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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.

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



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