Anson Tennant is more like me than I care to admit. He and I are both great fans of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. And despite that admiration, neither of us is a sufficient draughtsman to create ornament in Louie’s style, this being one of the rare places where “inimitable” really applies. Anson has one advantage that I don’t: He not only met Sullivan, but may have worked in Sullivan’s Auditorium Tower studio for a few months in 1912. I’m jealous. He also became an architect, while I did not.
There is another important parallel between us: To achieve his vision of Sullivan-inspired ornament for the 1914-1915 pubic library design, young Tennant (he was twenty-five at the time of the competition) needed a collaborator. With luck he knew a young blacksmith only four or five years his senior—Anton Kraus, Jr., a.k.a. Tony Kraus, brother of Klaus and son of Anton Sr. The Kraus family of four had emigrated from Thuringia in 1887 and opened a smithy on the city’s west side just beyond its limits at the foot of Louisa Street. That imagined creative collaboration meant little without an actual counterpart here and now.
Enter Christopher Meyer, third-year student in architecture. Since Chris and I spoke early this semester and I discovered his talent at the forge (being a fourth-generation blacksmith), he’s been at work when time permitted on his part of our own artistic collaboration. And I have to admit it was a challenge to maintain some distance and a hands-off attitude while he worked. With luck (I depend on that a lot), his forge is on the family farm about fifty miles from Fargo—lucky for him, ’cause you know what a noodge I can be. The wreath is complete now and nicely patinated. We’ve found some storage space (in Milton’s garage) so it may be delivered this weekend. It’s exciting to think of it being here and simply waiting completion of the column it will adorn.
This is obscure and came as a great surprise when we (my friend Crazy Richard and I) drove past it ten or twelve years ago. Some clues:
- It’s in the U.S.;
- It was built in the 1920s (late, I think);
- The architect was unknown to me at the time, but…
- The architect who influenced this is a household word.
- And there are bonus points for a secondary influence associated with the first.
Any enlightened speculation?
Not every building in Agincourt is “old”, nor would I wish it to be so. And while I myself am old and have the perspective of multiple years, I am also facing forward, however reluctantly these days, to what lies ahead. “The past is prologue,” as they say.
Agincourt’s original fire station, or rather its most recent facility, was part of the 1938 city hall (contributed to the 2007 exhibit by Prof Steve Martens). As the city grew northward—the river and creek inhibiting growth to the south and west—Fire Station #2 would have probably been sited north of Highway #7 along the extension of Broad Street. By the 1950s #7 had already responded to suburbanization with its increasing commercial and other developments: a drive-in movie, fast food (a la Tastee Freeze and A&W), car and implement dealerships, a motel, etc. Given my age, imagining The Strip should be child’s play, but it hasn’t been; it’s the issue of forests and those pesky trees. The hospital probably relocated there for easier access to major roads, and so did the high school in the 1960s for similar reasons. Some of these building types responded to federal initiatives, like the Hill-Burton Act, others to local whim. I have a scheme for addressing these issues, but it involves luring others into the vortex. Be forewarned.
In the meantime, a little cleansing seems in order. So I’m working on a smaller southside fire station, a “now” project for change of pace. The site isn’t precise yet; I wonder, for example, which side of the railway tracks is better, given the infrequency of trains these days. As these work themselves out, Howard has a few words on the history of fire fighting in Agincourt, the dark side of the light.
Agincourt after dark…
A COLUMN OF LOCAL INTEREST AND INTROSPECTION
by Howard A. Tabor
When commissioned to write corporate history, what’s an author to do. Sugar beets? Taconite pellets? Motel 6? Hardly the stuff of Nobel laureates. But food must be put on the table; utility bills paid. No one has yet asked for those services, so until then I’ll just wonder. In the meantime…
Firefighting is a vital service. It was required in Agincourt from the beginning, testified in early issues of The Plantagenet, which record preservation of both property and lives.
For twenty years, firefighting was voluntary. Hose or Hook-and-Ladder companies depended on subscribers, and we’ve seen the consequences of such a system: A house fifty yards outside a municipal boundary recently burned as firefighters watched, because the homeowner had not paid a required annual fee; literally, “the check was in the mail” but until it was cashed, sorry. Garry Wills writes about Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, where a pivotal textual moment shifts from the plural to the singular; from collective “us” as several States to unified “us” as a Nation. Agincourt reached that point about 1880 when city government assumed firefighting as a municipal service underwritten by taxation. Sorry, Libertarians. The fire department was municipally funded, while the firemen (also sorry, ladies) were still volunteers. How our firefighters today (both men and women) became trained paid professionals and more recently cross-trained as law enforcement is a story yet to be written—happily, by me, and the topic is a lot more fun and less mercenary than Motel 6.
Casting my nets for input, I’ve spent a few afternoons at the History Center awash in news clippings, photographs and diaries. But I also posted some queries on the internet and twitter-verse (though that one still creeps me out) and been the recipient of many replies—one of them troubling.
Since Prometheus stole fire from the gods, it has been a cursed blessing. Without its warmth, for example, brewers and distillers would be unknown professions; but unchecked, it has also burned those breweries and distilleries to the ground. Not all fires, however, are accidental.
Last week the mail brought invitations of several sorts: new magazines, medicare supplementary insurance, hearing aids, foreign travel with my alma mater. It also included a note postmarked Sioux City and the brief message “Unexplained Agincourt fires? I can help.” I was invited for coffee on Sunday in a back booth of Perkin’s Restaurant in Council Bluffs. The sleuth that I pretend to be uttered a cautiously enthusiastic “yes.”
“Something ventured, something gained” isn’t the flip side of a familiar coin. It’s a different coin altogether.
In today’s economy, it seems to me, there’s a whole lot of gain without any venture whatsoever. And I don’t mean venture capital. Contrarily, I also know from personal experience that (ad)ventures on my part—stepping outside my comfort zone, into unfamiliar and even uncharted territory—have often made significant gains, though not always in the direction that I might have hoped. A couple “case studies” come to mind: reaching out to a renowned composer, for example, to create “Agincourt Fanfare” for the 2007 exhibit, or a casual conversation with a third-year architecture student about my desperate quest for a blacksmith. Each venture, each extension of my metaphorical hand, has had a happy consequence.
That’s even been the case with the New Yorker art critic, for example, whose father was a North Dakota native and recipient of an honorary NDSU degree. He didn’t say “no”; he said nothing. If he had responded with comments (what a waste of time it had been, reading my opening gambit; the ludicrousness of the project or his disdain for North Dakota) I’d have learned something. Feedback isn’t always what we’d like to hear, but it’s feedback nonetheless and helps our learning curve. And, yes, at sixty-eight I still have one.
So yesterday I reached out again, to Dr Elena Ruehr, professor music at MIT. [Who knew they made joyful noise at MIT! Shows my ignorance.] Professor Ruehr’s name may not be a household reference in your neighborhood. I learned of her through an obtuse connection with the movie “Cloud Atlas” because she has written a cello concerto with the same name. Listening to several of her recordings, I became convinced she would be a good fit with Agincourt. Time will tell.
“Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.” I’ll deal with that when the time comes. But whatever the outcome, I will have both gained and learned something.
“I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me.”—Groucho Marx
Living in a small town like Agincourt, the very idea of a country club seems odd, especially during the 19th century when everyone was within walking distance of what would generally have been accepted as “country”. Indeed, it calls into question the very definition of that and similar words like rural and rustic and their opposites like urban and city. Howard has some ruminations on Agincourt’s version.
Oh, by the way, don’t you know there’s a story behind the very Prairie School clubhouse in Waco, Texas. And don’t you know that drinks there would have been interesting. Wish I knew more.
“A few figs from thistles…“
by Howard A. Tabor
“…a club that would have me.”
The whereabouts of the original country club is not a hotly contested question. Might be Boston; might be Philadelphia. But it was certainly in the 1880s or early 90s.As upper middle class enclaves for families without the substantial acreage of a country retreat, such clubs afforded their membership recreational opportunities unavailable in crowded cities—golf, tennis, swimming in a place more genteel than McElligot’s Hole.
But, as social institutions, they also held out the potential for exclusion: socialization without “others” who might differ by race, religion, ethnicity, even gender. Think of the Masters Tournament that still excludes women golfers. Which makes the hundred-year history of our own take on countrified clubbery all the more interesting.
Toqueville wrote about Americans’ tendency toward association. We group and regroup at the drop of a pin and happily belong to multiple groups at once. So it wasn’t surprising when a group of Archers* chose in the Winter of 2013-2014 to underwrite a clubhouse for recreation, with courts for tennis, nine holes for golf and rooms for cards and mahjongg.
The seeds for such a scheme had been laid twenty-four year before by half-term mayor Edmund Fitzgerald Flynn. The Boston-born Flynn’s family had apparently been excluded from a social club there—some anti-Finian prejudice among Boston’s Brahmans—and the time had come for turnabout. A coven of similar exclusionistically-oriented folks met for a few dinners to iron out the details. But the whole affair fell apart with the mayor’s untimely death, face forward in a plate of pasta at the monthly Commercial Club dinner.
Frank Lloyd Wright was once asked for planning advice by a group of powerful Bostonians. His suggestion? “What this town needs,” Wright said, “is forty good funerals.” The years between 1896 and 1913 gave us a good measure of those interventions: Ed and his cohorts went to Glory, and the project went on a back burner. Victorian became Edwardian, and with that shift came the smoldering of Progressivism. What had been imagined as an elite (effete?) members-only social club became a People’s Palace of sorts. Larger examples can be found from London to Melbourne and Moscow, so ours barely registers on the social Richter Scale.
Supplementing the YMCA built only five years earlier and the public library collection still housed in the GAR Room at the courthouse, The Town House was built at the city’s east edge on a former farmstead ready for transition. How many children’s birthdays, weddings and anniversaries have enjoyed that modest building? Physiculture has given way to bocce ball and pinochle to tai chi. On the centennial of its founding, I hope Rowan Oakes’ students in “public history” might tell the story.I’ve got some influence there. So stay tuned.
Not to mention another opportunity to play in the sandbox of history.