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Protected: arti•FACT•uality—A story told with stuff

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Neil Klien

There are at least two earlier entries devoted to the short life of Neil Klien, the Sexton at Agincourt’s non-sectarian burial ground, The Shades. Notice I don’t say “short and sad”, because I didn’t know Neil, though when I heard his story it seemed his ration of happiness might have been cut as short as his life had been: grave digging and grounds maintenance are solitary work and, even when in the company of others, they are unlikely topics of polite conversation—prurient interests being a slight part of local character. Like the chance opening of a time capsule you didn’t realize was there, Nature gave us accidental insight to Neil’s life.

old-cemetery-1474443497t9p.jpg

Strong winds from a passing storm took out several mature trees not already decimated by “Dutch elm” or Japanese beetles. And one of those upturned sentinels disturbed some nearby tombstones, revealing what were thought to be mason’s marks. On closer inspection, however, they proved to be pithy observations about the deceased, handwritten in red lead. This accidental discovery began a scavenger hunt by a few citizens for others—all of which date before Klien’s death. Informally collected, someone has suggested putting them in book form—until, that is, the subject of liability is invoked; Klein’s level of snark spared few of his inmates. Happily he has passed beyond the reach of the law, and a kind of justice has already been served.

Without naming the recipients, here are a few to whet the appetite:

SHE

destroyed a garage and three garden sheds;

broke dozens of windows, but nary one heart,

for his had stopped and she had none.

Shades of Edgar Lee Masters! Or this riff on the Latin “R.I.P. / Requiescat In Pace”:

Roast In Purgatory (on the grave of a once prominent attorney)

Or this from the black granite tombstone of a banker:

Harder than the Banker’s heart [and just as cold]

Klien was marginally softer on a local “would-be” author:

Her life was an open book but a short story.

Or this, about a person I’d like to meet:

You sacrificed a friendship to save one.

The reason we know these were Klien’s work? Beneath the stone that marks his adoptive parents’ graves—a stone he was able to afford only by moonlighting other jobs—he wrote in careful uncial letters:

Love never dies.

Goro Kumagai [born 1932]

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

KUMAGAI, Goro [born 1932]

Abstract City

1957

woodcut / 13 inches by 9 inches / edition unknown

The most recent additions to the Community Collection represent two very different observations of the city as historical document. One is European; the other Oriental. Yet both are in a style popularly called Mid-century Modern. Compare Kumagai’s “Abstract City” with Mario Micussi’s glimpse of the Roman Forum. But Kumagai’s woodcut is also interesting in light of the influence that the Japanese aesthetic has had on the West—and the reciprocal influence shown here.

This print was acquired from the estate of Maureen and Bill Bendix, developers of Riverside Addition in the 1950s. Their home on Sixth Street NW was among Agincourt’s earliest examples of Mid-Mod as an architectural phenomenon and its interior must have been an equally potent representation of that aesthetic.

Mario Micossi [born 1922]

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

MICOSSI, Mario [born 1922]

“Fori e San Sisto in Roma”

1960s

aquatint etching / 12 3/4 inches by 15 1/4 inches

An internationally recognized artist and etcher, Micossi studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. He then moved to New York City where he worked as an illustrator for such periodicals as The New Yorker and Saturday Review. Since the early 1960s, however, Micossi has dedicated himself to printmaking and the refinement of the deep etching technique (which this print employs). Micossi’s work is in major museums such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Fogg Museum, Harvard University; the Albertina, Venice; the Stockholm National Museum; the Library of Congress; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Micossi’s blinkered glimpse of the Forum at the heart of ancient Rome as it is seen by a mid-century Modernist. The deep rich velvet tones of an aquatint invite close inspection.

George Jo Mess (1898-1962)

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

MESS, George Joseph (1898–1962)

“Driftwood”

1930s

aquatint etching / 9 1/4 inches by 11 inches

George Jo Mess (as he preferred to be known) may have had the most diverse artistic education of anyone represented in the Community Collection: a manual training high school, the Herron Art School, Butler University, the Bauhaus in its Chicago guise, New York’s Columbia University and the Beaux Arts at Fontainebleau, France. He is identified primarily as a painter and prolific printmaker, such as this stark rendering of driftwood on a beach.

Documentation for this piece is sketchy, consisting primarily of a sticker on the back of its frame: Kroch’s & Brentano’s, 29 South Wabash, Chicago.

George Elbert Burr [1859–1939]

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

BURR, George Elbert [1859–1939]

“Fairy Glen–Wales”

before 1915

drypoint etching / 7 3/4 inches by 4 7/8 inches

Considered one of the finest early 20th century engravers, Burr was born in Ohio and attended the Art Institute of Chicago for one year. A four-year project illustrating a catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum in New York City enabled Burr and his wife to undertake a five-year tour of Europe and Great Britain, the likely source of this etching, “Fairy Glen–Wales”. This was exhibited at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition at San Francisco in 1915, which dates the print somewhat earlier. A gift to the Community Collection from the grandchildren of Edith and Ellis McGowan, this was probably purchased during their honeymoon to the Bay Area.

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Lawrence Buck [1865-1929]

I am officially exasperated. Which is to say that my degree of pissed-off-ness has reached record levels.

Chicago architect Lawrence Buck has been one of my research interests for a very long time; you know how long my attention span can be when it comes to research. As you may also know, he is alleged to have designed three homes in Agincourt. Buck was a near-contemporary of FLlW but far less aggressive in self-promotion and also far less extreme in the distance of his aesthetic from the Arts & Crafts. Another reason that you probably don’t know his name is that he died in 1929, while Wright lived another thirty years into a ripe, crusty, and attention-grabbing old age. 

During his own lifetime, however, Buck was possibly better known in popular culture (as distinct from Wright, who may have been more notorious in the professional world). Buck was also a pioneer of sorts in using “women’s magazines” to promote his career—House Beautiful, Ladies Home Journal, etc. And it was through this medium that his clientele extended from Pennsylvania to Southern California. What has driven me to frustration tonight is the way he has been treated in the preparation of National Register nominations.

Two of his houses—one in Wichita and another in Cedar Rapids—have been put on the register but attributed to other architects. In one case (Wichita) the writer knew about Buck’s connection with the project, yet chose to deny him credit for the design—without any evidence for the attribution, that I can find in the form. The other (Cedar Rapids) nomination makes no mention of Buck whatsoever, even though there are multiple published sources linking him with the project and specifically naming him as “architect.” I am at a total loss to understand how this process can become so bureaucratized by people who simply fail to understand what it is that architects do. Errors—and I maintain they are errors—become institutionalized and simply cannot be changed once they are in the NR system.

Am I delusional to believe I understand the role of the architect in the creation and execution of designs or has there been some sort of gap in my education or my neural synapses? I am frustrated at a time that I have very little opportunity to do anything about this; there are other projects demanding my time. Yet my grundies are in a bundle unlike any time in recent history (perhaps excepting the denial of my request for promotion, but that should be a topic for another day). If any of you were handy, I’d suggest meeting at a bar with a full selection of bourbon for an evening of commiseration.

To mój cyrk. To są moje małpy.

Gub•mint

Gub•mint

It’s safe to say that Agincourt is, at best, a purple town in a remarkably red congressional district. [Steve King is the Congressman, I’m embarrassed to say.] So, other than the story of a failed mayoralty—the half term of Ed Flynn in the mid-1890s—I’ve avoided the topic of local politics. Until now.

Municipal government, like any other corporation, is a creature of the state. State constitutions, at their start or some time shortly thereafter, provide the mechanism by which municipalities incorporate. I was born in Illinois where the village is one of the approved forms; mine was Bedford Park, with about 600 residents most of whom I knew by name. Yu might be surprised to know that Oak Park, the land of Frank Lloyd Wright, is also a village with more than 50,000 residents. Living in a major metropolitan area does not connote anonymity, however; I was not a single fish in a school of millions. No, Bedford Park was an entirely remarkable place to live the first eighteen years of life, and I would not change a moment—not even Marge. And that’s saying something.

The residential part of Bedford Park is in the neck of the “dog”. The remainder is heavily industrialized—or at least it was. It’s been a while. The empty square in the upper right is Midway Airport.

Bedford (as we usually abbreviated it) consisted in the 1950s of three streets, three blocks long. As an incorporated village, it was governed by a Board of Trustees, one of whom is its President. [I knew the President then quite well; or at least I knew his car and the location of its gas cap.] I relate these footnotes from my personal history because Iowa’s municipal enabling legislation is unknown to me, so many of my assumptions about Agincourt’s governance may prove to be grossly incorrect.

AGINCOURT

My current location is governed by a mayor and four city commissioners. All those offices are elected at large, unlike a city council, where each commissioner represents a district or ward. In our system, it is entirely possible that all five members of the city’s governing body could live on the same floor of the same condo. Our sister city across the river in another state uses that (city council) form, which gives the impression of a more direct representation. Illusion perhaps, but I’d like to try it. So, whatever Iowa law may allow and until shown otherwise, I’m currently enamored of Agincourt having a Common Council, which to my ear has the sound of New England about it. And that the Common Council would elect a leader (mayor, president, chair, poobah…) from among its members.

Initially, Agincourt’s Ward system divided the city into four quadrants numbered one through four, clockwise from the northeast quarter. As the city grew—probably northward and to the east, due to water courses on the other sides—the pattern would continue. That might mean there would be six wards, and why shouldn’t they continue to be numbered clockwise, spiraling outward, just as the arrondissements of Paris. I suppose this will require me to map the city’s current size and determine the pattern of street extensions from the original townsite and all the infrastructure that implies—probably not a high priority item just now, so cut me some slack.

Oh, by the way, the current head of the Common Council is F. Bedford Park. The “F” stands for Forrest, which he avoids because, he says, “Forrest Park makes me sound like a defunct World’s Fair.”