Among the most embarrassing episodes in American history—and they are manifold—is Executive Order #9066 signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. Though its effect on the American people wasn’t immediate, EO9066 paved the way for interment—open-ended imprisonment for the duration of the war—of Japanese Americans.
Recall that we were at war with Germany, Italy and Japan (and their allies), but Americans of German and Italian ancestry were not identified as a danger to the U.S. war effort. If EO9066 hadn’t singled out the Japanese, Milwaukee and large portions of New Jersey would have been emptied. Instead, it was Japanese homes and businesses that were confiscated; it was Japanese-Americans who were shipped to interment camps throughout the country—strategically away from areas sensitive to the war effort like manufacturing and munitions. Gordon Olschlager has already told this story through a design for the 1967 Fennimore County Courthouse.
In 2007 Gordon asked if Agincourt had a courthouse. I told him there had been an initial courthouse circa 1860s—framed in wood and probably late Greek Revival or Italianate in style. And that it had been replaced by a Richardsonian Romanesque design of 1888, a design that was indeed part of the 2007 exhibit. Then Gordon asked in there might have been another replacement, to which I replied: “Why don’t you decide when the ’88 courthouse is struck by lightening.” Two months later a crate arrived with the model of Gordon’s mid-century Modern conception: a spectacular design organized around the ruins of the previous building. A large element dramatically bridged the site and framed the vista between jail and the former courthouse. For those who haven’t seen it, we need to borrow Gordon’s model for the next exhibit.
I was an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma from 1963 through 1968, so his design was eerily familiar. I may even have seen some of myself in it. But it was Gordon’s story that took my breath away. He had written the tale of a Japanese-American family in a Louisiana interment camp [I think it was Louisiana]: parents and two teenage children. The son died from incompetent medical treatment, but the daughter survived, attended architecture school [Tulane] and married a classmate from Iowa. Back in Des Moines, they entered a competition for the Fennimore courthouse. Many of Gordon’s Asian colleagues in Los Angeles gave authenticity to the story.
As we discuss the status and standing of hybrid Americans today—Hispanic Americans, Black Americans, gay and lesbian Americans, and others—I wonder if there were more to the story that Gordon had begun.
I also wonder if everyone thought interment was such a good idea.
I was born in 1945 but don’t recall much before about 1950. We were a working-class family nibbling at the edge of the Middle Class, and some of the language I heard in my youth wouldn’t pass the litmus test for “political correctness” today. But we change, don’t we; we grow.
My elementary and high school years are on my mind these days [50th high school reunion in two weeks!]. Argo-Summit and Bedford Park were populated with hybrid Americans; I could swear in ten languages by the age of ten, including Russian, Italian, Greek and Puerto Rican Spanish. Childhood had been picturesque. But Asians hadn’t been part of my experience. My loss. What I could imagine, however, was loyalty to the point of civil disobedience.
Enter Tadao Ito, a first-generation Japanese American marooned in Agincourt when the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. It may not be very architectural, but I can weave something from this simple idea.