Nearly simultaneous with the opening of his architectural office in 1912, Anson Tennant began another enterprise which developed in tandem with his practice. And though it was peripheral to his professional life, it also affords us some insight to his creativity. In the spirit of Pierluigi Serraino’s recent book The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study, this enterprise of young Tennant serves a similar purpose.
In 1912, Anson, his mother and three sisters traveled East to spend the summer with their great-aunt Hester at her rented beach house in Mantaloking, New Jersey. [For those not familiar with the Tennant family history, Gaudeamus Tennant, the founder of the feast, had settled in Camden New Jersey, from his home in the British Channel Islands. Of his three boys Pliny, Virgil, and Horace, two went west with manifest destiny and founded the townsite of Agincourt, from whence this story begins. But I digress.] As a High Church Episcopalian, Aunt Hester herded them each Sunday to the nearby summer chapel of St Simon’s-by-the-Sea, where Anson doodled on the back of a program his analysis of the church’s design. Back home, Tennant crafted a set of children’s building blocks based on this analysis. Playing with them one afternoon at Adam’s Restaurant, several friends asked about the blocks and wondered if they might buy sets as Christmas gifts. From such simple seeds an enterprise was born: The Tennant Manufacturing Co.™
Between 1912 and his departure on the RMS Lusitania from New York City’s Pier 54 (on 1 May 1915 at 12:20 p.m; I like to be precise about such things), the Tennant Mfg. Co. (whose sole employee was Anson himself) produced two more designs and an indeterminate number of each. Most were Christmas or birthday gifts, one way or another, but it’s unknown how far afield they may have strayed — ironically, not unlike Anson himself as a piece of the Lusitania‘s human flotsam. First there was a 1914 rendition of the Fennimore county courthouse, which anchored the far end of the civic center until destroyed by fire in 1966, and a year later in 1915 he reinterpreted the house that had become Claire Tennant’s Christmas gift from her brother in 1905.
It’s curious to note something Tennant himself may not have known: that each of these three buildings — the Mantoloking church, the Fennimore county courthouse, and the Christmas dollhouse — were each designed by the same architect, William Halsey Wood. The courthouse cornerstone preserved his name, but the other two buildings were entirely coincidental. And, while I’m not one for New Age cosmic convergence, it’s hard to avoid the prospect that some sort of destiny had brought them all together.