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Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Orchard

Just beyond the old city limits, the western edge of the original townsite near the Muskrat River, Agincourt Avenue makes a gentle bend to the right as it crosses the river and then returns to its westward course. At least it did until Highway 7 was relocated in the 1940s. But that’s another story, about the Fennimore County fairgrounds.

I don’t know the earliest occupant of that site formed at the northwest corner of the avenue and NW Sixth Street, but by WWI there was an early tourist court and a small convenience store. Forrest Culp and his daughter Myra ran the place for thirty years or more. The store was close to the corner with a few cabins tucked behind, but a grassy slope eased gently toward the Muskrat, unassigned space for activities that cycled with the seasons. In spring and summer they sold bait (for quick fishing breaks in the river or weekend excursions to the lakes); later, in summer and fall it became a de facto farmer’s market for fresh produce from out around Fahnstock. During the Depression, Sheriff Pyne convinced the Culp’s that their bank was a good place for the homeless and itinerants to set up camp—out of sight but not out of mind.

apple orchard

Behind the cabins, a narrow irregular strip of land stretched north between the city limits and the river. Forrest Culp owned an apple orchard there, until a fungus infected most of the trees and the rest had to be burned. I’m not sure what happened to the Culps. Myra took up with one of the Mooney boys from Pocahantas and Forrest went to live with them, just in time for Agincourt’s first “suburban” development—The Orchard. 

Culp sold a slice of his property to developers who just happened to have an option on four adjacent outlots. Together, they were divided into sixteen lots, eighty-five feet wide and from 200 to 400 feet deep. Drive north on Sixth Street today and enjoy some of the city’s best examples of 40s and 50s ranch style architecture. I’m anxious to design a couple of them myself. One of those houses, by the way, came from the pages of Your Solar House.

The Mighty Muskrat

From my earliest days collecting postcards, I’ve been impressed with the Blue River in Kansas City, Missouri, an urban stream that has been largely preserved as “City Beautiful” recreational space in the early 20th century expansion of the city. It’s now part of Swope Park in Kansas City’s expanded system.

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There are easily a dozen cards showing views of the Blue just like this one, some with more evidence of our activity, some with far less. Collectively, they have allowed me to see the value or urban waterways—embraced in the English countryside, for example, while abused and neglected here in the USA—and to imagine how the Mighty Muskrat might have been similarly used, abused and rediscovered as an urban asset.

On the Muskrat’s west bank, opposite the city, I had envisioned a rambling bunch of shacks as easy retreats from town, places to fish on a moment’s notice or “camp out” without all the falderal of going to the lake. I could see a makeshift community of glorified tents and tar paper shacks—the sort of impromptu architecture that often endures well past its expiration date—occupied by some of the community’s earlier families; a group who might be known as the River Rats and have no more right to occupy its banks than any Depression Era vagrant. In fact, I could see a truce there between the landed gentry and more temporary folks on their way to something better.

Then there is the matter of bridging the Muskrat and how that might have been done at various points in town history. Lacking a convenient ford, some sort of vehicular bridge would quickly have been replaced by a more permanent “engineered” thing, probably jury-rigged from cast iron pieces and heavy timber. At some point, however, more suitable modern bridges would have been paid for by the county or a city-county partnership.

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The railroad bridge is another thing altogether, as they would have underwritten their own and were more likely to be uniform in  engineering and form.

I have only a little knowledge of pre-1900 bridge technology, except that it evidences the patent binge at the end of the century. There are five places to be bridged (four vehicular and one rail) and that should keep me occupied for some time.

Enedina Zambrini Pinti [1883-1984]

Yes, Signora Pinti lived to be a hundred. If I’d had my wits about me, we could have met and (depending on her English) at least smiled pleasantly at one another over coffee. For me, that might have been enough. Though she never came to Agincourt or even passed through, she has touched the community in an indirect yet meaningful way.

The Allied forces began their invasion of Italy on 09 September 1943. Within a few days, the Adriatic ports of Bari and Brindisi were occupied and American troops were quartered in Italian households. Though she hailed from Napoli on Italy’s west coast, by the war years Enedina was married and living in Bari. A great-grandson living there today shared a family legend of American soldiers bivouacked—have I spelled that correctly?—in her home. It seems likely that one of those soldiers was Kenneth Goodall, who I’ve introduced to you earlier. Why do I suspect this? Because she painted Goodall’s portrait.

Agincourt's newest citizens

As career military, Goodall moved from base to base and may not have been in the country often enough to be picked up by the census; military service records are even harder to crack. So it’s strange to say I have a pretty good idea what he was doing in March 1944: that’s the date written on the back of his portrait hand-painted and signed by Enedina Zambrini, since by this time she was Mrs Attilio Zambrini. She painted Rachel Goodall as well, but may have done so from a photograph. The next chapter in the Goodall story is a sad one. 

.Agincourt's newest citizens

Kenneth and Rachel died within a few years of each other in the 1990s, leaving a substantial estate to their only child Michael. But Michael’s parents had established some sort of investment trust on his behalf and when the time came for him to gain access to his legacy, the inheritance was gone and its whereabouts the subject of considerable legal maneuvering. Many of the legal filings are available on-line; in the information age, there are apparently few secrets. No wonder these delightful portraits found their way to an estate sale following Michael’s death in October 2010. I am, like him, the last of my own particular line but there won’t be much to leave behind.

Biographical information on Enedina Zambrini Pinti is nearly as scarce as for the Goodalls—in English. I happened (lucked) upon a reference to Prof Roberta Simini, a niece of Enedina Zambrini on the University of Puglia faculty, who evidenced her own artistic abilities but chose a different path. Dr Simini has been kind enough to share several references in Italian about her aunt, and all of these hint at a not inconsiderable talent (I love double negatives). No wonder I had difficulty finding biographical material: most sources use her maiden name “Pinti”, which I hadn’t known until a month ago. At this point I can share two things: 1) her self-portrait as a young woman, and 2) a studio photograph showing her instructor Giovanni Fattori [1825-1908] and several young women students, one of whom might be Enedina herself.

123_zambrini_mg_8551 fattori

I love this sort of sleuthing. Don’t you? It will be relatively simple to explain the presence of these charming portraits in northwestern Iowa.

Your Solar House

The small public library in my home town had very few books on architecture. But it was there in a converted storefront on Archer Avenue that I sat, cross-legged on the floor by the bottom shelf of the “oversize” section, for an afternoon with the first book I recall on the topic of architecture. I think about that encounter and wonder now what it might have meant to my future.

.your solar house

Your Solar House was published in 1947, a large-format book with a friendly old-rose paper-covered cover. In an effort to promote their glass products, Libby-Owens-Ford had asked one architect in each state—there were only forty-eight then, plus the District of Columbia—to design a passive solar house, appropriate for the state’s latitude (i.e., sun angle), climate, etc. The book has never been reprinted, though I’ve managed to find two originals from out-of-print dealers.

YSH01

After an introductory essay on glass and the principles of passive solar design, there is a series of two-page spreads for each state and the District of Columbia grouped in regions, principally for climatic similarity, I’m guessing. North Dakota is grouped with its southern twin, as you might imagine. What I find more interesting is the array of architects chosen for/from each state. North Dakota, for example, is represented by Harold Bechtel with what may be the homeliest entry in the entire book. Bechtel was architect for the Lincoln Mutual Insurance building that has become Klai Hall; the original was characterized by Vince Hatlen, who once worked for Bechtel, as the best building he ever did. By contrast, South Dakota’s tasteful entry was the work of another Harold—Spitznagel—still “alive” in the TSP Partnership. Consider the Missouri house:

YSH MO01 YSH MO02

Handsome, Isn’t it? Now do the math: A very rough calculation of area (excluding garage and circulation) is about 1250 square feet. I’ve seen houses on HGTV with “Great Rooms” bigger than that. WTF have we become?

The list of architects is interesting as a whole, with names that were notable then and which have become icons for mid-century Modernism. Harwell Hamilton Harris (“where hurricanes hardly ever happen”) designed the “Texas” house. Cerny did “Minnesota”; the Keck brothers did “Illinois” (meaning Chicago in the late 40s); William Wilson Wurster offered California’s vision. For larger name recognition, Ed Stone did “New York” and Louis Kahn gave us the Pennsylvania take. Like any pattern book or other slice of professional life, it says volumes about the state of architecture at the end of the Second World War. I’d be happy to scan and post here as many of these houses as you would enjoy seeing—probably your first opportunity. When the Agincourt Project was born circa 2006, I thought immediately to include the Iowa design from Your Solar House, but was immensely disappointed when I found it.

The site I chose was Agincourt’s earliest “suburban” expansion at the west edge of the original townsite. Four outlots on Sixth Street NW began the slope down to the Muskrat River through some land that had been put into an apple orchard. But either blight or economic unprofitability had encouraged its reuse in the post-war era of the G.I. Bill and other suburban delights. The normal 50-by-140-foot pattern of residential lots could be abandoned. Here they would be 85 feet wide and between 200 and 400 feet deep down to the river’s edge, most of which was unbuildable due to Spring flooding. But, try as I might, I could not place the “Iowa” design on any one of them, either as the plan stood or in a horizontal or vertical flip. Its architect should be embarrassed.

I simply could not imagine that any client would want to build this house (as it was presented in the book, at least). So, instead, they chose the “Minnesota” design by Cerny. In the ongoing cultural battle between these two states—Minnesotans tell Iowa jokes and vice versascore one for Minnesota.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Forty-five years ago, I was twenty-three years old, an undergraduate student studying architecture at the University of Oklahoma. It was the fifth year of what ought to have been a five-year program, but I was taking my time and had two years to go. The fourth of April was a Thursday, just as it is tonight.

I can’t tell you what classes I took that semester—a studio with Fred Shellabarger and a couple of lectures; one of them might have been the Bauhaus seminar in the Art Department that was taught by an actual Bauhaus faculty member. I was also working part-time at Fred’s architectural office.

The Department of Architecture at O.U. had an awesome visiting lecture program. During my time in Norman, I heard Lloyd Wright (son of you-know-who), Paolo Soleri, Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and a bunch of others. That night Victor Christ-Janer was scheduled in the department’s lobby-gallery on the second floor of the stadium—yes, the department was housed in half of the second floor and all of the stadium’s third floor. I lived across Flood Street in a house we rented from Mrs Fluty for ninety bucks a month, split four ways. You do the math.

So, that afternoon, I probably worked a few hours at Fred’s office on Asp Avenue, then walked to the Chi Omega sorority for my gig as a houseboy. I probably went home to change and then cross the street and climb a grim flight of concrete steps that took me to the Architecture Library and a long corridor past faculty offices and our branch of the university bookstore into the windowless lobby-gallery where chairs had been set up for the Christ-Janer presentation. My roommate Alan Tichansky was there as well; we worked together at Chi Omega, too.

A few minutes before 7:00, the speaker arrived with a handful of faculty, though I don’t think they’d come from dinner. Christ-Janer was introduced and mentioned that he had come from his motel, resting before the talk. He spoke of receiving a phone call from his wife, turning on the TV and beginning to receive details of the Martin Luther King, Jr, assassination in Memphis just a few hours earlier.

Those were tumultuous years (a word I don’t use very often). Change was afoot, as it is today, but it was a vastly different sort of change. The pendulum moved to the left, toward social equity, racial justice, voting rights. Large segments of the American people imagined a brighter future—I did—but others resistant to change, for whatever reason, took a dimmer view. Five years earlier, while taking a shower in my freshman dorm, I heard about the assassination of John Kennedy in Dallas. And only two months from that Thursday lecture by Victor Christ-Janer I would hear about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. Three major public figures—three workers for the causes that gave increasing meaning to my life—killed by assassins bullets in five years. That’s the way we do it here in America.

“Second Amendment remedies” are what we call them now.

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This is going to sound bizarre. Somehow, Victor Christ-Janer had told us the terrible news and then morphed so seamlessly into his lecture that the transition from the personal horror and the national shame of Dr King’s death into a humanist’s view of architecture seemed perfectly normal. We learned, for example, of Christ-Janer’s battle with personal depression; of his resistance to the wiles of publication and what we would eventually call “starchitecture”; of insisting that architecture might actually stand for something beyond fame and wealth.

Of all those lectures I heard during my years in Norman, that Thursday night forty-five years ago may have been the most meaningful. But at what cost?

Six degrees of Kevin Bacon

Among the several projects I’m unlikely to finish in this life, I come back to one of them now and then—mostly then. You might know it involves Frank Lloyd Wright.

During the Oak Park years—the period ending effectively in 1909 with his departure for Europe with the wife of a client—Wright maintained downtown office space in Steinway Hall, a narrow mid-block building at 64 East Van Buren between Michigan Avenue and Wabash until it was demolished about 1970. Designed by Dwight Perkins, one of the Progressive gang that gathered there, Steinway has become almost legendary as the home of The Sixteen, a never-quite-complete list that included Wright, Perkins, and several other young turks raising the hackles of Chicago’s architectural establishment. Wright and his office staff did most of their work in the Oak Park studio, but once a week he maintained office hours to consult clients more conveniently downtown. The Steinway story is more nuanced than this, but it will have to wait another day.

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Around the corner and a half block south on Michigan Avenue, the Fine Arts Building was another creative cluster of artist’s studios, book shops and galleries, of special interest to Wrightophiles because he designed three interiors in that building. Consider these and the constellation of other tenants:

  • In 1907 Wright designed a bookstore for Francis Fisher Browne on the building’s seventh floor.
  • Two years later in 1909 his scheme for the Thurber Art Galleries occupied the entire fifth floor of the Fine Arts Building Annex.
  • And then in 1914 he completed the trilogy with the Mori Oriental Art Studios of the Fine Arts’ eighth floor.

Any trace of these three interior schemes has long since disappeared. And they might be dismissed as projects incidental to Wright’s emerging career, were it not for the building’s other tenants.

  • The Caxton Club, a gathering of bibliophiles, had club rooms on the tenth floor. Wright was a member.
  • Also on the Caxton membership roll was Ralph Fletcher Seymour, who had a studio on an upper floor. Seymour’s Alderbrink Press published Wright’s 1912 The Japanese Print but even more interesting was his authorized 1911 edition of Ellen Key’s The Morality of Woman, translated by Mamah Bouton Borthwick, Wright’s mistress who was murdered at Taliesin with her two children just three years later.
  • Elsewhere in the building were the editorial offices of two literary magazines, The Dial and The Little Review, each influential in what has been called “The Chicago Literary Renaissance”.
  • During 1911-1914 Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine was published by Ralph Fletcher Seymour.
  • And from about 1912 Maurice Browne (not related to Francis Fisher Browne) helped shape the Little Theatre Movement and produced Ibsen and other innovative plays on the premises.

There is more, but I hope that’s enough for now.

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All of this brings me to a 1910 Seymour etching titled “Willows”. I own several books published by Seymour and a couple of his etchings as well. One of the books—Voices of the Dunes—includes a poem by Louis Sullivan that I don’t think has been reprinted elsewhere. But the Community Collection in Agincourt has a “Willows” print as well and, not only is it signed (as a print should be), it also sports an inscription by Seymour “To Mr & Mrs Clark. Feb 21, ’10”. Have I ever needed more than that to set the wheels in motion?

Clearly Mr and Mrs Clark must have been Agincourt residents. But how did they know Seymour?

Build it and they will come

In 1904, a stock company in Fargo-Moorhead undertook a trolley line that grew ultimately to incorporate several branches reaching from the Agricultural College on the northwest to the Normal School on the southeast. Other branches eventually served the two county courthouses (Cass and Clay) and the suburban community of Dilworth, which was a railroad service point for the Northern Pacific. Despite (or is it because of) the Great Depression and World Wars I and II, the system survived until about 1950, when a conspiracy of dunces (the automotive, petroleum and rubber industries) conspired to replace cheap efficient public transport with something more consumable. Very soon enormous systems such as the Pacific Electric Lines that served the majority of Los Angeles were driven out of business so that we could have the bloody automobile and all its consequences. I’d be willing to bet big money that LA wishes the “Big Red Cars” had never gone.

Pacific-Electric-Red-Cars-Awaiting-Destruction[1]

As you can imagine, however, even modest systems like ours in Fargo-Moorhead had immediate impact on the areas they served. Open country between pockets of settlement suddenly became gold mines for real estate speculation. Whole block fronts of fifty-foot-wide residential lots were scooped up by developers who took stock plans from lumberyards or pattern books and made vest-pocket investments for generic working- or middle-class clientele. Find a clump of those houses today and compare it with a map of the long-demolished trolley lines that once served the neighborhood and I can predict what you’ll find.

redcar_lg[1]

Build it and they will come, though in this case the “it” is cheap, efficient public transport. And what “came” were modest single-family houses or walk-up apartment buildings. Drive the length of University Avenue in Minneapolis-St. Paul this afternoon and see the principle at work as we speak. Grimy commercial strips and used car lots are now apartment/condominium complexes with ground floor shops that will find no end of tenant/owners when the new light rail line is opened this fall. It takes more than a little patience but the rewards will come.

Now all I have to do is find the phenomenon in the little bit of fact-based fiction that is Agincourt.

Housing Stock

Agincourt’s original townsite was optimistic, providing more than a hundred blocks for single-family housing. In the 19th century, it was the proportion of families, parents and children, that hinted at any community’s chances for stability, longevity, permanence. Of the growing list of contributors to Agincourt’s buildings, however—students, faculty, friends and yours truly—the majority have been “architected”. I can think of fewer than ten single-family houses imagined by us, and most of those were conceived in the spirit of real historical architects like Lawrence Buck and Gustav Stickley (though he is appreciated for other things). What does that say about those blocks of homes we all know are there but can’t quite see?

Writing a report on an historic house in Grand Forks several years ago—in preparation for a National Register nomination, I suppose, though I was never asked to write it—I considered housing stock from the 1880s into the 1930s and came away with a more diverse view than I had at the outset. My preconception imagined that architects designed big houses on prominent streets for what then constituted the One Percent and the rest of us lived in hovels from the lumber yard. It turns out to be far more nuanced than that, thankfully.

Yes, there are those large, sometimes pretentious homes for bankers and such (and sometimes for architects themselves as testament to their skills). And, yes, there are large numbers of largely anonymous houses at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum. But it turns out there are a significant number of options between those two extremes. I was surprised to discover that in Fargo, for example, early architects were involved with many modest houses and even generic designs for real estate speculation. Then there are pattern books—published by architects, material manufacturers promoting their products, periodicals (especially aimed at women, keepers of the home fires) and organizations promoting home ownership like the American Small Homes Service Bureau (of which I’ve just been reminded)—that have yielded a dizzying variety of single-family detached houses. My experience here in the Red River Valley must be typical of other communities from the same time period. So how might Agincourt have been shaped by something like this 1923 publication by the Morgan Sash and Door Co.Building with Assurance.

Consider these three suggestions for houses you might build with their products:

morgan03 morgan01 morgan02

Any of them could be across the street from where you were born. And each of them, I suspect, exists somewhere in Agincourt.

Collecting

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, there were several opportunities during the year to acquire works of art, which I did almost from the beginning of my seven years in Norman in 1963. Senior shows in the art department were one source. From one of those, there is a painting hanging in my front hall by Jamie Barnes that cost me $45, a painting I have enjoyed since about 1965. That’s just over $1 per year, a great payback as far as I’m concerned. To put that in context, minimum wage in the early 60s was a buck twenty-five and a ginormous meal at Moore Burger on the east edge of campus was less than a dollar.

Another more fruitful source for art acquisition was a traveling gallery operated by Ferdinand Roten out of Baltimore. About a week in advance of their arrival, posters announced that Roten would set up tables and bins in the Student Union in a few days, usually for parts of two days—the afternoon of one weekday and the morning of the next. Roten offered very affordable art for the undergraduate budget, most of them prints and the majority of those commissioned by the gallery itself from living artists. The first print I bought from them—by Japanese artist Hodaka Yoshida (1926-1995)—still hangs in my upstairs hall, though it desperately needs reframing. Years later I bought another woodcut print from Roten, this time by Hodaka’s older brother Toshi (1911-1995), who carried on the more traditional themes of their father Hiroshi. Artistic traditions in Japan are frequently familial. 

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A copy of Toshi Yoshida’s first print, “Raicho” or Japanese snow grouse, printed in 1930, is part of the Community Collection at Agincourt, Iowa. And I’m pleased to tell you that it will be among the fifty-plus works lent to us for the next Agincourt exhibit. My Yoshida came through the retail genius of the Ferdinand Roten Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland. Can we imagine a source for theirs?