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Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Shades, a preliminary timeline

Somewhat down the list of meanings for “shade” is a literary intention common among 19th century authors: a ghost, apparition, phantom, or spirit. From Homer to Dante, shades have offered advice to the living. Indeed, relocate just one letter in “shade” and you have hades, classical mythology’s underworld inhabited by those departed souls. 


τεθνήκαμεν. σώζετε δάκρυα ζώσιν.

An inscription in ancient Greek at the entrance to the cemetery advises “We are dead. Save tears for the living.” To understand its meaning and apply that to the cemetery itself, I need a framework, a skeleton of sorts, to guide its evolution. What might be the key dates in its timeline?

ca1859 — A portion of land was set aside for a pubic burial ground. W½ of the SW¼ of the NW¼ Sec — Twp — (approximately twenty acres). It was identified “Agincourt Public Cemetery” in deed records at the Fennimore county courthouse.

1861—1865 — Though there had been a few burials in 1859 and 1860, several important interments were related to the Civil War.

1862 — The SE¼ of the cemetery plat was sold to St Ahab’s Roman Catholic parish as a burial ground (five acres).

1871 — Established originally as a private for-profit enterprise, Agincourt Cemetery Co. was acquired by a non-profit association of local citizens. The name was changed to “The Shades” and improvements were undertaken using a plan which may have been advised by landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland [Cleveland subsequently designed Elmwood Park in Omaha].

1873 — New entry gates incorporated an office/waiting room and maintenance garage.

1898 — An Agincourt Outlot (150 feet by 300 feet) adjacent to The Shades was acquired by Temple Emanu-El and called the Hebrew Burial Ground.

1904 — Northwest Iowa Traction Co. extended its track about 750 feet eastward along James Avenue NE to serve all three cemeteries.

1918 — The influenza pandemic of 1918 required a special section for both symbolic and public health reasons.

1933—1961 — Agincourt native Neil Klien served as caretaker/gravedigger.

1941—1945 — A special military section for WWII veterans.

1960s — The westward spread of Dutch Elm disease reached northwestern Iowa.

1970s — Burials related to the Vietnam conflict.

2005 — Section set aside for burials according to Islamic tradition.

Peppered through this timeline, there were certainly specific interments of note. Mayor Edmond FitzGerald Flynn’s unexpected death in 1896 and hasty construction of a family mausoleum. Or the only son of Amos and Sissy Beddowes, killed in the Civil War.

Bring out your dead

Two things were likely in establishing any 19th century community in the United States, regardless of its “frontier” status: a) provision would have been made for the dead, even before there was comparable concession for the sick and dying; and b) the furniture emporium very likely served as the mortuary, since coffins were essentially large pieces of furniture.

Embalming techniques had improved only slightly since the Egyptians prepared pharaoh for his journey to the Fields of Bullrushes, but in the 1920s it was still hit and miss when the greater good of International Communism was served by the preservation of V.I. Lenin’s body; Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky told me more about the politics of that event than the science of embalming. Meanwhile, Pope John XXIII is nicely displayed in a glass coffin at St Peter’s. And Ferdinand Marcos has his shirts changed each day for those who’d like to stop by to pay their respects.

I’d like to know more about the state-of-the-art in the 1850s.


Moses Hemphill had come to Agincourt about 1870, opened a furniture emporium and served as the community’s mortician until 1898 when the business passed to his son-in-law Jeremiah Folsom. Preservation for two or three days of wake and funeral were all that Moses could muster for his clients, however, before decay presented itself to both the eye and the nose, making August the worst month to die. In earlier years, quick dispatch was a courtesy for the living and the recently departed. So, for this and other reasons, cemeteries were located outside city limits, a safe distance to spare the living from the air of death as well as the potential for disease. Ours were situated just outside the city limits where Agincourt Avenue—actually its one-lane two-rut extension—crossed the eastern line of the original townsite.

I say “ours” because there were two initial burial grounds: St Ahab’s for Roman Catholics and The Shades for Protestants and persons of less rigorous religiosity. The history of those two institutions hasn’t been written, nor for the Hebrew Burial Ground that joined it soon after. Palmer’s Nursery was also part of the cluster. And in recent years provision was also made for the interment of Muslims when refugees from Somalia and Darfur came to work at the Fennimore Farms packing plant. Add the several rural churchyards and other burial spots [see “Cemeteries and Burial Grounds” in the Gazetteer] and Fennimore county’s dead have been well provided. None of this resolves the design history of The Shades, however, which, given my recent visits to Pere Lachaise and three of the British WWI burial grounds in northern France, is high on my wish list.



Commemorate: from the Latin commemorāre—be mindful of

Social media are designed to help us remember. Each day I am automatically reminded of birthdays and anniversaries, and your own feed often announces these and so many other opportunities for both personal and community celebration, most of them annual events. Our language, in fact, is laced with words and phrases that reinforce the cyclic, repetitive nature of remembering again and again: remember, recollect, reminisce, commemorate. Next year in Agincourt the community will celebrate a couple biggies. Wish I could be there.


This medal may seem a bit grim when you realize it was struck to memorialize the German sinking of RMS Lusitania on the seventh of May, 1915.* Grim because it was struck by a German medalic artist, Karl Goetz, in a sarcastic, even celebratory way. Agincourt had reason to note this important historical event because one of its own had sailed on that fateful voyage and was thought to have been one of 1,198 passengers and crew who lost their lives, many of them Americans. There is a modest acknowledgment of the Lusitania’s sinking on The Commons, just across Agincourt Avenue from the old library entrance. I wonder how (or even if) the community will take note on 07 May 2015? We’ll have to wait until Fall for another more significant anniversary: the October 25th celebration of Founder’s Day.

Saturday, October 25th will witness the annual parade of bands and floats representing various schools, businesses, clubs and other civic organizations, all of them celebrating the founding of Agincourt. Many, of course, will fail to recognize that two years are involved: 1853, the year our original townsite was filed at the county courthouse then situated in Muskrat City; and 1857, the year Agincourt incorporated as a municipality. So take your pick: 167th anniversary or 158th? Neither of them ends with a zero, so no harm, no foul.

October 25th, 2015, is also likely to be remembered elsewhere, especially in a small village in northeastern France. On that day in 1415 the English and French fought the Battle of Agincourt, as I too often have reminded you, the definitive conflict in the Hundred Years War. Shakespeare wrote about it—Henry V—and film adaptations brought its themes of heroic sacrifice to the cinema. Here, too, there are two versions: Sir Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branaugh. Take you pick.

If you’ve done the math, you also realize this will be the 600th anniversary of that battle in Azincourt, France (yes, they spell it differently). Seems something the French might ignore—”Battle? What battle?”—with the same fervor that the Brits will celebrate it. Concerning a somewhat larger town in northwestern Iowa, I’ll have to ask Howard what plans are afoot.


*The sculptor got it wrong: Lusitania sank on May 7th, which has led some to believe the attack on the British liner was widely known before the fact. Life imitates art.


Cecil (on talent)

This morning I accidentally saw a segment of the British version of “Somebody’s Got Talent”: a five-person a cappella boy group who were genuinely good; even Simon Cowell thought so. As I listened to them during the morning ablutions, it occurred to me that our friend Cecil Elliott’s death nearly fifteen years ago spared him the bulk of “reality TV”. One can only wonder what he would have made of it. “The Real Housewives of Keokuk”. “Funeral Parlour Rescue”. “Albania’s Got Talent”. “Say ‘Yes’ to the Nose Job”. He’d have loved them one and all, the way we feel compelled to watch an accident. It brought one of his many stories to mind.

Some of you may know that Cecil served in the U.S. Navy during 1944-1946—aboard a cruiser of some sort, despite an inability to swim. His job was plane spotting: identifying aircraft at long distance by their outline, their shape. He had to pass a test based on images of actual planes in flight and did spectacularly well—by cheating: he had memorized the identity of each plane not by its silhouette, but by the cloud types—cirrus, stratus, cumulonimbus, etc—that necessarily accompanied each image. How typical of him to have perverted the system in such an inventive way. Do you think the end of the war was ever in jeopardy?

He related a story about putting in to port—I believe it was Portland, Maine—and going ashore late one afternoon to a waterfront bar. You can imagine its clientele.

Alone and comfortably settled on a barstool for the afternoon, Cecil noticed a poster announcing the evening’s entertainment: a chesty female identified as a “song stylist.” Ever the linguist, Elliott sought a distinction between singer and song stylist, and the bartender explained: “Well, a singer sings. A song stylist has big tits.”

Elliott would have been a terrific asset on “America’s Got Talent” and made Simon Cowell seem downright courteous.

Les Étrusques

This week has seen an investment in boxing and shipping books, maps and other miscellaneous paper accumulated during ten weeks in Brussels. There’s a lot of it. One book (too large for a standard BPost box) is about the Etruscans, collaborators in the creation of the Roman state but subsumed by their dominant Latin partners. The book is in French, but the photos aren’t.

Linear B, the language of ancient Crete was reconstructed in the 1960s* from hundreds of clay tablets accidentally baked in the fires that destroyed Minoan civilization that had created them. Their literary legacy? Inventories and tax rolls. By contrast, the Etruscans left only a handful of formal inscriptions: gifts to the gods and memorials recording personal and family achievement. But the Etruscan language will likely never be heard or understood; even the name they called themselves—the Rasna—is little known outside academic circles. What they did leave us is art, glorious art, much of it funerary.


Howard wrote a piece about Elie Munro, an Agincourt girl who invested a summer during the 1930s working on an Etruscan archaeological dig near Cerveteri and came home with more than she’d bargained. In Italy, Elie acquired two Etruscan souvenirs: a pair of ancient bronze scissors (probably a reproduction/forgery) and her son Larth. As single mother and college dropout, she led three lives: telephone operator by day; amateur linguist on evenings and weekends; full-time mom.

At Cerveteri she probably excavated the Etruscan cemetery, a cluster of cylindrical earthen tombs along a ceremonial path, a true “city of the dead”. Rectangular chambers and alcoves within each tomb held sarcophagi topped with life-like full-scale figures of married couples, reclining as they had in life, as hosts for a dinner party, smiling at their assembled guests. All dressed up for an eternal celestial meal, consider the irony if they’d died from food poisoning, for beneath that representational lid lie their mortal remains. What a package of contrast. Remember that aluminum swan you brought home with the leftovers of Friday night’s anniversary dinner? OK, now reshape it to look a bit like you and…well, you get the picture.

Etruscan contributions to Roman culture were substantial—even if they weren’t literary—and remained potent throughout the Republic, even into the Empire. Somewhat like the Egyptians, however, they left us records in death of what they thought about life, and it was joyous.

By contrast, I think of 19th century romantic cemeteries and their melancholic ruminations on mortality, chewing the cud of “what might have been” again and again and…

*The historical record regarding the translation of Linear B has recently been corrected. English architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris had received the bulk of credit for its translation. A new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, has established the significant, even pivotal role of Alice Kober in that process. I just read that book and can recommend it.

The beautiful, the picturesque, the sublime

Eighteenth century Romantic philosophers made nuanced distinctions between and among three closely-related ideas: the beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime. What began as a literary phenomenon (creation of the novel as a new literary form) spread rapidly to art (plein air paintings of sweeping landscapes with dramatic weather) and other modes of expression. In connection with architecture and landscape, plant materials and incidental structures were intended to evoke strong emotional response from the observer—the insignificant human subservient to the larger world “of Nature and of Nature’s god” as Thomas Jefferson might have put it.


Novels such as Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto created mental pictures through language [not unlike the strong word images I wrote about recently by Frederick Rolfe or Peter Ackroyd]; while John Constable’s landscapes did the same with pigment on canvas. Landscapes like the 1740 gardens at Stourhead, Wiltshire, were four-dimensional experiences choreographed to startle the observer through a calculated program of dramatic encounters through time. In architecture, we call this fourth dimension enfilade or spatial progression. What you see at Stourhead is as “natural” as a raked Japanese garden “strewn” with carefully chosen and composed rocks and bonsai, all intended to deceive. Now imagine this landscape infused with tombs.

It took a while for these ideas to cross the Atlantic and gain foothold in the Americas. The 19th century cemetery is just one place to encounter this Holy Trinity of the Romantic: the beautiful, picturesque, and sublime. And those ideas held on long enough in American culture to have shifted west with settlement from the East Coast; long enough to have laid a foundation for The Shades, Agincourt’s non-denominational cemetery at the east edge of the original townsite. Our recent visit to both Pere Lachaise cemetery and Butte Chaumont park in Paris may have given me the courage to finally attack The Shades—despite my lack of landscape ability.

τεθνήκαμεν. σώζετε δάκρυα ζώσιν

“We are dead. Save tears for the living.” That’s what it says in ancient Greek (thanks to the help of our friend Carol Andreini) at the cemetery entrance. How that intentionally evocative message is delivered and how the irregular curvilinear paths and clustered burial sites are organized (to appear that they aren’t organized) is a challenge I’ve long needed to accept.

I’m not getting any younger.


Word Pictures

British author Peter Ackroyd writes wondrous fact and fiction. Somewhere between those exclusive opposites, he also writes historical fiction, some of it the “what if” variety (a special favorite of mine), some of it simply based on historical characters. My first encounter with Ackroyd was his 1985 novel Hawksmoor.

I was drawn to Hawksmoor thinking it was about the English Baroque architect who has always been on my “Top Ten” list—more often than not near the top. Yes, Nicholas Hawksmoor is the source of Ackroyd’s story, but it gets seriously more interesting than that.

There is a particular genre of storyline—it appears in fiction and non-fiction alike—involving parallel, interweaving plot lines in alternating chapters. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City achieved much of its success through the juxtaposition of architect-planner Daniel Hudson Burnham and Victorian serial killer Dr H. H. Holmes, one coördinating construction of a great World’s Fair, the other slaughtering many of the thousands who came to be awed by its spectacle. Larson used this structure again (in Thunderstruck, about the laying of the first transatlantic cable) but with far less success, in my estimation. But Ackroyd had employed those rhythmic alternating chapters in Hawksmoor many years before.

Hawksmoor recasts the real 18th century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, assistant to Sir Christopher Wren in the rebuilding of London following the Great Fire of 1666, as Nicholas Dyer, an architect preoccupied with the occult and performing satanic rituals at the sites of his London construction projects. Meanwhile (and in alternate chapters) a 20th century fictional Nicholas Hawksmoor is a Scotland Yard detective investigating a series of murders at the very same churches designed two centuries earlier by Dyer. The progressive mental deterioration of each man is central to the story. What interested me, not incidentally, were those London churches: real works purportedly by a fictional architect.


After the Great Fire, London’s parish churches were rebuilt with proceeds from a tax on coal. With many of the fire-damaged buildings either restored or replaced, Parliament passed a second act, the “Fifty New Churches Act”, to accommodate a growing population. The actual 18th century Hawksmoor designed six of the dozen churches underwritten by that law.

Ackroyd does exemplary work describing the power of those six buildings and weaving them into the braided lives of Dyer and Hawksmoor, architect and detective, but at the conclusion of the novel each character reaches a point-of-no-return at a seventh church, one without precedent in architectural history, the Church of Little Saint Hugh. Yet his description of that building and its significance for the events connected with it for both architect and detective were so powerfully written that I dreamed it one night. I woke the next morning with such a vivid impression of Little Saint Hugh that I went immediately to the draughting table and put its plan and elevation to paper. Like so many of my schemes, it needs development, and one of these days I’ll get around to it. In the meantime….

Some authors write word pictures with power and clarity and conjure images with equal strength. Does it matter that I’m architecturally inclined? Tell me of your own experience. When Frederick Rolfe describes the apartments renovated by his character Pope Hadrian, Rolfe conjures for me a mental picture of its spartan interior, its less-is-more aesthetic. In each of these two cases, I am compelled to show you what I see.

Urban Archaeology

Several months ago Parisians discovered an apartment whose owner-occupants fled when the Nazis occupied the city. They simply locked the doors and left. Why they never returned I can’t recall, but the apartment became a time capsule waiting rediscovery. Imagine the surprised expressions when opening those doors locked for seventy years.

paris apt 1 paris apt 2

I’ve imagined places like this, but they’re the homes of hoarders in Vladivostok. On a far smaller and local scale this could also be a context for the Adolf Loos story line mentioned earlier.

Latter-day Howard Carter

Beneath the headline “Time Capsule” and sandwiched between a column of sports scores and an advert for Cermak’s Market, the following column filler appeared on page four of Agincourt’s Daily Plantagenet for Sunday, August 2nd, 1942:

A hidden room has been found while re-roofing Krohn’s Barber Shop on north Broad Street. Unseen from the alley, the room has been shut up for fifty years.

Measuring the roof, the building was almost twenty feet longer than the sum of interior dimensions. A door at the back of a disused closet revealed the room and its dusty contents. Bedroom and lounge furnishings suggest someone had lived there.

Books and newspapers from 1895 hint at a German occupant. Owner-barber Jack Marshall was mystified but promised to ask his father-in-law Hermann Krohn, who opened his shop in the 90s but retired several years ago. Krohn, 88, lives with a daughter in Omaha. Marshall promises to ask next weekend.

Is this too thin a beginning?

Gabriel Spat [1890-1967]


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

SPAT, Gabriel [1890-1967]

“Notre Dame, after Rain”

circa 1930

oil on board / 7 inches by 9 inches

Spat’s pre-WWII paintings record the upscale streets, squares and parks of Paris in its most glorious years. Here Notre Dame’s liturgical west front is silhouetted against the morning sky, as pedestrians and cars glide across pavement still wet from recent rain—all in seven by nine inches. A catalogue for one of his post-war exhibitions includes a story about Spat’s use of scrap canvas from other more financially successful artists, some of whom had studio space at La Ruche, an artistic enclave in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, a district which includes the bohemian community of Montparnasse.

This and another Spat work—“Portrait une famille”—came to the collection through the Kurt Bernhard’s former in-laws the Sobieskis, who may have known Spat during his Paris years.

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”?