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Uncle Anson

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

Simple questions often have complicated, even convoluted answers. This 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—wrote 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; when they went “south” despite my best intent. 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 in name?

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: Can architecture heal? 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.

“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 depths of Metropolis.

“Safe solutions are tepid; they lack conviction.”

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


“I learned to trust my intuition.”

Graxi Urrutia worked with the nuns, cooking and keeping house, but took special interest in the thin man who’d come home 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 identity, was more debilitating than the days he had drifted in the North Atlantic, clinging to debris. “Graxi knew that busy hands would divert —. 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 in doubt. Married into the family of Mattin Urrutia, unapologetic Basque Nationalist, and 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 the 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 returning to the play, the second act, after a pleasant and diverting Intermission and reminding yourself 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 hazy, untested 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 washed ashore 2,000 kilometers from the sinking? Why now after twenty-one years? — and Graxi provided compelling explanation. 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 on the very means that had brought Anson to his 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.

EPSON scanner Image

“Old dog. New tricks.”

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