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Monthly Archives: October 2013

“The Franklin”

the franklin

Ben Franklin has a special place in my heart. Printer-publisher, politician, postmaster—polymath—Franklin and I share a birthday (though not the same year). Others born that day, by the way, include Muhammad Ali, David Caruso (not very happy about that one), and three of the coolest women ever: Eartha Kitt, Betty White and Michelle Obama. Hope they don’t mind sharing.

I suppose that’s where the name of Agincourt’s first purpose-built apartment building (as opposed to, say, townhouses a la duplex) came from. “The Franklin” was built circa 1920—early in their formation, these stories tend to be a little squishy; not quite jelled—but situated precisely where you’d expect to find it: backing onto commercial Broad Street, cattywampus from the Christian Science church, and still residentially-scaled for the older houses across the streets. It also derives from another very personal experience: for a few years in the 70s, I lived at 711 Broadway, in Fargo, at “The Monticello” and, if push comes to shove, I will admit that Slick and Franny were my down-stair neighbors in #17. I think about them each time I drive by and think about their happy years together there. We should all be so graced.

Which brings me to design and the Agincourt-adaptation that will grow from the story told a few days ago. I wonder who else might have lived here.

TheFranklin001

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#6)

“I apologize for writing such a long letter. There wasn’t time to write a short one” —Albert Einstein

The majority of housing in Agincourt is single-family. The styles vary—Eastlake, Italianate, Stick and Shingle Style, Craftsman and Prairie, Period Revivals, Moderne and a lot of “Cornbelt Boxes”; you know the drill—and I enjoy wrapping my head around each of them, as I would learning a new language; a new dance step. The diversity of size, on the other hand, is more challenging, for it’s far easier to design a big house than a small one. Trust me.

But even in a town the size of Agincourt, there would have been a slight but gradual shift from single-family detached housing to multi-family units. A duplex here and there; eventually a full-blown unapologetic apartment building. Families at the entry level of home ownership were candidates, and so were empty-nesters; apartment living can be attractive when the kids leave home and the dog dies. Especially when you weary of painting all that ornate wood trim.

Our first real apartment building was a modest affair built about 1920: “The Franklin” (named for someone who should have been our president, but wasn’t) at the southeast corner First and Fennimore NW. A Presbyterian church stood to the south; across the alley were the backsides of shops like Vandervort’s Bakery and Wasserman Hardware. Howard had an apartment there when he came back from Chicago and his first gig in journalism.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A Tabor

Slick and Frannie

My mother recommends moving every five years. “If you haven’t unpacked those boxes since the last move,” she advises “give them to Goodwill.”

Returning to Agincourt in 1970—after two years in Chicago and my first job in journalism—my old room was empty, but it was time to get a place of my own. An apartment at 123 First Street NW was available—two blocks from mom and dad—so I became a tenant, as well as a Tennant.

“The Franklin” was fifty years old that year. Its first occupants were that age and older—seniors moving into town when the kids took over the farm; empty-nesters and the like. Oddly, things hadn’t changed all that much when I moved in on the Sunday afternoon of the weekend between my two jobs. Across the hall was Minnie Stamberg, retired English teacher from the college. Near the entry vestibule were Mr and Mrs Fahnstock; she served as our unofficial concierge and cruise director, keeping her door open a crack to watch our coming and going. Uncharacteristically, I went to the Bon-Ton one Saturday for breakfast where my friend Rowan found me: Cora Fahnstock had told him where to look. The building “super” was also retired from the college, Ben Heath, but we all knew him as “Steam Heath”, especially when the pipes were cranky in January, as they always were. Ben was also caretaker at First Presbyterian, and the two jobs seemed to keep him happy and financially afloat.

Without doubt, my greatest friends at The Franklin were Slick and Frannie Fielding, who lived just beneath me. In an old wood-framed building like ours, it was the neighbors above and below who you knew best, every footstep on those creaky floorboards revealing who’d just got back from shopping; who’d had an argument and then who couldn’t sleep until there was an apology. I met the Fieldings late that Sunday afternoon, shortly after the last box had been lugged up those two-and-one-half flights of stairs. A slight knock at my half-open door announced Frannie’s arrival from downstairs and a thin voice wondered “I’ll bet you’re hungry, young man. Why not join Slick and me for some meatloaf and mashed potatoes?” I didn’t know which box the kitchen pans were in, and there was no food in the fridge anyway, so, yes, I was grateful for the invitation.

We chatted through dinner and found our common connections. Slick had been a traveling salesman for a company that did business with dad. Frannie had worked as a sales clerk in Grace Arbogast’s upscale clothing store. Now they were comfortably set up at The Franklin on Social Security and a modest pension. I wonder today how the Fieldings would have got through the market collapse, the sequester and government shutdown; probably not well. In addition to sales, Slick (real name, Grover, after Grover Cleveland, I learned) had also been on the pro-bowling tour and earned quite a reputation in the sport, though little in prize money. Frannie regaled me with stories of the dress trade, the sort of gossip that was safe now that so many of her former snooty customers had lain down for “the dirt nap” as she called it. I promised her that I’d keep them to myself, but I did confirm some of the more colorful episodes with my mom and filed them away for future audiences.

On cold winter nights, I’d hear Slick moving about the apartment. I knew that his emphysema made sleeping difficult and that he was most likely moving onto the screened front porch of their apartment: sleeping was easier outdoors when the temperature was near zero. Then, after a late night at office, I came home to find the ambulance on First Street and the EMTs carrying Slick on a stretcher. He’d had the breathing episode that finally took him from us. I held Frannie for a long time (they had no children and informally adopted me) and helped with “the arrangements”. After that, I and some of the other neighbors watched out for her, did some shopping and shared a meal on Sunday afternoons, like out first encounter. Frannie went to a nursing home in 1978 and died a few months later. Life without Slick hadn’t been enough.

Under any other circumstances—living at home with my parents; sharing an apartment with people my own age; even living next door to, rather than above the Fieldings—I would never have made their acquaintance or been let in to their lives. Funny what a difference two-and-one-half flights of stairs can make.

If Winston Churchill was right, there’s a reciprocal relationship between us and our buildings; a mutual shaping of one by the other and back again. A chicken-and-egg thing so old that we’ve lost track of which is which and which came first. Churchill hoped for this effect in Parliament, rebuilt to his specifications after the war; too small during full attendance and therefore become energized, a crucible for debate on the most important topics of the moment. No space in Agincourt is quite that important.

Because his uncle Anson had been an architect, Howard thought about that as a career. I think he and I are cut from similar cloth, however; we both realized that architects have a gland that drips subsistence levels of tolerance for things I can’t mention here, but any licensed practicing architect will share them with you for a drink. In an earlier draft, I’d itemized a few of those “things” but opted to be less offensive than usual and keep them in my heart (a rare feat for me). So my friend Howard became a journalist—oddly, yet another career choice I could not have sustained.

Sanborn Maps

During the last third of the 19th century and much of the 20th, the Sanborn Company published maps used for fire insurance purposes. Few private subscribers used their services, but for insurance companies and municipal governments, Sanborn maps were essential to do business.

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The Sanborn company sent its agents to cities across America or contracted with local workers to make accurate measured drawings of the densest parts of American cities. Sent back to their offices in Pelham, New York, the drawings were more accurately represented and then lithographed on 21 by 25 inch sheets. They included considerable amounts of information about each building, its occupants (especially if they represented a fire threat, such as hardware stores with flammable liquids or bakeries with coal- or wood-fired ovens), the heating system and other data useful for underwriting a fire insurance policy. To make the danger of fire more immediately apparent, the black-line maps were then watercolored by hand  to represent the major construction materials: wood was yellow, brick was pink, stone, blue, etc.

You didn’t buy Sanborn maps. You subscribed to their service, so that maps could keep pace with the changing urban environment. New maps replaced the old. The rate of replacement obviously reflected the rate of growth and change. In Fargo, for example, a city I know much better because of its Sanborn coverage, there were maps for 1884, 1888, 1892, 1896, 1900, 1905, 1910, 1916, 1922 and 1929. Make a color photocopy of the same block in different years and you’ve made a virtual flip-book of change. That’s how accurate the initial measurements were.

Some time before the next exhibition, I intend to create a Sanborn page for Agincourt. Wish me luck.

PS: While these maps may be historically significant, especially to historians and preservationists, they can’t hold a candle to the artistic integrity of the 1888 Ludvig Simon map of Göteborg. Is it too late to consider a career change?

Nina Köpman (Domestic Arrangements 1.5)

And so we have it: Miss Nina Köpman has come to live and work in the Archer household.

Simon's_1888_Gothenburg_map

Miss Köpman was a native of Göteborg, Sweden’s second largest city and its major port. This map by Ludvig Simon dates from 1888, about the time she was born. [The wikipedia version of this is HUGE and exceptionally detailed.] So, combine the map with various postcard and other internet views and we can develop a sense of the city she knew as a young woman contemplating emigration. I chose “Köpman” as her family name for two reasons: #1) in Swedish, it means “Merchant”, a likely occupation in Göteborg, and #2) there’s a Köpman–gatan (Merchant Street) just north of the main canal.

oa_canal

This will seem remarkably odd to many of you, but there is actually a strong connection between Göteborg and Dakota Territory during the decade of the 1880s, when foreign investment here was extensive. Among our earliest large-scale investors was Richard Sykes (whose name lives on in Sykeston and five other townsites he promoted). At one time, Sykes owned 75,000 acres of Dakota land, which he sold in small farmsteads to both Americans and Europeans seeking to improve their lot. But he also sold multiple sections to a number of larger investors, speculators, many of them his relatives. Among the buyers of six, eight, or even a dozen sections was one Anders Magnus Prytz, an insurance and shipping agent from Bordeaux, France. Prytz was one of five sons of Mans Prytz, publisher of “Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning” or the “Gothenberg Trade and Maritime News” which tracked international shipping and its insurance. Mans had the good sense to do the Rothschild thing and disperse his sons around the world as his eyes and ears, funneling shipping information back to Göteborg for dad’s newspaper. How Sykes made the acquaintance of Prytz is a mystery awaiting my attention. Give me a little more time.

But in the meantime, however, I get to scratch that itch and link my interest in Göteborg with the American Midwest.

Why couldn’t Herr Köpman have worked for Prytz? And then spoken at home with his family about opportunity in the heartland of North America.

Rapid Transit

As a child of ten living in the suburbs of Chicago, I explored the city as long and as often as possible. Saturday morning would find me at 63rd and Archer, across from the Argo Drug Co., waiting for the #63A CTA bus that would take me eastward to the transfer at Narraganset, then a #63 to Loomis Avenue, last “L” stop on the Englewood Branch of the Green Line. On a good day, I was downtown in forty-five or fifty minutes.

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By the age of twelve or fourteen, I was an expert on the city, learning by simply boarding a bus and riding to the end of the line, then returning to the place where I boarded. Block-long facades of city streets passed as rapidly as traffic would allow, and I learned the shifting character of Chicago neighborhoods by watching the language of signs (from Czech to Puerto Rican) or the clumps of store-front churches called “Pilgrim Holiness God-in-Christ Revival Center, Bishop Jeremiah Washington presiding”. It was an education that could be bought for 25¢ and a nickel free transfer.

Urban transit systems continue to fascinate, whether it’s in grimy Glasgow or wood-paneled Budapest. I am a rapid transit junkie who hopes to never find a cure.

But the transit terminal that intrigues me more than any other; the one whose images I seek to understand its evolution, is the Dudley Square station on the old Washington Street Elevated Railway in Boston. Opened in 1901, expanded in 1909 and closed in 1987, I ran across my first “Dudley” image on eBay (no surprise there) and was hooked.

mbtadudley001

Dudley was a terminus for the line until 1909 and a transfer point for buses and trolleys. Using the state must have been an urban ballet during rush hours, with thousands of passengers shifting from one mode to the other. By the outbreak of World War I, its extent and complexity boggle the mind. Hold on to your metaphorical hats for the next image of Dudley Station at its maximum; the original is still at the core of the expansion.

0802_dudleysquare1

Students are wont to do inter-modal transit facilities for thesis projects; there may be one or to in the offing as I write. It strikes me they would do well to analyse Dudley State as a case in point. I’ve been studying it for ten years and still find new understanding with each encounter.

Topiary

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As a physical place, Agincourt’s greatest disappointment has been its landscapes. The postcard above reminds me that there are three landscape problems crying out for attention, but I am insufficient to the task:

  • The Square and The Commons at the center of town, our yin and yang.
  • The cluster of three cemeteries at the eastern edge of the Original Townsite (The Shades, Saint Ahab’s and the Hebrew Burial Ground).
  • The Fennimore County Fairgrounds.

I’ll be grateful for volunteers who would at least like to outline their narratives, it not actually give them form.

Domestic Arrangements 1.4

upsala

Technically, as the fifth installment in the narrative surrounding the house at 312 East Agincourt, this might more accurately be billed “The way things work”. I’m interested in using the Archer home at 312 to interpret several aspects of community history, one part of which has been the story of Aidan Archer, industrialist, Progressive businessman and all round civic-minded guy. If these are clichés, I might be one, too. But the moment I “finished” the house plan, it was obvious that one room held the greatest potential for its interpretation. Not the suite of social spaces, where Mr and Mrs Archer entertained their friends and business associates. Not the master bedroom, or even the guest bedroom—and the long list of those who had spent the night. Not the kitchen and any speculation about the changing American diet. My eyes fell immediately on the small bedroom at the northeast corner of the main floor: the maid’s room.

I don’t know about you and yours, but domestic servants were not a part of my family’s experience. Well, actually, they were, because my grandmother had been one! But that’s a different story for another day. The Archers were sufficiently well off to afford a domestic; such assistance would have enabled Aidan and Cordelia to extend their civic-mindedness. It might also have affected their parenting and their children’s worldview. Perhaps we’ll eventually get to those insight-laden details. For the moment, however, I’m curious about the person who occupied that servant’s room just off the kitchen—probably a young woman, possibly an emigrant, given the dates involved, 1910-1915. And that’s the reason there is a postcard of the Gamla Uppsala Belltower at the top of this entry.

Creating the Archers’ maid won’t be easy. First, I’m not a woman. And, as much as I might have enjoyed living in 1910, I didn’t. Both of which make my speculations questionable. With that not inconsiderable caveat, here is my strategy:

  • A female domestic emigrant circa 1910 would more likely have been Irish, Norwegian or Swedish, depending on the urban area they chose. I’m opting for Swedish.
  • What would have been her motive for emigrating? Size and situation of family would be factors. So she will have a “hometown” and several relatives still in Sweden. I’m drawn to Goteborg/Gothenberg, Sweden’s second largest city and largest seaport. It was the port of embarkation for Swedes leaving the country.
  • The as yet unnamed “she” will not have arrived directly in Agincourt, but more likely have followed a more complicated trajectory, with at least one intermediate stop—how about Chicago, which had a large Scandinavian community.
  • Secure and happy in her new position, how might she have interacted with the Archers, especially the children whose ages were still in single digits?
  • What was the daily and weekly schedule for a domestic? How many hours did they serve? What opportunities existed for private life and socializing beyond the family? Did Agincourt have a Lutheran church at the time? Did she date?
  • So far from home and from other Swedish speakers, what might have been her state of mind? I see a lot of correspondence, both ways, between her family still at home and a single daughter several thousand miles away.
  • What were the circumstances of her departure?

And here is my salvation: That correspondence (letters and “postals” in the vernacular of the day) would chronicle her period of employment. Now all I have to do is learn Swedish and turn-of-the century orthography and acquire a bunch of century-old Swedish postcards. Forgery isn’t easy.

No problem.

Robert A. Nelson [born 1925]

canopic jar 1985

[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

NELSON, Robert A. [born 1925]

“Canopic Jar”

1985

monoprint / 39 inches by 28 inches

One of two works by Robert Nelson in the collection, “Canopic Jar” is a monoprint, a unique work on paper. Nelson’s imagery has drawn from a weirdly wonderful palette of popular culture icons—from the Civil War to Buck Rogers; 40s horror films and “The Wizard of Oz”—for fifty years. “Canopic Jar” dates 1985, when America’s fascination with King Tut had not yet faded. The Egyptian embalming process involved removal of organs and their placement in four special jars, each protected by its own god.

This Nelson monoprint was acquired from an exhibit of his prints and paintings at Northwest Iowa Normal.

Domestic Arrangements 1.3

In three earlier entries (#1, #2 and #3, back in 2011, I was surprised to note) we’ve tried to interpret just one example of single-family domestic life in Agincourt. Now that there is a model of the house at 1:48 scale, its story needs more flesh. But history has a way—I should say “has had a way”—of creating long chains of white males as our links with the past. Women, people of color, and other minorities whose citizenship was compromised until recently—and may yet be—have gradually found their way into America’s historical narrative. I’ve actually watched part of that process myself; and it’s been a privilege, by the way. The house at 312 East Agincourt Avenue—I wish it had a name other than its first owner—was built in 1911. [I like to think of those years as “American Edwardian”, but I’m the only one who does.]  For fairness, its story ought to be told in at least two parts: the traditional and the other. But I’ll let Howard take over from here.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Noblesse Oblige

With wealth, power and prestige come responsibilities. Or so the French suggest with their phrase “noblesse oblige”. We’ve had many good examples hereabouts but fewer and fewer with time. Next year will be the centenary of one such case.

In 1914 Agincourt businessman and industrialist Aidan Archer established an essay contest for high school students in Fennimore county. The cash prize applied to tuition at an Iowa college or university, and the Class of 2014 will be the hundredth to benefit from Archer’s enlightened view.

Archer and his family came to the Muskrat Valley in the spring of 1909 as manager of Ironstone Manufacturing, a company established here by his father-in-law to make enameled cookware. It was one of the first plants in the new Industrial District west of the river. Two years later the Archers built a new home on The Avenue and remained here into the Great Depression.

Beyond his role in the business community, or perhaps because of it, Archer was involved in many facets of community life. Members of Asbury Methodist Episcopal, the Archers were “Social Gospel” Christians, subscribers to the notion that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; that with wealth came responsibility. In that spirit he served on the non-profit Building Association board and was a stockholder in Common Ground, the community’s reward for doughboys returning from the First World War. Politically, he was a Teddy Roosevelt Progressive Republican. Mrs Archer followed suit, serving her church, the public library, and other charitable groups. When they left the community in 1934, a testimonial dinner acknowledged their twenty-five years among us. Happily, the essay prize carries on.

The annual challenge, open to any high school senior in Fennimore county, has stayed the same—an essay on the topic  “Community and Individual Responsibility”—as relevant today as it was a century ago. It’s curious and more than coincidence that the Class of 2014 will benefit from the Archer bequest—cash given in their lifetimes and a provision in their estate—especially in the light of the sequester and more recent government shutdown. Aidan Archer was a capitalist of a different order and his contributions to the community of a another sort.

buck houses

I’m gratified that a substantial house like the Archers’ might represent something other than conspicuous consumption. But in an earlier blog entry, I hoped it might also interpret other lives: not just Aidan and Cordelia Archer and their children David and Meredith, but perhaps the craftsmen who had built it or the milkman who delivered fresh dairy products twice a week or the live-in domestic who afforded Mrs Archer more time for community service. There’s the “other” history that offers balance.

You might know I’m working on the rest of the story now.

Too much of a good thing

Or do I mean wretched excess?

“House Hunters International”, a so-called HGTV reality show, shows us case studies of people seeking housing in countries other than their own. I can be dispassionate when a Briton evaluates three alternate units in Ulan Bator where he has gone to teach English to Mongolians. Or the Canadian from Vancouver going to live the dream on Australia’s “Gold Coast”. When both the person and the place are foreign to me, I can concentrate on urban, architectural, and economic issues; I can assess the implications of relative distance from the beach or the night life. All of that changes dramatically, however, when my fellow countrymen and women are involved.

A couple from Houston and their three children accepted a corporate transfer to the U.K.; San Diegans find themselves in Milan; or North Carolinians in Helsinki. Their issues are chump change compared to the folks from Wichita faced with the scale of personal space in Hong Kong. In all these and virtually every other case, Americans come off badly: the fridge is too small; the freezer won’t hold more than one ice tray; there’s only a single vanity in the master bath (if there is a master bath) or the single bath is down the hall, rather than en suite. Do you have any idea of my revulsion to that phrase—en suite?

Plumbing issues rate at or near the top of American housing concerns but may vary considerably from one family to another. If there is anything that trumps pipe and porcelain, however, it’s the general need for space, epic openness, “honey-have-you-seen-the-kids-today” quantities of interior volume in the McMansion. We are simply spoiled by how much of it we’re able to consume, especially in middling towns or the suburbs of larger cities. Europeans understand our gluttony and smirk at Daphne’s irritation over the lack of a dishwasher or that the mattress is too short for Dwayne’s six-six frame. These people shame us all with their decadent demands that Shanghai be like Houston.

This rant comes, oddly enough, from the image posted yesterday: the Burrel Apartments in Fargo photographed before the porch alterations. I’ve been privileged to visit twenty countries since the summer of 1971. And the lessons I’ve brought home fall in three broad areas: 1) a strong preservation ethic; 2) the possibility for life without automobiles; and 3) compression—Europeans simply do more with less.

I’ve looked at the Burrel photo again and been impressed by the layering of space from left to right, from public to private, inclusive to intimate. Neither the curb nor any street lights are showing, but the boulevard is recently mown. The public walk leads to short private stubs and stairs. The screened porches are three stories tall with a secondary pattern of wood frames. We can barely see beyond the screening but realize there are tuscan columns at the corners and that there must be a rhythm of windows and doors inside. These layers define a half dozen zones compressed in twenty feet or so. But my appreciation for such simplicity comes directly, I think, from the public housing of designers like Michael deKlerk, Viljo Revell and Ralph Erskine. Especially Erskine [1914-2005], Brit-turned-Swede, whose work I admire.

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Clare Hall is an Erskine project from the late 60s, graduate student housing at Cambridge University. I imagine that many of its residents are married, some with children. What impressed when I saw this project in 1977 was its compactness. This central court, for example, made very clear while we walked through it where I belonged (as a stranger) and where I did not. Within four or five feet, I could be on a public path and yet within reach of a front door. Pavement patterns, changes of level (the Brits lack an equivalent ADA, as far as I can tell) and of color and of texture define space.

There is so much to learn from the European experience and also one reason we won’t: it’s Socialist and anathema to any but the most urban and urbane among us.