Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2013 » April

Monthly Archives: April 2013

The right side of history

As a once-upon-a-time Roman Catholic—and, very likely, a former Christian—my views on organized religion are suspect. So pay no attention to what follows. Yesterday, 27 April 2013, at Louisville, Kentucky, history of a sort was made; only time will validate the significance of what transpired.


At St Andrew’s United Church of Christ in Louisville, nearly 200 men and women gathered to ordain seventy-year-old Rosemarie Smead as a priest in the Roman Catholic church. This is likely to piss off a lot of people.

As a student of history—an amateur in the truest sense of the word—I’m aware of documentation and archaeological and art historical evidence for the ordination of women, evidence suppressed or discredited by current church authorities. There is also (unmentioned in news coverage of Saturday’s ceremony) a massive amount of similar evidence for the blessing of same-sex unions by the early church. All of this “evidence” is, of course, contested by church authorities, for which I have no response other than 1) my evidence is your heresy, and 2) “history is written by the winners”. Each of us hopes to be on the right side of history on contentious matters such as these, but I won’t live long enough to find out.

You might know that my friend Howard Tabor had something to say about female clergy in his sesqui-centennial series a few years ago. Agincourt’s Catholic parish from the 1870s until 1950 was Saint Ahab; after that, Christ the King. He had much to report on its founding and original priest, Rev Francis Manning, however, who felt a calling that Rosemarie Smead would understand: Francis Manning had been born “Frances” and yet found a way to acknowledge her vocation.

To read about Saint Ahab’s dramatic founding (and risk offense) visit Part I. The rest of Rev Manning’s story can be found in Part II and Part III. While the origin of the current Christ the King and its proto-Vatican II mid-century Modernism are summarized in Part IV. For the short term, I feel pretty good about all this.

On this day in…

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

On this day…in 1918

Merle Hay of Glidden has the distinction of not only being the first Iowan to die in World War I, he was also the first U.S. casualty in the war. The first “Archer” to die in service may have been Agincourt native Marshall McGinnis, who enlisted in the summer of 1917 shortly after America entered the conflict. I know this from an afternoon spent among the multiple war memorials on The Square, perhaps the least visited public space in the city. As the recent deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are reported, and U.S. involvement in Syria looms in the public debate, it seemed proper to make a pilgrimage to our cluster of war memorials and wonder where these most recent conflicts will find space in our Civic Memory.

Ninety-five years ago today, one of our own—Marshall McGinnis—was part of the First Expeditionary Division (later the 1st Infantry Division or “The Big Red One”) responding to German advance toward Paris. Bringing aid to exhausted French troops, the First took up positions near the village of Cantigny and the forest nearby. During a routine patrol assessing German strength, Pvt Marshall McGinnis was wounded and taken to a field hospital where he died several hours later, but not before learning his comrades had taken the town in a forty-five minute battle that captured 250 German soldiers. That knowledge may have afforded Pvt McGinnis more comfort that it did his parents John and Meghan when news reached their farm near Fahnstock. They aren’t here to say.


Young McGinnis was born at home on the family farmstead in 1896 and attended Fahnstock’s elementary school. By 1905 county youth were attending Agincourt’s high school, however; that’s where Marshall graduated in 1914, just weeks before war broke out and America struggled with neutrality, with its high German population, with foreign entanglements. He had already found work in Henry Carstens’ cabinet shop. At the regional history center, I found a photograph of McGinnis standing proudly beside his first project as a cabinetmaker’s apprentice. Good work, if you ask me, and promise for a bright future. If only….

Closure for losses like Pvt McGinnis are never easy, especially when the body can’t come home to its native soil. Now he rests with over 14,000 other American war dead at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial. Which makes the memorial in The Square all the more important, I suppose. The McGinnises have moved away; their land is farmed by others as their child waits beneath an ordered landscape in eastern France. So his memory belongs to us.

Is it in good hands?

Shop Class

As the father of two AFS sons—our boys Georg and Tjipke—I learned something about public education in two European countries. Georg, for example, had been channeled very early in his schooling into a track that would prepare him for the world of business. When I asked what German language authors he liked (hoping for Goethe, Thomas Mann or Hermann Hesse), we discovered that “literature” had not been a significant aspect of his Austrian education; that language skills were oriented toward writing proper business letters and answering the phone. It caused me to recall our own sort of American educational triage in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when shop classes in woodworking and mechanics were designed to train high school students for the world of work in factories, probably the same places where dad and older brothers already punched a time clock on the assembly line. In my own graduating class of 1963, no more than twenty percent of my classmates went on to college. Indeed, I was the first person in my limited family who went on to obtain a degree in the professions (though, incidentally, I never actually entered that profession). So, as I have lately begun to consider the evolution of public and private education in 150 years of Agincourt history, the organization, expectation and outcomes of those parallel educational systems come to mind.

When Anson Tennant entered first grade in the Fall of 1896, what hopes did James and Martha have for their son? We know that building design and construction became an interest, and that architecture (at least as it was understood in a small Iowa town at the turn of the century) became his career goal. But I have to believe that someone along that path sparked his interest and kindled that flame. Who do you suppose it might have been?Image

In yet another segment of “The way things work”, I happened upon this real photo postcard that oozes with the pride of accomplishment that parents hope for their children and teachers for all their students. Today, in the midst of thesis presentations by the graduating Class of 2013, I see that aspiration in them and feel that satisfaction in myself.

Who is this young man? But more importantly, is that fabulous chair simply a studio prop, something to cling to or hide behind and somehow ease our conspicuity (yes, that is a word; I looked it up and prefer it to the more cumbersome “conspicuousness”) or was it made by the young man standing beside it? It is one thing to be photographed. It is another to be recorded thus with a product of our own skill and craftsmanship. I’m opting for the second possibility.

Agincourt’s schools have been staffed with remarkable teachers, many of them drawn from personal reflection on my own public education. The Misses Hletko and Piper; the Mrs Lawton and Spellman; the Messrs Newman and Baker; the Professors Shellabarger and Burgett are fond memories, perhaps the fondest memories that remain of my many teachers in an education that became increasingly painful. And they have in their turn become unwitting characters in the Agincourt story. Surely someone like them stands metaphorically beside this young man as he stands beside his chair.

I hope you will approve and perhaps even understand the story that’s likely to emerge.

Landscapes & Livestock

My friend Reed coined a name for my decorating style: he calls it “Early Neglectic” and I can’t disagree. My inclinations are Victorian; my eye is eclectic; my threshold of clutter noticeably higher than your average hoarder. So organizing the show-within-the-show for the upcoming Agincourt exhibit has been an opportunity to reflect. The question du jour is this: Why do we collect what we collect? I’ve written about this some time ago and probably will again.


Agincourt’s “Community Collection” began in 1912 and has grown slowly, the way clouds change their shape, their position; the way years have appeared on my face and hands without notice (or permission!). It’s been challenging to create a collection that pretends a century of organic evolution, gradual incremental change absent a single guiding hand. When you see the show, don’t dust for prints.

The people of Agincourt and Fennimore county acquired art in a number of ways and for a similar breadth of reasons. They bought it or found it or received it as gifts. Some of it only comes out at Thanksgiving when Aunt Harriet arrives for dinner. As far as I know, none of it was stolen. I’m also guessing that most of it was acquired outside the community, during travel for business or pleasure, which raises the question “What was the earliest local “gallery” selling art for decorative purposes?” [I’ll have to get back to you on that.] But travel to larger centers of culture like Omaha and Des Moines must have been frequent; Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Kansas City were a bit farther but their cultural lamps burned more brightly. Living in Fargo, I’ve seen us accused of lock-step adoration of the Twin Cities; we echo them here regardless of the appropriateness or applicability of what they’ve sung or built or crafted or read or said. And we’ve seen any number of Twin Citians arrive here in the boondocks with “Thank God I’ve arrived to show you what culture is all about” written on their faces. Haute culture does trickle down, I’m told.

There is another way to view the generation of culture, however: the belief that bubble-up populism doesn’t have to produce the simpering shlock of another Thomas Kinkade. [Excuse my elitism.] I know and value those people among us who say “Let’s hang out together and figure what the hell art is all about”. And I have enough faith in that process to imagine it happening in Agincourt.

It’s gratifying to tell you that “Landscapes & Livestock” consists of fifty-five pieces so far, including this delightful 1936 aquatint by Czech-American artist Jan C. Vondrous [1884-1956].

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#5)

On the eve of what has become the annual rising of the Red River of the North, we’re preparing for what is likely to be remembered as the Flood of the Millennium. Since I moved to Fargo there have been at least five that qualified as “Flood of the Century”, so it may be time to redefine the term. I mention this only because there are fifty—yes, fifty—bankers boxes in the basement, filled with books, and all fifty of these have to be brought up to the main floor for safety. Am I being optimistic that even the first floor will be high enough?

Several friends and I share an illness for which, like malaria, there can be no cure: an unquenchable quest for paper. I began collecting books in high school and the rate of acquisition has seen a geometric increase ever since. Indeed, the cause of my death is likely to read “Crushed by paper.” And, yes, Agincourt seems to be populated with many more than its fair share of such eccentricities—sorry about that—but there’s one of them Howard is anxious to recall.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Garage and estate sales will be my undoing. Likewise, the on-line auction site that shall remain nameless. So, it was against my better judgment that Rowan Oakes and I attended a sale over the weekend and came away with a couple boxes of books. Sorting through them at home, I noted several with a small tasteful sticker inside the back cover: “Shelf Life / 114 North Broad Street / Agincourt, Iowa / Telephone 727”. In the 50s, I had been among its denizens.

One Saturday afternoon my mother sent me to Vandervort’s Bakery for bread; I was eleven or twelve and in no particular hurry. So Frank (the family dog) and I took the great circle route, stopping at the old library and dropping in at Aunt Phyllis’s before heading back to Vandervort’s and home.

Vandervort’s window was always a distraction, crammed with baskets of fresh bread and rolls and platters of cookies, cakes and pies. For some reason, my eye was drawn to another door, the one just to the right of the bakery, and the stairs that led up to a book dealer on the second floor—to Shelf Life. Frank and I were regulars at the library and my parents often gave books for birthdays and Christmas. But I can’t recall buying a book of my own before that afternoon. Frank and I climbed one long flight and knocked softly on the half-open dutch door at the top of the stairs. “Come in, young man, and bring your friend,” came the invitation. If I said Lauritz Melchior, would it conjure a rich tenor voice from your mind’s ear? Out from a tsunami of paper reached the hand of Hamish Brookes, proprietor. “Welcome, Master Tabor.”

How did he know my name?


For what seemed like five minutes my eyes leapt from table to shelf, from wainscot to window, philadendron, goose-neck lamp and back again, around a room more wondrous than any in my short experience. In truth, few since have been its match. Mr Brookes stepped from behind his desk and cleared a ladderback chair for me, one of a mismatched set each of which seemed more shelf than seat. Every horizontal surface—even the floor itself—was fair game for piling paper, bound and otherwise. How all this had not fallen through to Vandervort’s below is a mystery. So I settled in, Frank by my side, to meet our newest friend.

I’ll save for another day my recollections of Hamish Brookes. It’s enough today to have been reminded of his service to the community and region. And to recall the appreciation I gleaned from him for the culture of paper, the composition of words on a page, the gathering of pages in signatures, and their binding into books—a liberal education free for the asking.

Some of his volumes were priceless. Suffice to say I left that afternoon with one I could afford: The Gold Bug by Edgar Allen Poe.

A song of innocence and experience

With the library project of 1914-1915 as its fulcrum, Anson Tennant’s life might parallel William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, two collections of poems published in 1789 and 1794. Many of us know Blake as the artist of “Ancient of Days” (tattooed on my chest) and the infamous “Red Dragon” from Thomas Harris’ book in the Hannibal Lechter series. I read a few, very few, of the poems as an undergraduate. Perhaps it’s time to encounter them again.

Prior to the competition, he enjoyed the enthusiasm of youth. At least I hope he did. I can barely recall my own, when there were no limits to life and being fifty was inconceivable. Perhaps I’m projecting the post-war optimism of my generation backward to the Progressive Era. Architecturally, Anson had been born into Modernism, the generation that produced Mies and LeCorbusier (who would have been only four and three years older, respectively) who found their solutions outside precedent. I’ve enjoyed reliving in Anson’s handful of projects the architect I might have been. Could that be why I was willing to “kill him off”? To spare him the corruption that comes with self-awareness? The doubt that is middle age?


But he survived the Age of Innocence to live it once again, his past so much mist in the morning burned off by the immediacy of the moment.

What I’ve written of Anson Tennant is the stuff of obituary notices and those dreary paragraphs from funeral programs, when we remember the best and forget all the rest. The most important questions remain: Could he keep a secret? Did he value both truth and friendship? Was he able to love? And perhaps most important of all, could he accept it in return?

Paper Trail (1.1)

Does anyone in the room remember Paul Harvey? I didn’t think so.

Everyone in Agincourt—his extended family and the larger community he had known—believed that A. C. Tennant had sunk with the Lusitania. I did too, until Dr Bob asked me “Does he have to die?” So I conspired to bring him back from death and enrich the story with his future, as I had tried to do in creating the paper trail of his past. At least he would not be a one hit wonder.

  • 1915—RMS Lusitania sank on May 7th, with nearly 1200 lives lost. Among the passengers was Elbert Hubbard, leader of the American Arts & Crafts movement. Anson Tennant drifted on some flotsam for several days and was rescued by the crew of a Basque fishing boat. Suffering from dehydration and amnesia, he was taken to their port of Donostia (San Sebastian) and placed in a convent hospital.
  • 1915—St Crispin’s Chapel was added to the Episcopal Church of St Joseph-the-Carpenter and consecrated on October 25th, the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Its crypt was reserved for members of the extended Tennant family.
  • 1919—August James Tennant never rececovered from the supposed loss of his only son. He died on August 31st and was the first interment in the Crispin Chapel crypt.
  • 1915-1916—Anson Tennant recouperated in the Hospital of the Holy Cross, attended by nurse Graxi Urrutia (1900-    ).
  • 1917-1937—Still suffering from amnesia and caught up in the First World War and the growing movement for an independent Euskadi, Anson became a carpenter.
  • 1919—Anson Tennant and Graxi Urrutia were married on July 31st, the feast day of St Ignatius Loyola, patron saint of the Basque Country. They had three children: Alize (born 1921), Mikel (1923) and Aitor (1926).
  • 1936-1939—The Spanish Civil War.
  • 1937—On April 26th, German planes attacked and destroyed the village of Guernica. Anson Tennant regained his memory but was unable to contact the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. He, Graxi and the children fled to France by fishing boat. Through the consul in Bordeaux, he contacted his family in Iowa. Sisters Mollie (now Mrs Burton Lloyd) and Claire (now Mrs John Michael Oliphant) sailed from New York for Le Havre and then travelled by train to Paris, where they me their brother and his family for the first time in twenty-two years. They returned to the U.S.
  • 1937-1968—From 1937 until shortly before his death, Tennant followed his craft as a woodworker in Agincourt. He undertook small building projects—remodeling, restoration and additions—but never again referred to himself as “architect”.
  • 1948—Death of Martha Corwin Curtiss Tennant.
  • 1968—Death of Anson Curtiss Tennant and interment in the crypt beneath St Crispin’s Chapel which he had designed fifty-three years earlier.

Now I had answered two questions: when did he seek to become an architect? and how could he avoid such an early and inconvenient death?

“And now you know the rest of the story.”

Paper Trail

Last weekend I went home.

Yes, I’ve lived in Fargo for more than forty years, but another city is and has been and always will be my real home. So the opportunity to chaperone the annual third-year field trip took me to the one place where I always feel welcome—Chicago. But this isn’t about Chicago or field trips; it’s about a little kid who thought he wanted to be an architect.

Now and then, opportunity inclines me to ask students why they chose a career in architecture; to learn how early that choice was made. Their answers are similar but never the same, so I’m grateful that students permit me to pry. Being in Chicago, looking at its architectural heritage, walking the same streets I had as a teenager, caused me to ask myself that same question. Sadly, the answer isn’t very convincing.

You might know, however, it would come back to Agincourt.

The initial Agincourt scenario—design a 1914-1915 Carnegie-era public library in the style of Louis Sullivan for a small midwestern town—was simple enough: it required only a site and an avatar. An eBay postcard provided the image of a small boy (and three sisters) who might grow to be the architect inspired by Sullivan, and through him I began to explore how Sullivan’s influence could have reshaped such a familiar American building type. That process carries on apace, though a few years longer than I’d expected. Several years into it, however, I needed to ask Anson the very same question I pose to my students: Why had he wanted to become an architect?

Anson Curtiss Tennant

Acting through my avatar Anson Tennant, it’s been interesting to channel the architectural ideas of Louis Sullivan, as I see them. But as the design progressed (from an initial thumbnail sketch on a used manila mailing envelope which I have posted earlier) I asked the question: When did he decide to become an architect? There has to have been a paper trail, so I worked my way backward from 1914.

Of all the characters in the Agincourt story, A. C. Tennant may become the most fully fleshed and familiar. I had already given him a family tree with three generations of ancestors and two of descendants—including, not incidentally, his great nephew Howard Tabor, whom you all know already. On the heels of the recent Chicago field trip, I decided to outline what we know of Anson’s life, particularly as it led him to enter a competition for his hometown library.

  • 1889Anson Curtiss Tennant was born to Augustus James Tennant and Martha Corwin Curtiss, the second of their four children. His sisters were Lucy, Mollie and Claire.
  • 1895-1903—Anson attended Northeast Elementary School, three blocks from the family home at 112 Second Street NE.
  • 1900±—He spent many of his summers on his grandfather’s farm outside Mason City. In addition to farming, Corwin Curtiss worked with wood, crafting furniture and other things for his children and grandchildren. Anson learned the rudiments of woodcraft there.
  • 1903-1907—He attended Agincourt High School at Second Street and Fennimore Avenue NW.
  • 1905—Anson’s little sister Claire had diphtheria in the winter of 1905-1906 and wasn’t expected to survive, so he wanted to make Christmas very special for her. From designs he saw in the family’s subscription to the Scientific American, Anson adapted one as a doll house for Claire. Happily, she lived and the doll house became a treasured artifact of her childhood.
  • 1907—Anson’s dad Jim Tennant saw talent in his son. Don’t all fathers? Their family home—a “Shingle Style” house by Chicago architect and family friend J. Lyman Silsbee—had become too small, especially as the girls approached womanhood. So he encouraged Anson to design an addition. Anson had already moved into a makeshift studio in the stable-cum-garage to give the girls more space. The renovation was complete by the summer of 1908.
  • 1908—Pleased with Anson’s performance as a designer and ersatz superintendent, Jim Tennant wrote to his old friend Lyman Silsbee. During a business trip to Chicago, he dined with the Silsbees and sought advice on a course of study for Anson.
  • 1910-1912—Anson enrolled at the School of the Art Institute, taking courses in architecture. He may also have worked briefly in the office of Louis Sullivan, though he certainly would have known Sullivan and heard him speak at the Chicago Architectural Sketch Club’s regular monthly meetings. Coincidentally, Frank Lloyd Wright had gone to Europe just the year before (in 1909), so he would have known Wright’s work second hand.
  • 1912—Anson returned to Agincourt, intent on establishing an architectural practice. Franz and Edith Wasserman (friends of the Tennants) had recently built a new building at James and Broad for their hardware store and a few rental offices, but they weren’t happy with the design. Possibly at Jim Tennant’s suggestion, Anson’s first commission became the renovation of a building only three years old! He enlarged one of the office suites as an apartment for the Wassermans and bargained another of them for his own office/studio.
  • 1912—The whole Tennant family made a trip to Arizona and New Mexico to celebrate statehood. In Albuquerque, they discovered the furniture shop of Manuel Galvez y Paz and purchased two pieces for their home. Anson and Manny struck a friendship; Anson stayed behind and spent a month learning furniture making.
  • 1912-September—He renovated a three-office suite in the Wasserman Block as his architectural studio, where prospective clients were greeted by a stained glass door featuring the mantra of the Arts & Crafts Movement—”Als ik can”—and a carpenter’s square that belonged to his grandfather. The spartan interior was decorated with burlap-covered walls, Indian and rag rugs, and Mission Style furnishings.
  • 1914—A competition for the proposed Agincourt Public Library attracted his immediate attention, but he knew several regional architects like Patton & Miller would be strong competitors. Jim Tennant remained scrupulously distant from both the building committee and Anson’s design, not wanting to be accused of influence. Anson won from among thirty submissions.
  • 1914-1915—Construction began in July 1914 for a dedication in September 1915.
  • 1915—Anson Curtiss Tennant set sail for Europe on the RMS Lusitania on May 1st. The ship sank off the coast of Ireland six days later.

This isn’t even half the story. “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”—The Queen of Hearts in Through the Looking-Glass

Your Solar House: Iowa

As a long-term resident of North Dakota, I’m embarrassed to admit that our entry in the 1947 L-O-F book Your Solar House may be the most regrettable design of the forty-nine submissions. It is so prosaic (the nicest word I can find to characterize it) that it would be a waste of time scanning and posting it here. Just trust me on this. Now Iowa on the other hand…

Amos B. Emery designed Iowa’s entry, which appears on pages 76-77.


Though his description claims “it might be placed on a lot facing any direction,” I tried mightily to put it on one of the east-west oriented lots in The Orchard where the street runs along the eastern edge (with 85 feet of frontage). There were just so many things “wrong” with its utility in virtually any orientation, including plan reversals, that I frankly gave up trying to be enthusiastic about the client’s desire to build a design by Iowa’s native son. Tell me I’m wrong.

  • The front door (i.e., the one facing the street) seems more like a service entry, especially given the distance a guest would have to travel from greeting to cocktail.
  • Service traffic from garage to kitchen directly conflicts with formal circulation.
  • Kid traffic from their bedrooms on second floor to the referenced rumpus room in the basement (skylighted, no less, like a starter frame for tender garden plants) is torturous and shares a stair hall with the formal entertainment axis between living and dining.
  • Almost as much volume is given to two entry vestibules (which seem more appropriate for the winters of North Dakota than the milder weather Iowans enjoy) as is lavished on either dining or kitchen.
  • And the stair hall itself has almost as much square footage as the living room.

What was Emery thinking? And did he consult his wife or any woman for that matter about the daily routines of domestic life? Consider now the Minnesota alternative.

I have no particular ax to grind here, but it does seem to me that Bob Cerny offers us a more workable plan, one that could be flipped and/or rotated to accommodate several lot orientations for maximum passive solar access. Internally, zoning divides the house into public and private space, with kitchen at the hinge. And the kitchen-laundry opens to a children’s playroom for discrete surveillance. If any room could be enlarged, the master bedroom might profit from a few more square feet. It is so easy in the place to imagine kids inviting their friends over, while their parents entertain business associates, neither the worse for ware. Yes, there are five doors for infiltration, but the convenience of access for outdoor entertaining/play seems ample compensation. To make this thing work in Agincourt, I simply have to reorient the garage and modify the walks.


If you’d like to see any of the other designs, let me know.

Urban Rivers


The Orchard

Urban rivers both bless and curse.

As open space with little potential for private real estate development, they can be de facto parks, offering distant and often dramatic vistas in the blinkered vistas of our standardized urban grid. Germany’s Wupper Valley and its Schwebebahn are one obvious exception. But for every asset an urban river represents—open space, vista, light and air, outright recreation or simple psychological release, urban wildlike, etc.—there is a nearly equivalent list of liabilities, real or imagined. Flood potential versus flood control. Private domain versus public access. The glass is simultaneously half full and half empty.

So now I’m occupied. As someone actually hostile to the mindset required for development as an investment strategy, I have to understand how “The Orchard” was assembled from a minimum of three distinct land owners (and probably more than five or six); how to leverage multiple purchases and patch together a cohesive holding with development potential; and then how to market Agincourt’s first suburb to a limited local audience.

During these six or seven years, I have imagined a range of characters and their motivations. It seems this evening that creating the owners of The Orchard will be my greatest challenge to date.

<more to come, including a survey plat of The Orchard>