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Pliny’s Purse

“Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.”

― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

pliny's purse

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past #24: Pliny’s Purse

Alexander Pope tells us that anonymity is a donor’s wisest course. I wonder what Pope might say when the donor himself is equally ignorant of his charity.

In the year leading to Agincourt’s 150th anniversary, a wide range of topics occupied this space. And among the earliest was a piece about our Founders, the five investors who planted the seed of Agincourt in 1853. That group included the three Tennant brothers, their banker* and a brother-in-law. I repeat this historical nugget for just one reason: of the three Tennants, Numbers 1 and 3 stayed on, while Number 2 went west — swallowed by the gold fields of California. But Pliny Tennant left a larger mark on the community than he could have imagined.

Pliny’s profit from the sale of lots continued to accumulate during his absence. After three years, with no word from the frontier and every reason to believe he’d not return, the others created a fund called “Pliny’s Purse”, intended for charity and specified as anonymous.

Very few of us were even aware of the Five Founders, let alone one-hundred-and-fifty years of benefaction. I called in some favors, applied the little leverage left to me, and —well, yes — I even begged for some insight to the operation of Pliny’s Purse….and didn’t get very far. Frankly, I took all of that as a very good sign Tennant’s legacy is in good hands. Secrets are notoriously hard to keep. Here is as much as I can say.

#1) Three Tennants, Horace and Virgil and their sister Helen, were the first of a self-perpetuating “committee” evolving through recruitment of others from the community at large. There have been as few as three and as many as five at any time, all sworn to a secrecy that remains unbroken.

#2) Their mission from the outset was to follow Alexander Pope’s advice: “Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.” Help those in need. Do it in such a way that no one notices, not even the recipients.

#3) Let generosity be tempered, alone, by discretion and good stewardship.

That model seems to have functioned well in a community of our size, where invisibility is difficult and want can be more easily distinguished from need. I’m told that medical expenses, medications as well as treatments, have been covered. Foreclosures forestalled. Loved ones reunited. The hapless helped. The vulnerable reassured. All of which put me in mind of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur Dent and his fellow travelers meet the Man Who Rules the Universe:

“The Ruler of the Universe is a man living in a small shack on a world that can only be reached with a key to an unprobability field or use of an Infinite Improbability Drive. He does not want to rule the universe and tries not to whenever possible, and therefore is by far the ideal candidate for the job. He has an odd, solipsistic view of reality: he lives alone with his cat, which he has named ‘The Lord’ even though he is not certain of its existence. He has a very dim view of the past, and he only believes in what he senses with his eyes and ears (and doesn’t seem too certain of that, either): anything else is hearsay, so when executive-types visit to ask him what he thinks about certain matters, such as wars and the like, he tells them how he feels without considering consequences. As part of his refusal to accept that anything is true, or simply as another oddity, ‘…he talked to his table for a week to see how it would react.’ He does sometimes admit that some things may be more likely than others – e.g. that he might like a glass of whiskey, which the visitors leave for him.”

The keepers of Pliny’s Purse deserve your thanks as much as they warrant their invisibility.

haym salomon.jpg

* One of my favorite urban sculptures once stood on a pedestrian island in the course of Chicago’s Wacker Drive. One of the three heroic bronze figures is Haym Salomon, an obscure figure in American history who financed the Revolutionary War. Of him, Wikipedia has this to say:

 “The financier died suddenly and in poverty on January 8, 1785, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after contracting tuberculosis in prison. Due to the failure of governments and private lenders to repay the debt incurred by the war, his family was left penniless at his death at age 44. The hundreds of thousands of dollars of Continental debt Salomon bought with his own fortune were worth only about 10 cents on the dollar when he died.

“His obituary in the Independent Gazetteer read, ‘Thursday, last, expired, after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Salomon, an eminent broker of this city, was a native of Poland, and of the Hebrew nation. He was remarkable for his skill and integrity in his profession, and for his generous and humane deportment. His remains were yesterday deposited in the burial ground of the synagogue of this city.'”

First Baptist Church

For the life of me, I can’t fathom why so many small towns bother to number their churches. Isn’t it a lot like banks? If you can’t be “first”, why bother.

Christian Scientists do it. In fact one of my favorite C.S. churches is 17th Church of Christ, Scientist in Chicago, a building of the 60’s when I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. Its architect Harry Weese has always been a favorite. [So many of these churches have closed — Christian Scientists have a notoriously low birth rate; too busy making money to make babies — that you wonder if they don’t have to renumber their congregations. Weese’s building might be #12 or #11 by now.]

17th Church of Christ, Scientist / Harry Weese, architect (1968)

As I prepare for the seminar on minimalism next semester, Weese’s 17th Church seems a good example of the directness in constructional expression that influenced my own architectural youth. And it echoes the comparable simplicity of an early 19th century Universalist church at Holland Patent, NY. This RPPC postcard view shows up often on eBay, so often I couldn’t avoid borrowing it for the Baptist church in Agincourt.

It’s astounding that the Holland Patent building still stands, though it apparently no longer serves as a place of religious fellowship. Still, its dignity fits the profile of early Agincourt and especially its carpenter-builder Amos Beddowes. From this limited documentation, do you suppose I’ll be able to abstract any of the underlying proportional principles from Holland Patent — presuming there are any, of course. I’ve been around long enough to see in it what Mrs Avery Coonley described in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work: “the countenance of principle,” a rare enough commodity these days.


E. Easton Taylor [early 20th century]

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

TAYLOR, E. Easton [early 20th century; British]

Portrait of Sophia Iphigenia Tennant


gouache on heavy paper / 14.25 inches by 11.5 inches

This portrait of Sophie Tennant was recently found behind another far less interesting or significant painting. It has not yet been conserved, but despite all its folds and tears, Miss Tennant’s wistful smile still conveys a sense of dignity and grace. Sophie and her sister Phoebe were the unmarried siblings of A. J. Tennant and the aunts of architect Anson Tennant.

Edwardian artist E. Easton Taylor painted Miss Tennant in 1918.

Jeffrey Boys [born 1950]

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

BOYS, Jeffrey [born 1950]



oil on panel / 6 inches by 8 inches

With degrees from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia College of Art, and Indiana University [an MFA], Boys appears to have been active primarily in the ’80s and ’90s, when he painted this small work. “I like to paint something that will not be there five minutes later,” he says, and this snapshot of people on a beach conveys that immediacy. It has that in common with other works in the collection, especially two by Gabriel Spat, another much earlier impressionist.

“Beach” was a gift to the Community Collection in memory of Willis Fahnstock, a Fennimore county artist who had also attended PAFA a hundred years ago.

The Old Urbanism: how cities happened

It may come as no surprise that I am no fan of the so-called “New Urbanism”, especially as it has been defined by Seaside and Ave Maria in Florida. It may be unfair to judge the movement by those early example, but I invite you to visit them on Zillow, RedFin or some other real estate website and investigate the realities of property values.

Seaside was touted at its beginning as cross-cultural and inclusive — words I may be putting in New Urbanist mouths but which I have heard applied to it. The notion that the resident who strolls to the city center for a burger at the Malt Shoppe will be served by a waitperson who lives in the apartment upstairs is ludicrous. Those residents will have come from a single-family detached home on a single-lane residential street that is appraised at something between $1.5 and $2.8 million [i.e., a monthly mortgage payment between $6K and $10K]. Meanwhile that person slinging burgers had better be making a bundle in tips: their second-floor condo is valued at just shy of $1M, with a monthly mortgage of $3.5K. The reality is that everyone staffing the dry cleaner, the bank, or the post office may very well live in a trailer park ten miles down the road. New Urbanism is trickle-down economics. But, remember, these observations are coming from a Marxist.

There is much to recommend a return to the aesthetic of small-town America; what is depicted in films like “The Truman Show” and “Pleasantville” or episodes of “Twilight Zone” that I’ve mentioned in the section here called “Additional Reading and Viewing.” One of the issues inherent in those paradigms is the unapologetic absence of diversity: Seaside or Ave Maria are not places to seek out “the other.” Returning to Smallville will not make America greater; it will simply make it whiter.

Agincourt #3

I invoke the New Urbanist agenda as preface to an idea for the third iteration of an Agincourt exhibit. In retrospect I wonder whether this ten-year-long experiment may not have touched upon at least a few principles of the Old Urbanism — the situation that got us in this fix in the first place.

At 4:oo a.m. today I settled on that topic of urbanism [spellcheck does not like that word] and a revisitation of the early phases of the project and an exploration of the principles that may have underlain it. So imagine if you will an October exhibit titled “The Old Urbanism: how cities happened” and its late 19th and early 20th century context.

Elbert Peets, Werner Hegemann, Charles Mulford Robinson, et al.

Messrs Hegemann and Peets published in 1922 The American Vitruvius: An Architect’s Handbook of Civic Art, a seminal work on civic design in America. Peets had served as an engineer-planner in the U.S. Army during WWI and subsequently expanded his knowledge through a traveling scholarship that allowed him to investigate various European capitals in 1920. His collaboration with Hegemman had begun in 1916 (before our entry to the war) and continued post-1919, resulting in the joint authorship of American Vitruvius.

Charles Mulford Robinson, on the other hand, had died three years prior to the Hegemann-Peets volume. He was untrained academically and entered the field of planning by the side door, through a career in journalism. Robinson had written a guidebook to the Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World’s Fair, a landmark event at the beginning of the City Beautiful movement. On the basis of that work  and the publication in 1901 of The Improvement of Towns and Cities, possibly America’s first guide to city planning. I haven’t investigated what influence, if any, he may have had on Hegemann-Peets.

Insofar as the American Midwest is concerned, Robinson had a more direct influence here, having received commission from St Joseph, Missouri, Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Stillwater, Minnesota for planning reports that applied City Beautiful principles to modest communities in Middle America. Proposals for Colorado Spring and as far as Honolulu followed prior to his death in 1917.

Frank Lloyd Wright would never had admitted any knowledge of C. M. Robinson, but his son Lloyd’s design for the Los Angeles Civic Center owes much to Robinson’s influence.

Los Angeles Civic Center proposal / Lloyd Wright, architect

So where does this leave me? It outlines a good deal of required study and analysis: What if any were the ideas that influenced the appearance and growth of America’s smaller towns and cities? And what role might they have played in the creation of Agincourt? Peets, Hegemann, Robinson and a handful of others were not unknown to me throughout these past dozen years; their influence had to have been subliminal.