“So, Uncle Anson, when did you decide to become an architect?”
Simple questions often have complicated, even convoluted answers. This deceptively innocent question opened a long conversation with my great uncle Anson Curtiss Tennant, the man who died twice. I was nineteen years old and he was seventy-five. Funny thing: our discussion straddled the divide between my intense curiosity about the past and his passion for what lay ahead of us all. Let me tell you what I learned.
Some teenager—probably a lot like me at that age—is storied to have written Frank Lloyd Wright seeking a definition of “architect”; Wright responded by parsing the word. “Arch” he said was chief, principal or encompassing person. “Techne”, coming from the Greek, was craftsmanship, craft or art. So, taken together, an architect was the Master of the Know-how. From my earliest memories, that was uncle Anson: the go-to guy when things went wrong, awry; off course, despite my best efforts. I knew that he’d been an architect before World War I but then had gone a different way. I wondered: Was he still an architect in deed, if not by title?
You probably need to know a little about the Tennant family, my family, which begins with a bastard: Gaudeamus Tennant, illegitimate child of Marie-Hélène Cachemaille and a family that bought her silence and their reputation. Living in the Channel Islands and speaking a patois of Medieval French and English, Gaudeamus—”we are grateful” in Latin—learned the island ways of tax evasion. Then, about the time of the American Revolution, mother and son emigrated to New Jersey and a better life. Later two of his sons helped found a town in northwestern Iowa—the Agincourt that’s been home to five Tennant generations. We tend to stay put.
“Architect. It was like I knew the word from birth,” he told me.
Anson was the second child and only son of James and Martha Tennant. Summers on grandpa Curtiss’s farm taught him carpentry (we’ve got birdhouses galore to prove it) and in the fall of 1905 he built a dollhouse for his little sister Claire. The start of an illustrious career?
Claire had contracted diphtheria and wasn’t expected to live, so the ’05 Christmas had to be special. He recalled a rainy weekend in the attic, cross-legged among piles of magazines, where he found a house he liked in The Scientific American Architects & Builders Edition. It became the model. But what sense does a sixteen-year-old make of perspectives and technical drawings? Claire lived, by the way, so the better question is: Does architecture have the capacity to heal? Like those who’ve nominated Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí for sainthood, Claire’s children and grandchildren (my cousins) believe it can—and did.
The next summer, to make room for the girls turning into young women, Anson moved to the carriage house loft, his treehouse/studio for a few years, and the summer after high school Jim Tennant asked him to remodel and enlarge the house itself. It’s a bed-and-breakfast now, owned by another family, so you can stay there and see what he designed—his first official commission, I suppose.
“Dad had confidence in me.”
Practical experience is one way to become an architect; book learnin’ is another. Anson’s father sought the advice of his friend Lyman Silsbee, an old school, hard knocks architect who recommended the program at the Art Institute of Chicago. So, in the Fall of 1910, young Anson ventured from the quiet backwater of small-town Iowa into the fullness of Metropolis.
Education for entry to the architectural profession was sketchy a hundred years ago; even the title “architect” had multiple meanings, especially in small-town and rural America, and becoming one could follow one several different paths. So Anson enrolled in classes at the Art Institute and found part-time work in an office recommended by Silsbee, the family friend; I forgot to ask which one, because he soon volunteered at the office of Louis Sullivan, then working on two Iowa projects in Cedar Rapids. “Being in a room with him, you understood his constricted practice but saw no decline in his powers. I would have paid to work there—if I’d had the funds. In those few weeks, I learned one important lesson.”
“Safe solutions are tepid; they lack conviction.”
And so it was after some twenty months of “formal” education, young Mr Tennant returned to Agincourt to began a professional life. He was twenty-three.
I’m still reconstructing Anson’s brief three-year practice. It included remodeling—which is to say “unremuddling”—the Wasserman Block, where he bartered an office as his fee. Then there was the public library competition, which must have consumed much his time and energy. We also know about the Crispin chapel, but that was built posthumously. What other jobs did he take on? It’s too late to ask.
“Then everything went blank for twenty-six years.”
The tragic story of his sailing on the Lusitania is too painful to repeat once again. But reminding us of that miraculous passing of a Basque fishing boat has allowed the story to continue, for it brought him to a convent hospital outside Donostia (the Spanish San Sebastián) where his health was restored but his memory was not.
“I learned to trust my intuition.”
Graxi Urrutia worked for the nuns, cooking and keeping house, but took special interest in the thin man who’d come to port with the cod fleet. Weeks of quiet care (just how many we aren’t sure) at the hospice in the hills south of Donostia restored Tennant to physical health. But the loss of memories, his very identity, was more debilitating than days clinging to debris, drifting in the North Atlantic; here there was little to cling to. “Graxi knew that busy hands would divert a heavy heart. As soon as I was able, she brought me to her father’s shop.”
“The long way home….”
Twenty years in the Basque Country hadn’t made Anson a native, but his Basque (Euskara) was far better than his Spanish language skills. So when the Spanish Civil War erupted in July 1936, his sympathies were never doubted. Married into the family of Mattin Urrutia, unapologetic Basque Nationalist, and now the father of three small children, Anson in one respect had the advantage of being a man without a country. His amnesia, the lack of any papers, and a low profile gave him the liberty to pursue carpentry and contribute to his new extended family. Then came Guernica when nearly everything changed.
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls may be the best telling in English of Spain’s Civil War. If Uncle Anson had met Hemingway, he never mentioned it. Though he is more likely to have made the brief acquaintance of Pablo Picasso, whose painting “Guernica” brought worldwide attention to the aerial bombing of the Basque market town of Gernika on 26 April 1937. It was about that time — though unrelated to the actual bombing, which took place many miles from Donostia — that Anson’s memory returned. “It was like coming back to the play, the second act, after a long and diverting Intermission and reminding myself where the plot had left off,” he described it for me. “So much unresolved; so many loose ends.”
Armed now with a name (albeit a slippery, hesitant recollection), Graxi telegraphed the British consul in Bordeaux, who, in turn, spoke with their American counterpart. Several cables back and forth to Washington confirmed that, yes, there had been an Anson Tennant aboard the Lusitania but he was listed as “missing.” There were questions, of course — How had he come ashore 2,000 kilometers from the sinking? Why now after twenty-one years? — and Graxi provided his compelling edge-of-your-seat story. At some point the family were contacted in Iowa. Anson’s father Augustus James had died in 1919 (the simple answer to four years’ grieving) but his mother and sisters received the news with utter disbelief. It was agreed that Molly and Claire would sail at the earliest opportunity for Bordeaux and wait.
But crossing the border at Irun-Hendaye would have been far too conspicuous for two adults and three children, and leaving them behind for a later reunion was unacceptable. So Mattin arranged transport by the very means that had brought Anson to this haven: they would leave discretely by fishing trawler and make an excuse to put in for repairs at Biarritz; then a train to Bordeaux and the steamer for New York.
“Back from the dead”
What a shock to see Molly and “Mouse” (Anson’s pet name for his youngest sister) after twenty-two years. Local newspapers reported Anson’s return from the Dead but many of his old acquaintances had died or moved away. There was celebration nonetheless, making the rounds like a 30th high school reunion, where faces had changed, but voices hadn’t. Getting back into architecture looked too painful, though, like trying to imagine that nothing had happened. His carpentry skills, however, had sharpened considerably under Mattin Urrutia’s guiding hand, so here was a tangent path to follow.
“Old dog. New tricks.”
From the fall of 1937 until he died thirty years later, Uncle Anson became the craftsman he had tried to be in his teenage years. An artistic handyman who remodeled kitchens, built new porches and repaired old ones. He even reworked some of the old Public Library before it moved to new quarters in 1970. But the project he most enjoyed was a simple table and chairs for his old teacher Rose Kavana, now retired from her job as principal at the Darwin School.
Miss Kavana had seen something in fifth-grade Anson; recognized his penchant for drawing and construction. She may even have been the source who introduced him to William Morris (who got it from Chaucer who, in turn, got it from Hippocrates) and encouraged Claire’s dollhouse. “Ars longa, vita brevis.”
“The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.
Th’ assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye, alwey that slit so yerne;
Al this mene I by love.” (Geoffrey Chaucer, Parlement of Foules, I, 1-4)
[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]
BERRY, Carroll Thayer [1886-1979]
“Storm, Maine Coast”
etching / 8 inches by 10 inches
“Carroll Thayer Berry (1886-1978) was a founding member of Maine Coast Artists, now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. He lived in the picturesque town of Rockport, Maine in the midcoast region. C.T. Berry was a marine engineer with a special gift of draftsmanship. He also studied fine art at the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Berry loved the sea and was an enthusiastic observer of life along the coast of Maine. He created original interpretations of beloved landmarks of the Maine Coast.”
Berry’s wood engraving of the rugged Maine coast was a gift to the Community Collection from Jim and Catherine LaFarge, Putney, Vermont, in memory of her father Benjamin Tabor.The LaFarges and Tabors vacationed often near Rockport, Maine, where they made the acquaintance of C. T. Berry during the 1970s.
Once Upon a Time
Michael William Six, an S.U. grad from a few years ago (please don’t say “back in the day”!), sent me a link to Blank Space. In its own words, Blank Space is “a new online platform for architecture founded … to uncover the true power of architecture by creating new opportunities for design to engage the public.” How could we not applaud.
There was a time in the 60s that many of us did sense that power and hoped to bring it to bear. What Michael specifically wanted me to see, however, was “Fairy Tales”, a competition announced by Blank Space, that Michael thought would interest some of us in Agincourt. My immediate enthusiasm has been only slightly tempered by a closer reading of the competition brief:
Once upon a time, Architecture was at the forefront of social innovation, addressing issues that the entire society felt were worth finding creative solutions for. A curse was then cast on Architecture: the Evil Witch of Banality tricked the architects into believing that their ideas were worthless, that society didn’t care about them, and that the only way to advance their projects was to produce vacuous glitzy renderings. Only those would lure developers into financing projects, and publications into publishing them. You are the hero that is being given the chance to battle the Evil Witch of Banality. Your magic power is Creativity. Your ace in the hole is Good Communication. Will you accept the call to this epic battle?
How can I say “no”?
Am I wrong to imagine that this applies directly to The Project? That our work during the last six years can somehow be pared and pruned and pollarded to fit five 11 by 17 sheets of graphics, two 8.5 by 11 pages of text and one page of participant bios? I registered in fewer than ninety seconds. And those few dollars are a good investment regardless of whether I/we actually enter. I wish the project success with or without my entry.
Agincourt has had many participants and gratefully holds on to a few loyal true believers. One of them is coming this weekend, so I asked him to collaborate (our potential success, I must admit, depends on his skills, not mine). Happily, he said yes.
If Agincourt has an underlying fairy tale, it’s the life of its architect-protagonist Anson Curtiss Tennant [1889-1915/1968], the man with two death dates. I’ve imagined his life in some detail and considerable context. And if pressed to give him physical appearance, I am happy to claim this pencil sketch as representing him (though it is actually an 1899 sketch of Edward Julius Detmold by his twin Charles Maurice Detmold). Would the story of a young person’s discovery of “the architect” as a life course be sufficient narrative to constitute this “fairy tale”? That discovery and that quest are the core of the Agincourt Project and have been since its beginning.
Suggestions are welcome.
Oh, by the way, the deadline for submission is January 17th—my 69th birthday. Coincidence? I think not.
In the first year of the project—the twelve months leading to the sesqui-centennial on October 25th, 2007—my friend Howard Tabor wrote a weekly series of columns for The Plantagenet about the history of his community. “A few figs from thistles…”, his regular by-lined human interest column, gave way to an exploration of the environment he’d known all his life—though, perhaps, in a superficial way. So, one day on his walk to work (Howard always walks), he took a fairly roundabout path from his apartment to the office, going to the far side of the courthouse (from where he lives) and noticing with fresh eyes The Obelisk that marks entry to town from the west. I’m proud—which is to say that Howard is proud—of that opening gambit: That organic beginning set the tone for most of what has followed. Somewhere in the low numbers of blog entries I’m certain that column was reproduced.
To put an obelisk on the courthouse square, of course, requires that a courthouse be there as well. In fact, it necessitated imagining a series of courthouses to accommodate the growth of county government, a process that, in the current political rhetoric, may have reversed itself until government itself becomes a distant memory. It is evil, after all. That first courthouse of the Civil War years is a vague image in my mind even yet. But its worthy successor, on the other hand, is (or was) a bold statement of civic pride in the era of the Robber Barons. Not incidentally, the second Fennimore county courthouse, was also an exercise in channeling, just like the public library design.
Growing up in Chicago, I saw at an early age many buildings by two of what became my list of architectural favorites—my personal Top Ten. Even now, more than forty years later, that list remains largely unaltered. Oh, yes, one or two are displaced now and then, but some of them return for repeat engagements, sure in my assessment that they were as good as I’d thought in the first place. [My friend Richard Kenyon and I compare our respective lists each year or so and are pleasantly surprised to find many similarities. Perhaps that’s why we’re friends.]
One name that has risen in rank is William Halsey Wood, one of the hemi-demi-semi-gods in the pantheon of architectural talent, in my humble estimation. Wood has been a research topic of mine for ten years or so, and I hope to have a manuscript on his unjustly-ignored career under way very soon. It had better be; I don’t have that much time or energy remaining. For a courthouse of the 80s, of course, the great H.H. Richardson would be an obvious choice; he did a large number of public buildings, some of them for government, and he worked as far west as Cincinnati, Chicago and St Louis. As far as I was concerned, Richardson was fair game. But then came Wood.
Those of you who have to deal with me “live” will know my passion for William Halsey Wood. Start me rambling on about him and I’m unlikely to stop—me being the “Ted Cruz” of architectural history. So, not only was I a Wood enthusiast, but he also offered the interesting aspect in that, to my knowledge, Wood had never designed a government building. Like Louis Sullivan, who had never designed a Carnegie or any other library, Wood was a courthouse virgin; I was free (required, even) to imagine his solution to an unfamiliar building type by intuiting his approach through the extensive list of his executed work—mostly churches. To give you an idea of his characteristics, take a look at the unbuilt design for a very large, institutionally large, Carnegie library proposed for Allegheny City, across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh but now part of that city. This is as close I was likely to get to genuine applicable influence—the stuff design decisions are made of.
In one of those happy fits of possession that overcome me now and again, the second Fennimore courthouse emerged one evening—at least as a plan, the design mode I stay in far too long. Tightly knit and rigorous, it draws from some of Richardson’s tendencies as well as those of Wood that I had begin to discern. Elevations and 3-D representations came soon after. The materials have shifted somewhat between granite and brick, and now it is most likely a combination of the two. I’m pleased with the result and wouldn’t be ashamed to have had it built and stumbled upon my architectural historians of that future—if only I’d lived 125 years ago.
I’m thinking of the courthouse these days as an image for a printmaking class from Kent Kaplinger and I need bring this design to enough completion that it could be a monoprint or an etching. Wish me well.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
A little healthy paranoia is no bad thing. Sometimes they really are out to get you.
Those of us on social media may have followed the case of a Pennsylvania police chief who posted video of himself wielding an AK-15 and suggesting that Liberals ought to do something to themselves that’s, frankly, not very nice. For me the question is this: Despite his reprehensible views and his weird propensity to post them on social media, did the now former sheriff allow those personal beliefs to influence or alter his interpretation and application of the law?
Early in this blog’s history (December 2010) I wrote about an incident during the Great Depression that hinged on another law enforcement official, Fennimore county’s sheriff Joe Pyne. The Rufini Brothers’ Circus had come to town, a few days ahead of process servers intent on shutting the circus down for non-payment of debt. Sheriff Pyne accepted the papers—as required by law—but dragged his heels in serving them. He and others in the community understood the Rufinis’ problems, but they also appreciated the value of entertainment to hard-pressed families in small-town America. So, he worked behind the scene to raise a few dollars, buy the circus carousel for more than its true value, and allow the Rufinis to settle their debt and move on. Each party got something from the deal.
Was it civil disobedience for the good sheriff to look beyond the letter of the law; to find equity and even-handedness where haste would have sown heartache? I get more than a little satisfaction creating fictional folk like Sheriff Joe Pyne, especially when they counteract (if only in my mind) real characters like Mark Kessler.
Hiding in plain sight
Ted Ito, you may recall, was a first generation American, orphaned by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Raised by relatives near Sacramento, he grew to manhood working in the fields. Eventually Ito got a job with the Union Pacific railway as a sleeping car porter, until laid off by the same depression that had afflicted the Rufini brothers. That was when he came to Agincourt.
Ted got work at The Blenheim, parlaying his pullman car management skills into a similar position on the hotel’s night shift. Things went well enough for a few years, until the outbreak of World War II and President Roosevelt’s fateful Executive Order #9066 signed on February 19th, 1942—authorizing the internment of ethnic Japanese on the U.S. west coast. [The implementation of that law is a little hazy to me: Who decided, who identified, who gathered these guiltless people and sent them to camps in places like Clarinda, Iowa?] How word got to Ted (actually Tadao) Ito isn’t certain. But when it did, I wonder at his reaction.
Ito moved discretely to the kitchen staff but was still in public life, until one day someone asked “who’s that? Isn’t he one of those” [expletive deleted in the interest of non-offence]. The person being queried was a friend of Ted’s and cleverly replied, “Nah. I think he’s from the Sac & Fox over at Tama,” seeking to divert Ted’s otherness to a different minority group more prevalent in the vicinity. It worked. Those who knew, liked and respected him instantly but silently signed on: Ted Ito had become a Native American, even though he already had been, just without the capital “N”.
And so, for three years Tadao Ito lived among his fellow citizens as someone other than who he really was. Was that civil disobedience? Perhaps. Was it illegal? Probably. Was it the wrong thing to have done? Hell, no!
Until I can find an image more appropriate for the Tadao Ito story, this is borrowed from the CSU Dominguez Hills campus newsletter. The story concerns the awarding of degrees to Nisei (first generation Japanese-Americans) and others incarcerated consequent to EO #9066.
While we’re on the subject of the Dutch in the United States and in Iowa particularly, I recalled a postcard I’d seen some time ago: “The Dutch Room” in the National Hotel, Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was one of those sumptuously appointed interiors with linen table cloths and napkins; the sort of place populated by Edwardian “ladies who lunch” and at other times by Bull Moose businessmen transacting the Big Deal du jour. I suspect smoking was acceptable, mostly cigars with coffee and desert. Surely there were those who thought of cigars as desert.
Every town of even moderate size had one of these; the Twin Cities undoubtedly had several. Since we’re talking about the Dutch—which, by the way, often meant German (i.e., Deutsch) rather than a native of the Low Countries—this one came to mind. I had thought one of this type would certainly have been in The Blenheim, Agincourt’s fashionable hostelry built circa 1900, though its potential decor hadn’t crossed my mind until this evening.
Themed restaurants were popular at the turn of the last century, especially if it was “Old World” and affected. East Coast ostentation spread quickly to Cincinnati, Chicago, St Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, anywhere that affluence and conspicuous consumption prevailed. Remember, there was no income tax.
I’d imagined The Blenheim in that category, though very likely scaled down a bit for a town the size of Agincourt, which would have looked to Des Moines and Omaha for models. Agincourt men would certainly have traveled for business, even to Minneapolis and Chicago, and brought back stories of fabulous food and elegant decor; they might even have formed stock companies to replicate those experiences at home. That’s how I imagined The Blenheim’s beginning.
I though of it in terms of elegant cooking and baking (such as Vandervort’s Bakery, which might have been a supplier of breads and pastries) but also because its kitchen had hidden Tadao Ito, a hyphenated Japanese-American seeking shelter during the Second World War. But that’s another story for tomorrow. The last thing I need right now is another design project. Still, how can I avoid the richness in Agincourt’s narrative that might evolve from such a notion.
All I’ve drawn of The Blenheim thus far has been a second floor plan: rooms on a single-loaded corridor surrounding a two- or three-story skylit court. On the ground level, one of those four sides will open into the Blenheim’s dining room, its answer to elegance, posturing and pretension. Whether its a cozy inner elevation or a glazed facade on The Square could be decided soon.
In the meantime, any ideas for the menu?
PS: While I’m thinking of it, have you ever seen Davenport’s Restaurant in Spokane? More food for thought. Or is it more thought about food?
Perhaps it’s time to reacquaint with Alexis de Tocqueville, that guy you recall from high school U.S. history taught by the basketball coach. No wonder your recollection is foggy. So is mine.
Tocqueville wrote about us when there was sufficient perspective for his observations to have meaning. He was, after all, a European and our revolution (and his) was at least a generation behind them. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America appeared in two volumes in 1835/1840, at the heart of the Jacksonian Era. America was yet in the throes of inventing itself; self-birth has got to be painful. I wonder what parallels might be made between the 1840s and the 2000-teens, which is to say, What would Tocqueville make of us now?
The image above isn’t some family reunion of the late-summer sort, siblings sipping beers while cousins cavort in the late afternoon stillness and heat. This is something else; something troubling that Tocqueville would have noted. This is a picture of democracy still being born.
Leith is a town with sixteen inhabitants (according to the 2010 census) situated in Grant County in south-central North Dakota; a place where real estate goes begging and it’s a buyers market. Enter the American Nazi Party, intent on establishing a “White’s Only” enclave—it would soil the word “community” to have used it in this context—by snarfing up all the properties available for literally pennies. North Dakotans are hardy people; isolation and extreme weather have made us that way. Remember a few years ago when Rand-McNally published a U.S. atlas that neglected to include North Dakota? That sort of treatment can make you cranky. There’s a wide streak of cantankerousness hereabouts that 1) demands its Second Amendment Rights, while simultaneously 2) clinging to boldly Socialist institutions like a state-owned bank and a state-owned mill and elevator, all the while not seeing any conflict inherent in these contradictions.
Now, I don’t think Agincourt is ripe for a similar take-over. But I do hope there might be a comparable independence among its citizens. And that its patterns of association and assembly would be worthy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s discerning eye and discriminate pen.
Homecoming and its Cohorts
Tocqueville was captivated by the tendency of Americans to associate at the drop of a pin. We form, reform and unform, cluster and scatter with such rapidity that sociologists are hard-put to keep track, let alone take stock. In a typical year in Agincourt, how many gatherings will have brought together people variously of like mind and similar intention? My friend Howard needs to write about some of these. Consider:
- High School Homecomings and Reunions (either year-specific or “all-school”)
- National holidays that are community oriented, such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July/Independence Day, Labor Day (despite the anti-union sentiment so prevalent today), and
- National holidays that are more family oriented, like Thanksgiving
- Religious holidays like Easter and Christmas (despite its secularization); but where do you put New Years?
- Purely local holidays, like Founders’ Day on October 25th (celebrating the incorporation of Agincourt as well as the actual Battle of Agincourt, for which the town is named)
- Elections (local, state and national) that bring us out as “party animals” of a different sort
- School graduations (grade, high and college)
- Anniversaries (personal, i.e. birthdays and weddings; and those of businesses and institutions), especially those ending in a zero or two (50th, 100th and 150th anniversary celebrations)
- Cultural events, like sport, music, theater, art, etc.
- Protest, like the folks converging on Leith, to say that it is both American and Un-American to form a community of like-minded individuals and to protest that exclusionary process
What have I forgot? And how should we prioritize them for treatment in the narrative?