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Monthly Archives: October 2015


Just over five years ago it seemed a good idea to reflect on Agincourt — what it had become and how it got there — before the memories were gone like snow on water. So I began this blog for the past, present, and future of the project.

A glance at the stats page reveals little beyond a handful of numbers (though presumably they could be crunched to tell me more):

  • There have been 14,790 views of its 789 entries by 3,076 visitors;
  • The busiest day (last January 13th) saw 253 views;
  • There have been just 148 comments (some of them my own), but 31,752 pieces of spam.

Geographically, visitors have come from nearly half the world’s countries — though most of them probably left spam. All things considered, I’m underwhelmed.

So, thanks to you who have visited now and then. I shall keep posting until…well, I can’t say when it will end. By the same token, neither can I say why it should go on.

Oh, and I am also grateful for those who came to see “Agincourt Homecoming” at the Rourke Art Museum. The exhibition “closing” on St Cripin’s Day, October 25th, 2015 was gratifying, especially those who came so far (Richard, Jeremiah, and Dan among them). I appreciate your belief that the project represents something larger than itself.

The Battle of Agincourt happened today!

Well on my way to new heights of nervousness, “How Cities Happened: The Agincourt Project” is about to open at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead—on Friday, 09 November 2018. Some components are complete (though not enough); others are close. My problem is always this: What you see on the walls isn’t all that I had hoped to put there. Happily, several important new elements are being crafted even as I type this.


I can truthfully say that the stars are in alignment, for today is the actual 603rd anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. So here for your viewing pleasure is Donato Giancola’s “Battle of Agincourt, 25 October 1415.” And for you who follow the church kalendar and honor the feast days of the Saints, this is the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, patrons of cobblers and more recently of the bondage community—it’s all a leather thing, if you get my drift.

Have a good one. And please do come on either Friday, 09 November or Sunday afternoon, 11 November for the festivities. There’ll be a Gallery Talk on Sunday at about 2:00 p.m. by Howard Tabor if he can drive up; otherwise, it will be me.


Charity begins at home—and so does almost everything else, come to think of it.

Thursday was Howard’s birthday. Except for that, it was pretty much the week from Hell.

A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor


Wednesday morning something was wrong with the shower: no hot water and very little cold. Tuesday had been a night of fitful sleep, there was a raging storm outside, and the last cinnamon-raisin bagel displayed unwelcome flecks of blue-green. I was in no mood to cope with faulty plumbing.

After fifteen minutes replacing a light bulb (one by the water heater blew the minute I flipped the switch) and another twenty-five tracking down the toolbox, sweat soon pooled in my eyes. It wasn’t long before I had newfound respect for Michelangelo’s months under the Sistine ceiling: working above your head is agony and I didn’t see much ecstasy in the immediate future. With aching shoulders, burning eyes and an exhausted list of expletives, I remembered Truman Hand, an old family friend first met when I was ten or twelve.

Mr. Hand answered to “Handy,” a familiarity he accorded most folks in town. I called him that once but Mother reminded me Mr. Hand was my elder, a professional, and a guest in our home; he warranted my respect.

Gentle, deferential, deliberate in speaking, Mr. Hand may be the most accomplished mechanic I have ever known. There were few jobs he could or would not tackle: carpentry and woodworking, yard work and tree trimming, meticulous painting, even minor automotive and electrical repair, as long as it didn’t involve newfangled contrivances and contraptions. Your home was always cleaner when he left. He was a regular visitor in our house, several times a month throughout the year, and his yellow pickup was easy to spot all around town wherever mechanical dysfunction and decay had reared their head. He always had a smile and a nod for me and called me “Mister Tabor.”

Did I mention Truman Hand was Black?

Truman Hand was born in 1919 at Caruthersville, Missouri, the “boot heel” of that state which locks with Arkansas and keeps the two from drifting too far apart. I have never been there and lack any desire to go. Hand served our nation during WWII and returned to as much of a hero’s welcome as the South could muster in those days. America was a more hopeful place in the late 1940s, even for people of color, so Hand availed himself of all the G.I. Bill might give. He attended trade school and refined the mechanical skills of war for peacetime application. He married high school sweetheart Esther Plunkett. They had a daughter Marie. Then things changed, as they are often wont to do, but not always for the better.

Esther Hand developed a mysterious lung ailment, probably from her wartime work in a defense plant, ironically, making gasmask filters. She wasted two debilitating years in bed and died in 1948 when her daughter Marie was only three. Given the state of American medicine at the time, her death seems especially senseless.

Did I mention Esther Hand was White?

Those hopeful years drew Southern Blacks northward to industrial opportunity. Wage labor beats the hell out of piecework. So, Truman Hand sought more abundant life for himself and his daughter, bypassing St. Louis or Chicago for a life in Agincourt, Iowa, it would seem, where he found work in our new canning plant. Time would tell if their relocation had been wise. The Hand family tale is only just begun.

Lives can be rebooted; hopes reborn. And plumbing can be repaired.


© 2007 The Agincourt Project

Wasserman’s Hardware

Wasserman’s Hardware

Howard asked me to drive down last year to give him and Rowan Oakes some advice on their remodeling project. They were about to make an offer on the old Wasserman hardware store (with some decrepit apartments upstairs), their intent being a restaurant/gallery with bed-and-breakfast above. I don’t know squat about being a business person, and, so, restricted my comments to the re-planning and restoration that might be involved. Here are some sketches I made that afternoon. The drawing appears to be rotated, but north is conventionally shown as up. Sorry.


A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

All history is local history

Historic preservation is a relatively new endeavor. But as a product of the 1960s, with almost fifty years of evolution, the field today barely resembles its high-style origins. Preservation used to mean the fashionable homes of bankers, doctors and other movers and shakers in any community; the people who set taste are those who most often can afford to. Lately we’re far more likely to appreciate values at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum and all that lies between. The Wasserman belongs in there somewhere.

Last year I asked Ron Ramsay, a professor of architecture at Fargo, North Dakota, to drive down and look at the Wasserman Block, since Rowan Oakes and I were interested in renovating the place. Professor Ramsay brought his friend Richard Kenyon, an architect from Connecticut, and the four of us spent several days getting acquainted and taking a critical look at the building. (You should watch Ramsay glide across the floor in his stocking feet, reading irregularities like a phrenologist.)

From a quick trip to city hall and the historical society we learned that the Wasserman Block had been built in 1908-1909 from plans by Joachim & Perlmutter, architects from Sioux City. J&P (or Hans und Franz as they were known locally) seem to have done a bunch of Agincourt work during the years before WWI (as immigrant Germans or Austrians—and that would have been an important distinction then—their work fell off somewhat after 1914). J&P’s design for the Wasserman Block was a very typical two-story 25-foot storefront and was still in pretty good shape, considering it had been vacant since 1999. Family association with one of the apartments (#204-206, Anson Tennant’s first architectural office) gave the project a special place in my heart. Without doing more extensive on-site research—probing beneath lath and plaster—Ramsay and Kenyon believe Uncle Anson modified the J&P design in 1914, personalizing his own office-studio and adding a third floor to the Wasserman’s apartment, perhaps offering his design services in place of rent.

The ground floor is unremarkable: standard open planning with intermediate cast iron columns at about twenty-five foot intervals but perfect for a gallery/restaurant we have in mind. The second floor is far more interesting and idiosyncratic: the Wasserman’s former two-story apartment at the front street corner and the three office suites. Suite 204-206 is half way down the hall.
Anson Tennant’s former studio is amazingly well preserved, rife with earmarks of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Lots of quarter-sawn oak trim and hard maple floors. And the plaster work has a grainy, porous quality, like they’d added too much sand. There is no paint; the color is simply a stain that had simply been added to the wet plaster before application—a treatment Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard would have applauded. Some early black-and-white photos from family albums show it fitted out with Navajo and other plain woven rugs, Indian baskets as light fixtures, and, best of all, the original stained glass door panel with the inscription “Als ik kan,” the mantra of the Arts & Crafts movement, which translates loosely from the Flemish as “As best I can” or “I’ll do my best.” This was also the motto by which he had tried to live—and, presumably, die. That stained glass is still in place.

What we preserve is sometimes a matter of public policy; at others, a question of personal preference. In this case it was a matter of the heart.

Howard and Rowan Oakes went to Chicago to furnish the suites, especially #204-206. And the quality they demanded appears to be paying off: rooms are booked most weekends and some weekday business travelers find it a welcome alternative to “Motel Hell.”

Incidentally, since we’re talking about the Wassermans, I should ask Howard to tell you about Reinhold Kölb, Edith Wasserman’s brother. He had been a psychotherapist in Vienna in the 1920s but saw the proverbial writing on the wall and moved to Agincourt. “Walden,” the clinic that he opened near Gnostic Grove provided mental health care well into the 1970s, when it became a nursing home. Neither the Wassermans nor Dr. Kölb were Jewish, but even Catholic intellectuals detected the growing intolerance that came to be National Socialism. Many suffered as a consequence of the Holocaust: Jews, Liberals, intellectuals, homosexuals, gypsies, and those whose bodies or minds fell short of Aryan perfection. Dr. Kölb at least had the resources to get out.

Oh, and about the Lusitania…I rummaged in my files for some references to the sinking of the HMS Lusitania on May 7th, 1915. (There’s plenty available on the internet; see, especially http://www.lusitania.net). Ordinarily events like this tragedy don’t strike home; they manage a detachment from our lives and seem always to have happened to someone else. Here is a piece from the front page of The Plantagenet belying that detachment.

Newspapers don’t always record what was actually going on, however. Reading between the lines and knowing some senior members of the extended Tennant family, I sense that the community rallied to insulate them from outsiders, especially members of the press who had descended upon them from Sioux City, Des Moines and even as far as Chicago in search of something juicy. Are the press doing us a favor by trying to put a face on the abstract?

The search dragged on for weeks but there was still no word of Anson. Perhaps it was the lack of a recovered body that allowed them to hope. “Out of sight is out of mind.” “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Which do you prefer?


© 2007 The Agincourt Project


Rev Candace Varenhorst, Asbury UMC

Once every decade or so I attend church, usually under duress or some sort of leverage. Thirty-two years ago—more or less; it was a couple years before I met Mr Vandervort—I dated someone in Minneapolis (just twice) and went to church with him one Sunday morning. It was a service at Westminster Presbyterian on Nicollet in Minneapolis.

Westminster is one of those great urban anchors; a landmark inner-city congregation renowned for packing the pews. I don’t recall who the senior pastor was then but he delivered the kind of sermon that might actually have got me back.

This wasn’t the species of sermon you might encounter on the Sunday morning God Box. There was no Creflo Dollar “Prosperity Gospel,” a thinly-veiled guilt trip to fund his $65 million private jet. No irrational link by Pat Robertson between same-sex marriage and a storm in the Carolinas; any god with aim that poor is unworthy of hosannahs. There weren’t crowds of  the mangled and maimed waiting for miraculous cure. Instead, it was about the importance of letters.

I’m an inveterate letter-writer. Don’t even hint that you might enjoy a regular correspondence; it’s a Pandora’s mailbox impossible to close. From the pulpit we heard about Paul, the New Testament’s most prolific writer of epistles, which subtly morphed into a broad contemporary essay about the importance of communication. Remember this happened more than thirty years ago, before the Internet put penmanship on the list of endangered activities. All this comes back to me this evening for two reasons: 1) one of my favorite correspondents has written me off [about which I’m very sad, by the way], and 2) I’ve been thinking a lot about Agincourt’s counterpart to Westminster Prez: Asbury United Methodist.

In the meantime

My passion for the Akron-Auditorium plan—a phenomenon of the period 1880-1920—is well known, so Agincourt was an obvious opportunity to design an example of a type I’ve been investigating for decades—literally. It matters little to me that my version of it circa 1920 may have been the last A-A church ever built anywhere. The plans (and the volumes they represent) were remarkably easy. The elevations are another story.

I suspect that Asbury UMC is able to seat twice the normal Sunday crowd. Mainstream Protestantism is shrinking as the evangelical and charismatic denominations attract young members and older mainstreamers go to their reward. On the day of dedication, it was SRO, but normal services must have warranted all that space. The question today is how it manages to survive, a dinosaur of a buildings in the digital age. Asbury’s success depends on it current senior pastor Candace Varenhorst, whose sermons and administrative magic keep the place afloat.

Candy is a good friend of Howard Tabor and Rowan Oakes.

Asbury United Methodist Church


In the category of “Rituals & Rites,” there has probably been at least one photo op every week. Cornerstone-laying ceremonies are important for the community as well as for the organization undertaking the construction of a new facility. Cards such as this one show up all the time, and all I need to do is figure out how to edit out the inconvenient truth about this cornerstone laying in Marathon, IA. [The asking price was far too high, so I’ll have to content myself with a stolen JPEG.]

For any denomination other than Catholic, such a public event would have been conducted by the Masons with all appropriate pomp and stock phrases about how “the stone has been proved and found to be ‘fair work and square work’ and fit to be laid as the foundation stone of this Holy Temple.” Then the photographer, head beneath a black cloth, would snap a shot like this for use by the local newspaper and for sale as RPPC postcard views to let Uncle Harry in Keokuk that the project was well under way.

I can probably edit this to work for Asbury Methodist Episcopal—though I’ve never been able to make the elevations work nearly as well as the plan.


Francis Asbury, by the way, was one of the first M.E. bishops in the new United States.

Marathon Dreams

marathon dreams

Marathon dreams last night. If that happened every night, I’d be someone else.

One after another—interrupted by my habitual fits of waking every two or three hours; common occurrence for depressives—the dreams flowed, more vivid than usual, and remained fresh when I woke. If they were films, the hybrid directing style would have shown the heavy hand of Cecil B. DeMille, the visceral brutality of Sam Peckinpah, and the Wachowskis’ layered nuance. At the risk of abusing the movie analogy, I’ll stretch it a bit farther.

The dreams put me in familiar places, doing normal things, but in each case I behaved uncharacteristically: I did the right, proper and entirely appropriate thing. I was the person I ought to have been; not the one I was. If we are the producer-director of our own lives, I saw that I had been living a script written by someone else; meeting the expectations of others; pursuing goals and objectives chosen by someone else. For their duration, I watched myself not be the person I had allowed (invited?) others to make me. I have apparently outsourced my life.

Epic insight is rare for me; perhaps that’s what seven years on Dr Bob’s leather couch has enabled. And high time, too.

Seventy, they say, is the new fifty. And while I’m not preoccupied with the end of life, it crosses my mind more often than it did when I was half these many years. Introspection is closer to the point.

I entered this life as a reasonably blank slate; born into its opening scene with a cast who shaped my sense of self, not all of it for the better. Roy and Marge played their parts; Clara stepped in when Marge took a better role. It’s taken me years—decades—to appreciate that. Last night’s dreams taught me something else, about my dependence on others, but also about my resilience. So, at this other end of life, the blank slate I was is the blank slate I will become. In these remaining measured years of clarity, as I may drift into the comforting amniotic sea of tranquility that is senility, am I permitted to craft my final scenes? I do not anticipate an afterlife. Heaven and Hell are right here, right now; I get to choose. And so I choose to be an active participant in making what time remains as heavenly as possible. Wish me well.

There are a couple people through the years who I have invited to edit and even re-write my script; I lived life that passively. What a waste! That insight came to me a few years ago, and I’ve since made corrections: they are gone from that role and I am happier and more productive for relieving them of a responsibility they took on with far too much zeal. It seems to me now that there are people who seek out such a place; it is who they are. But I am no one’s posse.

I have no interest in drifting into death, while maintaining the status quo. The time has come for change; dramatic change and a plot twist to relieve the irresolution and set things right. So what follows is somewhere between an invitation and a challenge (forgive the bulleted list):

  • If I have done you harm, damaged, offended or incensed you in any measurable way, the time has come for karma. Tell me what I have done, in ignorance or arrogance, that has become a barrier between you and me. Allow me time to consider your perspective and respond appropriately. I promise to not default to a defensive position. If an apology is due, it will be forthcoming; if a counterpoint is warranted, I will present it honestly, with as much compassion as I am able. What saddens me is that many of my acquaintances in this category have already written me off; they will not read this invitation nor take this opportunity. [Genuine heavy sigh]
  • From those I have done good service, no comment is necessary. If we were engaged in an equitable transaction, as teacher-student, colleague or friend (or some combination thereof), I hope to have fulfilled my part of the bargain. If you paid for it through tuition, I genuinely hope you got good value and have paid it forward in some way. Know that your friendship and good will are sufficient and need never be spoken; I would be humbled by your remarks anyway and obligated to diminish or deny them in some “Midwest Nice” sort of way.
  • To those remarkably few people who have done me harm (through what I presume to have been no fault of my own, until shown otherwise), I regret that you chose to treat me thus. While I am not completely over those hurts, I’m working toward it. In hindsight—which is primarily what I’m equipped with these days, it seems—this list is remarkably short and consists of no more than four or five people whose understanding of human decency, on a negative scale of one to ten, is off the charts by a factor of light years, but whose self-awareness of their behavior is so negligible as to require Ångstrom units of measurement. I am, in spite of that, glad for the opportunity of their acquaintance so that I can have identified a type I hope never to encounter again, and should the occasion arise I shall be better prepared.

I suspect that life will go on with me until it goes on without me. [Here I insert an advert for James P. Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games, among the best books I have read and one which I heartily recommend to you.] Know that I am grateful in varying degrees for having met you. If our paths should diverge for some reason, please travel well and safely. But if we should share the journey for a little while yet, your company is appreciated and affords me comfort and satisfaction—outright joy being outside my capability.

UPDATE (2016/10/11): FaceBook has its assets and liabilities. Among the former is the daily reminder to re-post a memory from one, two, or more years ago. “Marathon Dreams” appeared yesterday as a recommendation, but before simply hitting the “share” button I chose to re-read the original (and tweek some of its infelicities of language; I am a shitty writer) and refresh my memory. What the re-read made clear is my dereliction, because another bulleted point should be inserted between the second and third on this list.

Friendships are neither symmetrical nor balanced. But analogizing them to a “joint account” in eternal flux, where deposits are made by one or the other of us and checks are drawn on the balance, reduces friendship to a ledger, a “bottom line.” And the assessment of those numbers reduces me a CPA. Friendship is organic and its imbalances are best treated biologically, like eating when you’re hungry, shivering when you’re cold, or sweating when too warm. I find that there is some shivering in my future for balance to be restored. “Forgiveness” is too strong a word.

Room 96

room 96

Larry Steuben is a public servant. He’s also my brother-in-law twice removed: my sister Catherine married Jim LaFarge, whose sister Joan is Larry’s wife. Got it? Larry works for the city’s department of building inspection; actually Larry is the department of building inspection, and has been for twenty years.

The folks at 114 North Broad Street are remodeling the second floor—former location of Hamish Brookes’s legendary bookstore Shelf Life—and creating an apartment, with a “Millennial” clientele in mind. Even Agincourt has residents who want to be downtown.

With all the new construction north of Highway 7, Larry has ignored older building stock downtown, especially remodel jobs like this one. But this project is so extensive that he thought it would be good to take a look. So he parked in the back to check the fire stairs (riser-run ratios, handrails, etc.) on the way in. The rear facade is pretty utilitarian; tall double-hung windows in a common brick wall, one on either side of the stair. The stair itself is up to code: proper riser-to-run ratio; landing at the midpoint and again at the top. Handrail at the appropriate height and spindles properly spaced. But when he went inside, Steuben noticed something odd: the corridor jogged to the right and only one of the rear windows could be seen. All was not as it should be.

The old lath-and-plaster walls date from the 1890s when #114 was built. Layers of paint and paper showed in places, attesting to not only the age of the structure but also to the evolution of taste in the array of color and pattern displayed, even if only piecemeal.

If you thought phrenology—the 19th century pseudo-science of reading character and intelligence from bumps on the human head—had gone the way of the dodo, think again. Larry’s fingers and feet are sensitive to the slight irregularities in building surfaces; the minor architectural ripples that come from shifting foundations and alterations. He often skates across floors in his stocking feet. The slanting late afternoon light shining down that corridor revealed an undulation: he sensed the presence of a door in the wall on his left. A quick call to the owner authorized him to explore.

The handy Sears Craftsman pull-and-pry bar in his truck made quick work of the was at about eye level. Then, like Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings nearly a century ago, Larry peered through a tidy hole the size of pancakes at Adam’s Restaurant and he saw wondrous things: a small stained glass window about six inches square configured with the number “96.” And again, like Howard Carter, he patched the hole and went for others to share his discovery.

What, do you suppose, lay behind that long-hidden door?

R. H. Ives Gammell [1893-1981]


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

GAMMELL, Robert Hale Ives (1893-1981)

“Study of Design” / “Allegorical Design for a Garden of Proserpine”


oil on paper / 26 inches by 10.5 inches

Northwest Iowa Normal College began auspiciously with the first presidency of Dr Wilhelm A.K.E. Reinhardt, who built a teaching staff and guided the physical plant which would form the core of today’s campus. The theatre/auditorium—now named to honor President Reinhardt—was among the first buildings to be erected, even before Reinhardt’s arrival. Its subsequent decorative scheme, however, appears to have been a special labor for him.

The theatre lobby is populated with a host of staid and stolid characters drawn (as might be expected for a European institution) from Classical mythology. Flanking the three sets of doors into the auditorium itself are four eight-foot-tall vertical panels, each an allusion to Greece and Rome. At the far left is one titled “The Garden of Proserpine,” a minor goddess based on Persephone, Ceres, and other divinities linked to agriculture and abundance. This and the other murals were painted by Boston artist R. H. Ives Gammell, a student at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the École des Beaux Arts and its Académie Julian, and later renowned for his allegorical paintings. A useful comparison can be made with the slightly earlier posters and murals of Glaswegian Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864-1933).


Our study of “Proserpine” was found in a janitor’s closet several years ago and given to the Community Collection.