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The greatest gift…

Eight or nine years ago my depression hit an all-time high—by which I mean low. It’s hard to imagine being more depressed and staying alive.

I consider it a personal privilege, an act of faith, when friends share their own intense encounters with “the feathered thing”. Some have bottomed out, as I had—or hoped it was a place where we couldn’t sink lower. I found myself driving around town more or less aimlessly, considering how to save myself: a phone call connected me with a professional who does triage, and that brief process set an appointment with someone I came to know as Doctor Bob.

Forty years of intermittent counseling had gone badly for me; mental health was no closer than it had been in high school but I vowed this time would be different. Was there, I puzzled, something common to all those failed therapies? The answer was simple and surprising, given the circumstances: I’d entered each therapist’s office wanting to be liked and comported myself accordingly, which meant each of those several professional relationships was doomed before it began. Not so this time.

The Brooklyn edge in Dr Bob’s voice was a good sign; I wasn’t from here either. But it was Wallace Shawn’s double who welcomed me to the inner office, and seven years later it was a friend who bid me farewell—another surprise. In the meantime, change was an exercise in watching time pass — on a calendar, not a clock. Incremental change was imperceptible; I was different each time, but didn’t know how and couldn’t say why. And though Dr Bob (not his real name, by the way) has retired, the process he set in motion continues. I’ve not opened all the gifts received during our time together; who knows what the greatest of them will be.

The gift I currently enjoy is memory: mine is considerably improved over the days when my only concern was acceptance. Surprising how many folks will accept you when you accept yourself and are free to enjoy what’s going on all around.

 

 

Svmer is icumen in / Lhude sing cuccu

LAKE+LIFE

Some day Howard will get around to writing about “lake culture” that developed at Sturm und Drang in the late 19th century. Until then, I’m gathering images to build the character of the place: shoreline views like this one, boat docks, the resorts themselves, and other attendant structures predating the 1950s. If you have some to offer, or know of stories describing lazy summer weekends or (my favorite) those other seasons when no one was around, please share. Until then, I’ll continue to outline the story Howard will eventually tell us. In the meantime….

Sturm & Drang

Spring fed, yet there is so much anger beneath its surface that Sturm und Drang is reluctant to freeze.

Long before Europeans saw the Muskrat Valley, abundant hunting and fishing made Sturm und Drang — folks hereabouts are inclined to refer to the linked lakes as “it” — a watering hole and campsite for the indigenous people, possibly even before the Sac & Fox were here. Our own settlers used Sturm und Drang that way, as a dietary supplement, before the railroad improved both the quantity and the quality of food. But when was it recognized as a place of recreation? How did the earliest White settlers “recreate”? Would they have understood the word as we do?

By the 1870s, S&D yielded ice for refrigeration — the old ice house has become a cabin near the Station-Store (de facto city hall for the dispersed community called “Resort”) — and by the 1880s other purpose-built cabins gathered along the eastern and southern shores. Clusters of those became resorts, and by 1890 Smith’s Hotel opened to guests. The Store — more evidence of our penchant to identify things with a single, generic, capitalized name — became the sourse of supply for basic foodstuffs, bread baked by the proprietor Edith Prikleigh, and whole milk from a nearby farm; produce varied with the season. Edith served as postmaster (she disliked the feminized version, postmistress) and by 1900 her son Ivor delivered mail by motorboat. When the interurban branch came in 1910, Ivor piloted a water taxi coördinated with arrival and departure of the trolley.

If you thought a weekend at the lake exempted you from church attendance, think again: a rotation of pastors (Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, and Roman) served a union chapel converted from a chicken coop, which came to be called Saint Ferreolus. With its school-bell call to Sunday service the Edwardian palette of lake life was set through the 1920s. And after WWII that rhythm was preserved by The Association (of lake property owners) who regulated lake life with one simple provision: a speed limit on boat traffic of 10 m.p.h. No water skiing or other aquatic hijinx here, thank you, very much. This remains a place where the front porch is “the Green room” and bourbon or beer the beverages of choice; where the only cable is a stitch used to knit; and all calls are on hold.

Smith’s Hotel, opened circa 1890 / east side of Sturm & Drang and about a mile from the Station-Store

Theodor Klotz-Dürrenbach [1890-1959]

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

KLOTZ-DÜRRENBACH, Theodor (1890-1959)

Poster for an Exhibition

1919

woodcut / 6.5 inches by  9.5 inches / #5 from an unspecified edition

Viennese artist Theodor Klotz-Dürrenbach is poorly represented in auction sale catalogues, though he seems to have created both woodcuts and paintings. This poster for a Viennese exhibit of fairytale-based woodcuts (märchen holzschnitte) was printed in 1919. The print is accompanied in the collection by a book illustrated by the same artist—Russische Volksmärchen by Eugen Weller, published in 1925—which includes four full-page woodcut illustrations by Klotz-Dürrenbach.

Both print and illustrated book came from the personal library of Dr Reinhold Kölb, founder of the Walden Clinic. Though untitled, the print tells us about itself—”Fairytale Woodcuts by Klotz-Dürrenbach”—and indirectly about the circumstances of its presence in the Kölb library: the good doctor famously used the fabrication of fairy tales in his innovative drama-therapy and public shows of puppetry.

Louie’s Houses

babson house.jpg

I thought that Louis H. Sullivan had designed three houses during his post-1900 career—the years following dissolution of his partnership with Dankmar Adler; the period when his chemical dependency had interrupted an otherwise brilliant and uniquely American design process—two of which were built; another was merely projected. It turns out there were six other projects worth looking at during the same years. As evidence for an imaginary library in the style of Sullivan, they form an important part of the analytic matrix.

Harold and Josephine Crane Bradley house (scheme #1), Madison, WI (unbuilt); Louis Sullivan architect, assisted by G.G. Elmslie.

The house for Harold and Josephine Crane Bradley was the product of interesting circumstances. Harold C. Bradley was a professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin. And one would think this plan would have been far beyond a professor’s salary. Mrs Bradley, however, was the former Mary Josephine Crane, daughter of Chicago industrialist Charles Crane. It is likely that Sullivan received the commission as one of several for Crane and his business interests. Another factor was the fact that Mrs Bradley was deaf, requiring an open design so that she could supervise their child. This cruciform plan proved either too large or inadequate for the family’s needs, so a second smaller design was crafted by Sullivan with the help of George Elmslie, his chief draughtsman for many years and someone fully capable of producing ornament in Sullivan’s florid style. [One wonders how much of Sullivan’s late ornament was actually drawn by Elmslie.]

Harold and Josephine Crane Bradley house (scheme #2), Madison, WI; Louis Sullivan, architect

Design and construction of Scheme #2 extended from 1909 to about 1913. But the Bradleys lived in the house for only a few years, moving to another house designed by Elmslie alone.

The second of the influential built designs was roughly contemporary with the Madison project. It was a comparably-sized house in Riverside, a leafy western suburb of Chicago, for Henry Babson, a far more likely client for Sullivan. Babson is called “an American entrepreneur, investor in phonograph technology, and notable breeder of Arabian horses” in one biography, placing him in a better financial position for the expense of a custom-designed house by LHS.

Like the executed Bradley scheme, the Babson house is a long ship-like form, a linear sequence of rooms pulsing along a single extended axis. The balcony extension at the center of the street elevation gave it a steamboat quality that might have made it the brunt of neighborhood humor. It was demolished in 1960 and the property subdivided for multiple mid-century homes or no particular character whatsoever. I have vague recollection of walking past the site when I was a teenager.

The third house from this period, another unbuilt design, was a similarly-scaled house for Carl K. Bennett, president of the National Farmers Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, perhaps one of Sullivan’s most famous late designs. Linear and boxy, it somehow avoided the ship metaphor and appeared simply as a clubhouse or other semi-public building, rather than a single-family home. The Bennetts are reported to have sketched the sequence of main floor rooms and to have approved the overall design, but delayed construction until costs had risen beyond their budget. [I’ll append some illustrations of the Bennett house as soon as they’re scanned.]

All three of these design have some common characteristics: long rectilinear masses, two stories in height;  secondary cross-axial extensions, often with polygonal pinwheel elements at their extremities; and an extended axial arrangement of main floor social spaces. Given that the three designs date from the period 1908-1912, we’re given substantial insight to Sullivan’s mind, at least regarding the detached single-family home, at this late point in his career.

babson house windows

Set of four Elmslie-designed windows from the Henry Babson residence, Riverside, IL / 1909

 

“OPEN”

Why is it that stores today, those with street frontage along the sidewalks of small towns, have to tell us they’re open with a neon sign that says “OPEN”? This wasn’t necessary in my youth—admittedly that was a looong time ago, before there were suburban shopping malls—so I wonder what’s changed. Businesses of all sorts, places that sold shoes and sweet rolls, places that cut your hair or fixed your toaster, were open because they looked open, not because they used a sign to indicate their openness.

An easy answer may be the damage continuous sun can do to whatever is displayed, especially clothing, but that problem was easily addressed by that frilly thing above the guy’s head in this photograph: it’s called an awning, and it could be extended over the walkway to protect both the merchandise and the prospective buyer. Today we shield window displays with tinted glass that has the unfortunate side effect of making your shop look like a Georgia State Trooper about to issue a traffic citation. I long for the days when you just knew a store was open for business without having to be informed with signage.

As the enclosed-mall shopping experience goes the way of the dodo—an experience I avoid even today while the disappearance of a major retailer from our regional shopping center may indicate a death spiral—converted, perhaps, to a 24-7 megachurch, and is replaced by something more like the neighborhood I knew as a kid. Am I simply being nostalgic in my decrepitude, or is there some more sinister economic phenomenon at work?

PS: Though I don’t own that postcard image above, it does seem a candidate for placement somewhere along South Broad Street in Agincourt’s lesser shopping zone.

 

Lighthouse Keeper

While I was in high school my dad subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. Having a lot of time on his hands at the gas station, he dabbled in mutual funds; unlike most people who simply invest in them and sit back to enjoy the return on their investment, Roy chose to buy and sell, making a few cents profit here and there. It was then that I learned a bit about the market from dad’s broker Mr William A. Simmons, an immaculately tailored older gentleman—in three-piece tweed suits even in August and never looking the least bit uncomfortable—who hung out at the station even after he’d retired from the brokerage business. I was privileged to call him Willie but was never comfortable with that familiarity.

I recall one issue of the WSJ which included a curious advertisement in their real estate section: an island with non-functioning lighthouse was for sale. It was in Lake Michigan, somewhere in the north near Charlevoix, a resort town on Michigan’s lower peninsula. The asking price I don’t recall. But the very idea of living in splendid isolation on an island seemed very much in sync with my worldview. “Just because,” I did a little bit of research on lighthouses in the 19th century, their construction and staffing. I found this advertisement for the lighthouse at Two Harbors, Minnesota from 1890:

WANTED—LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER

Requirements: Age 18 to 50. Be able to read, write, keep simple accounts, sail a boat, perform manual labor and have enough mechanical skills to maintain the equipment and do minor repairs. May leave the station only to draw pay or attend public worship.

Cause for Dismissal: Intoxication or failure to keep the lights burning, regardless of circumstances.

Salary: $200 a year.

Duties: Daily and monthly routines for cleaning, maintaining and repairing all equipment. Lamp is lighted at sunset, extinguished at sunrise and watched continuously through the night. Keep a daily log of the light, the passage of ships in the area, the weather and the consumption of supplies, particularly lamp oil.

Extra money: Encouraged to garden, make shoes, tailor, fish or serve as preacher or schoolteacher, if close to the lighthouse.

Mail service: Usually once a month.

What, you may ask, do the duties of a lighthouse keeper have to do with Agincourt? Good question. The postcard above reminded me of that splendid isolation I’d sought in 1960. Perhaps my back-up should have been “Watertower Keeper”?

“Jerusalem”

My first visit to Castle Drogo happened in the 80s. You may be more familiar with Lindisfarne, Sir Edwin Lutyens other “castle” on the opposite end of England. Drogo—not the Dothraki warlord from “Game of Thrones”!—is in Devon, a county southeast of Greater London and the site for, among other things, Conan Doyle’s “Hound of the Baskervilles”. The house itself is attached to the village of Drewsteignton, or is it the other way around, for the house may actually occupy more square meterage than the village. In both cases I recommend a visit to Drogo and Lindisfarne be added to your bucket lists.

Both houses are dramatically sited, one grafted to a rock outcrop on Holy Island in the North Sea, the other precarious on the edge of the Teigne River gorge. What I recall about my visit to Drogo was its likeness to a pilgrimage: train from London to Exeter (where you should see the cathedral), then a bus into the countryside, where the driver will cheerily deposit you at a country crossroad and bruskly wave you on to a rendezvous with Dorothy, Toto and their other traveling companions.

It was an ektachrome day, cloudless and so still I could hear wheat ripening in the fields. A mile or more into my trek, singing seemed the proper thing to do; it was like the alone-ness of singing in the shower. I chose “Jerusalem”:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?

As rendered by Monty Python, of course.

If anyone other than the local wildlife had heard me, I’d have been hastily returned to the care facility from whence I’d escaped. If there’s an expeditious way to reach Castle Drogo, please keep it to yourselves, for this was the stuff of a five-minute movie.

Though the hedgerows and underbrush weren’t thick, like they are in these postcards, their solitary stillness took me back to that day in June and reminded me how a walk through the countryside around Agincourt might evoke a similar reaction—a step back to an afternoon in June thirty-five years ago and to a summer day a century before that.

Cecil (on travel and tourism)

As we prepared for the Department of Architecture’s first foreign study experience — the landscape program hadn’t been established yet — we met several times to discuss the audacity of what we were about to do. I recall at one of the early sessions the sort of counsel that made Elliott the go-to-guy when virtually any problem reared its head. Remembering that there was no downtown campus then and that students were disinclined to set foot beyond Twelfth Avenue North, he advised:

If you can’t walk from campus to downtown Fargo and see something new or see something old in a new way, then you’re not ready to go to Europe.

In other words, being a tourist doesn’t consist of what you’re looking at; it constitutes the simple act of looking. So many years have passed, I can’t recall how we reacted to such a simplistic notion, but in hindsight I wish he’d challenged us to actually do it.

When Elliott arrived mid-year 1975, I knew little more than he had come from Detroit and that he’d taught architectural history. I had been doing that since the fall of 1971 and was still unsettled in the job fate had dealt me. The jig is up, I thought; he’ll see through me in short order.

I recall one afternoon in the coffee room at the end of the hall in our shoebox on campus, the home we quickly outgrew. Cecil and I were talking about travel. “My ideal retirement,” he admitted, “would be a combination bar, bookstore, and travel agency,” at which point I knew there was a future for me at NDSU. And that future became borderline rosy when we spoke of our favorite travel destinations and the Napoleonic truth that all great armies travel on their stomachs.

London. We agreed on London — at least the London of the 1960s, a very different city than it’s become in the last half century — as the place we most enjoyed all round: architecture (Hawksmoor), bookstores (Foyle’s), museums (the V&A), parks (Hyde and Kensington), music (The Albert Hall for live performance; Tower Records, otherwise). And then there was food. Someone just reminded me of Blackfriars, for pub lunch and a pint. [Thanks, Mr Hulne.] But I have in mind another place on the other side of the city.

The first of my several trips to London had occurred in 1971, the summer before my arrival in Fargo. And quite by accident rather than design, I had stumbled upon a tiny restaurant while on my way to the V&A: exit the District & Circle line at South Kensington, proceed to the principle exit, bearing right and right again, onto Thurloe Street. Proceed past the shop fronts to the last of them on the right, #20, and enter Daquise, a French-named Polish-themed restaurant that had been a watering hole for expatriate Poles since the end of WWII. I thought immediately to tell Cecil about it, hoping I might have a scoop. “You know, (dramatic pause) my favorite restaurant in London is near the V&A just outside the tube stop,” I offered. And his immediate reply? “Oh, you mean Daquise.”

Family-owned and operated, the Daquise ambiance was simple, like the food, and the staff spoke their English with more than a hint of Central Europe. I happened on the place just after the lunch crowd and settled in for the one meal dictated by my very limited budget. Probably the most authentically Polish item on the menu was (and still is!) szrazy, a piece of beef pounded thin, rolled around a combination of  bacon, pickle and prunes, and then poached in heavy cream; the French would call it a roulade. Traditionally served with buckwheat and beets, this is Polish comfort food — the kind I’d been deprived by a Polish grandmother who hated to cook. And now to discover that what had grown to legendary proportions in my recollection was the favored restaurant of my new department chair was the foundation of a relationship I could never have imagined.

Elliott was the kind of person who could derive as much pleasure from reading a recipe as eating the completed dish. Our conversations often turned to food, especially the foodways that brought us to interesting and exotic places like Budapest and Prague and Stockholm — or, for that matter, Kansas City or Milwaukee or Chicago. Food (and drink) and the travel it punctuates were the mainstays of our relationship for more than twenty years. And for each of us I think, it became a refuge from the routine of teaching and the rigor of administration at a place where the food was, frankly, pretty unremarkable.

Andrew Kay Womrath [1874-1953]

  

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

WOMRATH, Andrew Kay (1874-1953)

European Couple by Day*

ca1930

woodcut / 8 inches by  6.25 inches / #6 from an edition of 25

Philadelphia artist Andrew Kay Womrath was born on St Crispin’s Day in 1874. He studied and collaborated with Japanese woodcut master Yoshijiro Urushibara but is little known in the United States today. Indeed there is a good deal of conflicting biographical material, including erroneous birth and death dates.

Womrath lived most of his productive life in France, but travelled frequently between there and the United States, England and Italy. Small landscapes are more typical of his output, as are Art Nouveau posters in the style of Theophile Steinlen. During 1914, he offered a class in “Decorative Design and Decorative Composition” at his studio in New York City — which indicates that considerable research needs to be done on this artist.

* There is also a nighttime version of this print.

The Founders

“The city is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.”

— American architect Louis I. Kahn

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

THE FOUNDERS

October 25th is an ordinary day in most places; it falls on a Thursday this year. But in Agincourt the date serves double duty: as the Feast Day of Crispin and Crispinian, patron saints of leatherworkers (and more recently of sadomasochists), and also as Founders’ Day, our local celebration of Agincourt’s origins in 1853.

Other than a parade and an evening of fireworks, the only prominent marker is the fountain at the west side of Broad Street near the courthouse. Few know that it once stood in the middle of the street, installed at the exact center of the original townsite in 1907. But that original plan, laid out in 1853 and the municipality that incorporated four years later, is the subtler evidence of Agincourt’s origins, something that can only be appreciated from the air.

Comparisons with Philadelphia are inevitable: in addition to similarities of form, all five Founders lived in the Delaware water gap of Pennsylvania and western New Jersey — though just one of them ever saw the Original Townsite. Pliny Tennant acted on behalf of the other four: his brothers Horace and Virgil, their banker Morris Hirsch, and brother-in-law Ellis Farnham, all of them canny traders in the spirit of William Penn’s Quaker town. Pliny Tennant camped near Gnostic Grove and supervised surveying, then abruptly pushed farther west into the white-out of the western mining fields.¹ Their surrogates — the Oracle Land Company — carried the investment plan into reality.

Without the diaries of Harmony Barker Bledsoe, we’d know very little about those earliest days, between the platting of 1853 and Agincourt’s eventual incorporation four years later. Her journals and letters to family in Ohio record a miscellany of weather, diet, celebration, birth and death, and the inconvenience of unpaved roads and outhouses. An 1859 letter to her sister in Ohio records an incident few of us can now imagine but was very real:

Little Marcus [her five-year-old grandson] was missing at supper yesterday and we feared foul play. George, the Fletchers, and other neighbors organized a search but attention soon turned to the convenience [a euphemism for outhouse], suspecting he had fallen from the seat and into the pit! God’s be Praised! We soon found him safe and wandering on the Commons.

She also recorded the curious distribution of the Church Lots, the four large blocks bracketing the four civic squares. A stable population, families rather than itinerant singles, were the foundation of a community, so the proprietors gave building sites for churches, stipulating that construction begin within one year. To make the distribution equitable, they conducted a double-blind lottery, with eligibility based on membership: those with twenty-five households could participate. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Catholics qualified and drew lots to establish the order of choice, then drew again for the actual sites. Four of those congregations continue to occupy their lots, framing the courthouse, the square and commons, and the academy site—now a nursing home. And all of them together represent the transcendental balance between body, mind, and spirit that was a common view in the early nineteenth century.

The names of Bledsoe, Farnham, and Hirsch are faded from public memory; descendants of the Tennants, however, are still represented in the community—myself included—so my enthusiasm for Founders’ Day may be suspect. But it is surely satisfying to acknowledge the sense of their intentions and to celebrate the patterns of civic life they set in motion.

¹ Pliny Tennant disappeared but his yield on the investment was banked for his return. It remains today, a charitable fund for civic projects, known as Pliny’s Purse.

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to your questions.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities