Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2017

Yearly Archives: 2017

Yoshijiro Urushibara [1888–1953]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

URUSHIBARA, Yoshijiro [1888–1953]

“In the Docks” (from Ten Woodcuts)


woodblock print / 8 inches by 10 inches

Urushibara is credited with introducing Japanese style woodblock printing to Western, primarily European, artists. He worked closely with Belgian artist Frank Brangwyn, rendering Brangwyn’s designs as woodblock prints. In 1924, British publisher John Lane produced a slim volume of ten prints by Urushibara of Brangwyn subjects. “In the Docks” is one of those, perhaps the darkest and most dramatic, and also, perhaps, the subject most removed from ukiyo-e style.

Ten Woodcuts was acquired from the estate of Ted (Tadao) Ito to show his gratitude for the community’s hospitality during World War II.

The C. S. French House Blox

During the next two weeks, I’m going into production on nine sets of William Halsey Wood Blox based on his design for the Chauncey French house in Orange, NJ. It is one of three Agincourt-related designs by Wood that will be (already have been) fabricated. You may recall the French house as one of my all-time favorite residential designs—by WHW or anyone else, for that matter.

C. S. French residence, Orange, NJ / William Halsey Wood, architect (ca 1886)

Chauncey French’s home was the model for Claire Tennant’s dollhouse, built in 1905 for the Christmas she might not have survived. [Happily, she did and lived long enough for Peter Vandervort to build her wedding dress in 1920.] The dollhouse was built without knowing the interior layout of the house itself; actual plans weren’t found until years after the fact. So we relied on a basic cube, with gabled roof and engaged cylindrical dining room. It was that scheme which became the basis for the second set of WHW blox by the Tennant Manufacturing Co.

The challenge, as you might imagine, is threefold: #1) abstract the house design in the spirit of Friedrich Fröbel; #2) do it in such a way that precisely the proper number of blocks will fit into a storage box, with none left over and no voids; and #3) present the user with the fun of building the house and getting all the blocks back into the box. That’s what these little square plans are all about.

The nine sets will be identified by the nine letters of A⋅G⋅I⋅N⋅C⋅O⋅U⋅R⋅T and one will be auctioned to raise money for a scholarship fund. I hope some of you will get into the auction spirit and bid.


The Fennimore Co. Court House #3

“The most difficult thing for a Communist historian is to predict the past.”

Don’t ask me where I saw that quote but it applies directly to the Agincourt experience.

In the case of the community’s role as county seat, there have been three courthouses, but I can afford myself the luxury of knowing what #2 looked like without have more than a general notion of #1. So I could design an 1889 Richardsonian Romanesque building (in the style of William Halsey Wood, who never, to my knowledge, designed a public building, so I was pretty safe in that undertaking). I suspected that the previous building, dating from the 1860s, would have been an Italianate affair, with high ceilings, a nearly flat roof and heavily bracketed cornices. I just never got around to imagining it: something like this, only in wood. If anyone would like to try their hand at it, let me know.

Delaware Co. Courthouse (1868), Delaware, OH / R. N. Jones, architect

My Richardsonian affair was loads of fun and, in my not-so-humble estimation, turned out pretty good.

Second Fennimore Co. Courthouse (1888-1889) in the style of William Halsey Wood

Some months before the 2007 exhibit, Gordon Olschlager was passing through town and I had the opportunity to have dinner with him. He asked what I was up to these days — a foolish question, I know — so I told him about Agincourt and he immediately asked if we needed a courthouse. I said “Sure!” but that he’d have to decide when the 1889 building was struck by lightening and be ready for replacement. Some weeks later, a small crate arrived with this model inside: the third courthouse, circa 1967, in spectacular Mid-Century Modern style. Gordon’t story was even more exciting than the building itself, if that’s possible, but I’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, enjoy these photographs of the complex he conceived, which included county offices (recorder of deed, county assessor, etc.) and a separate court facility.

Third Fennimore Co. Courthouse (1967) / looking west from The Square

Third Fennimore co. Courthouse (1967) / looking east from the split in Agincourt Avenue

Third Fennimore Co. Courthouse (1967) / aerial view from the southeast

Third Fennimore Co. Courthouse (1967) / ground view from the southeast

You’d think by now I could be consistent in spelling “court house” or “courthouse”.


Notes Toward a Baptismal Font

The Episcopal church of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter was an opportunity to explore a favored period of architecture, the Gothic Revival of the mid-19th century. Richard Upjohn’s work has impressed me since I was an undergraduate, which may seem odd for someone who came to architectural awareness in the last gasps of Modernism. It was, I believe, the honesty of structure and construction that drew me to it (and the perceived opposite of those qualities that had repulsed me from the Baroque). Since Agincourt had been founded in the mid-1850s, it seemed to me that something Upjohn-esque was bound to have shown up there, perhaps inspired by the prototype illustrated in Upjohn’s Rural Architecture, a pattern book he published in 1852.

In addition to designs for small houses, Upjohn’s book included a suggestion for a small Episcopal church in wood frame with vertical board-and-batten siding, that exemplified his understanding of ecclesiologically correct style for the American frontier.

“Design for an Episcopal Church” / Richard Upjohn, architect

The extent of his influence, either directly or through the pages of this book can be seen across the country, from Delafield, Wisconsin (a documented Upjohn commission from 1853) to others only indirectly related, such as Saint Luke’s in Cahaba, Alabama (1854, by an unknown hand) and as late as late as 1917 in Kirksville, Missouri.

Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church (1854), Cahaba, AL / architect-builder unknown

Trinity Episcopal Church (1917), Kirksville, MO / Irwin Dunbar, architect

“The most difficult thing for a Communist historian is predicting the past.”

One of the curiosities of the Agincourt Project is that the third phase of a building’s history can be imagined without benefit of the previous two. So I could imagine the appearance of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter circa 1914, when the Tennant family were members of the parish, without actually having set the previous stages of its development—which is precisely the liberty I allowed myself one afternoon in 2006. I drew its design as the third phase of Episcopal worship space in the community: Phase One would have been the simple Upjohn-inspired church similar to the image in Rural Architecture; Phase Two was an 1870s replacement design, perhaps by Henry Dudley [1813-1894], ten years younger than Upjohn and “available” for a commission in Iowa; Phase Three would have been the 1898 enlargement of the Dudley design (the addition of a narthex-baptistry and enlarged chancel), probably by some regional architect like Proudfoot & Bird in Des Moines, who had done an Episcopal church in Harlan, Iowa, that interested me very much. So the image of St Joe at the outbreak of WWI would have looked something like this:

St Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal Church as it appeared circa 1914

Interiors of two Gothic Revival churches of the mid- to late-19th century in New Zealand / Upjohn was part of a larger worldwide Gothic Revival phenomenon

The “original” 1855-ish church had become the Parish Hall at the upper right, and P&B’s narthex-baptistry is at the liturgical west end. As is often typical in U.S. Episcopal churches, the entry is off-axis, coming through a vestibule on the south, which is here also extended to the north as the link with a new rectory and “cloister”. I planned the rectory but haven’t yet drawn its elevations. A Phase Four was conceived as the addition of a chapel (dedicated to St Crispin) that would also serve as a crypt for members of the extended Tennant family, both as benefactors of the parish and as another opportunity for Anson Tennant, my architect-avatar, to have designed one more building before his disappearance on the RMS Lusitania in the spring of 1915. I painted a fragment of the building Anson would have known for the 2007 exhibit.

Partial south elevation of St Joseph-the-Carpenter, Agincourt, IA / painted by RHLM Ramsay / oil on wood panel, 12″ by 12″

The history of the parish is only partly written. But it includes references to some favorite characters of mine—Rev B. F. Cooley, for example, a High Church priest who had actually served in Fargo, ND during the 1880s and might easily have made a pit stop in Iowa on his return to the East—and a couple of invented priests: Fr Stephen Grimaldi, OHC, and Fr Chilton Fanning Dowd, rector during the 1920s and 1930s. My gravitation toward ecclesiologically-correct churchmen must be pretty obvious by now. But what does all this have to do with a baptismal font? you may well ask.

Elbert Hubbard, “Roycroft” and the Arts & Crafts Movement

Ever vigilant to expand the range of the project’s material culture, the baptismal font at St Joe’s was a likely target. I was hardly in a position to acquire an actual Arts & Crafts font, however; something in the style of The Roycrofters, popular during the period 1910-1914. Examples such as the “Trillium” pattern that come up for bids on the internet auction site that dare not speak its name are far too rich for my pocket book, often selling for $1,000-plus. And it seemed to me that the parish at that time would have been similarly strapped for cash. So I was content for the baptismal font to have been a simple green enameled wash basin—an object as honest in its purpose as an Upjohn church would have been—until a suitable replacement could be found and/or afforded.

“Trillium” basin, The Roycrofters, ca1910

I searched, honestly I did, for a coppersmith whose work was akin to the A&C. But that search was in vain. There was one fellow, a graduate of the School of American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology [how’s that for a contradiction in terms?], but he was unresponsive to emailed inquiries. Too bad for each of us, though I don’t know why I expect everyone to be as enthusiastic about the enterprise as I am. At any rate, I saw in my mind’s eye a broad-rimmed copper basin with an edge rich with the texture of leaves and salamanders as might be found surrounding a forest pool, a natural setting for baptism in the spirit of “living waters.” But I guess it was not to be.

Then the project took a turn for wood as the material of choice [no pun intended].

Robert Thompson, the Mouseman

On two of my trips to the U.K.—one with my friend Marilla Thurston Missbach and the other, a later trip with Richard Kenyon—each involved a visit to the Church of St Andrew, Roker Park, with its spectacular overlook of the North Sea on England’s eastern coast. St Andrew’s is often called the “Cathedral of the Arts & Crafts” because of the completeness of its design in the spirit of that movement. Not only the church by architect E. S. Prior, but also its incorporation of work by William Morris & Co., and other A&C designer-craftsmen, including wood work by Robert Thompson, a.k.a., “the mouseman.”

St Andrew’s, Roker Park, Sunderland, UK / E. S. Prior, architect (1902)

Turn 180° from this view toward the chancel and you will find a baptismal font whose wooden lid by Robert Thompson has carved into its surface a tiny church mouse. So connected with that motif is his work, that Thompson was known as the Mouseman and the company that carries his name today continues that tradition.

Carved wooden table top with a mouse on its edge / Robert Thompson, the Mousemen

Breakfast Set by the Saturday Evening Girls / circa 1913-1917

Surely I could identify a craftsperson in wood who could see the baptismal basin I still have in my mind’s eye. But that, too, has proven a false hope. Then an opening at our local museum included the work of two potters I have known for many years: exquisite pieces linked to the Arts & Crafts imagery of my fondest desire. The newest pieces by potters Carrin Rosetti and Richard Gruchalla of Duluth evoke ceramics from a century ago: references to Rookwood, Newcomb, and the Saturday Evening Girls. Suffice to say, Agincourt’s need for a baptismal font has been satisfied in spectacular style. And the design of St Joseph-the-Carpenter in Agincourt carried one more step toward fulfillment.

Carrin and Richard took my few words of guidance — so who am I to be directing artists what to do or how to go about it? — and produced this piece on the eve of the exhibit. It was precisely what was hoped for.

<insert image here>

Let it not be said I have a short attention span.



Isaiah 40:4

Eleven years of hindsight have only highlighted my fascination with squares. Agincourt’s original townsite, patterned after Philadelphia and several intermediate town plans, is comprised of one hundred forty-eight blocks. Of those, 96% are rectangles and a whopping 73% are square. Look at my own design predilections, prejudices, and defaults and you will find the infection of squares has risen to pandemic levels. Quinine is unlikely to help.

My study of Thomas Holme’s 1687 plan for Philadelphia several years ago was premised on the dynamic discrepancy between the ideal and the real; on what would happen to the abstraction of a Cartesian grid wafting earthward, draping itself abroad a nearly virgin landscape, and accommodating in varying degrees the lay of that land. Such accommodation was the stuff of a forty-page research paper which pleased both me and Cathy Matson, the seminar instructor who guided my thinking. And like so many things academic (or pretending to be, in my case), it was titled “‘The crooked straight and the rough places plain’: Implementing William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia” — or something even more cumbersome. [Ask me about the reaction of one other student in the seminar to my rather unfettered, free-wheeling style: he was not a fan.] So, imagine my chagrin while shopping for images on-line and finding a distant cousin of New York City’s renowned Flatiron Building.

Flatiron Building, NYC / D. H. Burnham, architect (1902) / photography by Alfred Steiglitz

Baltic, Connecticut* boasts its own iteration of the flatiron idea (four years before Mr Burnham), The Roderick Block, a two-story mixed-use wedge occupying a triangular plot. Google.maps confirms its pesky persistence, which makes me exceptionally happy.

Roderick Block (1898), Baltic, CT / at the intersection of Main and High Streets

I’m trying to imagine Steiglitz’s image if his train had been delayed at Baltic on a foggy winter’s night.

But the loss I feel right now derives from the nearly total lack of topographic variety in Agincourt, and what might have been if only there’d been such a fork in the road.

* Baltic straddles the Shetucket river, which sounds more like an accusation than body of water.

Rationale…as if I needed one

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.”
― Richard Feynman

Take sustenance where and when you can. Mine came this afternoon during a phone call from a good friend, of the sort who know you all too well and yet remain your friend despite that. You know what I mean: The scales of give and take always seem imbalanced in your favor; how can you receive so much and feel so keenly the deficit of giving so little in return. Get over it.

My friend sent a clipping (from the New York Time, I think) showing a pleasant afternoon at a county fair in Colorado. Family groups scattered around the Ferris wheel looked either at the camera or admiringly at those in the gondolas over their heads. Absolutely nothing unusual going on—except for white robes and pointy hoods: nary a face showing among the lot of them. This was “Klan Day” at the fair in 1925; an ordinary family outing of no consequence. Ninety-plus years later, two observations come to mind: 1) we’ve come a long way since then, and yet, 2) we haven’t come very far at all. George Santayana got it spot on: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And we’re suffering a cultural amnesia like none other in my lifetime.

Knowing plays a huge role for those of us playing in the sandbox of history. Successful play requires three sorts of knowing: 1) what you do know; what you don’t know; what you can’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet. Anyone writing about the Roaring Twenties, for example, shouldn’t be tainted with an awareness of Black Friday. Likewise, public health concerns—pandemics that purge the gene pool periodically—ought to come as complete surprises while we negotiate the local historical narrative. Before 2020, the flu was merely an inconvenience; now it’s COVID-19.

At the same time, these had enormous consequence for each community, regardless of size or stature. The influenza epidemic of 1918, for example, influenced the project in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Who knew that “patient zero” was a returning World War One doughboy at Fort Dodge, another Iowa town only fifty miles east of Agincourt. How easy would it have been for the virus to traverse those few miles—given the inter urban railway we’d created only ten years before. What mechanisms would have spread it throughout the population and how high would the death toll have reached. Children and the aged were most at risk, so whole families could be decimated; history’s course shifted a fraction; the trajectory of survivors’ lives redirected. And for me, narratives rewritten or erased.


So what of the Ku Klux Klan?  Until this afternoon, my familiarity with the Klan had been kept well beyond arm’s reach—both theirs and mine. I learned, for example that it’s name derives from the Greek word κυκλος (“circle”), innocuous enough but now tinged with evil. It reminded me of a local story, more than thirty-five years old, involving Frank Vyzralek, former curator at the State Historical Society (when I was on better terms), a story yearning for adaptation. Frank is gone but I believe he’d approve.

Charles Mulford Robinson, et al.

A trilogy of urban design influence is represented by 1) Messrs. Hegemann and Peets, authors in 1922 of The American Vitruvius; 2) Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, creators of Letchworth, the world’s first “garden city”; and 3) Charles Mulford Robinson, journalist-turned-planner, who was active throughout the region as a lecturer and planning consultant — in Minnesota and the Missouri River valley. Influential in Agincourt, I should add, because they have been influential in my own thinking about what makes cities livable.

Frank Lloyd Wright is unlikely to have received a commission in Agincourt; his pre-WWI domestic work was simply too extreme for any but the most cosmopolitan. Yes, Wright did a few early projects in Iowa — the bank-hotel in Mason City, foremost among that small group — but the majority of “Prairie School” work in the state was done by others: the Griffins, Barry Byrne, William Drummond, Arthur Heun. There is another architect, a near contemporary of Wright with a shirttail connection to the “Prairie School”, who receives very little air time, yet who during his career was undoubtedly better know by the general public (rather than the architectural intelligentsia) than Wright was. That was the affable, low key architect Lawrence Buck [1965–1929].

Roycemore School, Evanston, IL (ca1917) / Lawrence Buck, architect / gouache rendering

Both Wright and Buck were skillful in using women’s magazines (Ladies Home Journal, House Beautiful, House & Garden) to promote their services to a middle-class audience. Buck was simply better at it. In the years between 1900 and WWI, Buck’s modest single-family residences can be found from Upstate New York and Pennsylvania to the Dakotas and California. Buck exhibited extensively in architectural clubs from Ohio to Oregon. And his skill as a delineator (an architectural illustrator) recommended him to possibly a dozen other architects. As a Chicagoan myself, and an admirer of Buck’s work for at least forty years, I can invoke him here for the simple reason that he, too, contributed design skills to multiple Iowa communities: there were four of his houses in Dubuque and three more in Cedar Rapids. And his single-family residences have more in common with the architectural work of Parker and Unwin. Witness this group of houses at New Earswick, near York in the north of England.

Row of houses, New Earswick, York, UK / Parker & Unwin, architects (1902)

A case can be made, in my view, that Buck was aware of, and strongly connected with, the British Arts & Crafts movement and incorporated more of its characteristics that he did of his contemporary Wright’s exoticisms. Is it even possible that he owned a copy of the 1901 P&U book The Art of Building a Home. All of this despite the fact that for several years Wright and Buck officed in Chicago’s Steinway Hall and without doubt shared numerous uncomfortable elevator rides on the way to work.

Since Lawrence Buck designed at least seven houses in Iowa, it is not at all farfetched that his designed three in Agincourt: a large house for Aidan and Cordelia Archer; a cottage for school principal Rose Kavana(ugh); and one of many duplicates of a house published in both the LHJ and the HB.

Oh, and that purported connection with Charles Mulford Robinson

Mea Culpa

It’s been one of those mea culpa days. They come over me on the way to a massively depressive funk and there’s no way to get out of it. Just one of those things I have to ride through. Too bad others are often along for the ride, which is usually a bumpy one.

I had a conversation with a student the other day about depression, and they were either acquainted with a fellow sufferer, depressive themselves, or simply nodding patronizingly until I got through my harangue and on with questions about grading.

Depression and I are on reasonably friendly terms: it announces its arrival, giving me plenty of time to batten down those psychological hatches, and then becomes my personal Sheridan Whiteside, the uninvited guest who overstays his welcome. I’ve played that role often enough and have little room for complaint. So as I steel myself for this impending bout, let me ruminate briefly on the one place in Agincourt I would most like to visit: Walden Retreat.

If you’ve never been in the vicinity of Bristol — and who would; it’s overshadowed by proximity to Bath and, so, rarely on tourist itineraries — try to remember Blaise Hamlet, a cluster of eight cottages built in 1811 as retirement homes for employees of a local Quaker banker — the epitome of the picturesque (the cottages, not the banker). John Nash provided the plans, made all the more remarkable by his simultaneous involvement with the Prince Regent and the development of Regent Street as one of the most significant urban renewal projects of its day. Blaise is at the opposite end of “urban design” and scarcely looks architect-designed at all. You might actually spot a large waistcoated rabbit on his way to tea.

Each time I sit down to imagine Walden Retreat, it comes out far too architekty: complex, contrived, anything but the effortless place it ought to be, given the reason for its guests being there. I could use a week at Blaise right now, if for no other reason than to absorb Nash’s most reticent work and learn how to avoid the pitfalls of overwrought design thinking. [I could name names but I won’t.] And my mental health is guaranteed to improve.

Ordnance Map showing Blaise Hamlet, near Bristol, UK / John Nash, architect (1811)

Blaise, by the way, is that peanut-shaped group of houses just left of center.

The Fennimore County Fair

Soon after the county’s founding in 1853, the Fennimore County Agricultural Association would have organized and begun to scout sites for a fairground. Some sort of operation must have coalesced at Muskrat City until the courthouse moved to Agincourt. Muskrat City was established on lowland with ongoing flood issues; the town itself eventually faded from sight, with the exception of a store and post office, and that eventually closed during the Depression. All that remains today is one house and the foundation of the original bank.

I have some idea of the sequence of acquisition and evolution of the fairgrounds — the original quarter section became a wide triangle, reshaped by highway construction and a property swap — but only a vague notion of what buildings would have been built and in what order. Two things specific to the Fennimore situation: 1) the late 19th century Chautauqua Movement established a shed for their summer lecture circuit, and 2) after 1909, the Northwest Iowa Normal School developed a cooperative relationship and expanded their athletic facilities on the fairgrounds.

Hall of Philosophy, Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, NY

Its location across the river also made an opportunity for the new city trolley line to build a spur for seasonal service to the grounds — and a permanent pedestrian bridge for the normal school students. The Muskrat isn’t quite as deep as the trestle required here, but it would also have been produced by the seat-of-the-pants engineering.

Just imagine the alcohol-induced encounters between students and this bridge before A.D.A.

De Bijenkorf (1.2)

De Bijenkorf’s Beginnings

Prior to WWI, department stores in smaller communities were oriented toward female shoppers. Except for the handful who worked outside the home (teachers, secretaries, nurses, primarily) most were homemakers and mothers whose purchasing needs were predictable: fresh food, in an era before predictable refrigeration; and ready-made clothing or, more likely, the fabric, notions, and patterns to build from scratch or to alter the hand-me-downs. Shopping was fit somewhere into the regular rhythm of the week (laundry, floors, windows, defrosting the fridge, tending the garden). For farm families, shopping trips were usually coordinated with dad’s visit to the hardware, implement dealer, and courthouse. These would have been de Bijenkorf’s target audience.

The family business began simply, selling yard goods, patterns, and notions (i.e., buttons, thread, ribbon and lace trimming) which, for a town of Agincourt’s age and size would have fit comfortably in a twenty-five-foot storefront. It might have looked something like this:

Even a four-block commercial zone along Broad Street — five, if you count the Squares — would have developed clusters of like businesses: banking, business, fraternal organizations, and barbers; meat markets, greengrocers, bakers, and confectioners; restaurants, cafés, and entertainment (of the socially acceptable sort); and a scattering of furniture (who were often the morticians, as well), decorative arts, books and stationers. Clothiers were clearly separated by gender: haberdashers (men) and dress shops for the ladies. Hats were often a separate enterprise, while jewelers dealt in the sale and maintenance of time pieces as much as they did precious metals and gems. In such a world, de Bijenkorf might have begun at the southern, less glamorous end of Broad Street, at #3 or #5, a mid-block storefront close enough to the Squares for some of that prestige to rub off. And from that modest start, they could have expanded their offerings into numbers 1, 3 and 5 by 1920, ready to blend three late Victorian stores into one.