Howard has a fetish for anniversaries, especially those that end with a double-zero.
A few years ago—it was summer of 2010, I think—he acknowledged the 150th anniversary of Agincourt’s oldest surviving building, the Baptist Fellowship, dedicated in 1860. Coincidentally, it was built and probably designed by Amos Beddowes, one of the earliest Europeans to settle the Muskrat valley. I’d asked Howard about Mr Beddowes so many times, he may have written this to satisfy my curiosity (i.e., shut me up).
Some of Howard’s readers will recall that Amos Beddowes had built his cabin on an oxbow of the Muskrat years before the Agincourt townsite was platted. He’d come to this part of Iowa as agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (the BIA) and worked for some time with the Sac & Fox people. Their treaty with the U.S. government opened a substantial portion of northwest Iowa for settlement and, indirectly, made the site of Agincourt a probability. But some measure of remorse concerning that treaty may have shaped what remained of his life.
“A few figs from thistles…”
Howard A Tabor
Amos Beddowes, Indian Agent
Amos Beddowes was born in rural Connecticut about 1790, one of many children born to Leviticus and Mariah Beddowes. Large families guaranteed at least a few offspring would survive to adulthood and overcome the harsh realities of farm life and infant mortality.
Born into the Federal period, Beddowes’ rural childhood equipped him for many tasks: the cycles of planting and harvest; animal husbandry; woodworking and carpentry, from furnishings to houses, barns and outbuildings. Even folk medicine, childbirth and rudimentary surgery would at least be familiar, if not entirely comfortable activities; if he didn’t know how to do it, he at least knew when to get out of the way.
That Beddowes lived into the age of increasing specialization, of urbanization was a mixed blessing. So it isn’t surprising to find him in the 1810 US Census as “carpenter” living in the Town of Sharon, widowed—infant mortality sometimes occurring during childbirth. Ten years later, the 1820 census counted him in Ashtabula, Ohio, which had previously been the Western Reserve of Connecticut and “thickly settled” with emigrants from New England. Neither his relocation nor his upward mobility—the census lists him as “house builder”—are a surprise. The frontier often works that way.
Beddowes was a moving target for census enumerators in 1840 and 1850. But soon after, we know that he’d arrived in Iowa as a government representative working with the Sac & Fox people. Like many in “middle management,” however, Amos identified with the “wrong” end of the power structure: he married a medicine woman and became a tribal advocate, which must not have sat well with the BIA. Beddowes left government service and shifted his energies to architecture; old habits are hard to break. So, in 1859—his seventieth year—Amos Beddowes applied his considerable woodworking skills to the construction of Agincourt’s oldest church, the Baptist Fellowship.
During the sesquicentennial Wally Balthus and students in his architectural drawing class at Fennimore High made an interesting discovery: our Baptist church shares a proportioning system with the Parthenon in ancient Athens. Phi (pronounced “fee”) or 1:1,61803398874989484820… is also called the Golden Ratio and may be the most amazing number in mathematics, art and nature. But it had to come from someplace. Why not Amos Beddowes?
Male members of Beddowes’s family—older brothers, his father, uncles—very likely fought in the American Revolution. Amos himself may have served in the War of 1812. So when the Horsemen rode roughshod through his family again in 1861, Amos might have felt beyond the reaper’s reach in that regard. He was wrong. Amos and Circe (She-listens-to-the-Moon, the Sac & Fox medicine woman) had already lost their daughter Mary, probably to typhoid fever. And within a year of Southern secession, their son John came home for burial—among the earliest Civil War casualties interred at The Shades.
Amos joined his children in 1867. Happily, his widow Sissy Beddowes remained with us another thirty-three years, but that’s another story.
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
—”The Land of Counterpane” by Robert Louis Stevenson
In the beginning…
There was a fifty by one-hundred-forty-foot lot at a street intersection in a typical Midwestern railroad town. That ought to have been enough—but it wasn’t.
I have been a student of architectural history long enough to know the complex interrelated aspects of the “building birth cycle” (articulated for his generation by architect John Portman, but at work in concept from Imhotep the Wise to the present day). Every structure is the product of multiple overlapping spheres of influence—sociological, economic, technological, aesthetic, among others—that shape it. Two thousand years ago, the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius saw buildings at the conjunction of three ideas: “comoditas” (function or accommodation), “utilitas” (structural soundness and economy), and “venustas” (delight or beauty). The Modern Movement has turned the Vitruvian trilogy into a mathematical operation where commodity + utility = delight; the successful recognition of the first two by definition yields the third. Louis Sullivan summarized it as “Form Follows Function”—a building should look like that which it does; the shoe conforms to the foot (and sometimes vice versa). Having been educated in the death throes of Modernism (though many of us didn’t know it at the time), Louie’s maxim, F³, is ingrained in my thinking.
So, while anyone today could have designed a Carnegie Era public library without much difficulty, greater authenticity required an enhanced and expanded context. Which is a nice way of saying I needed a town, not just seven thousand square feet of earth. The project required a client whose agenda might not be my own; a service population with a different need for information and wildly different mechanisms for access to that knowledge. [Having recently reviewed fifth-year thesis projects as part of my work at a local institution of higher learning, I genuinely believe the degree of success is directly related to the student’s understanding of their client—and that it isn’t them.] So Agincourt became a physical entity of growing dimension and a social construct of proportionately increasing complexity.
Underlying such a claim, however, I also have to admit the intuitive organic nature of my own process. There have been seminars and studios based on Agincourt, with varying degrees of success—widely and wildly varying degrees—which leads me to wonder why. And whether it should ever be again.
The invitation to come and play in the sandbox of history is open. All players are welcome to the degree and intensity they wish. But I remain intensely curious about why you would want to.
If Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem resonates with you, as it did with me as a very young reader, my question is answered.
“I have been a student of architectural history long enough….” One day that sentence fragment will stand on its own—period; paragraph—but not today.
The aforementioned Portois & Fix, furniture designers and manufacturers, were major producers of work for the Viennese Secession, Austrian component of the larger Art Nouveau movement.
Otto Wagner, in whose office several of the younger members of the movement gained some of their early office experience, designed many of the most representative buildings of this more reserved branch of Art Nouveau design, and from his office issued “graduates” such as Josef Hoffman, Joseph Maria Olbrich and others less well known but equally important for the ethos of Vienna in the early 20th century.
Artists also were integral players in the Secession: Gustav Klimt, for example. But many of the more pervasive contributions came from Koloman Moser who worked in several media, including graphic design, glass and stained glass, jewelry, ceramic, and, in this case, furniture; Moser collaborated with many of his architectural contemporaries. While searching for images of the Portois & Fix building, I also ran across this elegant piece of Moser’s work, which sold at Christie’s or Sotheby’s auction house for more money than the cost of my house. Nothing, repeat, NOTHING as nice as this is likely to have materialized in Agincourt, sad to say. But that doesn’t mean its citizens couldn’t dream—as can I.
PS: I looked it up. The auction occurred at Christie’s (London) in November 2002. The winning bid? £116,650 ($181,507) What would it bring today, do you think?
The streets and popular press of Fennimore county would have been alive with graphic images, verbal and otherwise. Newspapers, magazines, advertising, catalogues, and programs; posters and billboards, stationary, bills and invoices; one could write a history of Agincourt purely in terms of its graphics.
As a designer (by interest, if not vocation) I would clearly have a preference for what I might consider “good” graphics. While sleuthing for some images of the Viennese furniture design-manufacturing firm of Portois & Fix (whose headquarters building designed in 1911 by Max Fabiani is well worth the visit) up came this certificate celebrating the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary. What would I give (pay!) to own an original?
Jeremiah Johnson has already contributed a graphic piece to the community’s storyline: A poster for “He-She and the Screamers”, the first trans-sexual grunge band to play at Agincourt’s youth music venue, The Yellow Brick Roadhouse. Not only did he create a rock band and its graphic persona, but also the youth scene venue itself. Both of these things I could not have done. I could not have done it now because I’m ancient; I could not have done it as a twenty-something because I had no cultural connection with my peers. Ah, well.
During the summer I hope to imagine/create other graphics, primarily of the years 1850-1950. Some may be “borrowed” from the inter-webs and photo-shopped into relevance; others (heaven help us) may be my own clumsy design efforts. All of you infected with graphic ability are welcome to imagine along with me. Consider the possibilities:
- masthead for The Daily Plantagenet, Agincourt’s long-standing newspaper.
- commercial advertisements for grocery and hardware stores, etc.
- posters for exhibits and public performance (plays, opera, vaudeville, lectures, etc.) at The Auditorium, the college, and other public meeting places.
- electioneering paraphernalia—and you get to invent the candidates and their issues, which scares the crap out of me.
- business and personal letterhead and certificates of various sorts (stock, graduation, marriage, et al.).
- high school yearbooks; “church ladies” cookbooks.
Are there others I’ve forgotten/overlooked?
Not incidentally, your designs might be reproduced and offered for sale during the course of the next exhibition (if/when there is one). All proceeds over the cost of reproduction will go to a scholarship fund at the Department of Architecture & Landscape Architecture at NDSU. [I don’t get nothin’ out of this thing but satisfaction.]
Incidentally, I don’t see Kolo Moser’s monogram on this certificate, but it has to be his work.
[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]
YOSHIDA, Toshi / 吉田 遠志 [1911–1995]
“Raicho” / Japanese Rock Ptarmigan
woodblock print on paper / 9 11/16 x 14 7/8 inches (image) 12 x 16 1/2 inches (sheet)
Three generations of Yoshidas—father Hiroshi, mother Fujio, three sons, and a grandson—have produced a body of twentieth century woodcuts widely collected in the West. Between 1930 and 1950, Toshi Yoshida‘s outlook closely paralleled his father’s; the two traveled extensively throughout Asia. But for a brief period prior to this, he chose animals as subjects, largely to distinguish his work from his father Hiroshi’s landscapes. “Raicho” or Japanese rock ptarmigan is from that period. After 1950 he turned to a more Western Abstract Expressionist point of view.
This print was acquired by Martin Arsenal during his service in the Korean Conflict—probably while passing through Tokyo on his way home in 1953. Collecting has been an ongoing passion among Agincourt citizens.
[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]
BLUNDELL-NIXON, Kathleen Irene [1895–1988]
watercolor on canvas-backed paper / 11 inches by 14 1/4 inches
Imagine a renowned illustrator of books—more than forty—five of which were written by the artist herself, and yet there is just one internet page devoted to the artist and her career.
British illustrator Kay Nixon lived in India for twenty-five years before returning home. In India she illustrated for the Times of India Press and produced Indian State Railways poster art. Many, if not most, of her works drew from nature, particularly animals, for books with titles like Animal Mothers, Whispers of the Wilderness and The Bushy Tail Family. Her work bears a remarkable kinship to that of John Edwin Noble a generation earlier.
The presence in northwest Iowa of an East Indian drawing by a British artist is evidence of the far-flung connections that existed long before the world-wide web. Some have called it the Victorian internet. In this case it is explained by Mercedes Capshaw, teacher, who spent two years at a school for girls in Poona (now Pune), India, and may have met Nixon while passing through what was then Bombay.
Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, represented by Steve King, includes Agincourt and Fennimore county. I almost regret now my choice of northwestern Iowa as the location for this project, not because it was illogical—the opening of the land from the treaty with the Sac and Fox people afforded a window of opportunity that was difficult to ignore—but because more recent politicization of civic affairs (or should I say over-politicization) turned the place far more “red” than I can stomach. Climate change is a case in point.
“Climate” encompasses a broad range of conditions vital to citizens of the Muskrat River valley. Rising (or lowering) temperatures, rain and snowfall, tornadoes and wind-driven fires; for most of Agincourt’s history the regional economy depended on a healthy harvest, and farmers based their spring planting on everything from the U.S. Weather Service to The Farmer’s Almanac. This is hardly news. But dramatic weather events must have affected lives in general and specific ways, including influence on architecture, landscape design and civil engineering. So, I wonder how to build this into the story line—short of spinning and arrow, throwing a die, or taking a card from the stack of orange “Chance” cards.
Weather events have already played minor roles here and there:
- A massive storm and waterspout deposited fish and, remarkably, a partial ship’s mast on the Schütz form, giving Fr Manning all the inspiration he needed to choose Saint Ahab as dedication for Agincourt’s Roman Catholic parish.
- Traveling between Kansas City and St Paul (where he had a building under construction in each city, really) Chicago architect Francis Barry Byrne’s train diverted to Agincourt when a railroad bridge washed out on the Des Moines River. The upshot? Byrne was unable to find a room at the Blenheim Hotel and, instead, found shelter at the Catholic rectory, where he made a new friend in Fr Emile Farber and got the commission for a new church.
- Blizzards at one time or another have: 1) delayed travel and thereby opened the door for two strangers to meet and fall in love; 2) caused my friend Howard to venture out on Christmas Eve in search of whipping cream; during the excursion, he encountered the Ghost of Christmas-yet-to-be; and 3) caused young lovers to go off the road, into Crispin Creek, where a life was lost, and another irrevocably changed.
Concerning floods, I can say with certainty that the four quadrants of Agincourt’s town plan vary considerably in elevation. The southwest quad has been subject to frequent flooding, which has lowered property values and, in fact, affected the percentage of owner-occupied homes. As a neighborhood of the “disadvantaged”, I wonder how long it took to negotiate some sort of flood control. [Shades of Fargo-Moorhead!] And surely the county has seen at least one twister. But where and along what devastated path? Who or what was in the way? Is the scar still there?
So I found this postcard view on eBay the other day and knew immediately it was looking south along Sixth Street NW. That’s the Bendix barn on one of the outlots that subsequently became Riverside Addition. What do you suppose those guys are talking about?
I want to meet the dog.
[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]
DAOUR, Jeanne [born 1914]
oil on wood panel / 7 3/8 inches by 9 3/8 inches
Paris in the first third of the 20th century was a magnet for artists from Eastern Europe and the United States. It was in Paris, probably at the Atelier Bonnat—and, oddly, among a substantial percentage of Scandinavian students—that Jeanne Daour met Jerome Hill. She had been born in Romania and he in the Midwest of the U.S., a grandson of railroad magnate James J. Hill. Hill befriended Daour and acquired a few of her paintings, acknowledging that her talent exceeded his own. Little biographical material on Daour is available, however, so it is difficult to place this painting in a larger context. Painted in 1933, it is also difficult to accept “Plage Abandonnée” (Abandoned Beach) as the work of a nineteen-year-old!
A sticker on the frame suggests that the painting may have been purchased at the “Findlay Art Rooms“, a gallery established at Kansas City in 1870.* Findlay’s history is a curious reversal of the expected east-to-west and major-to-minor migration of American culture: From Kansas City, it opened successive “branches” first in Chicago, and then in New York City. Palm Beach, Beverley Hills and Paris completed the Findlay’s international presence. Family-owned, it also “went public” in 1969 and was traded for a few years on the New York Stock Exchange.
*It may also be that only the frame was acquired from Findlay.
Looking back, looking within help me move beyond today and myself.
Fifteen or twenty years ago—understanding that was a generation ago; the parents of students today—I attended a thesis presentation in the days when we occupied the Quonset at the north edge of the Engineering complex. When Aeronautical Engineering moved out (went defunct, actually) we renovated the building, added a free-standing deck through much of its length, and, most important, built a flat-roofed link with the north end of Mechanical Engineering; that was our access to plumbing, for the toilets were located in ME.
“The Link” as it was called served many purposes: vestibule/airlock for the fierce winter wind, access to to the aforementioned plumbing, and as a multi-use space for construction, student meetings, and project presentations. It was carpeted, didn’t leak—much—and for those reasons it was used excessively. When in use, you simply blundered through without bothering to excuse yourself; the presentation area was behind a free-standing closet unit and more or less self-contained. So, one afternoon in late April or early May I chanced through as a fifth-year project was being mounted for review.
Besides the primary critic (whose name won’t matter to anyone in our department today) there were two others: Dennis Colliton, head of the LA Program, and Wayne Tollefson, painting instructor in the Art Department. I should explain that, at that time, the three thesis critics were involved in different ways: the primary tended to meet with students weekly; the secondary, a few times during the term; and the “blind” critic was assigned at the last minute and had little, if any, acquaintance with either the project or the student. Dennis served in that last role, so I was curious how he would react to this particular project. How often Wayne might have actually seen the project beforehand isn’t known. I elected to stay outside the presentation area and view the proceedings through a gap between the storage closet and the east door. Voyeurism seemed the handmade of discretion.
Now I should tell you why the project interested me: it was a single-family house (which wouldn’t be approved today) but for an extended Chinese family as its client.
Mother and father had been born in China and raised there but had gone to university here in the United States; they were effectively bi-cultural and spoke both Chinese (Mandarin, I suppose) and English. Grandma had been brought to the U.S. in her declining years (is that uncharitable?), spoke only Chinese, and practiced traditional religion; I presume she left the house infrequently. The children (I don’t recall if there were one or two) had been born in the U.S., spoke only English and thought of culture as the latest pair of Air-Jordans. Between and among these three generations, #1 and #3 interacted very little. All of this was key to the success of the single-family house for their occupancy. Sounds interesting so far, doesn’t it. How to provide physical and psychological comfort for such diversity, especially as those dynamics might change through time but be meaningful at any one time.
You should also know that there was a second over-riding issue: the primary faculty advisor had worked for Richard Meier and, more importantly, subscribed to the primacy of the “Nine-Square Grid” popular among the New York Five, especially Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk. As we say in Scotland: “If it isn’t Scottish, it’s crap!” The primary faculty advisor felt pretty much that way about the nine-square grid, so it came as no surprise that the “House for an Extended Chinese Family” was about as nine-square-grid-like as it was possible to be. I should also emphasize here my own support for the nine-square grid as a planning tool: Palladio had used it at the Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza; Nicholas Hawksmoor at St Mary Woolnoth; Frank Lloyd Wright at Unity Temple; LeCorbusier at the Villa Savoye in suburban Paris; Alvar Aalto at Villa Mairea outside Helsinki; and Lou Kahn in any number of applications. For that matter I used it at the “Villa Vertin” outside Breckenridge, Minnesota. So there! But like any tool, the tail can wag the dog.
The presentation began smoothly enough, until it was time for Q&A and discussion. As a registered Landscape Architect, Dennis had several questions about site and orientation. The student response: Yes, there is a site. Yes, it has contours. But there is nothing specified beyond the four straight edges meeting at right-angled intersections. And those four sides do not face the cardinal points of any compass; it has no orientation; there is no north, south, east, or west. Yes, there are alternating periods of light and dark, but it might be presumptive to call them night and day or to suggest the light might favor one side over another. Shadows, apparently, were not an issue. The upshot was that such questions from Dennis were way out of bounds.
Dennis asked about the long ramp system for moving up and down in the house: aside from the fact that it did not meet ADA code, it was also the sole means of vertical movement. [At least LeCorbusier had provided an expeditious stair for groceries and garbage, in addition to his elegant ramp (which, by the way, predated ADA).]
Dennis inquired about the seasons and their possible impact on the house. Again, as with the lack of compass orientation, there was also neither latitude nor longitude. There were no seasons. At which point, the primary critic interjected that such pragmatic questions could be stuffed someplace warm and dark—or words to that effect. [What was Professor Tollefson doing through these machinations, you ask? Looking pretty much like deer in your headlights.]
With several points of inquiry closed to him, Dennis made the near fatal decision to ask about aesthetics. This is the point when I looked around for signs of Rod Serling, for we had clearly entered the Twilight Zone. The student’s reply: “The clients are fully familiar with my design philosophy and examples of my work, and they have deferred to me in all matters of aesthetic judgment.” Well, that pretty much puts a cap on the afternoon’s festivities: #1) questions based on quantification were beneath contempt; and #2) qualitative questions had already been asked and answered in the affirmative. The design proposal was, by definition, superlatively conceived and beyond reproach.
“Nothing happening here. Move on.”
Each year at this festive time I recall the House for an Extended Chinese Family. And each year it makes me smile.
NIEMANN, Edmund E. [1909-2005]
“Stop on Red”
oil on canvas / 18 inches by 24 inches
The exhibition title “Landscapes & Livestock” conjures pleasant images of Grant Wood, Norman Rockwell, Mayberry RFD. Yet agriculture is one of our most dangerous occupations; and the steady economic decline of small-town America has inflicted its own neuroses on a stoic population often unwilling to admit their need for help. So this urban rather than rural landscape by New York artist Edmund E. Niemann [1909-2005], a work of 1956 titled “Stop on Red”, is untypical of the collection as a whole. Mid-century modernity is also under-represented, perhaps because we’ve been a net exporter of our youth. It may be that the urban exodus of recent decades will balance the collection.
Niemann’s deconstructed streetscape compresses several New York City blocks in a jazzy syncopated one-point perspective. This painting once hung above the dining room sideboard in the home of “Riverside Addition” developers William and Maureen Bendix, a house nearly contemporary with the painting. It was purchased from the Bendix estate and donated anonymously.
Niemann’s role in the founding of Abstract Expressionism is being rediscovered.