[What follows is a draft that may become part of the Agincourt book’s INTRODUCTION/PREFACE. If any of this seems unclear or questionable, I’ll appreciate your advice.]
“A beginning is a delicate thing.” — Princess Irulan, Dune
The obtuse origin of the book you hold is long ago and far away and very likely outside your comfort zone, rooted in architectural history, my academic bailiwick.
During the summer of 2006 I had an idle but intriguing thought about 19th century American architect Louis Sullivan. If not the outright inventor of the skyscraper, Sullivan was at minimum the designer who gave poetic expressive form to its lofty potential: he made the multi-story office building “a proud and soaring thing.”
But if pre-1900 Sullivan made the tall building seem taller, post-1900 Sullivan, addled with alcohol and even worse addictions, directed his creative vision perforce to a more modest architectural type: the home-grown bank in small Midwestern towns. Eight of these — his self-styled “jewel boxes”— emerged during nearly as many years, between 1908 and 1919. Lush with Sullivan’s organic ornament — America’s other claimant, along with the glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany, to the Art Nouveau — it was also late evidence of Emersonian transcendence and the American character shaped between our Civil War and the Great One.
While that handful of towns were building Sullivan banks, from Ohio in the East to Iowa and Minnesota in the West, they and hundreds of other communities benefited from the largesse of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. A self-educated immigrant Scot, Carnegie extended that opportunity for self-improvement to the employees of his steel mills — the “retail” period of his benefaction — then to the country at large and eventually to the English-speaking world; a program that underwrote 1800 public libraries in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain. The coincidence of these two seemingly unrelated phenomena — a few Sullivan banks and hundreds of Carnegie libraries — raised a curious question on a quiet August night in 2006, nearly a century after the fact: Sullivan was working for a clientele who may well have pursued a Carnegie grant. Bank presidents were the very sort likely to serve on library boards and other positions of clout and credibility. Simply put, he was in the right place at the proper time to have received a Carnegie-funded or other library commission. But he didn’t.
As a hybrid designer-historian, wondering why something hadn’t happened was far less engaging than imagining what could have been. Agincourt, Iowa has been the extrapolation of that wonder.
To begin, I needed what every architect does: a client, a programme, and a site; aside from Carnegie’s cash, these three were my responsibility. And while I can’t be Louis Sullivan, I can imagine someone under his spell. There are more than a few known to architectural history who might serve as models.
A site in early 20th-century Iowa was a good choice: Sullivan had designed five buildings there during 1910-1914 — three banks, a department store, and a church. His name might even have been recognized, if not an outright household word. But rather than choose an existing Iowa town, each with its own historical baggage, I chose instead to create a typical mid-19th century railroad town — the iconic stuff of “Music Man”, Our Town, and “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
Every Midwest hamlet was eager, even destined in its own collective mind, to be the New Chicago and take a rightful place in the heady economy of post-Civil War America. Agincourt — a name I chose because I knew we’d mispronounce it — as the seat of Fennimore County, elbowed its way among Iowa’s ninety-nine others, where the reserve of the native Sac and Fox people in the northwestern part of the state had been opened to settlement. In hindsight it seemed only proper that my urban and architectural enterprise should be founded on America’s original sin, the usurpation of Native land.
Planning the town had been done for me by the country’s 19th century railroads: mile-square grids plunked at six- to eight-mile intervals and left to fight for economic hegemony. Then finding the town’s 100% corner, the benchmark site at its core, for the new library — the gem in Agincourt’s civic crown, along with a courthouse, academy, and spiritual necklace of churches — was far easier than creating Anson Tennant, the would-be architect, my avatar for the library commission.
Every building, even the humblest cottage or garden shed, tells a story. The Paris Opera required Haussmann and Garnier; the Parthenon, it’s Pericles, Iktinos and Kalikrates. So the Agincourt Public Library would be their counterpart. The cultural heart of a modest but eager Midwest community anxious to write its own chapter of the American story. The project that grew from an innocuous summer speculation got seriously out of hand, however, engaging the creative energies of students, fellow faculty, colleagues, and friends, some new, some old, which generated two museum exhibits, multiple commissioned artworks, and the world premiers of two musical compositions. Most important, buildings materialized in tandem with their narratives; place-making and story-telling do go hand in glove. Eventually I and this story found a path to the first Historical Fictions Research Network Conference in 2016; to the nurture and moral support of Dr Farah Mendlesohn, its founder; to many new friends of this project — like Dr Kate Macdonald and this publishing venture; and to an audience far beyond the project’s modest origin eleven years ago — a prospect I could not have anticipated.
Our chronicler in the following pages is Howard Tabor, mild-mannered reporter for a struggling newspaper, The Daily Plantagenet, where he writes a local history column lost in the Saturday editions: “A few figs from thistles…” Many of Agincourt’s more colorful denizens are recorded there, as are the word-pictures of their world, which we hoped would be more real than real. Ideally you will come away from these tales wondering if you hadn’t stopped once for pie and coffee that summer you drove cross country to visit great-aunt Phyllis. Well, the Bon-Ton Café is still there. And the rhubarb pie is just as you remember it: not too sweet and plenty of lard in the crust.
So, as the opening credits of “The Lone Ranger” intoned each Saturday morning of my misappropriated youth, “Come with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.” Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa, the town that time forgot and geography misplaced.