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Guide for the perplexed…


Tuesday was a Dr Bob day, my bi-weekly encounter with self.

These last few sessions have been focused—more than most—on two fairly simple ideas: First, I’ve begun asking several times a day “What’s my goal?” and am surprised by the clarity gained from such a fundamental query. Self-defeating behavior and I have been fellow travelers far too long.

The second idea isn’t so much a ploy as it is a template. Dr Bob and I are each inclined toward a Yiddish cultural frame of reference (him ethnically and me just because it’s my schtick) so his suggestion that I should consult Leo Rosten and find the definition of “mensch” has provided a useful model but one that is also likely to remain ever out of reach. Rosten’s mensch is:

Someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being “a real mensch” is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.

Then I stumbled on Guy Kawasaki’s blog and some very useful tools toward achieving menschdom. I quote (without permission) his suggestions:

  1. Help people who cannot help you. A mensch helps people who cannot ever return the favor. He doesn’t care if the recipient is rich, famous, or powerful. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help rich, famous, or powerful people (indeed, they may need the most help), but you shouldn’t help only rich, famous, and powerful people.
  2. Help without the expectation of return. A mensch helps people without the expectation of return–at least in this life. What’s the payoff? Not that there has to be a payoff, but the payoff is the pure satisfaction of helping others. Nothing more, nothing less.
  3. Help many people. Menschdom is a numbers game: you should help many people, so you don’t hide your generosity under a bushel. (Of course, not even a mensch can help everyone. To try to do so would mean failing to help anyone.)
  4. Do the right thing the right way. A mensch always does the right thing the right way. She would never cop an attitude like, “We’re not as bad as Enron.” There is a bright, clear line between right and wrong, and a mensch never crosses that line.
  5. Pay back society. A mensch realizes that he’s blessed. For example, entrepreneurs are blessed with vision and passion plus the ability to recruit, raise money, and change the world. These blessings come with the obligation to pay back society. The baseline is that we owe something to society–we’re not a doing a favor by paying back society.

You have to love anyone named Guy Kawasaki who knows some Yiddish.

This semester has been rich with opportunities to observe and grow. My world is increasingly binary, but more than that, it is syzygistic (i.e., riddled with syzygy—look it up), made of yoked pairs that we frequently misconstrue as synonyms. Things like justice and the law, for example. We’re bombarded with news coverage that highlights the discrepancy between these conflated ideas. And so it is with theater and the dramatic. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t find myself a player in some scene of political theater; an encounter between me and someone else which has nothing whatsoever to do with the words we exchange and everything to do with their impact on the people nearby who have no idea they’ve been conscripted as an audience. Ask me out for a drink and I’ll explain.

Bottom line: I shall continue to play the Infinite Game of Life to the very best of my ability in the declining number of days that remain. Thanks for your patience and understanding.



Isaiah 40:4

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:…. —Isaiah 40:4 KJV

Penn Plan

As a grad student many years ago, I took a seminar in American History, two actually, but the more profitable of the two—and the more challenging—dealt with U.S. history before 1850. I was born and nurtured in the Midwest where that limitation ought to have severely cramped my style.

There are two eras of American history with negligible interest for me: one is certainly the Civil War (battles holding no fascination whatsoever) followed closely by the Revolution (why so little discussion of Founding Mothers?). So when I sat down with Cathy Matson to choose a topic, she recommended something urban and closer at hand. But since Wilmington (Delaware’s large city nearest the University of Delaware campus in Newark) is relatively new and not well documented in original documents, Dr Matson directed my curiosity toward Philadelphia, just a forty-five minute drive up I-95.

Initially, it was Philadelphia’s waterfront that captured my interest, a strip destroyed during the construction of Interstate 95—path of least resistance and all that. In colonial America, Philly was a commercial town dominated by Quaker financial interests and an important component of our national economic engine. So I wondered about its waterfront, analogizing it as a membrane engaged in a type of commercial osmosis. That might have been a worthwhile project (I still think it is) but at every turn William Penn’s famous plan for his new city presented itself: an Enlightenment exercise in Cartesian reason and Democratic civility. Then, one day, on the trek back home to Newark this thought crossed my mind: Why, of all the sources I’d consulted about Penn’s plan, were they so universally preoccupied with its origins—from the Roman castrum to the Londonderry plan of Ireland’s English overlords—while none of them seemed the least bit interested in the plan’s actual implementation; conception at the expense of delivery. Immaculate urban conceptions are one thing, but what happens when the rubber meets the road?

Philadelphia became a case study of the Ideal meeting the Real.

Philly Sanborn

Twelve weeks and forty pages later, I completed “‘The crooked straight and the rough places plain’: Implementing William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia.”

I won’t burden you here with three pithy pages on Colonial privy pits. But I will say that several things are true of both Penn’s plan and Agincourt: 1) the former strongly influenced the latter, and 2) the 19th century pattern of Agincourt’s implementation is likely to have paralleled the chronology of its 17th century predecessor, one of them planned at the height of the Enlightenment, the other during its last gasps.



Nearly two thousand years ago Marcus Vitruvius Pollio defined architecture as “Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas” which Sir Henry Wotton translated in the 17th century as commodity, firmness and delight. As a Modernist of sorts, I also accept the Bauhaus-related adaptation of the Virtuvius-Wotton formula as Commodity + Firmness = Delight, because buildings of a highly utilitarian purpose are often more attractive to me—that is, they attract my attention—than those that try in very self-conscious ways to be beautiful. I didn’t recognize these tendencies in myself until taking the undergraduate architectural history sequence at the University of Oklahoma in the mid-1960s and read the Introduction to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Outline of European Architecture where he says: “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.” What a load of hooey!

About the same time, I also encountered H.H. Richardson’s famous comment to his client John Jacob Glessner: “I’ll design anything a client wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop.” In hindsight, I wonder if the scales have indeed fallen from my eyes insofar as these measures of “success” are concerned. So, when images of this sort pass by, I respond lovingly to their honest integrity (also insofar as I may understand those high falutin words).


The built environment is populated in huge numbers with structures such as this. In fact, cultural anthropologist Amos Rapaport suggests that as much as ninety-five percent of the built environment is unselfconsciously “designed”—yet I am content to accept them as “architecture,” which presumably Sir Nikolaus would not. [I met him once and he otherwise seemed a very nice fellow, though perhaps he’d mellowed from the time that Outline had been written.] Suffice to say, there is much to be learned from the vernacular world.

Graphic Design

Graphic design is simply beyond my capability. No one needs to tell me. I do enjoy good graphic design, however, and recognize it when I see it.

Since I mentioned Indiana Dunes last time and the interurban line that served its region—the South Shore Line—you might enjoy a sampling of their promotional posters—with the implied hint that graphic designers or those with those inclinations are welcome as we prepare for the 2015 exhibition.

cla025 cla095

Aren’t these evocative?



No, Fennimore county hasn’t suddenly sprung a Great Lake. Sturm und Drang are close enough to Agincourt, but their acreage doesn’t present a horizon like this. It’s the building in the mid-ground that concerns us.


About fifty miles east of Chicago along the shore of Lake Michigan lies Indiana Dunes State Park, a fragment of Indiana Dunes National Seashore which surrounds it. It may be possible to grow up in Chicago and be unaware of The Dunes but I doubt that happens often. A popular resort for city dwellers since the 19th century (and readily available by interurban rail), it received a “make-over” during the Great Depression when entry pavilions, the bathhouse and other ancillary structures were added by one of the Roosevelt administration alphabet soup agencies—might have been the Civilian Conservation Corps, I suppose.

The thing is, we tend to have developed a default image of WPC Depression-Era architecture as reasonably tailored reinforced-concrete architecture. And, yes, there is a great deal of that in these parts, especially in urban areas where the government’s stimulus efforts created public buildings (pools, city halls, fire stations, and the like) and service facilities like sewer and water treatment plats. But there were other materials in the WPA-PWA-CCC palette: masonry (especially stone) and heavy timber. Visit Yosemite or Yellowstone or Mount Hood some time to see well-preserved examples. In smaller “in-between” places like Agincourt, however, the period produced innumerable examples. One of them casually showed itself last week [while I had other things on my mind] —the mausoleum at a cemetery in Saline, Michigan—which causes me to wonder how FRD & Co. affected the communities of Fennimore county during the late 1930s. Perhaps the ARCH 371 students will embrace the possibilities.


The way things work…

Real Estate (and other) Values

Thinking these days about larger issues in Agincourt—how the county fairgrounds developed over 150 years, for example; evolution of The Strip, as Highway 7 became a bypass around the north edge of town; the sequence of installing infrastructure like municipal water and sewer; garbage (enough said)—I come back to one of my initial thoughts: Agincourt’s public library, the lone building that initiated the project, needed to be situated at what real estate experts and economists call “100 percent corner.” In my layperson’s terms, it’s the piece of real estate with the highest consistent resale and rental value; the parcel against which all others are measured. For me, that plot was a fifty-by-one-hundred-forty-foot lot (two of its standard 25 x 140-foot business lots) at the corner of Broad Street and Agincourt Avenue NE.

Preparing for the third project in ARCH 371, one that will be situated in Agincourt, I never imaginds I’d be discussing with students the principles of real estate and development economics. Despite having a retirement account substantially in the stock market, I ain’t no capitalist. Never was, never wanted to be. Most of my financial decisions are shaped by motives other than pure profit. Yet the way of the Western World is otherwise, certainly here in the United States. So in this regard I am the proverbial fish out of water.

From the perspective of Agincourt history, 100 percent corner would already have been occupied by some prominent building—a bank, most likely—which would have to be displaced. With luck, my friend Diesel Dave had given me a postcard of a Masonic Lodge and theater building with two retail rental storefronts that had been reduced to ruin by fire—still smoldering in the RPPC that he had given me (surely not knowing how it might become part of the story). So, thanks, Dave, if I haven’t already said that.

His contribution, by the way, provided an opportunity for more of the story to be told, because that fire was typical in cities of all sizes. It has implications for so many issues: materials and construction (viz. Prof Martens), municipal services (fire and police protection), the presence of social institutions (fraternal and sororital lodges and associations).

There are days I’m eager to open Pandora’s Box.


So many real buildings presented themselves as prototypes; as reality checks on my sometimes over-active imagination. One of them (though I had long forgotten it) recently showed up in the daily eBay feed: the Masonic Temple of about 1910 in Billings, Montana. It still stands today at the corner of Third and Broadway (perhaps the 100 percent corner of its day) as a landmark building designed by Link & Haire. Beside its handsome proportion and Classical Revival detailing, it also confirms for me the value inherent in a corner lot: at least two storefronts on the short façade, with an entry to the upper floors in the center of the long one. Additional commercial space to the right of the formal, ceremonial entry became the location of the Tennant Memorial Gallery. And the longer elevation faces south in Agincourt, rather than north in Billings, and looking out twoard one of Agincourt’s public squares.

My only point today is that a cheap disposable postcard view such as this tell its own story, the local experience of a national phenomenon. Now, how to get that simple message across to the students of 371.

Oh, incidentally, this is Blog Entry #600, which is some sort of landmark, I suppose.

Hedley Fitton [1859-1929]

hedley fitton

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

FITTON, Hedley [1859–1929]

“The Two Mills”

date unknown / ca1920

etching / 11 inches x 7 3/4 inches

Roughly contemporary with Frank Brangwyn, Fitton was drawn to similar architectonic subjects, though with less chiaroscuro. Still, this treatment of an ancient windmill compares favorably with those of Brangwyn in Heyter Preston’s book of 1923, which Fitton probably knew. Representing the pre-industrial era, windmills were an endangered species rapidly disappearing from the industrial landscape.

This etching came to the Community Collection in a very undramatic and obtuse way: it was purchased from a flea market event in 2005 to raise money for hurricane Katrina relief.

Punch & Judy

“Punch and Judy” is a stencil decoration by Margaret Lloyd which appeared in the January 1905 issue of The Studio, a British magazine focused on the Arts & Crafts. Locating biographical material on Lloyd has been difficult; she may have married and been subsumed by the identity of her husband, of she may simply not have pursued a career in art or illustration. Hard to say. But I won’t give up looking.

This illustration for the iconic characters Punch and Judy was a mainstay of 19th century popular entertainment for British children—though one wonders how its political incorrectness would survive in the 21st. What we’re given here is a day at the beach, with both children and adults in Dickensian attire. Note the distant signs for “Real Live Mermaid” and “Meat Pies.” Shades of Mrs Lovett. “Try the priest.”

Yet, despite its inappropriateness for children (by today’s measure), I have desperately wanted this image to become a part of the Agincourt Saga. I feel there must have been an early kindergarten in town, a place of Progressive education where this joy-filled scene might have afforded a daydreamer like myself the chance for an out-of-body experience. Conversations with Mr Salyards have centered on its potential to become a window. What think you?


On the other hand, wouldn’t it make a wonderful quilt!

The play’s the thing…


Those who know their Bison history will recall that the “Little Country Theatre” movement was set in motion by our very own Alfred Arvold [1882–1957] in 1914. Surely the Theater Department is marking that centennial somehow. Theater became one of the staples in rural and small-town life, where enthusiasm is likely to have trumped talent most of the time. My own talents may be slim enough [I can suggest someone you should ask about that] but my zest for certain topics is without end.

My connection with what’s going on in this photograph is in fact the essence of theater. Cecil Elliott spoke often about higher education and concluded that teaching and vaudeville are identical in this regard; you can be successful at either if you do three things: 1) know your material; 2) read the audience; and 3) play to the back row. Whatever success I have had I owe to that simple formula.

This still photo from an unidentified play seems to be connected with Aledo, Illinois. [I have an Akron-Auditorium church example from Aledo, if memory serves.] At least that’s where the photographer was located. Given the long-term collective memory of small-town America, I suspect it wouldn’t take much to identify both the play and the actors. Suffice to say, this image will do double duty in Agincourt: 1) it will become a production at the theater company directed by Seamus Tierney (a.k.a., James O’Rourke) and a new photographer’s name can be photoshopped in place of Carlson.


ec·lec·tic (əˈklektik) adjective

1. deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources: “her musical tastes are eclectic.”

2. PHILOSOPHY: of, denoting, or belonging to a class of ancient philosophers who did not belong to or found any recognized school of thought but selected such doctrines as they wished from various schools.

There is a story about creativity I’d like to share with you.

In the 1960s some folks at a major university—it may have been Princeton—decided to asses the presence of creativity in a broad range of the design-oriented public. Their cross section included both artists and architects. Among those being tested were Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, and several others whom we would identify today as leading lights of mid-century architecture.

Among the battery of tests administered to each of them, one involved a number of one-inch-square ceramic tile—pure primary and secondary colors, plus black and white. The fastidious Philip Johnson took the test in a simple room without distraction. In it, only a table and the box of tile. The challenge was to make a pattern of the tile. I don’t know if an orthogonal grid was provided; makes sense if it was, since the grid would provide a single, simple physical rule for laying them out. Johnson emerged from the room, exasperated in a theatrical way and broadcast his dismay to others in the lounge who had taken the test earlier. “The colors were ghastly,” he announced. “I used only the black and white.” Among the others who had already taken the test was Eero Saarinen, about whose character I know very little. But his alleged retort to Johnson says volumes about his personality. “Oh, really,” he replied. “I just used the white.”
One imagines that Johnson’s architectural hubris was bruised.


What this means for Agincourt is anybody’s guess. Today, however, I think it relates to the organic additive nature of creating a community from scratch. My matrix is the Jeffersonian Grid of range and section lines that define most of the U.S. west of the Appalachians and Agincourt’s Original Townsite which occupies one of those sections. And my seemingly bottomless “box of tile”  has been the notions that come from shopping eBay, from having lunch with a colleague, from reading and looking and professing, which is, after all, what they pay me to do. My ideas come from two primary sources: ordinary conversation and common postcard images. So when this one showed up recently, I thought immediately of the northwest corner of Sixth Street NW and Agincourt Avenue.

Eighteen months ago I had written about Forrest Culp and his daughter Myra, who operated a tourist court (i.e., an early motel) on the site at the western entry into town by the Agincourt Bridge. They had become part of the backstory to the city’s first modest post-war suburban development, The Orchard, and incidentally linked to the Great Depression,to  Sheriff Pyne (one of the community’s genuine good guys) and fishing in the adjacent Muskrat River. Agincourt doesn’t have much topographic range—I need to fix that—so this image registered as acknowledgment of the sloping land on the Muskrat’s east bank. Could this stilted house be the home of the Culps, father and daughter? With the corner of a tourist cabin on the far right? [The inconvenient building in the left background can be photoshopped out.] And that basement entry on the left side of the house (i.e., toward the river) would also make an ideal place for the sale of bait, worms and leeches, on lazy summer afternoons.

I can almost hear crickets in the late afternoon light.