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The lay of the land


Despite its caption, you and I know this is a view of Crispin Creek just east of the county road bridge. One of these men is Eli Squires [it says so in ink on the card’s reverse] but the other is unidentified. What brings them to the creek on a summer day, when the flow is at its lowest? Just to the right (where the tree has something posted to it), the road meets the southeast corner of Agincourt’s original mile-square townsite — the intersection of S.E. Sixth street and Thoreau Avenue, which fifteen years later became the site of “Walden,” the private hospital established by Reinhold Kölb, younger brother of Edith Wassermann.

I’m left, as always, with questions: 1) why have Eli and his friend come to the creek; 2) how common was this bridge type and when did it come into use; and 3) what do you suppose it says on that poster?

The ultimate question remains: Why does there always seem to be a photographer around when you need one?

Agincourt’s newest resident

Say hello to Florence Dickson.

RPPCs of people sometime go for big bucks on eBay, particularly if they are ethnic (African-American, Native American) or engaged in some sort of activity (work-related, recreational or leisure). Cards of “gay interest” are often advertised that way, though labeling the 19th century tendency for men to be physical with one another may be a projection of our own behavioral prejudices and not representative of what the people then might have thought about a hand on a shoulder.

More often than not, the subjects of these cards are unidentified. So those that are merely portraits are priced to sell. I, of course, see them as potential citizens of Fennimore county or others simply passing through and leaving their mark in one way or another.


In this case, happily, this young woman is identified as Florence Dickson, the date was 1910, and her home was at 514 North 4th Street. On the card’s reverse, her name was penciled in as “Dixon” and then corrected in ink by another hand to “Dickson,” so she must have been known.

I like several things about the card: she is posed, yet casual; the address actually works for the Agincourt townsite by the simple addition of an “N.W.” to put here in the quadrant of the city that most closely would have resembled her front porch. I also find 1910 coiffure especially attractive: big like Texans of the late 20th century, but in Florence’s case, horizontal rather than vertical. It’s wonderful, the way the reflective window glass frames her face; the kind, gentle smile of someone willing to laugh with you, not at you. And who was the photographer? A prospective beau, perhaps.

That address, now modified — 514 Fourth Street N.W. — would have placed her in 1910 across the street from the former orphanage only recently converted to the new Normal School teacher-training college. She might indeed be one of its early faculty, come to train other younger women for careers in public primary education. But it’s summer, classes are over, and Florence has time to relax on the front porch.

Perhaps it’s the front porch of a boarding house where she lives and takes meals with other faculty and students from Northwest Iowa Normal. But whose house? Widows like my grandmother took in boarders before the advent of Social Security [and may once again if Congress has its way]. You can see how this simple real photo postcard opens a minor world of possibilities yet to be explored.

All shapes and sizes…

Turn-of-the-century Neo-Classicism comes in all shapes and sizes, though the range of color tends to be limited to a neutral palette.


The role of “banker” in any community was financially conservative. Since banks tended to be locally owned, it was your money in that vault being lent for projects of community betterment, whether personal or public, so #1) you knew where your money was going and what it was doing, because #2) the president, cashier, and board of directors were your friends and neighbors. Classically-based styles reinforced that image, whether or not it may have been accurate.

These two banks — one in Marvin, South Dakota and the other in Gary, Indiana — represent the extremes of sophistication and naivete when interpreting Neo-Classicism. The Marvin bank is gone but it is still likely that its Corinthian columns were either wood or stucco (what at the time might have been called “staff”), while Gary’s version is solid stone, probably granite, with hollow tile backup for total fire protection. Both used an architectural style derived from ancient Rome to suggest strength, stability and longevity. Yet, despite its granite exterior, the Gary State Bank stood only from 1905 until it was replaced by a much larger building twenty-two years later. One thing is generally true about this style: its proportions were highly predictable, almost formulaic.


The Commonweal

Another evening watching my preferred “talking heads” has made me nostalgic for the simpler America of my youth. In truth, I believe it wasn’t the country that was less complicated, easier to understand; I was the simpler part of the equation.

There is a difference between simple and simplistic. Likewise, I make an important distinction between dumb and stupid. It is the latter in each of these pairings that Mr Trump craves, that his supporters cheer; and that should make us pause and take stock.

In my opinion “dumb” is no bad thing. It’s the bottle opener in your kitchen junk drawer. It’s the ballot question written so a “Yes” vote actually means you approve the issue. In architectural terms — a realm where I feel more confidence — it’s the door knob in the right place, the natural place, and the door swinging in a clear, appropriate and obvious direction; a door that leads you into a lobby with sufficient room to choose a direction without obstructing the movement of others who know the place better than you do. You’d be surprised how often architects choose stupid over dumb. Maybe you wouldn’t.

The prospect of Mr Trump’s America is terrifying because the ignorant are preferable to the unthinking. Ignorance is remediable. Remediable, that is, if we are able to sustain and strengthen our system of public instruction. If you’ve failed to notice, education is an endangered institution, threatened by Flat Earth, Intelligent Design, and Abstinence Only. If, by some miracle of adoption, we become parents, I’ll quit my day job and Home School.

Typically, this is my long way ’round the barn to the topic du jour: schools. I’ve never designed a school, despite having visited more than a few. So it’s time to address the evolution of school design in my favorite Iowa town.

“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” — Sydney J. Harris

Imagine you are a school administrator (principal) or school board member, someone with responsibility for the physical setting for education. Then imagine it’s the second half of the 19th century and you live in a small town in the Midwest with a few carpenter-builders and no resident architect. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 mandates public education as a foundation for citizenship, so what are you to do about creating the community’s earliest public schools.

The need for competent teachers was addressed early in American history through creation of “Normal Schools” specifically to train grade school teachers. The Iowa State Normal School (now the University of Northern Iowa) at Cedar Falls was founded in 1876 for just that person. During Agincourt’s first first twenty years, finding good teachers was hit or miss. But making buildings to house the process was an even more risky proposition.

Lacking any guidance from the State Board of Education or the county Superintendent of Public Instruction, local communities were left to their own devices. The architectural profession was in its earliest stage of development and most had little experience with schools as a relatively new building type. So Agincourt’s first school buildings may have been barn-like affairs with a pot-bellied stove and no indoor plumbing. Fortunately, The American School Board Journal began publication in 1891, providing a wide range of information necessary for the operation of a modern educational system. It presented models for a wide range of size and budget, and architects were quick to advertise their services and generate a virtual mail order business for generic plans and specifications.


Among the more successful specialists were F. S. Allen of Joliet, Illinois, and William B. Ittner from St Louis. Both advertised in the SBJ and the breadth of their practice is attested by postcard images of schools from Indiana to Nebraska. Though his name doesn’t appear on the card, F. S. Allen’s advertisements  used an image very much like this design for a school in Waukegan; the bulging bay windows were a trademark element.


Like many architects of his time, Allen could “vary the monotony” with a dormer, an entry vestibule, any one of a number of elements to suit local taste and budget. He is the same building (more or less) in Galva, Illinois.


Agincourt’s four quadrants are an opportunity to illustrate the evolution of public school design from 1850 to the mid-century modernism after WWII. Not to mention that working on these will take my mind off the election campaign that will not die! and restore a little sanity.