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