One of my earliest recollections of North Dakota—and among the most memorable—was an evening in the fall of 1971. Jim O’Rourke invited me to drive from Fargo twenty-five miles west to Casselton. His friends Jim and Sharon Verdorn had just relocated from Seattle, as I had from New York City. It was a crisp evening for my first foray into the state, admittedly only half way across the county, but it was all new to me.
Driving north on Casselton’s Langer Avenue, we turned right at a corner dominated by the most delightful building I had seen in my ten weeks as a new Dakotan: not the bland and bloated 1950s box of St Leo’s church—sorry, Romans, that church is an ungainly lump unworthy of its purpose—but instead I refer to the split fieldstone jewel in Leo’s ominous shadow. A sign announced it as the Casselton Mennonite church but I suspected otherwise and that suspicion grew into a forty-year research effort which is still underway. One wonders: Is a long attention span better than a short one?
My fascination with Leo’s diminutive neighbor simmered for eighteen months or so, until the spring of 1973 when curiosity got the better of me. It always does. But without reviewing those early files all I can say tonight is this: 1) the church in question had been built for Episcopalians (no surprise there) and 2) the architect had been some guy named George Hancock. Imagine my surprise when it turned out I was living in the second-floor apartment of Hancock’s own home on North Broadway. Coincidences like this are more common that you might suspect. What I do recall about the beginning of this project is that my first letter of inquiry was written in March 1973. So, do the math and calculate that I’ve been researching this small Gothic Revival building for forty years and five months. Should I be embarrassed? Yeah, I should and, yes, I am.
The evolution of this project has shaped my entire thinking about architecture. Buildings are more than objects. Indeed, my exploration of St Stephen’s (its original name) led me to nearly a dozen other Episcopal churches constructed in Dakota Territory during the 1880s. And those, in their turn, became a constellation of biographies; the dozens of people associated with their design and construction, operation and maintenance; short biographies of the priest at the altar and the vestry coordinating the fund-raiser and painting the trim. There are now more than one hundred and fifty biographies of varying length (and veracity, I should admit). And it seems there is a word to describe this organic method of mine: prosopography. Look it up some time.
When I began this project, a prime source had been God Giveth the Increase, a diocesan history by Robert and Wynona Wilkins, both Episcopalians and one a professor of history at the “other” university in North Dakota. I was twenty-eight and fresh from grad school—albeit in a professional program, not an academic one—so Professor Wilkins’s response to my inquiry was no surprise. Lightly veiled in his letter were several questions: What could a non-PhD possibly contribute to a topic already definitively treated by a real academic? What could a non-Episcopalian have to say on the subject of diocesan history? What could an “architect” have to say in the realm of authentic, i.e. pure, history? And why was someone from the cow college poaching where it dare not go?
For my part, the curious thing about the Wilkinses’ book was simply this: The text used buildings—their construction, operation and maintenance—to trace the denomination’s evolution over a hundred years; vintage photographs of these fascinating buildings illustrated the story. But nowhere did the name of an architect appear, nor did the word “architect” even appear in print. Architecture, apparently, is important, but it springs spontaneously from the brow of bishops. Frankly I was offended, but my umbrage and fifty cents will get you a piss poor cup of coffee.
The point of this diatribe, if there is one, is the matter of process versus product. Forty years of one begs for a little bit of the other.