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The way things work…


A couple years ago our friend Richard Kenyon (a.k.a. Crazy Richard) and I made pilgrimage to New Jersey and the northern tier of counties across Pennsylvania. Our quest: the churches of architect William Halsey Wood. In New Jersey, we found three that seemed part of a series: St Peter, Washington; All Saints, Bay Head; and St Simon-by-the-Sea at Mantoloking. The first is a traditional parish in the northwestern part of the state; the other two are Jersey Shore communities—sans Snookie. Since then a fourth church has joined the list: Trinity parish in Northport, New York.

We had known about St Peter’s from Frank Greenagel’s book New Jersey Churchscape, though he doesn’t footnote a source for the attribution. Mantoloking came to our attention by the accidental discovery of a real photo postcard on eBay. I frankly don’t recall why we stopped in Bay Head; possibly just dumb luck. What we concluded at each site was twofold: First, William Halsey Wood was a good architect at each end of the spectrum. His designs for small wood-framed churches in modest communities were as inspired as his competitive design for St John-the-Divine. Second—and more important for its Agincourt implications—Wood gave these three Jersey clients an ecclesiological concept in modular form that could be implemented in phases, as budget and other circumstances might permit. We were impressed.

What struck us at Washington and was confirmed later at the Shore was the similarity of these three buildings. Pacing them off—we didn’t have a measuring tape in the car—it became clear that there was, indeed, a module at work: The depth of the transept, for example, was One Unit (the actual dimension doesn’t matter), as was the depth of both the narthex and chancel. The “crossing” a square measuring Two Units by Two Units, and the entry vestibule was One-half Unit deep. “Holy Mathematics, Batman!”  1 : 2 : 4 or 1/2 : 1 : 2—it works either way. And what provided proportionality in the horizontal also controlled vertical elements through the forty-five degree roof slope. We did sketches on restaurant placemats somewhere in Red Bank, intent on making a computer model once I got back to Fargo—fat chance of that happening.

Yesterday—almost two years after the fact—I opted for a simpler solution: in lieu of computers, I chose our wood shop and elected to make a set of modular children’s blocks from some nifty hardwood acquired in Dilworth. With Kevin and Jeff watching my every move (and not a digit lost), I crafted a set of blocks Tuesday afternoon. Compare the blocks with this image of the Washington, NJ church and tell me I’m wrong.

wasingtonNJSt. Simon's-By-The-Sea Mantoloking, NJ

Then compare it with St Simon-by-the-Sea at Mantoloking. See what I mean?

Now fast forward to about 3:00 this morning.

William Halsey Wood was the inspiration for Agincourt’s second courthouse, a Richardsonian Romanesque building completed the year Anson Tennant was born. As Louis Sullivan never designed a public library, Halsey Wood had never designed a courthouse (to my knowledge), so his take on the Richardsonian was an opportunity to explore how he might have approached the design of a substantial county government facility—a secular building. Perhaps I’m in a rut, but Wood had also provided the inspiration for the doll house a fifteen-year-old Anson Tennant built for his little sister Claire. Then it struck me: the Tennant family had originated in New Jersey, Wood’s home state, and there is every reason to imagine that another branch of the Tennant clan still lived there. Why couldn’t young Anson have taken a vacation with his family to visit relatives in Jersey? Why couldn’t he have stayed for a month with great aunts in their Edwardian cottage at Mantoloking? And why wouldn’t he have gone with them for a high-church Sunday Mass at St Simon-by-the-Sea?

Idle hands may be the Devil’s workshop, but Loose Ends scream for my attention. Sometimes, though not often, they resolve themselves in ways I could not have imagined.

I feel a story coming on.

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