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Monthly Archives: January 2015

Before “Dutch Elm”

North Broad Street

Moving north along Broad Street from the businesses that stop abruptly at Fennimore Avenue, you enter a four-block strip of large houses and generous setbacks. The Broad Street right-of-way is a one-hundred-and-twenty foot strip running north across the entire town. It was so wide, indeed, that circa 1909 the neighbors on two blocks (from Fennimore to Cooper) petitioned to create a landscaped strip down its center. There were those at the time who also believed it was just the wealthy residents who artfully avoided construction of a trolley line in their front yards.

While searching for images that might help the Landscape Architecture students working with that site, I came upon this postcard view in Virginia, Illinois (who knew there was a Virginia, IL?) that is a pretty good stand-in for what I had imagined. Dutch Elm disease has undoubtedly taken its toll, but there’s been sufficient time for the second-growth boulevard trees to have attained some maturity.

Did you notice some sort of construction going on at the far right of this image? Looks like a paving job to me—perhaps the paving blocks of its new “City Beautiful” treatment.


John O. Semmence [1930-1985]


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

SEMMENCE, John Oswald [1930–1985]

House seen through Pollard Trees


oil on paper / 10 1/8 inches by 7 1/2 inches

Scottish painter John Oswald Semmence was born at Kincardine O’Neil, one of the oldest villages in the valley of the River Dee, Aberdeenshire. Semmence attended Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen during 1949-52, where he gained a travelling scholarship to study in Europe.

What is. What was. What might have been.

Existentially, each of us occupies a point in time-space. I am, for example, typing these words at a point with X, Y, Z and T coõrdinates; that is, at a physical point in the fourth-floor computer lab in Renaissance Hall (a.k.a., Northern School Supply) and at a temporal point the along the continuum from the Big Bang to the ultimate Universal Snuff. Stephen Hawking and the late Douglas Adams have explained this far better.


No matter where I find myself in Agincourt’s time-space continuum, there are amazing opportunities. Understanding what exists in the community today requires precedent, and that precedent needs a precursor, and so on.

This semester—spring 2015—Dominic Fisher’s 2nd-year Landscape Architecture design studio is tackling several design opportunities in Agincourt, places and spaces I’m not qualified to address (though that’s never stopped me before). Nine LA undergraduates are currently looking at smaller public spaces throughout the city: the four school lots, the pair of squares at the heart of town, the “Victory Gardens” on the banks of Crispin Creek just south of the Milwaukee Road tracks, and others. The trick will be placing themselves in the four-dimensional diagram I’ve borrowed.

Their second challenge will (if I understand Dominic’s pace correctly) be the comprehensive consideration of Fennimore county’s fair grounds, an eighty-acre wedge extending west from the Mighty Muskrat, just on its opposite bank from the site of Northwest Iowa Normal. As projects materialize, we’ll be posting them here and planning for their inclusion in the 2015 exhibit.

Hope you’re as excited as I am.




Pictor Ignotus [dates unknown]

hudson river

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

Pictor Ignotus [dates unknown]

Hudson River Landscape

19th century

oil on canvas on board / 5 inches by 7 inches

As 19th century westward expansion tumbled across the Appalachians, Americans confronted the majesty of an unspoiled landscape. The Hudson River School— artists like Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt and George Innes—celebrated that understanding of our national manifest destiny with enormous canvases. Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra Nevada” alone is six feet tall and ten feet wide. This miniature landscape, on the other hand, captures the school’s spirit in just thirty-five square inches.

This was one of the dozen paintings that constituted the initial GAR exhibition of 1912, lent by Clinton and Julia Warren. He was president of the Farmers, Mechanics & Merchants Bank. The Warrens’ home on East Agincourt Avenue has been replaced by apartments.

Henry Hengstler [1873-1950]

henry hengstler

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

HENGSTLER, Henry [1873–1950]

Three Sheep in an Orchard

before 1937

oil on board / 9 inches by 12 inches

German-born artist Henry Hengstler was a resident of San Diego, California by 1920. He studied at the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery and later at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He died at Los Angeles in October 1950.This painting of three sheep in an orchard was probably painted before 1937.

The inscription “To Leila from Mr Hengstler for Graduation June 1937” provides a clue to both the painting’s date and its provenance. Hengstler’s wife Catherine had a niece named Leila who was born about 1919.


Apparently the word “creativity” has been around for little more than a hundred and fifty years—in English, that is. Which is surprising, considering how many people have been labeled “creative” since the Renaissance. I’m reading a book with that title—Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention—by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (whose name is more fun to say than “salsa”), author of Flow and several other books on cognitive psychology. You can guess why this book has risen to the top of the pile by my bedside.

It’s fatuous to think that something so elusive as creativity can be reduced to a diagram; surely we can be more creative in our desire to represent something so fundamental, so foundational to being human. Yet here it is:


I’m only a quarter of the way into Creativity, but far enough to understand that I’m not—creative, that is, at least insofar as Csikszentmihalyi’s meaning of the term. A few years ago, that realization would have upset me. Tonight I’m more sanguine and even reflective about the author’s case; about how an awareness of the process he analyzes might have altered the trajectory of my life. At 70, you’d think this would have been so much water under the bridge. Not so.

A big dose of good things

Can there be too much of a good thing? Today, the usual source of supply is awash in good images, any or all of which would be welcome additions to Agincourt; at least a few of them will.


Anyone over a hundred and ten will recall that Fargo once boasted streets chock-a-block with Victoriana like Winterset, Iowa. We have been a bit more reserved and our material palette was limited (Dakota Territory having virtually no deposits of good building stone). Still, Fargo and Moorhead held their own. Urban renewal took its toll, as did bad judgement and poor maintenance.

IA stratford baseball

Celebration continues to fill our streets and other public places with pride of accomplishment, pride of place, pride of identification.


Agincourt’s contours are minor, so I regret that the picturesque arrangement of public library and church would be unlikely, but surely there will be moments of topographic change and relative drama such as this view of Stafford Springs, Connecticut—where, I’m happy to report, having stood at the very spot.


This house at an unidentified location and the hospital serving a town in Iowa exude the characteristics of vernacular design that have been misplaced in recent years. Why do we no longer seem capable of such respectful directness of expression?

iowa barn

Those who know me know that one of my favorite films is “Witness” and that I believe (along with “Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House”) it ought to be required viewing for every incoming student of architecture. If you can’t figure out what they have to say about architectural design and construction, separately or as a pair, then you might want to consider another career.


And while I bloviate, consider this brief stop on an interurban line and wonder why current facebook rhetoric suggests that architecture as a profession is on the ropes.


The Paper Trail

stock 01

Part of the paper trail we leave includes (for some of the more fortunate) capitalism, evidence of investment. I’d like to create stock certificates for Agincourt and Fennimore county incorporated businesses: things like the Northwest Iowa Traction Co., the interurban line that connected Agincourt with Fort Dodge and was intent on reaching the Missouri River at Sioux City or Omaha but pooped out at near Storm Lake. Or the Lincoln Mutual Telephone Co. Or, perhaps, even the cemetery, which might have been seen as a benign investment, a civic duty for those with resources to trickle down.

What to my wondering eyes should appear on eBay this evening but a certificate for the Fargo-Moorhead Telephone Exchange (to serve as a model). Being offered at an opening bid of $450, I’m unlikely to be a bidder, but that doesn’t mean I can’t lust.

stock 02

Death and Commemoration

With roughly eight months before the next Agincourt installation, a large portion of pain (of the birthing sort) is on my plate. There are so many things to do—in addition to Agincourt—and all of them must be done well. I simply don’t have the luxury of sloughing any one of them. Sigh.


Since the project’s inception eight—yes, I did say eight—years ago, Agincourt’s cemeteries have been on my mind. I know where they are; I think I know how extensive they will have become; I feel their appearance more than I see it. Indeed, this being blog entry #661, there are several earlier entries about the community’s burial grounds, many that I have revisited since they were written five, six or seven years ago. In the spirit of refreshing fading memories, here are some links that will help:

  • 2014 April 21: Last April (while I was living in Belgium and visiting some fairly spectacular examples like Pere Lachaise), I outlined a rough history of The Shades, our non-sectarian cemetery and the largest of the three.
  • 2014 April 21: Later that same day—ˆ have no recollection of this—I appended that and dropped a few names, like Moses Hemphill, for example, the county’s first embalmer.
  • 2014 April 13: The day previous (I was clearly on a roll) mentioned ideas drawn from Enlightenment notions of park and cemetery design, influential concepts like the beautiful, the picturesque and the sublime, articulated by theorists like
  • 2011 September 19 and October 03: In September and October, there was a two-part entry concerning the Flynns (Edmund FitzGerald and his wife/widow Amity Burroughs) and their respective interments at The Shades. Ed and Amity were convenient characters to explore the immortality we often link with our passing.
  • 2011 June 22: It was pleasant to revisit Recoleta, the world-class cemetery in Buenos Aires, that we’d seen earlier in the month. There was no danger of The Shades becoming anything like Recoleta, but I can dream, can’t I.
  • 2010 December 06: In every community, there are watershed events that can best be read on the tombstones of the dead: the influenza epidemic of 1918, for example. Surely there will be others of both global and local significance.
  • 2011 November 21: And just before, in late November, there was a piece on cremation as an alternative to burial.
  • 2010 September 26 and 28: These two were my celebration of palindromes.

All of this will come to bear on the LA 272 Landscape Architecture studio, because Dominic Fisher has oh so kindly volunteered to tackle several of Agincourt’s open space issues, the cemeteries not being the least of these. So it would appear that eight or nine second-year landscape students will almost literally play in the sandbox with me and give real organic form to this part of the story.

This, I am relieved to say, has been blog post #661.

Pictor Ignotus

woman in mirror

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

Pictor Ignotus

Portrait of Grace Arbogast


oil on canvas / 12.5 inches by 16 inches

At one time this was a full length portrait of Agincourt couturier Grace Arbogast, shown wearing one of her own gowns—a design which apparently failed to meet her developing sense of style. The painting has been “edited,” its bottom half roughly cut off and thrown away. Retrieved from the trash bin by one of Arbogast’s staff—she employed many local girls and women, some who went on to their own careers in fashion—it was acquired in 1992 from the estate sale of Anthemia Marsh.

Some have remarked on the portrait’s resemblance to Anjelica Houston.