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Monthly Archives: October 2016

“The smith, a mighty man is he…”

“…with large and sinewy hands”

Continuing the theme of “Work” in Agincourt, it’s hard to avoid the village blacksmith, especially as rendered for us by Longfellow.

Anton Kraus entered the story circa 1885, establishing his forge on the city’s southwest side and eventually moving it the industrial zone at the west city limits. Kraus Bridge & Iron is still there (at least the original building is) being used as a community arts center. But smiting would have been one of the earliest trades required by a new settlement in the 1850s. Horses had to be shod; tack and harness repaired; yokes mended and doors hinged. Spikes, nails, and brads might still have been hand forged in those transitional years just prior to the Civil War. So the ring of hammer on anvil would have been a common sound in that part of town.

Horsepower was the literal means of transport until well into the 20th century. Equus & Co.’s building still stands on Second Street S.E., a service for those without their own stables. A blacksmith would have been among their staff, his work probably limited to shoeing. But given the prosaic utilitarian nature of smithing, it is remarkable how often these humble establishments were recorded in postcard form. Today alone there were half a dozen on the auction site that shall not be named, examples which I offer as the character of Agincourt’s own yet-to-be-designed facility.

agincourt-blacksmith-3 agincourt-blacksmith-2 agincourt-blacksmith

John Jacob Glessner once asked architect H.H. Richardson, apologetically, to design his home, wondering if the great man would deign to undertake something so modest. Nonsense, Richardson chided, “I’ll design anything a man wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop.” I wonder how he might have turned his keen designer’s eye toward the smithy.

The Tennant Manufacturing Co.

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 Serriano’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 Mantoloking, 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. The first set 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.


Preliminary design for a set of wood blocks based upon the C. S. French house by architect William Halsey Wood


C. S. French residence, Orange, NJ / William Halsey Wood, architect (ca 1890)

It’s curious to note something Tennant himself may not have realized: that each of these three buildings — the Mantoloking church, the Fennimore county courthouse, and the source of 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.


Tonight’s debate, the second between our two presidential candidates, was seen by millions across North America [Canada having as much interest in the election as we do]. Locally, it was streamed to the basement social hall at Asbury United Methodist, hosted by the League of Women Voters in the spirit of political œcumenism. I watched from the shadows, perfectly willing to get the digested version during coffee tomorrow morning at the Bon Ton. Like many viewers, what transpired at Washington University was unlikely to shift my position.

I turned instead to one of the topics that ought to have ranked higher in the questioning: work or the lack of it and what can be done. The political rhetoric that we’ve already heard—pipe dreams and platitudes, largely—made me think of the world of work here in Fennimore county during the last century and a half.


Labels, especially during an election year, are far too convenient. I slap them across a topic far too easily. So, thinking about one of Agincourt’s earliest efforts at industry, I wonder what to call the Syndicate Mills, a coöperative venture among several Archers [the residents of Agincourt quickly came to be called “archers”].

Its water-powered wheels and winches manufactured wagons and ground wheat into flour; planed wood for lumber to build our homes and stores and churches. But its developers were a syndicate of local citizens (hence the name). A history of the Syndicate Mills remains to be written, but chief among its distinguishing characteristics was ownership; a stake in the mills and a voice in their operation was available through financial investment. But it could also be earned through sweat-equity: each hour of labor, each wagonload of masonry and timber ranked with the cash from those who had the resources. What would Karl Marx have said about such an arrangement?

In 19th-century Spain, the Sagrada Familia — Barcelona’s massive church that many mistake for a cathedral — included “expiatory” in its official title, because sin could be expunged, expiated, through voluntary labor on its construction; perhaps that’s why it’s taking so long—Catalunya needs more sin. Writing a check is convenient; but picking up a saw or a chisel, wheeling a barrow, mixing mortar and hoisting it into the vaulting more than a hundred feet above the pavement might be understood as larger, more substantial commitments. That’s the way I’m inclined to see sweat-equity at the Syndicate Mills: a little home-grown communitarianism.

Fifty years later, when Northwest Iowa Traction incorporated in 1909 and scheduled a stock offering, its investors included the usual suspects (Capitalists; many of them resident in the relative affluence of the city’s northeast quad) but there were other smaller investments made by a consortium of teachers in the city schools and another by the coöperative creamery at Grou, which saw the line’s potential to increase their market area.

Sure, hindsight tells us these were sound investments likely to yield a profit. But foresight just as readily might have anticipated risk. And the willingness to accept both the risk or the yield — and to share them — are part of what made America great. How do we do that again?

You might even think of it as “trickle-up economics.”

Liquor and Lust

Fargo-Moorhead (the twin towns where I’ve lived these forty-five years) has a history far more interesting than many of its residents care to acknowledge.

When North Dakota entered the Union in November, 1889, it was admitted as a dry state — no alcohol. Fargo’s two breweries and multiple taverns had to close or relocate; Moorhead was the beneficiary. What Fargo did have, however, was a tolerance for sins of the flesh: prostitution was not only legal, it was a thriving local industry, with a municipally-defined red-light district. Similar conditions existed up and down the Red River of the North. Thirty years ago I did a nifty presentation on this symbiosis — the sinful reciprocity between between our two communities — but lately I’ve fallen from grace and not been on the “chicken salad circuit” for some time.

Within roughly fifty yards of the three bridges that connected the two communities, as many as fifty saloons sprang up in Moorhead following statehood (though some were already there). And close to the First Avenue Bridge, in what is now Fargo’s Civic Center parking lot (soon to become our flood protection), there were two or three houses of ill repute, the most famous of them operated by Madame Melvina Massey. A third component of admirable convenience was the legendary “jag wagon” which picked up revelers at the Moorhead bars and deposited them at Fargo hotels and Madame Melvina’s “boarding house” [its identification in the 1900 U.S. census]. A postcard up for auction tonight reminded me of this colorful local history.

Liquor and Lust


What do you think it says about me, that I can easily imagine a “house of ill repute” in Agincourt but have difficulty conceiving its bars, taverns, and saloons.

“Mrs Miller’s Enterprise” was Agincourt’s euphemism for what may have been its sole sporting house [my grandmother’s term for such places], an institution that came into being quite by accident when Annabelle Miller’s husband died with to inherit. Their shop had been Agincourt’s finest purveyor of tobacco but that was insufficient, until her brother Armand Schert came to the rescue. His solution: remodel the stable behind their shop, which had been a stable, and outfit the upper floor with a modest lounge and four rooms for its new inmates — fillies of different sort. Does this paint me as a misogynist?

O.K., so I’ve designed and populated a whore house. [Madame Melvina’s facility in Fargo helped, because its building permit includes an interior sketch plan and the name of its architect, A. J. O’Shea!] But the city’s bars, taverns, and saloons either don’t interest me or may not be a sufficient challenge. Speak-Easies of the Prohibition Era are another matter.

Aside from my interest in the booze business [it’s low], other questions remain about the differences between the states’ liquor laws. On-sale versus off-sale; hours and days of operation; county option; resistance from the WCTU. I’ve had neither time nor inclination to do the research, except to assume that liquor was present both in the open and underground.

Keller’s Wines & Liquors in Summit, Illinois may not have dispensed their product on site. It grabbed my attention because it stood a little over a mile from the house where I lived from birth until I left for college in 1963. I could very easily have gone to school with the grandchildren of these nine fine gentlemen. Since the usual caption is missing from  this real-photo postcard, it may be unique, so I have no hesitation putting it on Broad Street, adding Mr and Mrs Keller to my cast of characters, and fleshing out its story. I hope you’ll pardon my presumption.


The “Top Ten” Challenge

Years from now (if I haven’t laid down for the “dirt nap”) will someone ask me about this? I have the sense that there is a significant component of architectural education missing from the curriculum at NDSU. Greater detail is likely to get me in a whole lot of hurt.

Earlier this evening I blogged at another site about a study from the 1950s which investigated the creative personality. About fifty architects (from a slightly longer list) were asked to participate in a battery of tests, questionnaires, and design exercises aimed at assessing what set these designers apart from the professional norm. I wondered what we might learn by putting an equal number of historical architects retroactively through that same regimen. Whether that speculation belongs at “Building the Social Gospel” I can’t say; probably not.

I titled the entry “Top Ten” and ended with a challenge to reveal your personal list: Who are the architects, living or otherwise, whose works turn your crank? Whose work would you drop everything to visit, if time and resources were available? I have such a list, though it fluctuates on a regular basis, as does my friend Richard Kenyon’s. We compare them now and then and learn from one another. That’s why we’re friends, I suppose.

Richard and I have known one another for well over fifty years, so you can imagine some duplication between our tabulation of favorites. Mine includes a few icons. Some have endured on the list for years; others are downright obscure. Jože Plečnik, for example, someone I discovered as an undergraduate, is on the list for two reasons: his work is the unlikely amalgam of movements as diverse as Mannerism, Modernism and the Arts & Crafts; and his printed name requires odd diacritical marks. What’s not to like?

I’ve shifted the narrative here because Agincourt has, to an extent, served as a laboratory, a playground, for my obtuse historical interests. And to the extent that Iowa can be linked in some plausible way with architectural obscurity — with names like Lawrence Buck, for example, or with Francis Barry Byrne — many of them are architecturally present in Agincourt and both of those just invoked have been, at one time or another, on my Top Ten.

What I find not only interesting and worthwhile about the work of these designers, but also downright seductive, is basic to my reservations concerning  contemporary architectural education. Fundamentally, I find, where attention should be paid to these ideas, I find a void, a cypher, a gap, a presumption, a missing link, all of the aforementioned, and I haven’t the foggiest notion what to do about it in the time remaining. It will be a regret I take to the grave; an itch that I cannot scratch.


The New Normal (1.2)


Never one to let opportunity pass, a glance at this unidentified postcard instantly connected it with the appearance circa 1909 of one of Agincourt’s noblest institutions, Northwest Iowa Normal, our teacher-training college lobbied from the legislature as compensation for the loss of a county orphanage. That scenario has been fairly well set for some time, so this card immediately clicked with me as an image that fit. Are we seeing the orphanage-become-college and a group that had something to do with its conversion? Perhaps these four ladies and two gentlemen are the delegation that went to Des Moines. Perhaps they’re the first faculty. It’s time to ferret out the curriculum of sister institutions such as North Dakota’s “Normal Schools” in Mayville and Valley City.