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The Auditorium

Chicago businessman Ferdinand Peck incorporated the Chicago Auditorium Association in 1886. With fellow board members Marshall Field (merchant prince), George Pullman (rail car manufacturer and Capitalist prick) and Martin Ryerson (steel producer and frequent Sullivan client), Peck set out to build America’s finest performance space and enlisted Adler & Sullivan to design it. Hard-nosed capitalists all, Peck & Co. appear to have driven the program toward self-sustenance: the 3,000 seat auditorium would be surrounded by a profit-making hotel and office space. Historian Joseph Siry has written more extensively about the project than I can here.

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Suffice to say, a large windowless volume for performance requires few if any openings and would normally present a bald and unattractive public face without the human scale that office and hotel windows might afford. In the intervening century and a quarter we’ve become used to such large free-standing cultural statements, whose masses can be tempered, even sublimated, in other ways. For some contemporary practitioners, this has been their step to starchitect status.

ImageImageCopenhagen_Opera_House_-_front_view

What’s remarkable about all these buildings is that the program for performance halls has remained relatively unchanged in proportion since Charles Garnier designed the Paris Opera: 1/3 audience arrival and service; 1/3 auditorium; 1/3 back-of-the-house. In Chicago’s case, the profit-generating shell was quite literally frosting on the cake.

So in the spirit of pragmatic hard-nosed capitalists of the Robber Baron era, Agincourt’s auditorium would also have its hall wrapped in offices and, ten years after its construction, be linked by a pedestrian bridge to the community’s finest hostelry, The Blenheim, across the street. One imagines the whoosh of silk and taffeta amid whiffs of cigar.

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This design intention of mine dates from late April 2006, just over eight years ago if my sketchbook can be believed. And as confirmation of its spirit, look at the postcard below showing the Gedney Hotel (yes, of pickle fame) wrapped around the opera house of Independence, Iowa. Whatever madness this may be, at least there is method to it.

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Mid-Century Modern

Product that I am of the 1960s—I was fifteen when that tumultuous decade began—working in its design idiom is more difficult than I had imagined. So I subscribed to Atomic Ranch magazine and to the “Mid-Century Modern” feed on Facebook®; I have begun my (re)education.

At a time when was focused on late FLlW, recalling that he had died in 1959 and that his legacy had an ongoing voice in the pages of House Beautiful, I was aware of Midwestern Modernists like Paul Schweikher and Y.C. Wong in Chicago (if this is actually recollection on my part and not wishful thinking), not to mention the orthodoxy of Mies van der Rohe, SOM, and others in my own neighborhood and a handful of others elsewhere: Craig Ellwood, Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson, John Johansen, among them.

The foundations of Brasilia had been laid in 1958, so Oscar Niemeyer was on my radar. It’s hard to say when LeCorbusier registered with me: while I was still in high school or at the University of Oklahoma post-1963? I’m just not sure. Suffice to say I am aware of a broad range of Modernist vocabularies. But long after those formative years, I also became aware of Louis I. Kahn, whose mid-century single-family houses are astounding. It may well be that respect and admiration for Kahn (and my faulty understanding of him) will trump all the others.

kahn weiss

Let me recommend The Houses of Louis Kahn (2013) by Marcus and Whitaker for an impressive body of work that went largely unappreciated while Kahn was alive—at least by journalists and critics. Somewhere I still have the issue of House Beautiful with Kahn’s Esherick house on the cover; that was some time in the 60s. I recall discovering the underlying order of its geometry, and then actually meeting Kahn at the University of Oklahoma in 1964 or ’65: he was a short man in a cheap suit who filled an auditorium with ideas as old and as large as Plato’s; indeed they were Plato’s ideas.

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All suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Dierdre Henty-Creer [1918/1919-2012]

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

HENTY-CREER, Dierdre [1918/1919–2012]

“Coastal View”

c1950

watercolor on paper / 9 1/2 inches x 12 3/4 inches

Henty-Creer’s small watercolor has often been paired with Beryl Glynn’s “Glimpse of Cornish Coast”, but the twenty-five years and two continents that separate them offer more contrast than similarity. Dierdre Henty-Creer was an Australian, rather than British, and her mid-century Modern rendition of the Australian coastline reduces her landscape to large areas of simple color wash. Comparisons with American artist Milton Avery reinforce its abstraction.

Beryl Glynn [1906-?]

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

GLYNN, Beryl [1906–?]

“Glimpse of Cornish Coast”

1925

ink and watercolor on paper / 9 1/2 inches x 7 3/8 inches

Beryl Glynn’s family lived in London at the outbreak of the First World War. Her father clerked for the Bank of England until he joined the British armed forces. When his wife was hospitalized following an air raid, their daughters went to temporary foster care until the girls—Beryl and Meghan—could sail to the safety of the United States, which had just entered the war. Michael Glynn had made the acquaintance of Agincourt native Mike Schütz, and the girls were invited to take refuge for the war’s duration on the Schütz farm near Fahnstock. The girls returned to the United Kingdom early in 1920 but maintained strong ties with their friends in Agincourt. As a Christmas gift in 1925, Beryl Glynn sent this small watercolor she had done of the Cornish coastline.

Enlightened Self-Interest

A national map highlights something both interesting and curious about the state I have called home for since August 1971: North Dakota is currently the only state without  a suit contesting the matter of same-gender marriage. That is likely to change very soon. Most people outside the state will merely find it interesting; those of us within its borders and with a minimum knowledge of state history will also be aware of the irony.

At statehood in 1889, North Dakota was admitted as a dry—alcohol free—state, whereupon its breweries either closed or relocated to border communities across state lines. Along the Red River of the North, the wiggly eastern edge of an otherwise rectangular state, North Dakota cities like Wahpeton, Fargo, and Grand Forks sacrificed their breweries and saloons. In return, however, they became havens for the libertine and licentious: houses of prostitution abounded, and in Fargo, at least, the city government regulated both their location and operation.

Irony #1: A two-block section of the central city near the river was designated for houses of ill repute. And once a month the police visited each, took a few of the inmates into custody for an appearance before a municipal judge, and fined the girls before sending them back to work. Urban legend has it that the fines imposed each month were applied to the school system. So with liquor relegated to Moorhead, Minnesota across the river and prostitution in Fargo, the twin cities became the symbiosis of liquor and lust. At one level, the irony was realized in 1977 when charitable gaming became legal: non-profit agencies and organization could operate bingo and blackjack parlors to support their social service programs— scouts, art museums, etc. That a tax had effectively been placed on a vice, and that its proceeds would be applied to something virtuous was eerily similar to Fargo’s “tax” on prostitution for the support of public education.

Irony #2: After 1900, a rising wave Scandinavian immigration transplanted European Socialism to the upper Midwest, especially in Minnesota and North Dakota. In 1915 many of those immigrants formed the Non-Partisan League to resist the control of their agricultural economy by a handful of power brokers such as milling interests in Minneapolis and railways in St. Paul. These socialists essentially took control of North Dakota government and formed a state-owned grain mill and elevator and a state-owned bank, the only such institution in the United States and still a thriving financial entity. When asked today to define socialism and told that the North Dakota Mill & Elevator in Grand Forks and the Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck are, indeed, thriving examples of socialism, they will deny it. In fact, any attempts made to close either and convert it to a private capitalist business enterprise would quickly be stopped

North Dakota likes its socialism. It just doesn’t to be told that’s what it is.

Irony #3: The sea change in North Dakota politics takes visible form every legislative season. While tax exemptions are granted to private energy producers, the state routinely denies simple inexpensive programs like milk for school children, because our legislature and the majority of elective offices are safely in Republican control. I have long maintained that North Dakota is divided in half by Interstate 29, with relative liberalism in the east and conservative values dominant in the west. Look at a map some time to fully appreciate this irony as well.

North Dakota Constitutional Measure #1 of 2004, passed with 73% approval, amended the Century Code to eliminate any possibility of same-sex marriage or civil union. And as similar legislation or constitutional amendments have fallen state by state in the intervening ten years, I am confident that my fellow North Dakotans will hold ever more resolutely to the intention of that 2004 election; that political ideology will triumph over enlightened self-interest.

As libertarian and socialist as the state may have been, we have become something quite different in the last one hundred years. I have no illusions that Iowa politics have experienced a similar shift in these hundred years, but I do wonder if there may have been a different strain of Republican sentiment or even Progressive idealism at the beginning of the 20th century.

Comments will be gratefully received and reviewed.

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The Fennimore county courthouse is surrounded with civic and cultural institutions: city hall, the county jail, two churches (Methodist and Baptist), and the U.S. Post Office. Today at the southwest corner of Agincourt Avenue and First Street SW you’ll find The Auditorium, a focus of cultural life since its construction in 1894/5; it’s the pink/orange square in the lower right of this plan. Three aspects of the Auditorium fascinate me: #1) it’s a building type I haven’t often engaged; #2) the chronology is right—after all, I’m in control of that—for an 1890-ish context (i.e., Richardsonian Romanesque); and #3) the pre-income tax era of the Robber Barons allows an exploration of “The 1%” of that time. How would a community of Agincourt’s size and relative wealth have afforded a three or four-hundred seat auditorium suitable for touring theatrical and opera companies? For lectures and recitals? For political rallies and electioneering? For funerals and graduations and award ceremonies?

This is a story that has to be written.

T.H.T. [dates unknown]

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

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

THT [identity and dates unknown] 

“That sheep may safely graze “

c1920

oil on canvas panel / 6 1/4 inches x 8 inches

Lapses in record keeping cloud the attribution of a few pieces in the Community Collection. “That sheep may safely graze,” for example, is signed “THT” but undated, begging the question: Can art have meaning without an identified artist?

An artist’s identity is so much more than a name; it provides context, continuity, content.The surname hints at ethnicity and origin—not always, these days—and the given name at gender. Taken together we can search databases and place the name in time and space: when and where were they active? A single work of art cries out for context, both his own—is it early or late?—and his or her contemporaries. It all matters. But absent these things, is there nothing else that can be said?

Herman Knutzen [1870-1939]

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

KNUTZEN, Herman [1870–1939]

“An Oak along the Muskrat”

1937

oil on canvas panel / 10 inches x 8 inches

By the 1920s an art colony had coalesced at Bagby’s in the resort community of Sturm & Drang. Better known as “The Last Resort” because it was farthest from the station-store terminus of the seasonal NITC interurban line, Bagby’s attracted a number of amateur and semi-professional artists—painters mostly—who employed the popular plein air idiom of the day. Chicagoan Herman Knutzen was one of them. He painted “An Oak along the Muskrat” in 1937, two years before his death but while still an enthusiastic summer resident.

Painting in the outdoors (en plein air) had been popularized by French artists of the mid-19th century and continued throughout the Impressionist period. In America it became linked with the Arts & Crafts movement, but was somewhat out of fashion by the 1930s. So, while “An Oak…” was plein air in style, its color palette was decidedly of the 1940s. Though he was a highly competent artist, Knutzen is better remembered today for a series of stereoscope images he produced of humorous and magical scenes. He had also been an amateur photographer thirty years earlier.

When the art colony dissolved in 1938, Knutzen gave this small painting to his hosts Walter and Estelle Bagby; Walter was a woodworker and very likely made the one-piece hand carved frame. Knutzen died in 1939, and the Bagby’s gave “An Oak…” to the Community Collection as a memorial to their artist friend.