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Monthly Archives: March 2018

Isn’t it time for a haunting?

If I had any photoshop skills, it would be relatively easy (I think) to patch the bottom of this card, replicating something like grass, sidewalk, etc. Eastlake is a style that I don’t know very well, but I recalled that the Winchester house in San Jose, California is both Eastlake and haunted. Ergo, it’s time for Agincourt to acquire its first certified spirit presence. So feel free to share your ghost stories as I search for a likely site where this beauty may still stand.

PS [15March2018]: Our friend Jim verDoorn, maestro of PhotoShop, has “fixed” the Eastlake house photograph so i won’t have to think about buying it.


My Friend

My friend shared a story that made him sad. He apologized for not also sharing a disturbing image that had so affected him, his word-picture spilled into my mind and my gut churned in sympathy. I felt his words swell and overflow whatever it is that contains our emotions until we can no longer endure the mounting evidence of our inhumanity.

He described what might for many have been a binary situation: a person with authority over others, exercising that power as though the world consisted of white-black, yes-no, good-evil, and we had to choose between them; as though there were no spectrum, no scale of values and appropriate action. The choice they imposed—because they could—brought grievous harm to the innocent, the unknowing. I was not there, in the situation my friend described in four intense sentences. But I would choose to have been anywhere else; to have been ignorant rather than powerless. Social media invite knowledge of such happenings to our doorstep every day and we welcome them in, because there is always the potential to encounter the good and uplifting, perhaps even the noble; to witness the evidence of our better selves.

My friend’s words accomplished what words can do: resonate with the human condition; remind us that life is over-rich with difficult decisions. That existence and affirmation and empathy and compassion are better than their opposites. They opened his soul—not the soul that survives death, but the one that endures while we live. Possibly without intending to, my friend had written a poem, which, like the best poetry, took me where he is, to what he saw and felt; a handful of words I might prefer not to have read but which I cannot now unread and reclaim my comforting complaisance. He invited me to acknowledge our common cause and I could do nothing but accept, because there is work to do and truth to write. And that is why he is my friend.

Just Desserts

Since 2007 I’ve run at least four design studios wholly or partially set in Agincourt, i.e., the sandbox of history. They’ve been at the third-, fourth-, and fifth-year levels. I can tell you that they have been a very mixed bag. The first of them, in 2007—simply because we had no idea what we were doing—was, in my mind, an unqualified success. Subsequent studios, not so much. I’ve fretted a great deal about these discrepancies and drawn some tentative conclusions—which I ought to keep to myself.

The first studio in 2007 had practically no guidelines; any building type in any appropriate time period was fair game, so long as the design is consistent with the style, building technology, and socio-economic conditions of that decade, and the building had to tell a story. Did we always meet those criteria? Frankly, I wasn’t keeping score, because the level of student enthusiasm exceeded my expectations and that counted for a lot. Project types ranged from a barn to a business college but a few still stand out in my fading memory: a carousel pavilion by David Rock; a ’50s burger-pizza joint by Mitch Dressler; a “Prairie School” transit depot that made me weep and whose designer I cannot recall. There was a barn—too simple, you say?—that not only narrated the barn as a type, but also its evolution through time, and, most important, it also told the story of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.

Subsequent studios stumbled, I think, not so much from the work itself, nor the stories it told. The problem is largely mine, because I have not fought sufficiently for the presence of actual design principles in our curriculum. We simply don’t talk often enough about abstractions like composition, proportion, balance. They were a part of my education but have passed into the scrap heap of history, as indeed I shall soon enough. Consider the lengthy title of John Beverley Robinson’s 1899 treatise Principles of Architectural Composition and its extension, an attempt to order and phrase ideas which have hitherto been only felt by the instinctive taste of designers.

Am I the only person with a copy of this on my desktop?

There was a comparable series of articles in The Architectural Record in its earliest issues [photocopies exist somewhere in my mismanaged files], perhaps by Russell Sturgis, I forget. The issue seems to be that students have a difficult time coping with 19th and early 20th century styles that depend more heavily on abstractions such as these.

Then there is the even more basic topic of space planning, particularly of the single-family house—not a major building type for architects today or in the likely future careers of current students, but one which is, in my mind, a litmus test for planning and anthropometrics in larger, more complex building types.

Realizing the antiquity that I have myself become, and understanding that under the best scenario I have at most three more years as a teacher, I should file these ideas under “Q” for quaint.


An addendum to the working lunch

Even before I’d posted the consequences of our working lunch, there were more contributions on the horizon. Without dropping names (and risking offense or seeming to apply pressure), here are a few more possibilities for October.

Saint Ahab

Agincourt’s Roman Catholic church was dedicated to Ahab, an obscure 4th century saint. You’ve probably heard his name nowhere else but here, because there are just two churches bearing his name today: one in Azincourt, France (yes, the French spell the name differently than the English), where his relics are preserved, and our church here in Iowa — at least until the name change circa 1950. Two exhibition pieces are connected with Ahab.

First, someone has been working on an Orthodox icon of Saint Ahab—at least it began that way (egg tempera on olive wood, in true Eastern Orthodox style) but appears to have drifted toward the Pre-Raphaelites, an absolutely intriguing prospect as far as I’m concerned. The very idea of blending those two iconic styles (no pun intended) whets the appetite. So with any luck and a good tail wind, Saint Ahab will join the festivities.

Christ the King

The original St Ahab’s church exists only in my imagination. It was outgrown by the 1890s and replaced with a Victorian Gothic non-entity that was, in its own time, replaced by the mid-century modernist masterpiece by Chicago architect Francis Barry Byrne—actually by friend-of-the-project Richard Kenyon who has been a contributor from the start in more ways than I can say. Drawings of the Byrne–Kenyon collaboration were displayed in 2007, and I had hoped to build a model of it for 2015 but that didn’t happen. Imagine that: me biting off far more than I can chew. Now, however, as recently as this afternoon, there are intimations that Christ the King will be part of the mix. Color me excited.

Asbury UMC / Temple Emmanu-El

With the Episcopalians (St Joe’s) and Roman Catholics (St Ahab and then Christ the King) represented, I’m almost forced to balance the scales with some other religious building of a different sort. The Agincourt Islamic Center was part of the 2007 show, as was Christian Science. I don’t recall if the Lutherans were there, though they do have a building to show for their presence; meanwhile, the Baptist church—besides being the oldest continuously occupied church in Fennimore county—has been described but only sketchily designed. But the Wesleyans of Asbury UMC and the Jews of Temple Emmanu-El are closer to inclusion than most other faith traditions. In this case, the follow-through rests with me.

This chunk of town, just west of the Square, shows several prominent public and semi-public buildings: the second county courthouse (in blue), the opera house and Federal Building, just south; the Baptist church (the yellow diagonal), the Methodists (in orange), Islamic Center (west of the Methodists, also in yellow) and the synagogue (on the north side of that same block, in blue). That single five-sided block, by the way, surrounds the justly famous “ecumenical parking lot” shared by Muslims, Jews, and Methodists on, respectively, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Let it not be said that Agincourt is not at the leading edge of diversity.

By the way, would you call “an addendum to the working lunch” dessert?

A working lunch…

Lunched today with Milton Yergens and brainstormed Agincourt #3 next October. The date is set (October 25th) and the galleries assigned (the Gustavian and Katherine Kilbourne Burgum galleries on the second floor), about 120+ linear feet of display. So the panels and pieces have to be carefully selected to tell a cohesive story. Essentially, the space determines the pieces, and the pieces set the theme. At least that’s the way it will have to work this time.

Baptismal Basin

Among the newest contributions will be the baptismal font installed this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Agincourt’s Episcopal church, Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter.For the first forty years, St Joe’s used simple enamelware for baptizing, waiting for funds (or a donor) to purchase something more appropriate. Good things came to those who waited, because in 1908 they acquired a copper bowl, the “Trillium” pattern, from the Roycrofters in East Aurora, NY, Elbert Hubbard’s American answer to the Arts & Crafts philosophy of William Morris in England. It stood on the older wood stand that had held the earlier kitchen basin, though both Morris and Hubbard would have applauded the honesty of either vessel.

So, for one hundred years that basin served the Episcopal right of baptism, until 2008, when it was stolen from the unlocked church one weekday afternoon. Another utilitarian enamel basin stood in, once again, until a replacement could be found.

As the parish approached its sesqui-centennial this year, an anonymous donor came forward to commission a baptismal basin in the spirit of the Arts & Crafts. Various options were considered—materials ranging from beaten copper, carved or turned wood, and ceramic—when an exhibit of the raku ware of Carrin Rosetti and Richard Gruchalla came to the vestry’s attention. Gruchalla and Rosetti are potters in Duluth, Minnesota, who sell their work through galleries in the Twin Cities (not that far from Agincourt, as the crow flies) and also travel to various street and craft fairs. A chance encounter at one of those exhibits led to a commission. While we don’t yet know the details of the piece, it will be in the spirit of some of their newest work:

We’re excited about the prospect and will share the end product with you in October as part of the parish 150th anniversary celebration.

Stained Glass Window

At the beginning of the last century, as the kindergarten movement of Friedrich Fröbel spread across America, Agincourt got its first kindergarten in 1904—a response to an exhibit on childhood education at the 1904 St Louis world’s Fair. A purpose built kindergarten was constructed adjacent to St Joe’s Episcopal church, though it was non-sectarian and staffed by teachers from several spiritual communities. The 1904 building in the domestic “Shingle Style” was enlarged in 1912, when a full-time teacher was hired to oversee the school. At that time a stained glass window was installed in the main assembly space, based on the traditional British puppet show that would probably be considered politically incorrect today due to its violence:

The window is based on “Punch and Judy”, a stencil decoration by Margaret Lloyd which appeared in the January 1905 issue of The Studio, a British magazine focused on the Arts & Crafts:

Rose Kavana’s Table and Chairs

When Anson Tennant returned home in 1936, following twenty-one years of amnesia in northern Spain, he never returned to his former architectural life. Rather, he turned to woodworking, skills he had sharpened while recuperating; working in his new father-in-law’s carpentry shop in Donostia was a sort of physical therapy which he continued upon his return. Several old friends stepped forward with “commissions” for new pieces—very likely to keep him busy and aid his integration with a community he barely recognized. One of the first of those commissioned works was a writing desk and two chairs requested by Miss Rose Kavana, who had become principal of Anson’s old elementary school, Charles Darwin. Miss Kavana’s furniture and some of her other decorative artifacts (a stained glass lamp and some of her book collection) will form a tableau in the new exhibit:

Crafted in cherry, the chairs nestle beneath the table like a mother hen and her chicks, a folksy analogy that probably never crossed the mind of either Tennant or Miss Kavana.

Among Tennant’s other crafts was the manufacture of children’s building blocks, possibly influenced by the above mentioned Fröbel, but he would have already been fourteen when the kindergarten opened and probably beyond the German educator’s reach. In 1912, Tennant had crafted a set of blocks based on a church he had seen during a summer in Mantalocking, New Jersey, and his newest sets include one based on the house that inspired a dollhouse he had made in 1905. Both the dollhouse and the building blocks will be displayed:

Preliminary design for a set of wood blocks based upon the C. S. French house by architect William Halsey Wood

The wrought iron column cap from Tennant’s 1914 design for the Agincourt Public Library will also be on display (as it was in 2015).

Tabor Air

Finally, some of the manufactures of another branch of his family—Tabor Agribusiness and Tabor Air—will join the show. This time, it will be a scale model of the bi-plane from the 1930s using Ford engines and components of grain bins adapted for flight and first flown by pioneer aviatrix Phyllis Tabor, twin sister with Ella Rose, Agincourt’s very own “Daughters of Flight”.

My guess is that a few other pieces will materialize along the way. At least I hope so.

See you on October 25th!

25 October 2018, a Thursday

Difficult as it may be to accept, a third Agincourt exhibit will open on October 25th this year—a Thursday. I only mention the weekday because Rourke openings are traditionally on Friday (for members and special guests) and Sunday for the public. The first exhibit opened on that day and date in 2007, so there is a certain symmetry with what I assume will be he last exhibition (during my lifetime). And exhibit #2 closed on 25 October 2015, the actual 600th anniversary of the eponymous battle.  Both of those events premiered new music by Daron Hagen, Agincourt’s official composer-not-in-residence, and this year we may also hear something new. New works of art and craft are also afoot, so plan to join us. If I could be four inches taller and thin, Howard Tabor would be your host for the festivities but since I can adjust neither my height nor weight (except in the wrong direction) please content yourselves with me. Howard sends his best, by the way.

New works will expand the stories of Rose Kavanaugh, principal at Charles Darwin Elementary school; of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal Church, celebrating its 150th anniversary with new baptismal basin; and consecration of Saint Ahab’s Chapel at Christ the King. For my part, the second Fennimore county courthouse—though struck by lightening fifty years ago and replaced with a spectacular example of mid-century Brutalism—is one of the unfinished buildings still churning my imagination (i.e., gut).

Looks like it’s going to be a busy summer.




Five rural communities pepper Fennimore county: Muskrat City, about fifteen miles south of Agincourt; Nimby, in the southeast part of the county; Grou, almost due east of Agincourt; Fahnstock, ten miles west on Hiway #7; and Resort, a loose assortment of rustic hotels around the lower portion of Lakes Sturm und Drang. Depending on your definition of “community”, Resort may not qualify.

Muskrat City was a robust contender for the seat of county government in the years before the Civil War, but the land was too flat and the Muskrat River too prone to flooding for it to succeed, despite its boosters. Within three years of county formation the court house had shifted to Agincourt. The land between Agincourt and Nimby is called “The Barrens”, such marginal land for either crops or grazing that Nimby’s growth was stagnant; and the community’s no-can-do attitude didn’t help. Grou, on the other hand, was settled by Dutch immigrants from Friesland who are so used to terra-forming—desalinating land and managing water resources—that agriculture, dairy cattle and swine have become local industries; Grou goat cheese is renowned throughout the area.

Continuing counter-clockwise around the county, Fahnstock was established by eastern financial interests represented locally by brothers Willis and Rudyard Fahnstock, the latter also an MD with a brisk practice in Agincourt. The village is close enough to Agincourt and the highway sufficiently reliable, even before macadam paving, that it has been a virtual bedroom commuter suburb since the last quarter of the 19th century.

And finally, there is the loose accumulation of resorts along the east, south and west shore of Sturm und Drang. When the NITC extended a spur line for summer traffic in 1910, the area came to be known popularly as Resort, with the Station-Store serving as interurban depot, rural post office, and general store. Regular service on the NITC mainline treated both Grou and Fahnstock as flag stops.

Of those five satellite communities, Muskrat City and Nimby (for obvious reasons) hold little interest for me. The others have played varying roles in the story so far, but Fahnstock and Resort have been in my mind—notice I didn’t say “on”—and are likely to play some part in the upcoming October exhibit.

One of these days I have to draw a map of Fennimore county, don’t you think?

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The way things work: “Portrait une famille” (Part 2)

Entries in “The way things work” category are usually about the mechanics behind or within some element in the Agincourt story. Often it concerns the role played by an object in developing a character or event, in this case the painting by Gabriel Spat titled “Portrait une famille”.

Yesterday’s entry outlined the process of identifying the artist Gabriel Spat, whose on-line bio was sketchy at best. But today I’ll turn to the characters actually in this family portrait and how the painting came to be in Agincourt.

  • Howard’s aunt Mary-Grace Tabor married Kurt Bernhard while she was living in NYC, studying to be a Montesorri teacher. The painting shows the Sobieski family, parents of his first wife Clothilde, who were vintners in the Alsace-Lorraine. A lot of this is already treated in “History as Genealogy” and “Family Trees“. And all of that is put into perspective in an entry titled “Relativity“.

  • Three of Spat’s paintings in the Community Collection are treated separately here, here and here. Each of these has come from the Bernhard connection and together they reinforce the link between Bernhard and his European origins. The story of his first wife’s death during the Nazi occupation of Paris has yet to be told, but I suspect it will involve her burial at Pere Lachaise cemetery.
  • Inherent in all this is the Community Collection itself, a community resource that began innocuously enough with a one-time exhibit at the G.A.R. Hall in 1912 organized by Amity Burroughs Flynn. The CC contains well over eighty pieces.
  • In the page titled “The Community Collection” you will find more detailed information about the collection itself and the circumstances behind its creation. Perhaps more important, however, is the pattern of information in each entry, how to detect what is “real” from what is fiction, and ultimately what each piece contributes to the overall narrative.

In the end, I suppose, the thing that gives me greatest pleasure is the search, not only for information about Gabriel Spat, for example. But also for giving more meaning to this wonderful work of art; of giving names and faces to the anonymous family recorded in the work itself—people unlikely to ever be known, otherwise; and to add both depth and breadth to Agincourt’s history and its multiple and varied connections with the outside world.

The way things work: “Portrait une famille”

This afternoon, someone asked a question they may very well have regretted. It generated a fifteen-minute conversation which, in turn, seems to have required this blog entry, another in the series, “The way things work”. The question concerned this painting, “Portrait une famille” by Gabriel Spat [1890–1967], acquired at auction long before I knew who the artist had been.

Actually, it was the combination of painting and frame that caught my attention: the family portrait oozed with charm, but the frame was clearly of a different period and not part of the original pairing. The painting has a late-impressionist style about it, while the frame is of the Aesthetic Movement, a style that flourished in this country during the 1870s. It seemed very likely that these were united at a much later date than the painting itself. But who was Gabriel Spat? It seemed worthwhile to write a few words about the facts, the fiction, and the stuff between them regarding “Portraite une famille” or “A Family Portrait”.

Spat, the artist, and his dates were readily available on-line. He seems to have been active in both Paris and New York City, with additional gallery representation in Florida. It was curious, however, that French sources claimed he had been born in the U.S., while galleries in the United States stated flatly that he had been born in France. Those of you who know me will understand that sort of ambivalence doesn’t sit well; that it might just as well have been a gauntlet hurled in my direction, demanding resolution. I simply cannot abide the lazy scholarship of some gallery curators.

What is often true of architectural history is doubly true in the history of art: once something has been set in print, it takes on a life of its own, regardless of truthiness. Somewhere in my initial on-line survey there must be a smoking gun: the first attestation of Spat’s birth that was picked up and repeated again and again. Someone’s initial indecision has been batted back and forth like a shuttle cock in a badminton match. I spend a good deal of time in genealogical websites, however, where such issues can often be resolved with thirty minutes’ effort, which proved true for Mr Spat.

Gabriel Spat is, in fact, a made-up name, an invented persona. He was born, not in the U.S., not in France, but in Chișinău, the capitol of Moldova, a former Soviet republic which is now one of the most impoverished parts of the former Soviet Union. His birth name was Solomon (more likely Schlomo) Patlagen, middle child in a prosperous Jewish family. His father owned a cement factory at the turn of the 20th century. Nearly half of Chișinău’s population were Jewish at the time of the Russian pogrom of 1903, when the senior Patlagen was blinded by the mobs. Two of his sons, Nahum and Shlomo, had been art students at the city’s art academy and managed to escape the country for further study in the west; one source says Switzerland, others Paris.

Both became part of the expatriate art community in Paris, among better known figures like Marc Chagall. I suspect that the two Patlagen boys needed to distinguish themselves from one another, so Nahum became Naum, while Shlomo went through a more drastic transformation: he took the “S” from his given name and the first three letters of the surname (pat) and became Spat; where “Gabriel” came from is anybody’s guess. So Gabriel Spat was born.

It’s doubtful that he had actual studio space at La Ruche, a cluster of artists’ studios in Montmartre, but is known to have hung out there, collecting scraps of canvas from other artists, ostensibly the reason for his miniature works from the 1920s. I don’t know the date of his first one-person show but he was certainly a figure in the Paris art scene, an especially popular figure among the city’s early film makers: a collection of his sketches of actors and directors was published in a very limited edition and he designed the cast bronze relief sculpture for the grave of a prominent director. [I have somehow acquired a copy of each of these.]

Spat was living in Paris at the time of the Nazi occupation and recorded the German presence in sketches published in newspapers elsewhere, an early first-hand record of the city’s darkest days. He managed, with his older brother, to move south into unoccupied parts of France, near Antibes, and from there managed to leave Europe for Casablanca and then for New York City. Spat’s arrival card records the date of arrival, but also petitions the courts for a legal name change—typed on the back of his arrival record. After the war, Spat travelled often between Paris and New York and exhibited in both cities, as well as other American galleries. One of his Florida exhibit catalogues lists prominent people who had bought his works, including the Duchess of Windsor (the former Wallis Warfield Simpson) and Mrs Robert F. Kennedy. Clearly, he had a following, if not an accurate biography. Do you suppose he encouraged the ambivalent treatment of his past?

Most of the above information is true—other than some of my own speculation. What follows, however, is the story of “Portrait une famille” as it came to become part of the Agincourt story.

Look for Part Two tomorrow. Right now it’s time for bed.