“If we cannot tell a story about what happened to us, nothing has happened to us.”
― James P. Carse,
“Languorous refers to a certain kind of mood everyone gets in sometimes — when you’d rather lie around thinking than doing work or having fun. When you’re languorous, you’re tired and maybe a little depressed. Things can be languorous, too — like a hot, languorous summer afternoon or a languorous song that’s slow and mournful. If you’ve ever lounged in bed for an hour after you were supposed to get up, you’re familiar with feeling languorous.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
This picture of our creek, Crispin Creek, must have been taken mid-summer, possibly late July, before the August heat takes half its depth and you can walk across barely wetting your knees. If this blog had a sound track, you’d be savoring Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music” for woodwind quintet, as lazy and languorous as the creek. Dragonflies hover and tempt the fish — agricultural runoff hadn’t yet lowered their numbers — while cicadas hum in G major.*
Tonight this image of the creek carries special feeling; outside the temperature is double-digit below zero, and the windchill is double that. I question the value of another Agincourt exhibit — what story could it possibly tell; what audience longs to hear it told? — and doubt what the investment might yield. I have nine months’ gestation to answer myself.
* “Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love — in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.” — from “Emotions of the Musical Keys” by Kevin Lessmann. Who knew?
Or is it Reflux?
Revisiting a post from thirteen months ago, this afternoon also brought a conversation with Mr Rutter about the prospect for a third and, very likely, final exhibit this fall. October seems to be Agincourt’s month — St Crispin’s Day is on the 25th; and the previous exhibits either opened or closed on the day — so we’ve tentatively set the end of that month as a target. There is so much to do and so much more I hope to “say” that the creative juices have already begun to seep, if not actually flow. Then again, it may simply be an issue of bladder control.
Themes for the previous shows related to the community’s sesquicentennial and to the all-American idea of homecoming, but this year’s will touch on an equally abstract matter: the question of how cities happen. Despite its roots in the minutia of architectural history — an obtuse musing on Louis Sullivan and Carnegie libraries — there is a more universal issue of urban design to be explored, including the current inclination toward a “new urbanism” as an over-response to the heroic Modernism of the 1960s. And while I may be drawn to the simplicities of “Our Town” and “The Truman Show” and “Mayberry F.F.D.” and several iconic episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, I’m suspicious that a species of Trickle-down Economics lurks within.
These are, as they say, perilous times in which the pretty platitudes of Seaside, Florida (the artificial setting for Truman Burbank’s postcard existence) simply don’t bear the scrutiny that changed Pleasantville from black-and-white to blazing color, with a reciprocal loss of innocence. Or was it the attainment of a necessary ambivalent ambiguity that comes with growing up? Is it naïveté to believe that coal jobs will return or fundamentalist wishful-thinking that traditional marriage — whatever the hell that ever was, if it ever was — is coming back? It’s not for me to say.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
SCHWABEROW, Micah [born 1948]
“Mount Rainier, Head in the Clouds”
woodcut / 6 inches by 15 inches / #47 of 110
A significant number of prints in the Collection are woodcuts, a theme that begs the question of Asian influence in Western art. Two artists exemplify the woodcut as bridge between those cultures: Yushijiro Urushibara, for example, was a woodcut master who brought Japanese technique to Europe; Urushibara influenced British printmaker John Edgar Platt and he worked directly with Anglo-Belgian artist Frank Brangwyn. Reciprocally, a relationship developed when American Micah Schwaberow spent a year learning Japanese woodblock traditions in Tokyo as an apprentice to Toshi Yoshida.¹
“Mount Rainier, Head in the Clouds” is Schwaberow’s homage to 19th century printmaker Hiroshige and his multiple views of Mount Fuji.
¹ All of these artists are represented: Urushibara, Platt, Yoshida, Brangwyn, and Schwaberow by at least one work each.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
SCHWABEROW, Micah [born 1948]
color woodcut / 7 inches by 6 inches / #63 of 115
color woodcut / 4.5 inches by 8.5 inches / #87 of 157
“I think of my work as color haiku,” explains California artist Micah Schwaberow, “large places carefully compressed, intimate glimpses through small windows”, which perfectly describes this print from a 1991 portfolio celebrating The Cafés of San Francisco. Its Japanese ukiyo-e quality is easily explained by an on-line biography:
Micah Schwaberow, printmaker, painter and sculptor, was born in Eugene, Oregon in 1948. He studied painting with Maurice Lapp and printmaking with Elizabeth Quandt at the Santa Rosa Junior College in northern California. In 1981, he spent a month in Miasa, Japan studying traditional woodblock printing and, in 1982, he spent most of the year in Nagai, Japan studying with the Japanese master of color woodcut, Toshi Yoshida, and his master carvers and printers. In September of that year, he was an assistant teacher to Toshi Yoshida during a three-week woodblock course for foreigners.
Coincidentally, the Community Collection includes prints by members of the Yoshida family.
Among the handful of architects who’ve had a presence in Agincourt, two stand out: William Halsey Wood (designer of the second Fennimore Co. courthouse) and in a subtler way Lawrence Buck, who created two client-specific houses, one for Aidan and Cordelia Archer and another for Miss Rose Kavana, long-time principal at Clarence Darrow Public School. There is a third Buck-designed house, however, which opens the door to a discussion of the various ways the community’s housing stock came about.
We are, I think, to quick to conclude that houses come from two sources: big architect-designed single-family houses and smaller vernacular pattern-book designs that have no particular author. While doing a National Register nomination some years ago for a flood-damaged house in Grand Forks, I was confronted with explaining how the house had come to be. And the exploration of those origins exposed me to a much wider spectrum of possibilities than I’d imagined. Briefly single-family homes can be traced to several sources:
- Unique (one-off) homes, where the client has chosen an architect and worked closely with him/her to achieve a custom-designed property.
- Homes built from plans secured at the lumberyard or from a local builder; these are often repeated multiple times in their community or more broadly.
- From Pattern books or periodicals which could be available (and probably still are) from news stands; the plans can be purchased for a small price.
Situated between these “extremes” there have also been hybrid sources that bridge the gap between high fashion and vernacular:
- Architects themselves have published collections of their designs — often including plans pirated from better known designers, without appropriate credit. Knoxville architect George Barber published several volumes of his work, offering both inexpensive plans and a custom design for making alterations. Modern Artistic Cottages of 1887 was such a volume. But Barber was just one of several architects with a mail-order practice; others include the Pallisers and Morrison Vail.
- A handful of architects pushed the idea of architecture as a mail-order business by publishing their own monthly magazine. Regionally, the best example was Minneapolis architect Walter J. Keith, whose monthly included plans as well as hints to the homebuilder concerning a range of interests, from furnaces to landscaping. It was Keith who had provided plans for the Grand Forks home whose NR nomination I was preparing.
- A third source (which hardly exhausts the topic) was the so-called women’s magazines, House Beautiful, Ladies Home Journal, House & Garden, etc. In the case of the LHJ, for example, the magazine asked architects to provide plans for homes of moderate cost, published them, and then made copies of the plans available for a modest cost. This was a mechanism used by both Lawrence Buck and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early years of the 20th century.
Wright’s “Fireproof House for $5000” received wide distribution through this LHJ program, as did Lawrence Buck with far less notoriety or fanfare. It’s Buck’s design for the Charles Reeves house in Oak Park, Illinois that interests me today.
Appearing in both the LHJ and the House Beautiful within a matter of months, the Reeves design was built in at least four places: Norwich, NY, Rockford, IL, Wichita, KS, and Williston, ND. All were built circa 1910-1911, with or without Buck’s awareness.
Such widespread dispersion of the Reeves design [one wonders what the Reeves family felt about all of this] opens the door to one more iteration, this time in Agincourt, Iowa for a client named Clark.
“Mr and Mrs Clark”
As is often the case, the relationship between a real architect, Lawrence Buck, and imaginary clients, Mr & Mrs Clark, is obtuse. It goes something like this:
- Lawrence Buck and his near contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright each used the Ladies Home Journal as a marketing tool for the early 20th century practices.
- Buck and Wright actually knew one another, both having office in Chicago’s Steinway Hall on East Van Buren Street, where they undoubtedly shared elevator rides a few times a week.
- Frank Lloyd Wright was associated with publisher Ralph Fletcher Seymour, whose print studio was around the corner in the Fine Arts Building.
- Seymour was an artist and designer of fine print books.
- Wright and Seymour collaborated on the publication in English of a book by noted Swedish feminist Ellen Key.
- Lawrence Buck designed a house for Seymour.
- Wright discovered that Buck had designed a house for Seymour and wrote to hope that the client would get something other than a “pretty drawing.”
- One of Seymour’s etchings came into the Community Collection in the former Agincourt Public Library.
- The print is inscribed to “Mr and Mrs Clark”, who must obviously have been the clients for another of those Reeves house duplicates.
[NB: Statements in red are entirely truthful; the greyed portion, not so much.
Make sense? It does to me. Now I just have to invent the Clark family.
A recent post, probably a borderline rant, grew from a National Register nomination for a house in Wichita, Kansas.
The Hugh Roberts house at 235 North Roosevelt is an excellent example of the Arts & Crafts style of the early 20th century and deserves its place on the Register. The description of the house is, like most nominations, formulaic and technical; don’t curl up with a nomination on a stormy night expecting a compelling story line. But the historical narrative is (for me, at least) far more interesting. In this case, I’ve got a horse in the race, as they say, and a special interest in the attribution of the building’s authorship. Simply put, who was its architect?
The question naturally arises, What does an architect do? Any responses to that general question depend on your point of view. Clients, for example, are often heard to say, “Oh, I designed the building. The architect just drew up the plans.” Saturday newspaper supplements are rife with that perspective, along with the photo caption “artist’s conception” beneath the drawing of a proposed church, shopping mall, or apartment complex. Ask the architects of those projects — the professionals whose name and liability are on the line — and you’ll get a remarkably different answer.
Since 1951, when Wyoming became the last state to regulate the practice of architecture “in the interest of public health and safety”, the profession has been governed by what are called “Title & Practice” laws. That is, architecture as a professional activity is limited by title (no one may use the word “architect” to describe themselves in the public arena, for advertising or in the classified section of the phone book) and by practice (the actual design of buildings — the preparation of drawings and specifications used in the construction process — the the range of building types or project costs limited by the law) and violations of either will result in legal action. In other words, without proper credentials, you are restricted from either calling yourself an architect or actually doing what an architect does (as described in the various state statutes). All of which begs the question, What does an architect do? Since my education prepared me for a career in architecture but I chose, instead, to teach others preparing for their own careers, my perspective is best described as “academic.” So, if this seems overly simple, I apologize beforehand.
For most of the 20th century, the process of creating a building required three players in a triune relationship, much like the system of checks and balances among the three branches of our government. I label them “A”, “B”, and “C”: the Architect, the Builder, and the Client. The clients desire the building; the architect provides the design solution and construction documents (plans and specifications); and the builder (more often called a contractor) executes the plans under the architect’s supervision. The architect is the client’s technical advisor to ensure proper execution. But this three-way relationship leaves unanswered the matter of the design process itself.
“The architect just drew up the plans.”
Am I on thin ice suggesting that Mr and Mrs Reeves, clients for the house in Oak Park, brought their dreams to Lawrence Buck — perhaps because they had seen another of his two Oak Park houses — asking him to design a home within their resources? The clients presented a list, perhaps, of spatial requirements, which Buck organized in ways appropriate to an upper middle class family. There would have been give and take between client and architect, until concensus was reached and construction documents went out for bids. Yes, the clients approved material choices and details, room arrangements and fenestration, perhaps even paint colors and some other interior aspects not strictly architectural; Buck had a long-standing relationship with two collaborators, d’Arcy Gaw and Mary Mower, as “The Crafters” offering interior design services. But the design, in part and as a whole, was the result of Buck’s creative vision and cumulative skill: he was “the architect” of the design.
So, the Reeves design was published twice (as far as I know) in the pages of the LHJ and House Beautiful. An inexpensive set of plans was available from the LHJ, at which point three options presented themselves: #1) the client could have employed Buck himself to superintend construction — an expensive prospect, given the distance between Chicago and Wichita; #2) the client could have acted as his/her own general contractor, superintending construction themselves; or #3) the client could have sought a local “clerk-of-the-works” to oversee the construction process, someone who could be a contractor or even an architect (or someone using that title, since Kansas did not license the profession until 1949).
Let me insert a local instance here in Fargo: In 1898 St Paul architect Cass Gilbert — subsequently architect of the Minnesota State Capitol and, later, the Woolworth Building in NYC — received the commission for the Northern Pacific Railway depot in Fargo, North Dakota. The drawings were produced by Gilbert and his staff in Saint Paul. A building of that size required daily, on-site supervision, which would have been an expensive prospect for Gilbert. So he contracted with local architects Hancock Brothers to be clerks-of-the-works. It was George or, more likely, Walter Hancock who took responsibility for interpreting the inevitable ambiguities of a complex design. If I were writing a National Register nomination for the N.P. Depot, however, it would never cross my mind to attribute the depot to Hancock Brothers as its architects.
As the owner of a lumber yard, Wichita client H. N. Roberts could presumably have been his own superintendent, time permitting, but he might also have employed an architect for that task. What we don’t know is the authenticity of the design, that is, the degree to which Buck’s design remained intact. A local architect (or contractor, for that matter, since, remember, the profession was unregulated) could have altered the design in minor ways: relocating a door, reversing cabinetry or plumbing fixtures, but the likelihood of considerable modification is slim. Extensive changes negate the original choice of a design and, by implication, a designer. Until extensive modifications are documented, Lawrence Buck should be considered the architect of the H. N. Roberts house. U. G. Charles — if he was indeed connected with the project — was no more the building’s architect than Buck was its superintendent.
If I sound angry, you may be right. I prefer to see it as chagrin, however; extreme disappointment that educated people, professionals, continue to misunderstand what “design” is and what “designers” do. I have a horse in this race, as they say, a couple of them, in fact; a truth I gladly admit. But my ire would be the same under other circumstances.
What does an architect do?
That question should cross my mind at least twice a year — at the start of each semester I play my part in architectural education. I wonder, in fact, if there is any consistency among my colleagues on the point. Perhaps the education/training process (and there is a huge difference between those two intentions in any field) ranges from the practical and legalistic to the philosophical and poetic. I think about the subject today, just three days before our Spring semester, because an accidental on-line research query yesterday afternoon raised it, but the issue goes back at least twenty years to a Summer afternoon in Wichita, Kansas with my friend Richard Kenyon.
Richard and I were driving through Kansas and had stopped to photograph the Allen-Lambe house, a Frank Lloyd Wright design of 1917, among the last exercises in the Prairie style of his early career. We parked on Roosevelt Street, in front of the house, and were compensating for bad late afternoon light. I had taken a few shots and turned to the left, looking beyond a shelter belt that edges the property on the south, and was surprised to see a familiar house. [You can see it on the extreme left of the photograph above.] The Allen’s neighbor was a near duplicate, as far as I could tell at that moment, of the Charles Reeves house in Oak Park, Illinois.
I knew the Reeves house from an eerily similar set of circumstances: I was in Oak Park with a student field trip to see the world’s largest concentration of Wright houses, and there, across the street from an early Wright house — once again, as I turned left — there was a house, the duplicate of one I had seen several months earlier on a reconnaissance trip to (of all places) Williston, North Dakota. That first pairing (Oak Park and Williston) led to my exploration of an unfamiliar architect, Lawrence Buck [1865-1929].
As it subsequently developed, the Williston house had been built by the city’s mayor Joseph Jackson and his wife Julia, based on a house they had seen in the May 1909 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, the aforementioned Reeves house of just a few years earlier. So, based on the Wichita encounter, I wrote to learn more about this second iteration of the Reeves design.
The house at 255 North Roosevelt was built in 1909 by Hugh Roberts, owner of a local lumber yard. [The house is impossible to see on google street view.] I wrote the current owners and shared with them several years of research on Lawrence Buck and his career, one of many I suppose that have been unjustly eclipsed by the larger-than-life Frank Lloyd Wright. This was a special case, however, since the two architects were near contemporaries — just two years separate their births — they were both Chicagoans at the time (ca 1910); both had used the so-called women’s magazines like the Ladies Home Journal to promote their careers; and, coincidentally, they both officed in Chicago’s Steinway Hall and without question shared elevator rides several times a week. By the way and in case you’re wondering, these things happen to me all the time. But what does any of this have to do with last Thursday afternoon?
By a not necessarily happy accident, I stumbled yesterday on that completed National Register nomination and read with considerable interest (because I had, in the meantime, located two other Reeves house duplicates, in Norwich, NY¹ and Rockford, IL) but found two things curious: 1) the Hugh Roberts home had been attributed by the consultants to local architect U. G. Charles [a name unknown to me and, yes, the initials stand for Ulysses Grant] and 2) my correspondence with the owner regarding Lawrence Buck was quoted in the nomination. The circumstantial link with Buck, however, had been rejected in favor of an undocumented attribution to architect Charles. I must admit my feelings were a combination of astonishment and chagrin. I had been generous with my research — the nomination’s writers were being compensated; I was not — and had provided what I still believe to be the “smoking gun.” The chagrin is in retreat, but the astonishment has raised the rhetorical question, “What does an architect do?” Clearly there are some people in Wichita who represent a different point of view.
Like Murder on the Orient Express, there is the simple, easy, expedient answer, and then there is another far more complex, nuanced, and circuitous. And, as you might imagine, I see an article coming out of all this which will, I hope, provide another perspective, if not actually set the record straight, and clarify in my own mind why the general public has such a devilish time understanding the design process, now or in the recent past.
The architectural profession has undergone three periods of development (the topic of my MArch Thesis): The first began in 1853 with organization of the American Institute of Architects and the intention to see architecture set apart as a distinct profession. The second phase begins nearly fifty years later, in 1897, when Illinois became the first state to recognize by licensure the existence of that profession. The third begins in 1951, when Wyoming became the last state to establish a licensing law. And now, more than fifty years after that — and perhaps at the beginning of a fourth stage of professionalization — South Dakota has questioned the value of granting professional licenses whatsoever, suggesting that the public health and safety are no longer goals worthy of the state’s interest. So I am glad to be thinking about the issue today.
There, now I’ve got that off my chest.
For those of you who have answers to the question “What does an architect do?”, I’ll enjoy having your replies.
PS: Thanks to Wayne Bell for mentoring my thesis all those years ago at U.T.–Austin.
¹ The Bonney house in Norwich had been attributed to Gustav Stickley by Mary Ann Smith in her 1983 book Gustav Stickly, the Craftsman, where she was kind enough to acknowledge my correction, though her conclusion is equally curious: “The connection between the Bonney and Reeves houses, so obviously alike, remains unclear.” Unclear? The bloody magazine is the connection?
² The Reeves, Jackson, Roberts, and as yet unidentified Rockford house are all “right hand” versions of the plan; the Bonney house is a “left hand” version.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
COBURN, Alvin Langdon [1882–1966]
photogravure / 10 inches by 7 inches
Coburn was an American-born photographer whose career is closely associated with Great Britain. With Alfred Steichen and others, he became a leader in the development of Pictorialism. “Spider-webs” was one of several Coburn images published in Camera Work, a periodical published by Alfred Stieglitz. This image came from issue #21 of Camera Work in 1908 — found recently in the custodial closet of the old Agincourt Public Library and given by the current tenants, Cable, Coomaraswamy & Bell, attorneys-at-law.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
FREEMAN, Ruth [contemporary]
“Little Boy on a Dragon”
woodblock print / 9.25 inches by 17 inches
Freeman is a living artist working in several media in her Pittsburgh studio. Her paintings are abstractly expressive in a mid-century modern palette. Some of those characteristics are shared in the modest yet powerful woodcut, titled “Little Boy on a Dragon.” Primary red, yellow, and blue are punctuated with secondary orange and green in a delightful dynamic composition.
The Fennimore Co. Agricultural Association would have been formed shortly after the founding of the county itself. Even by the middle of the 19th century, the county fair had been an American institution since before the Revolution, an event of greater significance to American culture than you might suspect. J. B. Jackson has written about this phenomenon in his 1980 collection of essays The Necessity for Ruins — which I heartily recommend.
In the 1980s, Jackson — known to his friends as “Brink” — was in demand as adjunct faculty, and it was in this capacity that I took one of his seminars at the University of Texas at Austin and encountered one of the finest educators it’s been my pleasure to experience. I came away from his lectures on “the county fair” with an appreciation for its impact of the gene pool: yes, the competitive selection of the best-of-breed among various types of sheep, pigs, and cattle was paralleled with a far less obvious improvement in the human gene pool; the fair was one of the few opportunities in rural America for young men and women to find mates beyond the limitations of the village where they lived and the church where they worshipped. I need to reread Jackson essay on fairs.
By a happy coincidence, I ran across this image of Delmar Gardens, an amusement park in Oklahoma City long since disappeared. I was interested, not only because I attended the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman, but also because these festive stick-like buildings were designed by William A. Wells, an OKC architect who was the topic of my first published work in an obscure, defunct journal: “Towers in Oklahoma,” The Prairie School Review, Vol. 7, no. 4 (1971).
Wells had been the architect of the Colcord Building, a 1909 office building constructed just two years after statehood and directly inspired by the lush ornamental forms of Louis Sullivan. I was twenty-four years old when I researched the paper that became that article and possibly the first person to take an interest in Wells’s work, though at the time I didn’t know about these charming buildings. All these years that I’ve fretted over the design of the Fennimore Co. fairgrounds, the answer to my dilemma was here in this image.
Wells seems to have designed only a few of these structures, especially a dance and dining pavilion (hidden behind trees in this postcard view) and also the exotic pagoda-like shelter for the trolley that brought most people to the grounds at the southwestern edge of OKC. Will I be guilty of some crime for simply borrowing Wells’s scheme?