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WTLB: mongrel


One person’s hybrid is another’s mongrel. In binary choices like this, I tend toward the low-brow.

The difference, I suppose, is intention: hybridization occurs in the laboratory with calculated purpose and enlightened curiosity for the success of the outcome. Mongrels like me just happen. That sentence was going to be longer, but, no, mongrels just happen. The random coupling of humankind produced me, as it did the majority of us who have ever lived.

John Humphrey Noyes and more recent Mitteleuropäische experiments to the contrary, there have been mercifully few conscious efforts at selectively breeding our species—though I do wonder about entire suburban neighborhoods of upscale Texans intent on spawning a cheerleader or quarterback. (Efforts along those lines might be worthy of our attention with the genders switched. I can dream.) Science tells us that mongrels—random genetic assignations—are hardier, more resistant to disease, better positioned for survival, which makes me grateful to be one. Thanks, Roy and Marge.

That being said, I must also confess to my own sort of social engineering in Agincourt. Many of its citizens are composites of people I know. Several of its buildings are hybrids from architectural history (or at least my understanding of it), such as the Christian Science church at Broad and Fennimore NW.

At the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries, Christian Science sought an image, a corporate identity. Two architects of consequence stepped up to the plate—Bernard Maybeck and S.S. Beman—and designed buildings for Mary Baker Eddy’s reluctant denomination. Agincourt could have a Maybeck-inspired building (he designed only two churches that I know for CS) or one by Solon Spencer Beman, who designed dozens, including Fargo’s example, a hundred years old this year, if memory serves. But—here’s the “what if” fun of being an historian—suppose that the 1908 First Church of Christ, Scientist in Agincourt had been designed by both. I could imagine a scenario where a Maybeck design was “tamed” by Beman or a stolid Beman effort had been enlivened by the edgy, historically adventurous Maybeck. Is my effort hybrid or mongrel?

So I wonder today about a less likely composite: author Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, and architect Adolf Loos.

corvo loos

I have been captivated by Rolfe since reading A.J.A. Symonds’s Quest for Corvo more than thirty years ago. My favorite of Corvo’s many published works (few of them published while he was living) is Hadrian the Seventh, a semi-autobiographical novel about a failed Catholic postulant who accidentally becomes pope and the Vatican was never the same. Given the topsy-turvy world of our new pontiff Francis the First, it may be time to re-read Hadrian.

Hadrian decides that the papal apartments are excessive, wretchedly so, and opts for less opulent digs decorated by himself. Bricked-up windows are opened; walls clad with burlap and butcher paper; gilded furniture replaced with trestle tables and benches. Rolfe’s description conjures an image so clearly in my mind. Comparable reforms await the Vatican bureaucracy itself, until, of course, Hadrian VII is assassinated. Let us hope, if there is a god, that life does not imitate art.

Adolf Loos, another of my hemi-demi-semi gods, wrote Ornament and Crime, an essay on the aesthetic complexity of his age, though his “reforms” tend toward Cipollino marble veneers, rather than butcher wrap. Even so, there is a kinship in the design notions of these two near contemporaries (1860–1913 versus 1870–1933). How might their lives have been conjoined in northwestern Iowa?

Loos made a visit to North America during 1893–1896. His arrival, at least, is confirmed by immigration records. Loos is rumored to have visited the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago and also St Louis (and elsewhere?) and to have worked as a waiter for two years or more, before returning to Austria and a remarkable architectural career. Agincourt had restaurants with aspiration; they needed waiters with suitable hauteur. Why not invite Herr Loos to Agincourt and give him sufficient time to renovate a cheap hotel room to his emerging design standard?

Why not, indeed, and have him warming himself by the heat of a Franklin stove. He might even be reading, but it won’t be Hadrian the Seventh, which wasn’t published until 1904.

Not incidentally, Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe died in Venice on 25 October 1913, St Crispin’s Day and the anniversary of the founding of Agincourt, Iowa. His grave is on San Michele, in the Venetian archipelago — a pilgrimage I have yet to make.

loos toilets

Loos toilets. Perhaps the most elegant toilet prior to Mies van der Rohe at the Seagram.

Or should I have said “Loos’s loos”?

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