other than Sir Nikolaus himself. During an evening turn around the garden with several of us Americans, we learned from the already-elderly scholar that his nickname was–are you ready for this?–snickers! I found him to be anything other than the snob that might be inferred from the quotation above.
In the very late 40s and early 1950s, I must have become aware of the telephone but can’t recall the first time I ever used it. We had one in my grandmother’s house—where I and my parents lived—and I will forever recall our number: 262-J.
I lied. Just as I typed that number—262-J—my earliest recollection streamed back. It was the 16th of January 1951. I’d been anticipating my sixth birthday the next day, but the household was in disarray. Chaos, actually, though where chaos fell on a six-year-old’s scale of human behavior would be guesswork. Someone had phoned for help, because my grandfather had had a heart attack. I remember him carried out to an ambulance and driven away. That was the last I ever saw of him until the funeral several days later, when someone lifted me to look at him “sleeping” in a funny padded box. That night is my first recollection of the telephone, and a few days later I attended my first funeral. No wonder the memories are vivid; fragmentary but vivid.
Phones in the 50s were heavy. Find one and you’re ready for wrist curls. Not only did they weigh a great deal, they were connected to living human beings called “operators”, women, often unmarried, who staffed a switchboard, the nexus of a lot of wires that connected us with other subscribers across the street and, for all I knew, around the world.
In major metropolitan areas, there were banks of these and dozens of operatives, alert to your needs, poised, ready, anxious even to anticipate your presence and politely inquire “Number, please” when your light came to life on the board. Two years later, in 1953, we got our first TV and I subsequently saw enough Saturday morning movies on WGN to understand how these operators pulled wires from a panel, plugged one end into you and another into the destination of your call.
Some who read this (the old ones) will wonder why I bother writing this. Others (the young ones) will think I’m making it up.
Being connected then, more than sixty years ago, was clumsy, club-footed and cumbersome. We were desperate then for connectivity. Today, I’d welcome any chance to disconnect. Verizon called today to remind me—several times, in calls, voice mails and text messages—that my bill is in arrears; that unless I correct the situation within twenty-four house, my service will be disconnected. Apparently, they see this as a threat! Do you suppose they’ll be surprised when I don’t give a shit?
Our old number—262-J—gives some idea of how few telephones there were, even in suburban Chicago. The switchboard was in Argo or Summit, the village next to Bedford Park, where I lived at 7727 West 65th Place in the home of my paternal grandparents, Roy C. and Clara F. Ramsey. We shared a line—they were called “party lines”—with another family, the Pakulas, across the alley. Mrs. Pakula was about the same age as my grandmother and, like her husband, a Polish immigrant. Since my grandmother was born here to immigrant Polish parents, she spoke the language but, unlike Mrs. Pakula, her generation strove to Americanize, to learn the language and blend. So, when they met at the alley on garbage pick-up days or other times, Mrs. Pakula spoke Polish and my grandmother replied in English; just one of many curiosities to a child like me in a multi-ethnic suburb of what was still America’s second largest cities. I heard many languages as a child, but understood none of them—even when I heard them on that party line.
There were three different levels of telephone service. The most expensive was a private line, one that was exclusive, always there, like the ever-present operator, to connect you with the world. There were two types of party line: one with two subscribers and another with four. I can’t imagine how troublesome it was to compete for time with three other families. Once or twice, I do recall the Pakulas breaking in to a conversation, telling me that I had monopolized the line far too long.
Some years later—I don’t recall exactly when—telephone service improved. We got new phones, with dials, and operators shifted to long-distance lines. Party lines were eliminated and we got new, more complicated numbers with exchanges. We became GLobe 8-3035, which says a lot about the ability of the human mind to remember numbers: seven were simply too many, so the first three became the exchange, a name we could recall. Eventually, even those names became numbers, and those numbers have grown longer until the point that I can easily punch the number of my checking account into the phone banking system. This morning I punched more than forty numbers, twenty of them from memory, to verify the balance in my checking account and learn if a deposit had been credited. Admittedly, many of these were prompts from the automated system, yet this is what they call progress. I don’t.
When did this lust for connectivity link Agincourt with the world?