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Circuit Riders

The history of religion on the American frontier (or in places that had only recently enjoyed frontier status) is the phenomenon of “too much, too soon.” Uncertain where their flocks might settle and stabilize in numbers sufficient to warrant a place of worship and resident clergy, they cast their nets wide, using temporary, often borrowed, quarters such as courtrooms or lodge meeting halls above the general store.

The pattern had been established by Francis Asbury, one of the first two bishops of the Methodist denomination in the United States. Asbury (for whom many Methodist churches have been named, including the one in Agincourt, Iowa) set the record of more than 300,000 miles on horseback carrying the Gospel to any who would hear — and many who wouldn’t, had his spirit been anything less than indomitable.

The current Methodist facility in Agincourt was designed and built circa 1920, among the last of the true Akron-Auditorium church buildings that have fascinated me for more than forty years and about which I hope to write a book. That would have been preceded by at least one, possibly two, earlier church structures. The first, no doubt, came from a pattern book as was published by the denomination; the second, from the collaborative mind of building committee and local building talent — often with mixed results.

The Rev Candice Varenhorst is the current pastor at Asbury UMC. Who her predecessors were I can’t yet say (but you know I will) but I can assure you that they rode circuit to communities within a reasonable radius of Agincourt, in the hope of established a congregation sufficient to support a building and eventually its own resident clergy. This postcard view of a storefront Methodist church in upstate New York could easily have been in some hamlet a few miles from the “mother church.” With a little photoshopping, I think this can become the icon for riding the circuit.


Shell, a footnote

I’d like to claim this was my desk at Fred’s office but it wasn’t.

Fred Shellabarger’s architectural office was an L-shaped suite at the inner angle on an L-shaped building. A glass door and sidelight faced east, our only public exposure. Turning right past the secretary’s desk (at which someone rarely sat), a short corridor took visitors past the toilet and into the L-shaped draughting room. Is that a sufficient number of L’s for you? Fred occupied the draughting table straight ahead; I can’t recall if he had a window but if he did it faced north. Mine was just to the left and between us there was a phone answered most often by me. Now do a 180° counterclockwise turn and there were two more desks occupied by Richard Kenyon and Bill Peterson. Two west-facing windows admitted a lot of late afternoon light. I wonder what became of Bill? Richard, of course, is another story altogether. [By the way, is it an affectation to use “draughting” in lieu of “drafting”? For that matter, is it an affectation to use “in lieu”?]

This is a footnote to the story of Shell as a Ghost of my own Christmases Past. It has nothing to do with the physical office. Nor does it have much to do with the actual practice of making architecture. In fact, it has only slightly more to do with Fred himself. Fundamentally, it has to do with that phone and a few of the calls I took when Shell was out. I’ll tell you about three of them: one is rude, the other two prophetic confirmation of the “small world” phenomenon.

“Good afternoon, Fred Shellabarger’s office.”

Among our clients was a bank vice president named Jack Black — long before there was that other Jack Black of movie fame. I don’t recall Jack but his wife Claudia became an office legend, if for no other reason that her phone calls during the design of their house in the newly fashionable Norman subdivision of “Smoking Oaks.” That pretension and all other upscale suburban developments came to be known generically as Sunken Heights. We hadn’t yet encountered the McMansion; that was a phenomenon of forty years hence, but these houses were a step in that fateful direction. By today’s standard, the Blacks’ house was merely upscale and generous but hardly grandiose. Within the context of the ’60s, however, the Blacks had every reason to strut.

I recall one phone conversation during construction when much of the cabinetry was well underway; there was a lot of it. Counters in the kitchen and multiple bath-dressing rooms were in place when the Blacks returned from a vacation in Mexico, during which Claudia had become enamored of hand-made Mexican tile, whose nuanced irregularities suited the vaguely Hispanic character they’d requested for their home. Without bothering to call us from Oaxaca, Jack and Claudia bought a boatload of handmade tile for their countertops and then, when the shipment was irreversibly on its way, we spent several days revising the cabinet details to accommodate the difference between quarter-inch thick American tile (which was a pretty nice item, as I recall; Fred had taste) and the inch-and-a-half thick Mexican tile — all because the cabinets had to be cut down. Some people, as granny used to say, have more dollars than sense.

One afternoon I spent several hours trying to understand entasis, the optical correction the ancient Greeks had used on their columns to achieve visual elegance, and a proper seven-foot Tuscan column [the Roman counterpart to the Doric], three of which would define their bedroom corridor from the living room a half level below. Actually telling a wood shop in OKC how to do entasis was no picnic. It’s one of those opportunities that build character.

In this case the “phone” thing concerns Claudia Black’s voice: She had one of those nasal Texas twangs that break glass. I’d hand the phone to Fred and he’d hold the receiver six inches from his ear, her voice was that shrill. In fact, Richard, Bill and I felt privileged to be a part of their conversation: we heard all of it as if she were in the office with us.

In the “small world” category, there was a call late one afternoon when I was alone and ready to lock up. I thought briefly to let the phone ring (we had no answering machine and voice messaging didn’t exist) but decided to answer. “Good afternoon, ” I said, “Fred Shellabarger’s office.” A resonant voice at the other end asked for Fred and I replied he had gone home; could I take a message. “Tell him this is Bishop Powell” and that he’d call again in the morning. Fred and Gladys were Episcopalians and he often did pro bono work for the church, so this probably had something to do with diocesan matters. That would have been about 1968, though the other shoe wouldn’t drop for nearly twenty-five years.Let it not be said I have a short attention span.

The Rt. Rev. W. R. Chilton Powell [1912-1994] was bishop of Oklahoma for more than twenty years. His uncle Arthur Chilton Powell — his namesake — had been an Episcopal priest. What you possibly don’t know is that, in the meantime, I had taken a job teaching architectural history in North Dakota and also taken a fancy to a series of small split fieldstone Episcopal church buildings constructed here during the Territorial period. Fascinated by what I presumptuously thought didn’t belong here, I began collecting material about them, especially the names of clergy, architects, building craftsmen, and lay people connected with each church. In the case of Devils Lake, the head of the vestry had been A. M. Powell and Powell’s biography identified his family and that family included a son named W. R. Chilton Powell. Coincidence?

Recalling my conversation ten years earlier with Bishop Powell, I found him in a retirement village in Oklahoma City. I wrote, introduced myself as a student of Fred Shellabarger, recalled our ten second phone conversation, and mentioned my new interest in North Dakota architecture. “Are you, by any chance the son of A. M. Powell from Devils Lake, North Dakota?” After all, how many Chilton Powells can there possibly be at any one time! Admitting that he was, I asked if he’d be willing to write something about the significance of the Church of the Advent on his spiritual growth. A week later his four-page, single-spaced reminiscence arrived, exceeding my fondest hopes. It’s a small world.

Another afternoon in the late ’60s, the caller asked for Fred and left a message that it was Cecil Elliott from Stillwater. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Institute of Architects were publishing a small guidebook to state architectural landmarks and Professor Elliott was collaborating with Fred; they each taught architectural history. Once again I gave no thought to it, until 1975 when the Department of Architecture at N.D.S.U. had found a new chair, an N. C. State faculty member named Cecil Elliott. OMG! Was it possible my new boss had spoken with me seven years earlier for another ten second exchange? It was. He did.

I offer this miscellany as evidence that being in the right place at the proper time has happened more than it should have. For me, the proper place had been an inconspicuous, unassuming architectural office at 700 Asp Avenue in Norman, Oklahoma.

You’ll miss me when I’m gone.


Ghosts of Christmas Past #20

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Shell

In the dogleg of a modest single-story office building at 700 Asp Avenue, where Duffy Street begins, just south of Asp Avenue’s own dogleg on its way to downtown Norman, Oklahoma, I worked for nearly two years in the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger. All our neighbors, in a building you might mistake for a mom-and-pop motel, were dentists, as I recall. [One was an oral surgeon who botched the removal of my wisdom teeth but he’s probably dead now. It’s curious the building is still there.] Fred — known to most of us as Shell — maintained his practice because that’s what architects do: practice, until they get it right, which, by and large, Fred had managed to do. I got $2.00 an hour.

Fred’s clientele were primarily residential — middling to large houses (but certainly not by today’s standards) for university faculty, doctors and the occasional banker. We designed a modest clinic for six doctors and the home for retiring O.U. President George Cross. I was the office go-fer, lowest on the pecking order, beneath Bill Peterson and Richard Kenyon, but because my desk was closest to the phone I was de facto receptionist and taker of messages. I was never asked to do floors or toilets but would have because Fred was a nice guy. He took me on, I think, because we had got along very well in his other occupation, professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma just down the street. A little background seems in order.


Shell’s obituary will acquaint you with the outline of his life. Frankly, it says more than I knew as his student-employee. He was born in Decatur, which connects us as sons of Illinois and, besides, Decatur is the site of two iconic Prairie School houses associated with Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin. I never asked if those houses had influenced his career choice. Architecture, of course, was our primary link: he was what I thought I wanted to be. What I didn’t know then was that teaching, Fred’s “other” job, would be our ultimate connection.

During nearly two years in his office, I learned a lot about architecture: how to design and how not to do business. The nicest house of those two years was the retirement home for O.U. president George L. Cross and his wife Cleo. If you should stop by, I designed the mailbox. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence, where his strong suits were kitchens and bath-dressing rooms, the wet places of the house. If those are gendered space, Fred was a better woman than most in my acquaintance. His kitchens were generous and efficient, without the acreage consumed by today’s McMansions. His bath-dressing rooms [the phrase “en suite” makes me gag] were equipped with fixtures and built-ins that avoided the scalar issues of ancient Rome. I learned first-hand the anthropometrics of intimacy, the calisthenics of cleanliness and cuisine. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence. That level of detail has its downside, however: such custom cabinetry does not come cheaply. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have learned from him these and many other lessons that I’ve passed along in my own studio classes.

About 1968, the regional A.I.A. held its annual meeting at Tan-Tar-A, a resort at Lake of the Ozarks. A few of us went as student representatives but Fred also gave me a letter of introduction to some of his earlier clients in Springfield, Missouri. Mrs Shellabarger, Gladys, was from there. I remember being welcomed into two incredible mid-century modern works that were even closer to the Wrightian ideal I treasured than were the houses in Norman. Here also was the chance to meet satisfied clients who spoke warmly of their relationship with their architect; to truly understand the work, talk to the client.

As a faculty member at O.U., Fred taught in three areas: 1) fourth-year design studio, 2) a course that blended interiors and landscape, and 3) the first two of four architectural history courses — Egypt through the Gothic. [William S. Burgett, a.k.a., Billy B, covered Renaissance through Modern, largely I think because he liked saying FRAN•SWAH•PREM•EE•AY instead of Francis the First; Bill was insecure that way.] Shell was the sort of design instructor I’d like to have been: supportive, non-judgmental, prescriptive without being presumptive. Whatever success I may have had came from studio experiences with Fred, Bill and D.B.V., alias Dean Bryant Vollendorf. [More about him another time.] ARCH 273 was the finest design studio experience of my undergraduate life. Fall semester fourth year, it was eighteen weeks of eighteen week-long projects — a Gatling gun of quick intensive studies, assigned on Friday and due the following week, when the next would be assigned. I learned to live with choices made on the fly.

During a crit Shell was poetry with a pencil; ideas flowed with no effort whatsoever, a light lattice-work of lines emerging, one of which eventually became the right one. I’m shocked to realize how, even today, I’m still trying to draw like him. His treatment of architectural history, however, I frankly don’t recall; a lot of slides in a darkened room. If that experience played any role in my eventual career, it was his example that someone could be both an architect and passionate about its history.

I saw Fred briefly in the winter of 1992-1993 when I should have thanked him but didn’t.