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Alphabet Soup

Stanislaus County Hall of Records, Modesto, CA (1939) by Russell deLappe, architect

Stanislaus County Hall of Records, Modesto, CA (1939) by Russell deLappe, architect

In the early 1970s, shortly after I’d moved to Fargo, I began to wonder what the hell I had done. One reaction might have been a desperate search for work elsewhere. But my old friend Marilla Thurston Missbach claims that I’m one of those who “grow where they’re planted,” so my response turned in a very different direction.

With November temperatures hovering around 0°F, and snow already on the ground, I got far more “winter” than I’d bargained that year. Why have I come here? I wondered. But the follow-up question set me on an unexpected path of discovery: Why would anyone have come here a hundred years before? The first product of asking that question was my Master’s Thesis, “The Emergence of the Architectural Profession on the Northern Great Plains before 1930.” Marilla was right: I started to grow where I’d been planted.

Among the early forays into that topic was realization that S. Marius Houkom, an elderly retired architect, maintained a downtown office and came in each weekday to read his mail (mostly magazines) and enjoy the view he’d had for fifty years, more or less. He must have had an exceptional lease. I arranged a visit to talk about his life in architecture—which will get us, finally, to the point of “alphabet soup.”

Mr Houkom had graduated from the NDAC on the cusp of the Great Depression. He remarked how the curriculum of the 1920s had ill-prepared him for practice in a totally shifted scale of values. His courses in materials and structures, for example, had emphasized efficiency and economy, minimizing both labor and materials in the client’s best interest. Whereas, in the pit of the Depression, with millions jobless and homes in foreclosure, the architecture of alphabet soup—construction under the aegis of the PWA, WPA, CCC and other federal make-work agencies—the criteria for evaluating a good design consisted of how many building trades were employed. Before Black Friday, light steel trusses would have spanned an armory. But foundrymen and steel workers are highly skilled trades and constitute only a small segment of the population. Far better from a PWA perspective to conceive a hybrid system using both wood and metal (multiple trades and, preferably, some of them less technical) and to use fewer machines in the erection process (labor-saving devices in an era when labor was the point). Mr Houkom died in 1980 but somewhere, forty-plus years after the interview, I have the cassette tape of our conversation.

I mention Houkom here because his perspective on the architecture of the 1930s was one that simply hadn’t occurred to me. So, as I design Agincourt’s Medical Arts Building, you may notice Marius sitting on my shoulder.

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