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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


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