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Uncle Anson


“So, Uncle Anson, when did you decide to become an architect?”

Simple questions can require complicated, even convoluted reply. This deceptively innocent question opened a welcome 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; I can’t recall — is storied to have written Frank Lloyd Wright for his 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 smuggling and 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. “Grow where you’re planted,” says my old friend Marilla.

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. Hardly 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 served as model. But what sense does a sixteen-year-old make of perspectives and technical drawings? Illusions and abstractions? 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, if you don’t count the dollhouse.

“Dad had confidence in me,” as my own did 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 cove 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 diverse meanings, especially in small-town and rural America, and becoming one could follow 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, yet saw no decline in his mental 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,’ Sullivan said.”

And so it was after some twenty months of “formal” education, young Mr Tennant returned to Agincourt and 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 “unmuddling”—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. He may also have been involved with St Ferreolus at the lakes. What other jobs did he take on? I should have asked when I had the chance.

“Then everything went blank for twenty-six years.”

The tragic story of his sailing on the “Lusitania” is too uncomfortable to repeat once again. But reminding us of the coïncidental 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 returned but his memory did not.


Map of Donostia / San Sebastian from the time of Uncle Anson’s time

“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, on her brother’s boat. 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 had been, adrift 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. Therapy that was far more than physical.”

“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 well set. 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 and 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 narrative. 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 immediately for Bordeaux and wait.

But crossing the border at Irun-Hendaye would have been far too conspicuous for two adults and three children, especially one without papers, and leaving them behind for a later reunion was unthinkable. 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. He would leave as he had arrived, with his bother-in-law Eitor at the helm.

Anson and his family passed through the main train station in Bordeaux on their way “home” in late 1937

“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 passed or moved away. There was celebration nonetheless, making the rounds like a 30th high school reunion, where faces had changed, but voices remained the same. Getting back into architecture looked too painful, though, like trying to imagine nothing had happened. His carpentry skills, however, had sharpened considerably under Mattin Urrutia’s guidance, 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 Charles Darwin School. Anson “dated” these pieces with a two peseta coin he had accidentally brought back from Spain in his coat pocket.

Two peseta coin issued by the government of the Basque Country (Euskadi) in 1937

Miss Kavana had seen something in fifth-grade Anson; recognized a penchant for drawing and making. She may even have provided the introduction to William Morris (who got it from Chaucer who, in turn, got it from Hippocrates) and encouraged Claire’s dollhouse. “Ars longa, vita brevis.”

I miss my Uncle Anson.

“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)


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