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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

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