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.