[From the Community Collection, a public gallery for art in Agincourt, Iowa]
VAUBAN, Marie-Louise-Clotilde (1881-1944)
Près du Canal du Midi
oil on canvas panel / 8 inches by 10 inches
The southern French city of Pau, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, was popular with both British and American tourists during the 19th century. Mary Todd Lincoln lived there for a few years in the late 1870s. Vauban, a native of Pau and self-taught Impressionist, never permitted her work to be exhibited. “Près du Canal du Midi” was acquired from her estate sale by tourists passing through Pau on the way to Bordeaux and passage home. It was an anonymous gift to the collection.
You may be surprised to learn that Adolf Loos — friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schönberg, and Peter Altenberg and himself a key figure in the Viennese Secession — lived in the United States for three years from 1893 t0 1896. He was twenty-three years old on arrival. Most of Loos’s time here was spent with relative in Philadelphia, but there was also a trip to the Midwest: to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and to St Louis. Legend says he worked as a waiter.
One summer evening in 2000, Milton Yergens, Richard Kenyon and I enjoyed drinks in Loos’s “American Bar” in a lane off the Kärtner Straße; a sublime blend of context and company that I recall with relish. It’s difficult to imagine the American with more than a dozen patrons in twos and threes, standing at the bar or huddled on green leather bankettes around hexagonal bottom-lit tables.
The bar’s intimate scale is belied by a clever illusion which mirrors the coffered onyx ceiling —yes, I said onyx — reflected to infinity above wainscoted walls. I look forward to a manhattan there in early June. In the meantime, the architect’s sojourn in the United States and the prospect of his tour through the Midwest is too tempting to ignore. After all, Austrians Karl and Edith Wassermann operated a hardware store on North Broad Street; perhaps they hosted their fellow countryman for a few months in 1894.
Ornament and Crime
Loos was the same age as Josef Hoffmann and just three years junior to Josef Olbrich, yet he still seems to me on the fringe of the Viennese Secession, like the amicus curiae who supports the law suit without actually being named in it. Loos has always been in my Top Twenty, however, with other “also rans” of architectural history like Nicholas Hawksmoor, Alexander Thomson, Jože Plečnik, Burnham Hoyt, and other names you’ve heard.
Loos played a large part in my millennial “pilgrimage” of 2000: exquisite shop fronts in Am Graben, houses for clients named Rufer, Shue, Müller and Moller (that I can never keep straight), and of course the legendary American Bar. [The Shues, by the way, had a daughter Lisl who became an architect in Minneapolis and co-founder of Close Architects.] Indeed, Loos may have more in common with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose early work was dominated by interior design rather than freestanding buildings, all of which shapes my thinking about Loos in Agincourt.
Leaning against the baseboard in our bathroom is a copy of Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden, a compendium of every transit system currently in operation. It’s one- or two-page treatments provide a summary of each system’s history and a graphic feast for the eye of their graphics. Just ask Masimo Vignelli about the political pitfalls in simplifying a complex network for pubic consumption. For me, a page or two is just right when nature calls.
Agincourt’s system would never have made the cut, having disappeared long ago—probably as scrap metal recycled for World War Two. For that history you’ll need to consult Hilton & Due’s The electric Interurban Railways in America, happily back in print. Mine is a heavily-used hardback first edition.
Messrs Hilton and Due set a fairly imitable style; their “entry” for the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. is somewhere in the Agincourt Project’s files. I’m writing from memory, however, so some of the dates me be transposed.
My feelings about the 2015 exhibition are mixed, but its deficiencies are mine alone. One component I’d hoped to flesh out was this story of a typical interurban-trolley system in northwestern Iowa. If I’d had my wits about me (and a lot more cash) you’d have understood a great deal more about an important era in the history of America’s infrastructure — prejudiced by my experience with Marge on Chicago’s last streetcars and a ride on the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee system during its last week of operation. The years have only heightened my nostalgia for one of America’s greatest losses.
The NITC system was conceived about 1908 and more formally organized with the issuance of stock in the Spring of 1909. Like many overly optimistic enterprises, the NITC attempted too much. Central Iowa’s interurbans radiated from Des Moines, one of them reaching Fort Dodge, to serve the military base there. So it was logical that Fennimore county’s investors would have linked there, extended its right-of-way northwesterly through Pocahontas to Agincourt on its way toward the Missouri — perhaps to Sioux City or Council Bluffs.
The symbiosis between interurbans and trolleys (i.e., systems that connect cities and those that serve only within them) meant that the creation of one would often generate the other; the investment in a power source was that substantial. In Agincourt’s case the larger begat the smaller and each evolved to expand and enhance its services. It was natural, for example, that the resort community forming along the shores of Sturm & Drang deserved a seasonal branch. Other seasonal services brought visitors to the Fennimore County Fairgrounds and other more somber events at cemeteries on the east side of town. Satellite villages like Burbank and Fahnstock may have profited from their connection with Agincourt, though I suppose that might have been a double-edged sword as access to Agincourt shops took business from smaller “Main Street” merchants.
Material culture (a snooty was of saying collectibles) would have left a trail of detritus: transit maps; tickets and tokens; posters and other advertising to increase ridership; a bunch of photoshopped images showing the system in operation.
None of this happened, I’m sorry to report. Perhaps I’ll live long enough to fix that.
One component did materialize: the NITC transit terminal and interface with the city’s lopsided figure-8 route from the city trolley. Imagining architecture seems to be my skill (though execution of a model was a sad exercise in communication and a financial failure). I learned a lot and hoped visitors to the exhibit didn’t notice.
Further development of the larger NITC story and creation of at least a few of those “collectible” pieces of history lie ahead. Need I say that advice is always appreciated, though your assistance will have to be rewarded in the afterlife.