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Gabriel Spat [1890-1967]

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

SPAT, Gabriel [1890-1967]

Three Women (obverse) / Gathering (reverse)

circa 1930

oil on wood panel / 4.75 inches by 8.25 inches

Peter and Clara Sobieski, parents of Kurt Bernhard’s first wife Clotilde, may have known artist Gabriel Spat during his Paris years. Spat painted a portrait of the Sobieski family: parents and three of their four children. This pair of studies on a wood panel was given to the Sobieskis by the artist, who had studio space at La Ruche, an artistic enclave in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, which includes the bohemian community of Montparnasse made famous in the film “Moulin Rouge.”

A catalogue for one of his post-war exhibitions includes a story about Spat’s use of scrap canvas from other more financially successful artists; in this case he has painted on both sides of a discarded cigar box lid.

WHW and B. F. Cooley

In the “Six degrees of separation” department, here are a few more words on the Rev Benjamin Franklin Cooley [1834-1913], born twenty years before Halsey Wood and outliving him by sixteen. I’ve invoked Fr Cooley here before, at a different blog and in the context of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Lisbon, Dakota Territory, a congregation he helped to found and whose church design he influenced.

From his base in Fargo, DT, Father Cooley became the Episcopal counterpart of a circuit rider, itinerant clergy who routinely service multiple congregations, usually on a cycle of visitation. Holding a normal Sunday service at Christ Church [later renamed Gethsemane], Cooley would board a train for the 25-50 mile journey to Mayville, Casselton, Buffalo, Lisbon, and other hamlets not large enough to support their own resident priest. Cooley was the right person in the right place at the right time: a “high church” Anglo-Catholic with a passion for ritual and its proper setting. He and his wife Ellen had come to Fargo in 1881 with the likely mission to establish the Episcopal denomination in an area already peppered with Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian and the occasional Baptist churches. With Roman Catholics already firmly established, Episcopalians had to play catchup, and Cooley was soon joined by another ideal collaborator: emigrant architect George Hancock [1849-1924], educated in England and no doubt sporting a proper British accent in an essentially Yankee population.

The dynamic duo of Cooley and Hancock set about creating a de facto corporate image for the Protestant Episcopal church: Cooley organized a parish and found resources to build (materials and money) and Hancock served as architect — though that division of labor may be too absolute. They were able to work so closely because the bishop was situated hundreds of miles away in Omaha; Rt Rev Robert Harper Clarkson administered his own diocese of Nebraska, as well as the missionary jurisdiction of Dakota, incorporating the entire area of what would become North and South Dakota. Clarkson died in 1884, just 58 years old and already worn out by the magnitude of the task. Cooley and Hancock were joined by Rt Rev W. D. Walker, elected bishop of a newly established Missionary Diocese. The three-way division of labor allowed Cooley to focus on parish organization, Walker to raise funds [he spent more time out of the diocese than in; he was well connected in the East], and Hancock provided design serves and construction supervision. It may have been an ideal relationship, because the product is still scattered from Lisbon to Devils Lake.

Right now you may be asking yourself two questions: Who is this Cooley guy and what are his clerical and architectural credentials? Also, what circumstances might have crossed his path with that of William Halsey Wood? Fair enough.

In brief, B. F. Cooley was born in western Massachusetts in 1834. For the time being, let me summarize his life in a bulleted list:

  • Born into the modestly prosperous Cooley family of Granville, Massachusetts.
  • Made a deacon in 1861 in Connecticut.
  • Attended Nashotah Seminary in Wisconsin for a year some time in the early 1860s; Nashotah is renowned for its “high church” traditions. Cooley’s record there is slim: he was remembered as being “all music”.
  • Ordained in 1865 in Massachusetts by Bp Manton Eastburn who, it should be noted was decidedly not High Church. This eventually got him in trouble.
  • Married in January 1867 to Ellen Josephine Hodges, who plays heavily in the story much later. Rev and Mrs Cooley led a peripatetic life, as many clergy do, serving congregations in Connecticut, New York, and at multiple places in Massachusetts before being disciplined by Eastburn for the “Romish” quality of his service. About this time, Cooley was in charge of Christ Church, Medway, where he worked with architects to design their new church.
  • When things got too hot with Manton Eastburn, Cooley “hid out” in the handful of High Church parishes that existed in New England, chief among them St Anne’s, Lowell, and nearby Chelmsford. But in one case he left the region for several months and became head of music at the House of Prayer in Newark, New Jersey. Would it surprise you to learn that the choir director at the House of Prayer was one William Halsey Wood, budding architect and whose churchmanship equaled that of Cooley.
  • For reasons not yet known, Cooley accepted the call westward and came to Christ Church, Fargo, in Dakota Territory, a position he held from 1881 until being summarily dismissed for unspecified charges — though I suspect what they may have been.
  • After leaving Fargo in November 1885, Cooley went to parishes in Sycamore, IL, Milwaukee and Eau Claire, WI, and finally back to familiar turf in New England.
  • He died at the home of his mother in Westfield, MA on 07 August 1913 and was buried at Pine Hill Cemetery. His obituary called him a pioneer in the Oxford Movement (code words for High Church) but summarizes most of his life by saying that “he went West.”

So far, so good. Cooley has met Wood and no doubt found much to talk about.

The architecture of frontier churches was often put in the hands of itinerant carpenter–builders with little experience in the design of Episcopal churches for Anglo-Catholic services. What they often got were rude wood boxes without even proper liturgical orientation. So bishops like Robert Clarkson [remember him?] put out a call for eastern architects to volunteer their services in the interest of improving the quality of frontier architecture, the theory being one such church could serve as a model for others and raise the general quality of design. Bishop Clarkson did just that and employed Henry G. Harrison for the Gothic Revival cathedral at Omaha, Henry Rutgers Marshall for Bismarck, and Charles M. Burns for Sioux Falls. William Halsey Wood was also called into service, designing church in Kansas City, and the cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming, probably never visiting either site. There is evidence that Wood was also consulted on the cathedral in Boise, in addition to having designed St Margaret’s School for Girls there.

Fast forward to the 1890s. Dakota Territory had become two states but a sequence of bad winters and decimated both agricultural production and livestock. Those conditions were compounded by the Panic of 1893, one consequence being a downturn in population growth, so the construction of a proper cathedral in Fargo was delayed. In the meantime, however, Bishop Walker had consulted Halsey Wood on one of his eastern tours of fund raising. Wood provided a potential design — probably an unbuilt project for another client — but that was rejected for unknown reasons and, instead, a more conservative (and probably economical) design came from local architect George Hancock. Even that was beyond the budget, for Hancock’s original design in masonry was built in wood and painted red.

Gethsemane Cathedral (formerly Christ Church) Fargo, ND


B. F. Cooley and William Halsey are both linked with me and my interests. So it was reassuring to discover that they were linked with one another, despite me. And they are both implicated in the Agincourt Project:

  1. WHW designed the second Fennimore County court house in 1888. [not true]
  2. WHW designed a house in Orange, NJ for C. S. French, a house that served as the basis for a doll house Anson built for his sister Claire in 1905. [the French house is real; the dollhouse isn’t]
  3. WHW design the Episcopal church at Mantoloking, NJ, which Anson and his family visited in the summer of 1912. Anson returned home and crafted a set of building block based on that church. [the church is real]
  4. The peripatetic Father B. F. Cooley made a six-month stop at Saint-Joseph-the-Carpenter on his return eastward. [BFC is real; his visit to Agincourt is imagined]

“The Forum, Rome” by P. Lacombe

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

LACOMBE, P. [dates unknown]

The Forum, Rome


oil on panel /  13.5 inches by 10.5 inches (unframed)

Lacombe’s painting of the Forum in ancient Rome looks east toward the Colosseum, a view framed by the Arch of Septimus Severus. The columned fragment to the left of center is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.

Ghosts (Part Three)

#15 Henry “Whitey” Malone is a thinly veiled version of myself. “Whitey” was my childhood nickname but it was years later that I turned out to be a partial albino. Really.

#16 Abel Kane deserved a second entry. Every town has its infidels and its infidelities. Abel Kane was both.

#17 Harold Russell Holt (a.k.a. Hal) was a retired engineer who became director of the Fennimore County History Center. A second article about his passing was written before the “Ghost” series began. Hal Holt isn’t based on anyone I know; I think he may be either someone I’d like to know or even someone I’d like to be. I’d certainly prefer to be remembered that way.

#18 Sandor Szolnay guided the Men’s Department at deBijenkorf. Sandor is a hybrid character, a blend of the Hungarian baker I knew in Argo (who arrived after the 1956 Hungarian uprising) and the nameless Hungarian tailor at Capper & Capper who fitted my first suit.

#19 Seamus Tierney was the founder of professional theatre in Agincourt. If he sounds familiar, simply substitute “art” for “theatre” and you’ve pretty much got it.

#20 Fred D. Shellabarger doesn’t yet have a place in Agincourt. But he is a fond memory from my own beginnings in architecture and was, in hindsight, a strong influence on its trajectory. I could not have known how that experience would connect with my later life.

#21 Edmund FitzGerald Flynn, Agincourt’s thirteenth mayor and husband of Amity Burroughs Flynn, died in office. Many people were not upset about this. The hidden treasure here was Ed’s widow, Amity Burroughs Flynn, who blossomed after his passing and became a character I could never have imagined — but I guess I did.

Ghosts (Part Two)

#8 Phyllis Tabor, with Ella Rose, her twin, were pioneer aviatrices (is that the plural of aviatrix?) and also happen to have been Howard’s great-aunts. He had a special relationship with Aunt Phyllis, who shows up in other settings. Twins fascinate me; in fact, there are multiple sets of them in the Agincourt story. And in two of the three cases, death took one of them prematurely. What do you suppose the impact had been on the survivor? Perhaps Howard asked Aunt Phyllis before she died a couple years ago.

#9 Ray Benson was retired from the Merchant Marine and a neighbor of Rosalie Oakes, mother of Rowan Oakes. Rowan is married to Howard. Ray sounds a great deal like my cranky former neighbor Ray Jackson, who may not have disliked dogs but did seem to have been bothered by mine, Mr Moose, a twenty-five pound Cockle Spaniard. One day as I read quietly in the living room of the Little House, with the screen door open for ventilation, I heard what might have been pellets being slung against the front of the house and rose to see what had rained down on me like hail. I jsut got a hint of Ray going around the corner and then noticed what he’d thrown: dried dog droppings — none of which were from Mr Moose, by the way, because we pick up after the animals — which Ray had assumed were ours and then accumulated them for “return.” Ray was a man of action, if not words.

#10 Ernest “Red” Anhauser was the village atheist, a watchmaker at Salmagundi, Agincourt’s jewelers and purveyors of “precious things.” He, too, needed a second entry. “Red” exhibits many characteristics of Cecil Elliott, a former colleague at N.D.S.U. There are those of us who have stepped away from our religious upbringing and the select few who carry an active grudge: it’s one thing to be irreligious and another to be hostile.

#11 “Veterans” is as close as I can get to understanding Agincourt’s many contributions to war. At some point, there’ll be a specific character who can stand for all those listed on the memorials in The Square.

#12 Brother Crucible is yet another attempt to tell the complex story of religious institutions in the community’s history. I don’t know him. Perhaps you do. Architecture is one of those professions, perhaps the foremost of them, that seem to be monastic. So why not imagine an order of actual monks devoted, not to silence and poverty (though architects can identify with the second of those), but to architectural restoration. Visualize coarse brown franciscan robes with a tool belt where the knotted rope should be.

#13 Robina Lyle is very real, the public health nurse in my elementary school, a character so legendary in my own community’s history that an elementary school is named for her.

#14 Michael Corbett was someone of my acquaintance in about the 5th or 6th grade. When beating the shit out of me during recess ceased to be any fun, he then moved on to another target. Decades ago there was a TV show called “F.B.I. Files” which dramatized cases from the bureau’s archives. As luck would have it, I spun around the dial one evening — this was long before cable — when a snippet of narrative including “…Willow Springs, Illinois…” caught my attention. I knew people from there; went to school with some of them. The case involved the mayor, who was being sued for divorce by his wife — she having discovered he had been operating an illicit gambling and prostitution ring; hey, it is Chicago! — as well as the local police chief. The half hour dramatization of their solution involved drugging Mrs Mayor, stuffing her in the trunk of hizzoner’s car, driving to the bank of the Sanitary & Shipping canal, where the Chief pumped a few bullets into her drugged body, and then pushing the car into the canal. Actors, of course, played the roles but at the end, there was my grade school nemesis in a police mugshot, frontal and profile views. All things considered, I guess I got off light.

Roy Times Two

When Roy lost his leg in 1926 at the age of nine, artificial limbs were clumsy and expensive. So he grew to manhood on a series of crutches until his growth had begun to slow. But graduation from high school in 1935 put him squarely in the midst of the Great Depression. What factory was likely to hire an amputee for its assembly line? So he and his dad, Roy L. built a gasoline station and auto repair garage. When he married Marge, the station became a family affair until she disappeared in 1953. I hung out there as a child and eventually worked on weekday evenings and weekends — no doubt in violation of child labor laws. Eventually, I took on the half-day Sunday operations.

[In case this teaching gig doesn’t work out, by the way, I picked up some valuable job skills, like changing split-ring truck tires or giving a ’59 DeSoto a lube job and oil change.]

Ramsey’s Service Station enjoyed an eclectic clientele. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of our customers — in the days long before self service — were Blacks who had gone to school with my dad and knew him before and after the amputation. Many “protected” him while he was still on crutches; artificial limbs were both crude and expensive in the latter years of the Depression. So it was that I went to school with the children of many of Roy’s grade- and high-school friends.

These were families who had moved northward along the Illinois Central mainline from Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of better wages and less overt racism—or at least a different species of it. We lived in Bedford Park but Argo (where the high school and dad’s grade school were located) was divided on racial lines, with Blacks living south of 63rd Street and west of Archer Avenue. I wonder if things have changed very much. Coming of age in the 1950s, I cannot recall my father ever uttering a racial epithet or slur. I’ve tried to build some of that part of American history into Agincourt: you may find interesting the story of Truman Hand, a.k.a., “Handy”, an exploration of that point of view and Agincourt’s own level of racial tolerance.

But back to Roy.

Preparing for the Minimalist seminar next spring semester, I’ve discovered the short stories of Lydia Davis; some of them are one sentence long. Here’s a short story about dad in the spirit of Professor Davis (whose work I recommend).

Do you know the way to Resurrection? 

Depending on the season or time of day, a long bench across the front of the gas station hosted a changing cast of characters, the usual suspects. In the heat of summer, Roy was there, shirtless and tanned like a Mexican, drinking Schlitz and whittling two-by-twos into wooden chains. He wasn’t disinclined to move but some customers would pump their own and save him the trip. After school and while he ate supper, I worked the pumps from about the age of twelve.

Now and then someone would pull up to the pumps, clearly positioned for a full-up, but only be interested in directions. The station at 6455 South Archer Road was just beyond the comforting grid of the city, on a road that followed a trail blazed by the Illini and other native tribes moving between the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds: Summit, the next village north of us, wasn’t named by accident. Archer was State Highway #1A, a winding road between Chicago and Joliet [pronounced “jah-lee-et] with a string of leafy villages along the way that are now part of suburban sprawl.  Strung along between them were four large cemeteries — Bethania, Resurrection, Archer Woods, and Fairmount — some of them near the Forest Preserves that were a legacy from the Progressive Era. Weekends, especially Saturday, Sunday, Easter, Memorial, and Veterans holidays, traffic was heavy to those destinations and a good many of them got disoriented beyond the grid. We called them “Losts.”

If a “Lost” pulled up to the pumps and only wanted directions, Roy took a dim view of their presumption and, more than once, sent them on a quest more likely to locate the wild goose than the grave of Aunt Harriet. But the flip side was also true: if you pulled up to the curb, within a few feet of that bench, Dad would go well beyond the giving of simple accurate direction, drawing a map on a handy piece of butcher paper with annotations that anyone could follow. I remember one of those situations from the late 1950s.

It was late on a Saturday, a slow time on a hot summer day. A southbound car pulled in and idled a few feet from Roy, who had settled in for an afternoon of whittling. Fairmount was the driver’s goal but the I-394 bypass had been under construction for months and getting through that maze of barricades in a cloud of gravel dust was tricky, so Roy volunteered to provide a map. Pen and paper were in the station, so he put down the carving project and casually threw the pocket knife into his leg — which, of course, our Lost had no idea was made of wood. Feeling no pain, Roy stood to go inside but I watched as the expression of the guy behind the wheel turn from shock to “What the fuck have I got myself into?” He put the pedal to the metal and laid a ten foot trail of burnt rubber in a burst of exhaust. Dad and I just stood there, wondering what was wrong — a pen knife still firmly imbedded where his right thigh ought to have been.

Typical Roy.

Let sleeping doubt lie

A year or so before he died, I gave dad a family genealogy as a Christmas present. I’d worked in those pre-ancestry.com days with professionals in DC and put together quite a reasonable effort for not much investment. For the first time EVER, he actually talked about himself, like the picture of him, Roy L. and Clara (the lady in cloche hat) and his grandmother. Then he dropped the bombshell: Roy wasn’t at all sure that Clara was actually his mother!

It seems that my grandfather had been married twice, and that the first Mrs Ramsey had died in childbirth. What had apparently concerned dad for most if not all his life was that he had been that child and Clara had actually been his stepmother. Shit! You can imagine I manifest the precise opposite of his disconnect. That doubt was all I needed.

An afternoon at the office of Vital Statistics in downtown Chicago gave me all the information I needed. Roy L. had married Nellie in 1908 and their son Evard was born in early 1912, dying just seven weeks later, apparently along with Nellie. Roy L. married Clara in 1913 and Roy C. (confirmed by birth certificate) was born in June 1917. Clara, the woman who raised me when Marge left (with a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash, never to be seen again), stepped in and took me on as her “parenting” swan song. I slept well that night and so did dad, though he never mentioned it again. He died three years later.

Perhaps this is the greatest difference between us: Roy could live with that nagging suspicion — he’d just rather not know — for most of his adult life, while I needed an answer a.s.a.p., regardless of its truth.

Cradle to Grave

This postcard is far too rich for my pocket book and the business it represents is also too large an operation, I think, for Agincourt and its hinterlands. So even photo-shopping this image wouldn’t be entirely appropriate for the project. But there very likely was a dealer in tombstones serving the community’s three burial grounds.

Our three cemeteries are grouped at the east edge of the Original Townsite, where Agincourt Avenue crosses the old city limit. The Catholic’s consecrated their ground about 1860, land purchased from the Schütz family; more likely a donation because the family have been prominent in church affairs for more than 150 years. Much larger (about three times the area) is the Protestant or non-sectarian cemetery, cast romantically as “The Shades”, a 19th century reference to ghosts as “shades” or “shadows”. Somewhat later, as the Jewish population warranted, a Hebrew Burial Ground balanced the group. So, among the three of them, there was a full range of decorative styles and ethnic traditions. Who crafted those monuments?

In 2001 I attended an Anglican–Episcopal church history conference in Toronto. It celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) and presented some of my research into the history of Episcopal church architecture in Dakota Territory. [Do you think I’ll ever get that material in print?] During a break in the sessions, I stepped into the courtyard of Trinity College, where a mason was trimming stone for the border of a planting bed: I was transfixed and began a conversation with him.

He was an Aberdeen native, an especially stony part of Scotland which is itself a particularly rocky country. If I were in the market for the services of a mason, an Aberdonian is precisely who I would seek — despite their reputation for speaking an incomprehensible dialect and alcoholism. Indeed, another Aberdeen native had already crossed my path: Nathaniel Maconachie (pronounced “muh·KAHN·shee”), who was the stone and brick mason for some of Fargo architect George Hancock’s earliest works — St Stephen’s Episcopal church in Casselton; Old Main at the NDAC; St Mark’s Episcopal church in Anaconda, among others. So I welcomed the opportunity to speak with a living craftsman practicing his trade.

I’ll try to keep that conversation in mind as I imagine who may have crafted funerary monuments in late 19th Agincourt.

Happy Accidents

One of the attractions of the Shingle Style is the opportunity to craft sophisticated simplicity: the ability to add nuanced detail to something derived from Platonic shapes, the sort that inspired Friedrich Fröbel and, through him, Frank Lloyd Wright. I designed this house (intended for myself in a youthful fit of optimism) in the late 1960s while working at the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger. It came to me in a dream and was quickly drawn as soon as I got to the office that summer morning before Fred, Richard or Bill arrived.

Years later — and I mean decades — I discovered this house of 1883 (below) in the pages of the American Architect & Building News; I read that sort of thing for fun. Imagine my surprise when Boston architect Samuel J. F. Thayer’s design appeared on the computer screen: not a duplicate but certainly a curious parallel with the house I eventually repurposed for the James and Martha Tennant family in Agincourt, Iowa. Mine lacks the third floor and nifty two-story dormers, but I’ve been more generous with ground-floor window and door openings (I’ve got a thing for French doors) giving access to the wrap-around piazza. All things considered, I’ll take mine over Thayer’s.

I’m inspired now to make a model for the next and presumably last Agincourt exhibit this fall.