When Harlan Ormbreck retired from architectural practice several years ago, he came back briefly to teaching. In fact, he came back to the position he’d vacated in 1971 that provided an opening for me at NDSU. So, there we were, two Modernists dividing the spoils of architectural history between us. The university had already made the transition from quarters to semesters, so it could have been a toss of the coin that assigned ARCH 321 or 322 to one or the other. I asked his opinion and Harlan replied, “The Baroque is something that no good Lutheran boy should have to look at,” and the decision was made: He would do Egypt through the Gothic while I tended to the dreaded Counter Reformation.
Historical “blind spots” are easily understood. No male member of my family (there are remarkably few of us) had ever fought in an American war, that I’m aware. So “war stories” and memorabilia had not been a part of my childhood. Roy C. wasn’t at Omaha Beach or Anzio; Roy L. missed the Battle of the Bulge. My grandfather was too old for induction and my father had only one leg and was also an only child. As a consequence (and a product of the 1960s) my only interest in war is not getting involved in one, personally or on a national level. Good luck with the latter. That has not stopped me from writing about war and its own consequences—Victory Gardens, women on the home front, the G.I. Bill—but World War II itself has been left to the attention others.
On most large scale topics I do well enough. The Industrial Revolution, for example, has enormous consequence for the United States in the second half of the 19th century (the period of Agincourt’s formation and early growth and development) and the wage labor movement that grew from it would have shaped even a small agricultural community in northwestern Iowa. The Arts & Crafts also fascinate me, both as a reaction to industrialization and as a movement so broad as to include Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There are, however, styles in architectural history for which I feel no great passion—yet—and which therefore come as unploughed fields of investigation. Take the Greek Revival and Italianate/Eastlake, for example. No, I really mean that: take the Greek Revival and Italianate, because they are as foreign to me as Outer Mongolia.
A chance encounter this morning on eBay delivered an image of the Opera House in Rockford, Illinois. Wanting to know more about it led to the discovery that none other than Oscar Wilde had appeared there on the 2nd of March, 1882, one of more than fifty stops on his American lecture tour. It takes little else for the wheels to engage and to wonder whether he might have sojourned in Agincourt, filling the seats of Harney’s Orpheum, the Civil War-era opera house replaced ultimately by the Auditorium in 1895.
Two windows of opportunity opened just a crack: on March 1st, Wilde appeared in Dubuque, lecturing on the Decorative Arts. Later that month, on the 21st and 22nd, he was in Sioux City and Omaha on the other side of the state. Members of the Oscar Wilde Society may take exception to an unscheduled stop in Agincourt but I see it unfolding. And with that visit will necessarily come the Italianate ornamental excesses of Harney’s Orpheum, which I approach with fear and trembling.
Happily, we just bought the economy size bottle of antacid.