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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Civil Religion

In his seminal 1967 essay, sociologist Robert Bellah argued that the United States had “an elaborate and well-instituted civil religion,” which existed “alongside of” and was “rather clearly differentiated from the churches.” Also known as civic piety, religious nationalism, public religion, and the common faith, civil religion provides a religious sanction for the political order and a divine justification of and support for civic society and a nation’s practices. It is the “state’s use of consensus religious sentiments, concepts, and symbols for its own purposes.” “As a system of established rituals, symbols, values, norms, and allegiances,” civil religion functions as a social glue to bind people together and “give them an overarching sense of spiritual unity.”  — Gary Scott Smith, Civil Religion in America.

We of a certain age can remember television in the 1950s — our Age of Innocence — especially the Mickey Mouse Club that produced a weekly cycle of shows in various formats. “The Adventures of Spin and Marty” was one of them, the exploits of a teenage odd couple set in a dude ranch. I don’t recall the particular premise of one episode but a vignette involved some European teenager. He or she expressed metaphorical willingness to die for a home city; whether it was Venice or Prague or Paris matters not. Putting it into an American context (admittedly in the ’50s), either Spin or Marty then wondered aloud that he’d sacrifice his life for the U.S.A., “…but Gary, Indiana?!”

Our sense of sacredness in public space has varying intensity and frames of reference. I’m not about to die for Fargo, North Dakota, for example. But my sense of “civil religion” acknowledges the sacredness a few places: Dealey Plaza and the infamous “Grassy Knoll” in Dallas; “Ground Zero” in New York City; Washington, DC is peppered with several (the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials). I went to Mount Vernon once and it meant practically nothing to my sense of American-ness. But these are the opinions of a seventy-year-old. Would any of my list be shared with twenty-somethings? Or for that matter, is the battlefield at Gettysburg on the list of any who are alive today? This notion of civil religion, a shared spiritual perspective, would be difficult to identify or, perhaps, even justify in the 21st century America of Donald Trump.

I’ve almost finished reading Joan Breton Connelly’s 2014 study The Parthenon Enigma: a New Understanding of the West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It,  and am coming away with a radically altered sense of how we sacralize public space.


Connelly’s understanding of the Parthenon goes well beyond the status of a monument to the Age of Perikles. She makes a convincing case that the Parthenon and adjacent Erechtheion and their full complement of sculpture and other ornament constitute a mytho-memorialization of Athens’ origin as a city-state in the larger Hellenic culture and a pædogogic tool for the inculcation of civic virtue in Athenians of all ages and every caste. I can think of no building or landscape in America today that fulfills the same noble role. If the idea of civil religion would have been understood by 5th century BCE Athenians, it pales by comparison.

In the encounter portrayed by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the artist Phidias conducts a preview tour of the sculptural frieze that surrounded the inner sanctuaries to an audience who would have immediately apprehended it as a lesson in patriotism and civic responsibility linking them directly to the city’s foundation myth and a reminder of their oath of citizenship. Had I made a grade or high school field trip to Washington, DC, I would have taken from it nothing resembling the Periklean experience, nor would our understanding of democracy have been conceivable to them.

Spin and Marty are another matter altogether.

“Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1868)

A replica of the frieze (the original was carted off to London two hundred years ago) on the architrave behind the doric columns. The paint has long since worn away.

A replica of the frieze (the original was carted off to London two hundred years ago) on the architrave glimpsed between the doric columns. The paint has long since worn away.

Might some faint parallel have existed in Agincourt at some point in its one-hundred-and sixty-four year civic life? On the city’s golden anniversary in 1907, no city Founder was alive. And their memory had not yet faded into the mist of myth. But I’d like to think that the Founders’ Fountain installed in the center of Broad Street — at the zero-zero point of the original urban grid — might have had similar motivation.


Ghosts of Christmas Past (#19): Seamus Tierney

Ghosts of Christmas Past #19:

James Edward (a.k.a. Seamus) Tierney

James Edward Tierney was born on his parents’ farm beyond Fahnstock in 1933, a Depression Baby who learned the hard way to do more with less. Hindsight shows us how his family’s Meatless Fridays and Coal-less Tuesdays prepared Jim for a career in theatre, which, under normal circumstances is among the last places to seek your fortune. Hindsight tells us that money was the least of Jim Tierney’s goals.

It is unlikely that Jim Tierney participated in any dramatics at the small school in Fahnstock; plays at the rural Presbyterian church — Sunday School exercises put on for the adults — are about the only exposure to theatre Jim may have had before the age of fifteen. But there is also the possibility he may have been among the last to witness some of Reinhold Kölb’s puppet performances in the Commons during the early 1940s: part therapy, part morality plays for the “clients” at his private retreat. It’s tempting to speculate.

He enrolled at the Normal School in 1951 with no declared major, dabbled in art and theatre, but left after two years for a stint in the Korean Conflict and returned for a string of retail jobs on Broad Street. During those years, Tierney took minor roles in local theatre productions; Shakespeare seems to have been his preference. Then in June 1961, he founded the Prairie Playhouse, a company that rented space in the Auditorium, and scheduled a “season” that raised the bar for small town theatrics.

Tierney's set design for Moliere's "Tartuffe"

Tierney’s set design for Moliere’s “Tartuffe”

Never afraid to stir the pot, the Prairie Playhouse staged several plays that either dealt with current events — “Advise and Consent” for example, that had just ended a successful run on Broadway — or recast an old warhorse with new relevance — Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” to which the Bishop of Sioux City took special offence. “A Thurber Carnival” was sandwiched between them to provide something non-political—a rarity for someone who believed the arts were made to poke and prod. By Christmas that year, the people of Agincourt had seen that quality entertainment was possible without a long, long drive to (but especially back from) Omaha or Des Moines.

Most of us accepted that the Prairie Playhouse existed but few knew how it survived; Paul was always paid with Peter’s Pence, we now know. If you had run into James at Cermak’s, you’d have seen a spartan selection in his shopping cart: broccoli, pears, oatmeal, butter brickle ice cream, and Dr Pepper. The Playhouse survived on discrete contributions from “silent partners” whose names never appeared in program credits. We may never know. What we do have is a litany of regional premiers, an honor roll of local talent like Marielle Leer who graduated to careers of note, a legacy of elevated expectations.


Me and Thee, Oh Lord

frank v irish.jpg

I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.― GERTRUDE STEIN

Each moment begins pretty much like any other; it was preceded by one and will be followed by another. Each represents an opportunity which can be embraced or allowed to pass.

As an ersatz historian, I should be more interested in periodization than I am. Units of time — hours, days, months, centuries, aeons — are arbitrary, so I cannot claim that what I’m about to write has much to do with either New Year’s Resolutions or birthdays; its appearance in mid-January is coincidence, albeit a happy one, for I have begun to write a book. Holding your breath won’t help; simply suspecting that some of my friends might give a shit will suffice.

For the time being, the book’s specific subject matters to me alone. The book, like each of my three blogs, will involve two related topics: architecture and religion. And since the title will include the word “architecture,” it seems appropriate to say a few words about the religious perspective that will frame the text.

The foundation of my religiosity was laid in the 1950s and 1960s. Though I do not remember her — my mother abandoned the family in 1953 when I was eight years old — Marge was a Congo, that is, a Congregationalist and I suspect she may have taken me to the Congregational church in Argo, near where we lived. I have no recollection of those Sunday visits but after her departure our neighbors the Millers took me with their daughter Andrea.

In those days, the mid-1950s, the Congregational denomination was an outpost of New England conservatism and restraint. I remember hard pews, the singing of hymns less memorable than elevator music, and a good deal of calisthenics, sitting, standing, kneeling. In hindsight the pews were occupied by little old ladies in drab dresses, white gloves, and veiled pillbox hats. Imagine a room filled with Mamie Eisenhowers.


Sunday School consisted of one activity — again my memory is hazy — locating Bible verses called out by the Sunday School leader. And the sole remaining benefit of that exercise is my ability to name all the books of the Old and New testaments in order. I didn’t stick around long enough to learn the actual content of The Book, however, because the Millers moved to LaGrange and I was left on Sunday’s to my own devices.

Where, you may ask, were my father and grandmother as guardians of my spiritual welfare? Roy worked at the family business seven days a week, but he was an atheist who almost never spoke of God, save for the occasional smashing of a thumb or dropping of a hammer. My grandmother Clara was a Roman Catholic, but she had married outside the Church, to an alcoholic wife-beater who was himself a disbeliever. He had died in 1951, so I only learned these things about him when I was much, much older and able to understand my grandmother’s reticence.

At about age fifteen I succumbed to a bout of peer pressure and went to church with some classmates. But by this time, the old Congregational church had merged and become the United Church of Christ. And those stoic Mamie Eisenhowers were now inclined to interrupt the sermon, blurting exhortations to “Praise the Lord!” and “Amen, brother/sister.” The congregation seemed taken over by Elmer Gantry; a decided turn for the creepy. I stopped going altogether and have never regretted the choice.

Norman, Oklahoma

It was always assumed I’d go to university, the first in my exceptionally small family to do so. Working in the high school library, a copy of “Ford Times” passed through my hands, an unassuming monthly for owners of Ford vehicles. This one included an article on Bruce Goff, an Oklahoma architect, who had chaired the architecture program at the University of Oklahoma. If you don’t know Goff, you should; if you do, I don’t have to explain why OU received my only application—another choice I have never regretted.

Arriving for the fall semester 1963, I moved into Kingfisher Hall of the Woodrow Wilson Residential Center — a relic from WWII that had been part of a Naval air station — and roomed with a guy from El Paso. Most of the guys I knew in our wing were Roman Catholics, so I often went with them to Newman Center for Saturday afternoon “hangover” Mass. Besides being a university parish, Vatican II was underway and Fathers Ross and Swett had already liberalized the service: “Take, eat of my Nabisco vanilla wafers, sacrificed for you….” Get the idea? My first confession was the most excruciating exercise I can recall: to do something nice for the person I disliked the most: First I had to make a list and then determine what God might consider suitably “nice” without actually letting the other person in on the exercise.

One day I spoke with Father Chuck about an issue and he ended our talk with a question: “Why is it I haven’t seen you at Communion?” for which I had an excellent reason. “You see, Father, I’m not Catholic.” After a week of the flimsiest catechism ever employed, I was baptized on a Saturday afternoon, with Dorothy Ryan (a former nun and secretary of the Newman Center) as my sponsor. Somewhere I’ve still got my baptismal candle. Meanwhile the war in Vietnam went on and on and on.

It was 1965. Bras and draft cards were aflame; JFK and Bobby were assassinated; so was Dr. King. My Black friend Harold showed me the Cleveland County courthouse where the adjacent duplicate water fountains for Whites and everyone else had been just two years before; the fountains were there, but the signs had been removed. God seemed nowhere in the vicinity. I’d also gone home to Chicago during the summers and attended local churches where Vatican II was barely a rumor and confession was formulaic. I learned that religion and spirituality weren’t even on speaking terms with one another. So, despite my deep appreciation for the rites and rituals and the sense of family I had known at university, I became “unchurched” a second time.

The Social Gospel

Dean Bryant Vollendorf and Fred Shellabarger were my favorite professors at O.U. Shell taught studio and two of the four architectural history courses, and it was somewhere in there I became aware of the Social Gospel, which resonated with the turmoil around me. It addressed my questions — about evil and good and being an agent for change — and set me on a path.

I think it was also Shell who dropped the phrase “Akron Plan” into a discussion, probably with a negative spin, since he and Gladys were Episcopalians and stylistic snobs. He was inclined to editorialize, too: couldn’t say “Christian Science,” for example, without the parenthetic observation “…neither Christian nor Scientific.” But his head and heart were in the right place for an appreciation of ethical behavior and social justice. I filed “Akron Plan” away for future reference, though it took forty years. I have a long attention span.

The invention of an imaginary town in Iowa, Agincourt, has provided numerous outlets for my spiritual inclinations: the introduction of characters of indeterminate religious stripe (like myself); creation of Agincourt’s own “village atheist” watchmaker Ernie “Red” Anhauser; the community’s very own incidents of the Second Great Awakening; and even the design of a genuine Akron-Auditorium church as a test of my own understanding of the type that I’ve invested so much time identifying.

The Mighty Muskrat River, which flows along the western edge of the original Agincourt townsite, took me to the creation myth of the Iroquois people, for whom the industrious muskrat was alone among animals to dredge mud from the bottom of the primordial sea to create an island for human habitation. Frankly, it and the Gnostic myth are the most satisfying tales I’ve encountered as a basis for belief in anything beyond ourselves.

He grazes much but produces no wool.

Cecil Elliott, another irreligionist, was my department chair and friend for fifteen years. He encouraged my interest in the Akron-Auditorium plan phenomenon but warned of a former colleague at N.C State: He grazes much but produces no wool. I have grazed this particular patch of grass for twenty years or more; the time has come to write.

The word count says 1,433. That’s 433 more than Cecil Elliott set for his own daily writing goal. If I could maintain that pace for three months, there’d be 90,000 of these words and very likely a first draft of the book in my head.



Haiku for the Hapless


If the road to Hell

is paved with good intentions,

will I get there soon?


MI tabernacle.jpg

The fine line defining Chautauqua from religious revival is probably not worth making. The same is true for the 19th and early 20th century buildings that housed them. And while I am an unlikely participant in revival or camp meetings, their architecture holds a special place in my spectrum of favored types.

Neither the Chautauqua building at the Fennimore county fairgrounds nor any of what might have been temporary structures to house religious revivals have been designed for Agincourt. It may be that their time has come, perhaps because I have been thinking vernacular-ly these days, admiring the minimalist aesthetic of such structures and learning from them about an adage taught by Bill Burgett, one of my instructors at the University of Oklahoma during the 1960s: “You earn your effects,” Bill told me once in a third-year studio as I labored on a scheme for a city hall for Norman, Oklahoma (where the university is located).

I understood Bill then, as I do now ten times over, to mean there is an inverse relationship between the appearance of something and the time-effort-cost required to achieve it. It is easy to make something complex but excruciatingly time consuming to reach the simplicity and illusory effortlessness of a Zen-like design. In today’s Minimalism — of the sort so well represented by David Chipperfield and John Pawson — I am convinced more than ever that Bill Burgett was right.


Central stair in the Pergamon Museum, showing Chipperfield’s minimalist insertions and all the damage wrought by war.

Some years ago (while collecting images for a seminar on Minimalism) I stumbled on an interior view of a hotel lobby in Spain —  the architectural equivalent of the overpriced (and perhaps overrated) meal consisting of three pork medallions on a drizzle of lemony sauce, accompanied by five fava beans and a carrot imagined by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, all on a white plate the size of a hub cap. The understated elegance of the presentation is inversely proportional to the unstated over-price, the theory being “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

The hotel lobby had no more than three materials: wood-veneered walls and reception desk, frosted-glass partition and white marble-clad floor, all with knife-edge joints of meeting. Yes, as a guest, I would delight in registering at that desk by the clerk in subtle median grey — if I could afford it. But I would not want to be the maintenance staff who polished that floor nightly, having to be oh so careful not to scuff the expensive wood veneer on either wall or desk or to splatter cleaning solution on the frosted glass. Architecture journals deceive us when they fail to reveal the detail where wall meets floor and deny us the actual cost per square foot, meter, etc. The life-cycle cost of maintaining those surfaces will guarantee that staff wages are kept well below minimum, in the interest of corporate profit. I expect the construction cost of some minimalist works nearly reach the expense of an extravagant Donald Trump Byzantine whore house. All of which brings me back to God.

Tabernacles from the years between the Civil and First World wars have much to teach us, if we would but look seriously at their integrity: what you see is what you get. Wood is wood; joints are elegant; functional economy is achieved. “Ford’s in his flivver, (…) All’s well with the world” Aldous Huxley assures us and I’m inclined to agree.

Here for your edification are four tabernacles found in a recent sweep of the on-line auction site that shall not be named:

From upper left, in clockwise order: Lorima, WI; Riverdale, IN; Gull Lake, Augusta, MI; the aptly named Asbury Grove, MA; and a second view of Gull Lake with the walls flipped up. Enjoy.


Technically, the tabernacle at Platteville, Wisconsin was a Chautauqua facility.

Dorothy “Doady” Newton [1916-2003]


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

Dorothy “Doady” Newton (1916–2003)

Copse in Winter

circa 1980-1990

oil on masonite panel / 9 inches by 12 inches

Winter has been a frequent theme in the collection, landscapes such as “Copse in Winter” by Pittsburgh artist Dorothy Newton. Acquired from the estate following her death in 2003, the painting hung in the home of Victor and Frances Blaine and came to the collection in 2015 as a memorial to Victor Blaine, who had graduate from Duquesne University and knew the artist.

“Copse” is nearly monochromatic — as winter can often be — centered on a group of trees in the middle distance, reflected in cold dark water. Newton uses oil paint almost as one would watercolor, thin transparent glazes of color.


Frontier communities often engaged in seeming contradictions. The need to “civilize” the place, for example, required the harvesting of trees for production of lumber — to build houses, churches, schools and other testaments to an established community — while it also called for the planting of sheltering trees both in town and out. So it wouldn’t be at all unusual for Agincourt’s early businesses to have included both a saw mill and lumber yard as well as a nursery and greenhouse.

Before the arrival of railways and shipments of building supplies, often from great distances, lumber for building was produced locally from old-growth timber along rivers and in other sheltered places. Sawyers turned trees into planks and planks into boards, often on contract with the farmer who provided the trees themselves. And sawing operations were powered by sweat-equity and eventually by water power or steam; the boards having characteristic saw marks left by the different processes. [For an excellent treatment, I recommend Technics and Architecture by one of Agincourt’s honorary posthumous citizens Cecil Elliott.] The ability to date a building often comes from the forensic analysis of saw marks and nail heads.

Beyond the obvious need for shelter, the civilizing impulse also encouraged settlers from the Eastern Seaboard and Ohio River valley to literally transplant their vision of community which almost invariably meant stately rows of shade trees lining public thoroughfares — until the arrival of Dutch Elm disease. There is a short but telling note in a Valley City, Dakota Territory newspaper about Herbert Root planting literally miles of equidistant saplings along the streets of his subdivision and the inference that his property values were thereby enhanced far beyond the investment. It’s reasonable, therefore, to assume Fennimore county boasted multiple sawyers and at least one nursery.


When the original townsite was laid out in Section 15 (of some township or other yet to be identified), 1853 may have been premature to have imagined the arrival of a railroad. But the southwest corner of that mile-square plat was situated at the convergence of Crispin Creek with the Muskrat River, where we might logically assume there to have been some old-growth timber. Eventually, of course, the Milwaukee Road or one of its spurs sidled up to that side of town and a convenient place to cross the Muskrat. Since Medieval surnames often derived from either town or occupation (Baker or Cooper, for example), let’s identify Agincourt’s early lumber yard with the Sawyer family, who had brought their generational skill set to the area in the 1860s, setting up shop on a pair of outlots where the railroad eventually ran.


By 1900, certainly before the outbreak of World War I, Sawyer Lumber & Coal had its own rail siding for delivery of lumber and other building materials. Lumber yards were often the source for coal, since that part of Iowa had no native deposits. The 130 foot by 680 foot site by that time would have been “zoned” with sheds, shacks, and bins of material by type for ease of access and delivery. Here are four of Ed Sawyer’s employees: two human (Adam Markiewicz¹ in the sporty striped overalls on the left and Marlin Rust with those excessive cuffs on the right) and two of the four-legged variety (Sid and Jeff) on the right. The horses had their own accommodations on site and the Sawyers themselves may also have lived there or nearby, vigilance for fire being one of the costs of doing business.

The sawyer’s neighbors might also have included feed and seed dealers and granaries for the cash crops that would eventually have been a major component of the local GDP. Drayage would also have been an important service, with their requisite livestock and teamsters — linguistic holdovers into the 21st century that will be a mystery to anyone under fifty. Those enterprises have yet to be identified — if someone is looking for a corner of the sandbox to play.

¹ Adam Markiewicz was my grandmother’s youngest brother. Uncle Adam was a frequent visitor to my dad’s gas station in Bedford Park during his retirement, a quiet round-faced man who died when I was about ten years old. Late in life, Adam had worked on the building of the dam that created Lake Sakakawea, an obtuse connection with North Dakota long before I ever thought to move here.