Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2013 » October

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Pop Quiz #2 (yes, it’s looking like a series)

There has been much rumination about the design on a house in rural Fennimore county, out near Fahnstock on a dead end road interrupted by a creek whose name I forget. Milton created that landscape. But the inspiration for what might be there comes from a movie. Does anyone recognize this house?


Sorry for the dismal image. At least I now know where it is.

Kahn on the Karst

At the end of the 2006 summer architectural tour, I traveled to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, the Balkan state where I would least likely get shot. It was a pilgrimage, not “of sorts” but a genuine pilgrimage to see the works of Jože Plečnik, the 20th century’s counterpart to Michelangelo’s Mannerism. I am awed by Plečnik’s work and consistently place him in my Top Ten. There’s little chance that he’ll be supplanted by another.


A Slovenian by birth, Plečnik studied architecture in Vienna and came under the influence of Otto Wagner and the Viennese Sezession. At the end of WWI, he was invited by Jan Masaryk, first president of the new nation of Czechoslovakia, to become the architect of Czech nationalism and aid in the conversion/adaptation of Prague Castle as the seat of the new government. Plečnik’s “interventions” there are poetic explorations of architecture’s power to engage the viewer, especially through the sense of touch. Eventually he returned to his homeland and became the de facto city architect of Ljubljana. That city is rich with his late art, architecture and urbanisms, such as the “Triple Bridge” and river revetments at the city center.

I could have met him, being twelve years old when he died in 1957. What was I thinking?

My friend Crazy Richard needs to see this stuff, too.


Saturated—but ready to go again for another immersion in one of the finest architects that the 20th century had to offer—I boarded a train for the return trip across the Karst, the windswept plain stretching between Ljubljana and Trieste. It was a sleepy afternoon ride, and as I dozed the Slovenian countryside inched slowly by, small towns and villages along the rail line. In one of those unremarkable, subliminal hazes, the passing of vernacular forms inspired some harmless doodling. Very soon, before we even reached the border and customs control, I’d sketched a home that might have fit that scruffy Slavic landscape. The idea stuck and got refined on the rest of the journey home. I think it’s not a bad house, though one more atuned to a hot semi-arid site. But I also wonder now, seven years later, whether it could be adapted to Agincourt and vicinity. Dr Bob warned me about moving there, so this is just fiction. Really.

homage a kahn001

The idea was connected pavilions, good enough I suppose and influenced more by Lou Kahn than Plečnik. But the twist I’ve enjoyed is eliminating the names of rooms—nouns—in favor of verbs: defining and delineating spaces by the things we do in them. Or is it what they do for us?  It seems to me a better way to think about domesticity.

Oh, by the way, I feel somewhat vindicated by a new book on the houses of Lou Kahn. You should buy it and learn about Kahn through a series of under-reported and under-appreciated single-family homes he designed throughout his career.

Pop Quiz #1


As long as I seem to be on a Byzantine jag, here’s a pop quiz for you. Anyone care to speculate about the church interior shown above?


For the Byzantophilics out there—and I count myself among you—the finest regional example is Lakewood Cemetery Chapel in Minneapolis at the bottom of Hennepin Avenue. Just drive south; you can’t miss it. The end of your journey will be the most widely known work of architect Harry Wild Jones (1859-1935). He was also the architect of a former Baptist church in Detroit Lakes (long ago demolished) and three buildings in North Dakota (all still standing, at least temporarily).

lakewood chapel lakewood chapel interior

Byzantine architecture is the very soul of modularity. Since that would also be me, then I should find a way to channel the design sensibilities of Anthemius of Thrales and Isodorus of Miletos, two of my favorite guys and all around great architects worthy of our respect.

But where might such a luxurious lump of masonry occur in Agincourt. The cemetery remains a largely unexplored resource. Perhaps I should drive out there for an inspection tour tonight.

Cathedral, not Abbey

When John Farrow wrote “Mass at Westminster”, he meant the cathedral, not the abbey. for at the other end of Victoria Street in London is a treat sought out by few. Sure, you can endure the hordes at Westminster Abbey, pay their outrageous fee for a photo permit, and then be herded through at breakneck speed. Been there. Done that. Didn’t enjoy it one bit. Or you can stroll westward toward Victoria Station and bear left just before the depot. For there you will find Westminster Cathedral, which is, I am certain, the church implied by Farrow’s poem.

wsestminster int

Here are tall windows pouring in “their tinted beauty / To be lost again in shadow.” Reading Farrow’s poem, I recalled the cathedral’s “dark splendor” and heard again “the warming tinkles” announcing Transubstantiation and could nearly smell the “fleeting trace” of incensers (thuribles) swung by boys of fourteen. This was a 5:00 p.m. weekday service, yet there was a boy choir, the youngest of whom might have been no more than eight years old.

The architect for Westminster was John Francis Bentley (1839-1902) who chose with and for his client a building in the Byzantine style a la St Mark’s in Venice and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. He saw the former, by the way, but missed the latter on a preparatory study tour. Sadly, the budget could keep pace with the aspirations of neither client nor architect and so the building’s elaborate decorative scheme of marble veneers and mosaics had to be abandoned. It lavishes the walls to about twenty feet and adorns most of the chapels, leaving the multi-domed nave in red brick Victorian gloom.

Like all great spaces, however, Westminster succeeds through its multi-sensory approach to the worshiper. Looking at these images, what I recall was the sound and smell of the service, as well as its stirring imagery. So, when next you are in London, try the other end of Victoria Street and avoid the crowds.

westminster ext

John Villiers Farrow (1904-1963)

Seven Poems in Pattern is a slim volume by John Farrow published in 1955 by the Rampant Lions Press. I got a very good price on it from a book dealer in Bloomington, Illinois; who knew there were book dealers in Bloomington, Illinois.

It arrived this morning and I immediately sat down to enjoy both the book and its contents. Will Carter founded the press in 1936 and it still issues occasional titles, though managed now by the founder’s son Sebastian. This is the second Rampant Lions title that I’ve acquired.

One of the poems struck particularly close to home—”Mass at Westminster”—because I have indeed attended Mass there, on one particular occasion with Carol Hatlen (an ordained Lutheran pastor) and her husband Vince. Carol went to the rail for Communion, though I believe only received the Laying on of Hands since Martin Luther is still pretty much an outsider in the Romish church, despite the recent lifting of his excommunication. I just sent Carol a copy of the poem and thought you might also enjoy it:


Like distant bells in constant echoing,

A sweetness of young voices drifts through the altar-guarded shaddows

Into which tall windows pour their tinted beauty

To be lost again in shadow.

Deep the shadows are, and many

Yet no darkness taints That against which

The priest moves in dark splendor.

Golden radiance is his, gloriously beyond all earth-born themes,

For in these precincts moral whims are shed,

And that which differs men from things

Glows warmly.

The warning tinkles

The Moment approaches;

People are hushed,

The murmur is heard.

Upon the calm air thuribles have left their fleeting trace

And sweet mist intermingled with words floats high—

High, and to Him who is already there.

Three things about the poem and its author: 1) John Villiers Farrow had seven children, among whom there is one Mia; 2) Farrow’s son John Charles, one of Mia’s three brothers, has recently been imprisoned for child abuse for a period of ten years; and, finally 3) I am haunted by a line from the poem itself which I shall have to ponder at greater length.

“And that which differs men from things…”


A little architectural splicing in the genetic lab of the future and this is what you might get: Formulaic S.S. Beman enlivened by the wicked Arts & Crafts tomfoolery of Bernard Maybeck. I’d invent time travel to have a beer with Bernie. Beman, not so much.

I think this effort might require an architectural model.


Sometimes it’s hard to keep the story straight, like the several construction dates thrown about so casually. I’d better pick one—1908—and stick to it.

PS: According to the note at the bottom of the plan, I drew this on the plane returning from Cairo with my friend Crazy Richard. Has it been that long already?

Neither Christian nor Scientific

christian science

Fred Shellabarger kindled my interest in architectural history, among other things. Teacher, Designer, Practitioner—he got two of those right, and teaching was among them. Then there was Bill Burgett, but that story will wait for another day.

As you’ll recall, Fred (who we knew less formally as Shell) was also an Episcopalian of the High Church persuasion and disinclined to view other religious systems without a modicum of prejudice. So, for example, when an occasion arose to invoke Mary Baker Eddy, reluctant founder of Christian Science, Fred prefaced whatever tidbits of information he might have to share with the parenthetic insertion “neither Christian nor scientific”.

Mrs Eddy’s vision revealed that Holy Writ offered a path to physical wellness. Her book Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures ensued and was offered to all of Christianity—except none would have it. So, without intention, she created yet another of the 19th century’s shards of the One True Faith. Its official name “The Church of Christ, Scientist” is usually abbreviated Christian Science, but Fred, of course, would have none of it. [Viz. the end of the previous paragraph.]

Christian Science may not have been unique in its attitude toward women, but it was certainly unusual: 1) Mrs Eddy’s church has no clergy; it has no schools of theology and no requisite ordination; and 2) its services are conducted by two members of the congregation, one of each gender identified only as “First Reader” and “Second Reader” of texts from the Bible and Science & Health. Practitioners of CS do receive training and serve as spiritual guides, counselors of sorts. But their Sunday service is egalitarian and their architecture uncannily reflective of that vision.

For these reasons, most of the earliest converts to CS were women; their husbands came along for the ride. No surprise there. And from my perspective as an historian of architecture there are two designers of note in the denomination’s early history: Solon Spencer Beman, Chicago architect who designed dozens of CS churches across the region, and Bernard Maybeck, Bay Area architect who designed only two. They became my inspiration for Agincourt’s 1910 First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Imagine melding the styles of two influential architects. Beman designed dozens but is barely remembered; Maybeck’s best example in Berkeley has become iconic. I had imagined that Beman had been involved by default, but that his formulaic variation-on-a-theme economies might also have been tempered by Maybeck—through the agency of someone who had seen the Berkeley church. I’ve written about this much earlier, but it seems worth revisiting in light of The Franklin apartments cattywampus across Fennimore avenue.


Even towns of moderate size could boast a YMCA or similar resource for socialization and physical culture. But looking back on some of this really early work, I can see the reliance on module I mentioned in connection with the Shingle Style. A marginal note on the isometric says “Drawn at Barnes & Noble with Milton / 16 Sep 2007”.


The Shingle Style Revisited

For reasons not clear to me, I am drawn to the Single Style. Perhaps it’s the primary shapes and simple palette of materials; the reminiscence of children’s building blocks. Richardson invented it as part of his reform of Victorian excess. And it was a natural for Wright, because his mother had inculcated those shapes into his subconscious through the Fröbel system of “gifts”. I just never grew up or out of them myself, though I’d never heard of Fröbel .


H. H. Richardson and his successors McKim Mead & White rarely fell into the trap of formula. The Isaac Bell house at Newport, Rhode Island is still one of the Single Style’s high points. Others did, however, even Wright. Consider the S-S type I call the “3-2-1”.

The “3-2-1” was ubiquitous during the 1890s. It can be found from Ogunquit to San Diego and everywhere in between. Start with a prismatic gable-roofed mass, then add a two-story hipped bay and a tall dormer in jaunty asymmetry. MM&W did them. So did George Maher, though most of his examples are gone. And Wright, during the so-called “bootlegged” period, when he was working at home after hours and in violation of his contract with Adler & Sullivan, dipped into this vernacular to make a little cash on the side. Chicago Avenue in Oak Park has a cluster of three of these just a block west of Wright’s own home and studio. They stand out today because we learned about them through Grant Manson’s Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910; I found them on my own on Saturday excursions. But I wonder if they were noticeable at the time.


As a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old, I filed these away for future reference and have never been sorry. So you might know that one of these suckers would show up here, though I can’t say who lived there. But it would have been in the 1890s, perhaps before the Panic of 1893 set in and the bottom dropped out of building.

Shingle Style001

For me, what’s not to love about the discipline of modularity and mono-material.