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Alley Life

For a complete codification of public rights-of-way, visit Venice. There you will find a sophisticated (albeit malodorous) hierarchy of canals, from the grand to the not so much. The city’s narrowest are often dead-ended, with insufficient water movement, even at high tide, to flush themselves of all that has accumulated in the previous twenty-four hours. This hierarchy governs height, width, and bridge crossings, among other things. We’re, of course, appreciative of their picturesqueness and pay little, if any, attention to them as civil engineering feats from the Middle Ages.

Agincourt, of course, is modeled after Philadelphia’s plan of the 1680s—conceived and executed by Thomas Holme, rather than William Penn, but rarely credited to its real source—with its own hierarchical rights of way. Still apparent and working quite well at the time of Agincourt’s founding, Philly’s streets, lanes and courts were only slightly less sophisticated than the canals of Venice and more easily transplanted to the Midwest where it must have seemed natural to use as allées what we now call alleys. There are more than a half dozen listed in the gazetteer, named to honor a person, commemorate a physical feature or acknowledge a social or functional reality. Consider

  • Opera Alley got its name from the queueing of carriages on performance nights;
  • The half block of Easy Alley acknowledged the community’s first “sporting house” situated behind Belle Miller’s tobacco shop and convenient to both the opera house (called “The Auditorium”) and the Blenheim Hotel;
  • Adams Alley honors restaurateur Maud Adams; and
  • Carousel aims straight at the merry-go-round placed in The Commons during the late 1930s.

So when Fargo began to recognize a higher calling for utilitarian service ways, I was glad to know that Agincourt already had several. Which brings me to the tangent matter of arcades.

OHspringfield OHcleveland OHdayton

Arcades—sheltered yet still open-aired pedestrian shopping enclaves—are another phenomenon of the 19th century that have practically disappeared here in the U.S., though many still flourish in Britain and Europe. Consider these three, all from Ohio and not nearly the grandest of their type, as examples of what regional shopping malls have tried, unsuccessfully in my estimation, to emulate. We had (and I mean HAD) to go to West Acres yesterday for last-minute holiday shopping, where I mourned the loss of its progenitors. Even the Springfield example above, which seems to be the simple but efficacious placement of a glazed roof above what might have been a utilitarian alley, has a scale that Wasted Acres has missed—by a mile.

I mention this because Agincourt’s Adams Alley, on its way north toward The Square, ran between two iconic buildings: de Bijenkorpf (our department store) and the Blenheim (our finest early 20th century hostelry), which afforded an opportunity to add that same gable of glazing and permit shoppers the convenience of a sheltered passage between commerce and cuisine. It seems a a lesson important enough to find its way into the next exhibit.

 


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