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The way things work (6-point-something)


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 appear, and I’m initially mystified 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.

Flora, the Red Menace

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.

1 Comment

  1. […] establishment. Grace had been an ungainly child, much abused during her school years in Agincourt. Her story is one I relish: duckling makes transition to swan; enjoys […]

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