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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Taking Agincourt on the road…


An inquiry last week might take the Agincourt Project “on the road,” fruit borne of a conversation a couple years ago with one of our graduates working in Des Moines; he thought the project needed a larger audience—of actual Iowans. I heartily agreed but circumstances here at home occupied my attention, negotiating a venue for the second exhibit. Last Friday, however, a phone call brought the roadshow possibility back to life.

Meanwhile, however, I’m packing for the “First Interdisciplinary Historical Fictions Research Network Conference” at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, the result of a long-shot proposal made about six months ago. Was it cosmic approval when an email accepting my paper arrived on October 25th last year—the actual 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt? I took it as such and one more element in my embarrassment of riches!

After ten years of rambling on a great length about the origins of the project; of the accumulating detail of its characters and their world, how do I cram all of that in a twenty-minute presentation? The churning in my gut tells me the game is afoot.

As this blog entry evolves, I intend to write a more formal version of what is more likely to be an off-the-cuff oral presentation at Cambridge. It will go something like this:

The Agincourt Project began as the unintended consequence of an offhand observation.

In the summer of 2006, I was watching reruns of CSI and thought (during a commercial break) of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Not the Sullivan of pre-1900 skyscrapers; rather the post-1900 Louis of small banks in even smaller communities. These “jewel boxes” have been viewed variously, but especially as the alcohol-induced imaginings of a designer in decline. What occurred to me that evening was their coincidence with the wave of public libraries funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie and the Sullivan’s clients were precisely the sort of community leaders likely to be on a library building committee. Two questions arose in my mind: 1) why had Sullivan never received a Carnegie-era commission? and 2) what would it look like if he had? The Agincourt Project has been a search for those answers.

By the end of the second commercial I had chosen to design a Carnegie-era public library in the style of Louis Sullivan and that it should be in Iowa, a state which has five of his buildings. Rather than choose a specific town, however, I also decided to create a typical mid-19th century railroad townsite and use this exercise to understand the dynamics of community formation and architectural design a century ago. Agincourt seemed as good a name as any. So I checked the gazetteer of Iowa place names—just in case—and found “Agincourt” untaken; a prophetic choice, it turned out, for the evolution of the project.

Foreign place names are habitually mispronounced in the U.S.: Lima, in Ohio, for example has a long “i”; emphasis is placed on the third syllable in Montevideo, MN; Peru, IL, has both a long “e” and emphasis on the first syllable. Just imagine what we could do to Agincourt.

Its status as a county seat would guarantee steady economic growth and generate traffic to record deeds, pay property taxes, file a marriage license, or attend court proceedings. Iowa already had ninety-nine counties, however, so I had to find an opportunity for another to be formed—like the opening of the Sac and Fox lands through a new treaty of 1850. That would set the project in the northwest corner of the state and place it in the web of existing rivers and emerging railroad lines. In hindsight, I can’t recall the exact sequence of choices I made, but formation in the early 1850s afforded some target “celebrations” such as a sesquicentennial that might occur in 2007. The contrivance of all this does have a basis in fact, however.

Playing by the rules…and with them (1.1)

Very early in the history of this blog (late in 2010) I wrote about playing by the rules—and sometimes playing with them. At any point in Agincourt’s history, a set of rules or guidelines would have been in effect. That is, there would have been a generally accepted range of responses to problems/opportunities as they arose in building the city. Think of them as subliminal defaults or what we used to call “conventional wisdom” when there still was some.

I happened on several postcards today that reminded me of the ubiquitous Jeffersonian grid that permeates Trans-Appalachian America, not for their typicality, but rather for their exceptional urban qualities. Consider these street scenes in Winfield, Kansas.


The cohesiveness of the block front is remarkable; certainly unlike anything in Fargo-Moorhead. The style, materiality and scale are consistent from end to end. The view here is looking west o Ninth Avenue from Fuller Street; the photographer is standing in a public square that still faces the courthouse. Sad to say, all that remains is a truncated version of the City Hall at the near corner; all else is a parking lot.

Other postcard images of Winfield suggest a consistency throughout the town: the Richardsonian style interpreted in limestone. And a little sleuthing link this group as well as the opera house with Will Caton, a dealer in stone whose talents may account for their uniformity, though I’m just as certain that architects were involved.


But whether uniform or varied in materials, style, floor heights or rhythms of bay spacing—though the equally ubiquitous 25-foot commercial storefront is ever present—one thing can be observed from the difference between city hall and opera house: the civic function of the former (city office, council chamber, fire house) permit a variety of pedestrian-friendly openings on both street façades, while the commercial nature of the opera house’s ground floor favors one street over the other. Large display windows attract the customer and then relatively windowless walls accommodate shelves and cases of merchandise.

The blocks of most 19th century American cities and towns (generally 300 feet square) are uniform to the point of boredom but made lively by the grain or texture of their subdivision into separate parcels for individual development. This map of Winfield illustrates the city’s distinctive grain in its commercial core and the less aggressive pattern in residential areas. The effect on street life is immediate and measurable. Signage, storefronts and display encourage pedestrian strolling on “avenues,” while nearly windowless façades on “streets” afford no reason to pause and ponder.


The CityScapes development on first Avenue North in Fargo may be a case in point, as is the Riverside complex in Moorhead at the intersection of Main Avenue and Fourth Street. CityScapes’ ground floor commercial space was slow to rent; nearly half remains vacant. And while that vacancy might be attributable to an overly optimistic rental structure, I suspect that its northerly orientation is a significant factor: north-facing façades in our latitude are in eternal shadow and particularly grim in winter months. I suspect a long range historical study of retail occupancy in the Fargo CBD would prove that south and east-facing storefronts rent sooner and that their tenants stay longer than those in shops oriented west or north.

The former Metro Drug at Broadway and Second Avenue North has large display windows on the Broadway side, while the few original openings on Second Avenue have been filled with brick, which was fine when U.S. Bank Plaza was similarly occupied. But development proposals for that adjacent block will retain its valuable open space and offer the Metro building a chance to open itself to useful views of our new-found pedestrian life that extends well beyond 5:00 p.m. A tenant purveying something other than “stuff” is likely to open those old windows and in doing so change the very nature of Second Avenue.

These are simple ideas which may be unimportant in the larger scheme of things, but I have kept them in mind when designing Agincourt. The city’s grid may be neutral, while its grain is anything but.

winfield panorama.jpg

“The Villa”


I’m not a “lake person.”

Several years ago I was half owner of a nice undeveloped lot, but we bought when the market was high and had to sell when it tanked. Lost our shirts or took it in the shorts or some other allusion to clothing. For at least a couple summers, though, we dutifully drove out to Audubon, turned right a couple times, parked the car and hacked through the brush to find the shore. Nothing was ever built; not even a fire.

The cabin was easy to imagine: something Sarah-Susanka-small, long before she wrote the books on not-so-bigness. Our intention would have been anything other than lake homes we’ve seen. The sort that reproduced everything they’d tried to get away from in town: a duplicate of every tool, appliance, and amenity left behind in Fargo-Moorhead. As a joke among ourselves, we’d invented a generic “Lake Stainless,” having once heard someone scouring Dayton’s for the perfect cutlery. I could name names.

My vision of lake life for Agincourt’s citizens is a pre-WWI world of intermittent electricity and erratic plumbing. The sort of place where using the toilet required pumping a bucket of water before getting down to business: you were your own flush tank. A place where you read by the light of a bare 25-watt bulb dangling on a naked cord and listening to the radio entailed half an our on a stationary bike attached to a battery.

This postcard of early 20th century resort life says it all. And I’m sure its story will be told in due course.


While I lived at home in Bedford Park, dad was mostly unmarried. So from age eight when Marge packed a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash until age eighteen when I graduated from high school, Roy and I ate out fairly often — local restaurants and fast food from Clearing to Justice. But eateries offer so much more than food and beverage.

Those who know the southwest suburbs of Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s, the inner ones along Archer Road when it was Route #4A, will know that its heavy industries attracted large numbers of immigrants, many from Central Europe (Poles, Bohemians, Germans) and an equal number of Southern Blacks who’d come north during the 1920s and ’30s seeking an hourly wage. My grandfather (also a Roy) had done pretty much the same thing, taking a position at the Argo Plant of the Corn Products Co. and purchasing a modest home for his new family in the “company town” of Bedford Park: 7727 West 65th Place, the only house I’ve ever known as “home.” Our phone number (a two-party line) was 262-J and placing a call involved speaking with an operator who would connect you. About the time I became a teenager, we got dial service — the kind where you stuck your finger in a dial and spun it like a roulette wheel Our number got an “exchange”and several more digits because the human brain is apparently incapable of remembering seven numbers; ours was GLobe 8-3035.

The rhythm of life in Bedford Park and its neighboring ‘burbs was simpler. I walked three blocks to the W. W. Walker School for first and second grade, then was bussed to Walsh School for third through sixth. Otis P. Graves Junior High covered seventh and eighth, and Argo Community High School completed my public education. I walked there because our house was too close for bus service, and was often late. After school I pumped gas at dad’s service station, greased cars, and patched both automobile and truck tires. Five o’clock was suppertime, which I ate with Clara my widowed grandmother, then took a gift-wrapped meal to dad, and covered the pumps while he ate.  My internal clock still answers to that schedule.

I read and did homework at the station, which was a teen hangout, and listened to WFMT, “Chicago’s fine arts station” with announcers like Marty Robinson and Norm Pellegrini. Those “music teachers” were my personal introduction to Serge Prokofiev, Charles Ives, Bill Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and so many other composers that are with me to this day. I also consumed enough second hand cigarette smoke to kill a coal miner; tehre was no need to smoke because others did it for me. Dad worked a seven-day week, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., until I was old enough to give him Sundays off.  What he did with that time away I have no idea; let’s hope he used it well.

Some evenings we’d get in the car and drive to the Taxi Dance where Roberts Road forked off Archer, a former trolley barn adapted as a bar and dance hall; where the second floor offered services of questionable moral value. While Roy socialized, I sat on the laps of large-breasted ladies in sequined gowns who fed me french fries and Seven-Up and called me “Whitey” because I was toe-headed and very fair. Do you think Child Protective Services would have placed me in foster care if they’d known?

Now and then we’d go to a drive-in farther out on Archer Road in Justice or to another restaurant just across the Chicago city line at 63rd and Harlem. On special occasions we drove over to a steak house in Lyons; my graduations and other rites of passage were celebrated there. Downtown I’d choose Miller’s Pub on Wabash or The Berghoff on Adams between State and Dearborn. The theme here seems to be rare meat, over-cooked vegetables, cherry or apple pie and lots of milk. Encounters with more exotic fare had to wait for college.


I think often about Agincourt’s rhythms and routines. Given that there were the Bon Ton Cafe, Adams’ Restaurant and the dining room at the Blenheim Hotel (among other eateries I have neither named nor invented), how did the locals choose a place for lunch? Or for Sunday dinner after church? What system of grading or triage separated folk into social groups for the consumption of food? Was it habit or happenstance? This postcard image of the Ward & LaRose Buffet, 55 West Monroe, in Chicago brings all this back to mind. And I’m happier for the recollection.

[This is entry #780.]


  1. (especially of a person’s manner or actions) insisting on immediate attention or obedience, especially in a brusquely imperious way.
  2. not open to appeal or challenge; final.

In Cardston, Alberta, fewer than twenty miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border, the LDS church built its first temple outside the United States. For those not familiar with LDS (a.k.a. Mormon) practice, the church is possibly more centripetal even than the church in Rome and the First Presidency may wield more power than the popes, trickling downward through an hierarchy of bishops, stake presidents and ultimately to its lay membership. A “ward” is the equivalent of a parish; a “stake” is the counterpart to a diocese — more or less. Temples, however, are not at all like cathedrals.

LDS temples are reserved for “temple ordinances” and are not open to the general non-Mormon public, except for a few days prior to their dedication. From that point forward, only Mormons in good standing, members with a “temple recommend” from their stake president, are able to enter. What you might well ask goes on within those very sacred walls?

Ordinances include a number of things well outside the experience of non-LDS. Sealing of marriages for “time and eternity” are among them. As is the ordinance of baptism for the dead: extending the benefits of LDS salvation for those who died prior to establishment of the new dispensation.


Pope & Burton

Hyrum Pope and Harold Burton established their architectural practice in Salt Lake City about 1910 and almost immediately won competitions for two significant commissions: the LDS temples in both Alberta and Hawai’i. For a kid like me from Chicago, these two buildings have special interest, since they each exemplify the best characteristics of the Prairie Style associated with Frank Lloyd Wright and a host of other overlooked Midwest Progressive architects from the years before World War I. Since each of these buildings was built (and therefore dedicated) before my time, I’ve often sought interior photographs of spaces I am unlikely ever to see. You can see hints of Prairie School detailing in the column caps behind the magnificent baptismal font in the photo above.

Since the nature of temple ordinances are largely unknown to outsiders — secrets having the power that they do over the uninitiated — I’ve read a bit about baptism of the dead. [Why else do you imagine the Mormons have a corner on the genealogy market?] Howard seems more than a little miffed about the prospect of posthumous baptism, witness a recent letter to his sister Catherine in Vermont:

Dear Cat —

Rowan and I are dealing with mortality this week. I thought you’d be curious—and amused.

We had an appointment with Milt Subotnik (Jack’s attorney whom you met at Thanksgiving) and seem to have it under control. The complications of a living trust aren’t worth the extra cost, so this will be a straightforward affair: You, Jim, and the kids are in line for a modest amount, just ahead of all our favorite charities, like animal welfare and others you’d approve. There isn’t much to begin with, anyway, so don’t plan a cruise or a new wing on the house.

We’d just returned from Milt’s office when two freshly squoze Mormon missionaries rang the bell, eager to share their faith.  We’ve been around this block more than once, so I satisfied my curiosity about one of their more unusual beliefs: baptizing the dead.

There was a news item a few years ago about LDS enthusiasm for retroactive baptism. I’d always thought their preoccupation with genealogy meant their ancestors were the only targets. But it seems anyone is fair game and the more prominent, the better. Apparently George Washington is now a Mormon and possibly Jefferson (who’d be offended) and Ben Franklin (who’d be amused). They went too far, though, when Hitler got his key to the Telestial Kingdom. Holocaust victims—like Anne Franck—were the last straw. So the church entered some sort of agreement with Jewish organizations that this obnoxious practice would stop. Rowan and I processed this after the boys had gone but I still can’t put my finger on what’s so offensive.

When I’m gone, I’m gone. That’s all there is to it. My eyes will close; consciousness will fade and a.s.a.p. it’s off to the ovens. Rowan will put my ashes to some high purpose. Why am I angry that some stranger’s sleight of hand will Mormonize me? I will be long past caring. It will do me no harm, because there won’t be any “me.” But philosophically there is something invasively grotesque, like retroactive rape. It’s unlikely anyone outside our family will research my life. But the thought they could believe I’d chosen LDS salvation (or any other for that matter) is obscene. There’s just one solution: INJUNCTION!

Before he completes our wills, Milt is going to file an injunction at the Salt Lake County courthouse in Utah enjoining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from invoking my name in any religious ritual intended to “save” me. With that in place, I’ll sleep more safely until, as Milt Subotnik says, “I lay down for the ‘dirt nap.'”

My best to Jim and the kids. We’ll see you in late May when the school year is over.