[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
MÉNAGER, Pierre (1894-1973)
“Old Cypress Trees Monterey Peninsula”
block print / 11.25 inches by 13.25 inches
Emmanuel “Pierre” Ménager was born at Nantes, France in 1894 but emigrated to the United States, where he produced most of his work. Active in New Mexico, California and also New Orleans, Ménager was primarily a printmaker, though he also painted and sculpted. Whether this piece is a wood- or linocut is uncertain, but its colors exemplify a palette of the 1940s. He died at Hollywood, Florida in 1973. “Old Cypress Trees” was acquired from his estate.
This is identified only as “block print” since it is unclear whether it is printed from wood or linoleum.
In the summer of 1989, Richard and I trekked around Lake Michigan for a week or so. He flew to Minneapolis and then we drove counterclockwise, through Chicago—where there was a Wright exhibit at the Museum of Science & Industry, of all places—and then to Detroit, up the “mitt” to Mackinac, westward across the U.P. to Duluth, then down to MSP again. The third-point of the trip brought us to Muskegon, where there is a remarkable church by Marcel Breuer and a nifty 19th century rail station by Sidney J. Osgood (bet you never heard of him). Muskegon probably has several greater claims to fame, but the Breuer church (St Francis de Sales; you should look it up) is what drew us there; the depot was a bonus.
We separated at the depot (so as not to “clutter” each other’s photos) and as I walked away from the building to get context, I happend to glance down on the sidewalk. There was a small featherless bird, so far from any nest that I couldn’t imagine how it had got there. I momentarily wondered how I could save it, but we were “on the road”, stopping in motels, and I had no ready supply of ground worms. Then there was this voice, everywhere and, yet, nowhere, speaking: “Choose life!” it said. I still bear the guilt of walking away.
I mention this, prompted by an article in the current Harper’s magazine: “The Sound of Madness: Can we treat psychosis by listening to the voices in our heads?” by T. M. Luhrmann.
Hearing voices. Talking back.
Psychology has evolved considerably since I was a youth—was I ever?—particularly on the question of psychosis.
Luhrmann’s discussion centers on those of us who hear voices—as I did that afternoon in Michigan—and changing notions of schizophrenia. A current view holds that there is a psychotic continuum with “Virtually no two patients present[ing] the same constellation of symptoms”, and along with it “an understanding that voice hearing can shape the course and outcome of the illness.” But the sources and intent of the voices vary considerably. What they have in common is planting a thought that is not our own.
Charismatics, for example, hear the voice of God counseling them to ignore other, demonic spirits. Others hear a committee of voices that variably criticize or counsel. One patient had been able to identify the angels and demons who spoke to him, managed to regulate their access, and had begun to like the “angels.” But one of those better voices suggested that his grandmother was a witch, whereupon he stabbed her at the kitchen table. “She bled to death on the floor.” Even Charles Dickens—this where it gets personal—revealed that he heard the voices of his characters, distinctly, and felt that he was simply transcribing what they said.
So, here is where I find myself: readily accepting the notion that thoughts can occur which we may attribute to an “outside” source; that they fall on a spectrum from madness to creativity; and that I’m waiting eagerly for their visitation on the Agincourt Project. If you’re out there—Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and any others in need of an audience—come talk to me and let’s begin a conversation.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
DAVISON, James, Jr (ca1848-1919)
“The Occidental Mill”
watercolor on card stock / 5.5 inches by 3.5 inches
The historic Occidental Mill ground Agincourt’s flour from 1860 well into the 1930s, and marketed the “Occidental” brand within a fifty mile radius. The mill was owned and operated by James and Kesiah Davison, early immigrants from Pennsylvania, and later with assistance from their sons Hiram, Isaac, and James Jr. When the mill ceased operation, it fell into picturesque disrepair until acquired and restored by the Fennimore Co. Historical Society and merged with the society’s other historic property, the adjacent Vakkerdal Farm and Creamery. Sixty-year-old James Davison Jr painted his family’s legacy in 1909, probably from the Milwaukee Road railroad bridge—although it seems more recollection than record.
This watercolor and its delightful Neo-Classical frame were acquired from the James Davison III family now living at Plattsmouth, Nebraska.
In the spirit of Sir Edward Elgar’s Op. 47, “Introduction and Allegro”, I wondered about the Agincourt Projects in musical terminology.
British composer Sir William Walton, a full generation younger than Elgar, provided music for Agincourt’s Centennial celebration in 1957. And at that approximate time, he quipped about the writing of opera (of which he had produced just one, “Troilus & Cressida”): “Never write an opera,” Walton advised, “Too many notes. Too many notes.” Or some such admonition; I’m writing this from memory and you know how that goes. I might have echoed Sir William myself: “Never create a community. Too many stories. Too many stories.
adverb & adjective: 1. (especially as a direction after a solo section) with all voices or instruments together.
noun: 1. a passage to be performed with all voices or instruments together.
Asked by of Sunday’s students how to choose a topic as their own contribution to the story thus far, it seemed best to approach the process of triage at some distance. consider, for example, the theme of the dying and the dead. Yes, any community of Agincourt’s size and aspiration would have had medical professionals and some sort of hospital. Ours has a curious name—Luke, the Physician—and has been relocated twice: first to the west edge of the city, and later, when a much larger facility was required, north of Hiway #7. Either of the earlier facilities would be do-able.
adjective & adverb: 1. (especially as a direction) at a brisk tempo.
noun: 1. a passage or movement in an allegro tempo.
Depiction is problematic; to depict something is to freeze it in a moment of time, an arbitrary and artificial state. All parts of Agincourt have been in a constant state of “becoming”, but two of them at least offer a contained phenomenon: the county fairgrounds across the Muskrat and the cemeteries clustered at the opposite east edge of the city. To show either of them now entails their accumulated evolution from the 1860s to the present. Far better and easier, I suspect, would be a rendition of either in a previous phase. But I ahve yet to find volunteers to take them on.
Perhaps the most “allegretic” of Agincourt’s parts might have been the city’s northern edge, where State Hiway #7 bypassed on its way westward toward Storm Lake. Grady Clay, journalist-turned-landscape-observer, has written what may be the most accessible resource for the study of urban change: Close-up: How to Read the American City (1974). Clay’s insight tells us that change is already afoot long before the physical evidence. This area would have been the location of the drive-in movie theater, new- and used-car dealerships, farm implements, and probably the first actual motel (as opposed to a “motor court”). such a study of The Strip could be a semester-long exercise, a potential candidate for ARCH 720-something or other. But I’ve resolved to never do one of those again.
adjective: 1. relating to or characteristic of an elegy; “haunting and elegiac poems”. Synonyms: mournful, melancholic, melancholy, plaintive, sorrowful, sad, lamenting, doleful.
noun: 1. verses in an elegiac meter.
This is probably a more appropriate musical direction for either the cemeteries or the Square, Agincourt’s public assembly space opposite the courthouse; the testosterone-laden site of war memorials, etc.
noun: 1. a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.
There have been moments, intense episodes of creativity, between and among some of us, when the energy is a genuine collaboration, each feeding on the other. Cecil Elliott once called this “heated agreement”, which might be counterpart to the musical notion of fugue.
con prosciuto, agnello e confitura di fragiole
Musicians will be puzzled by these performance instructions (usually written in Italian). Confronted by Sir Lawrence Olivier concerning the score for Olivier’s film version of Hamlet, the sardonic William Walton added these words to his next film score, for Richard III: con prosciuto, agnello e confiture di fragiole. Unfamiliar with such direction, the conductor asked Walton their meaning and was not amused to find Walton intended the piece to be played “with ham, lamb and strawberry jam”. I’d taken these intentions to heart when I read them more than fifty years ago and offer them to you today. Do not take yourselves too seriously. Even the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 must have had its bittersweet moments of irony and heroic humor in the face of irresistible force.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
MATTUZZI, Guido (1902/3—1977)
“L’ultima cena” / The Last Supper
oil on canvas panel / 5.25 inches by 7 inches
Italian painter Guido Mattuzzi was born in Trieste, a city many Italians actually believe is not in Italy. His status as a 20th century artist may account for the lack of biographical information (all of which is in Italian), yet there is circumstantial evidence Mattuzzi may have spent some time in Argentina, where there is a substantial community of Italian expatriates. This small rendition of the Last Supper, in heavy impasto technique, may have been a study for a larger work.
The painting came to the collection from the children of the former owners, who do not know its origin.
Just when I suspect “Agincourt” has hit the wall, when the threads that have been in play for a long time seem to fray, a stray cosmic ray strikes home, a new path opens before me, an invitation. Who knows from whence such stimulation comes? I’ve ceased wondering — at least that sort of wondering; there’s plenty of wonder, a seemingly unending supply, still in me. And when that is gone, there will be no easy answer.
The idea of Mesopotamia, a land framed by rivers, opens several interesting trains of thought. The origin of the name itself. The likely ethnic and/or racial makeup of the neighborhood. [Will resolving that question make me a racist? And if I have to ask, am I one already?] And what sort of society will those folks evolve in their own best interests? My own lower Middle Class origins may taint any story emerging here that defines the Mesopotamian experience, especially as it differs from Agincourt’s other neighborhoods. It poses a broad question: “What constitutes the Good Life?” and, by extension, what are its metrics?
The Good Life
Two friends recently offered these takes on work-related satisfaction, presumably an aspect of the Good Life. I quote them here, unedited, without permission but with anonymity:
#1) You set in your mind that arbitrary goal [completing fifty years of teaching], you can intentionally eliminate it. (Not a recommendation, just an empirically gained observation). Somethings in life you think are good for you, may only be good for others, and actually harming (or excitedly, hindering) you. Role play how you would feel the after you visualize quitting. If a severe sense of relief and even gleeful joy wash over you, it is the right thing for you. Time is a fixed commodity, and awards for suffering the longest, need to be weighed against doing what you want, trying what you’ve wanted, and going for it. 2008 laid off, scared as shit, seven kids, no savings, no prospects…… but the work place was such a toxic environment, I found myself whistling and smiling like I won the lottery. Hard next 4.5 years, but everything worked out WAY FOR THE BEST. Chin up. Feels good to make a life changing decision that frees your soul. Also…you definitely belong, not an interloper but a hub, an inspiration, and a memorable instructor. Well done, good and faithful servant. And now, to quote our esteemed First Lady: Be Best. Omg
#2) “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” — the words of Studs Terkel, courtesy of someone I know
My favorite search engine just presented hundreds of web references related to this simple philosophical question: What’s the Good Life? For some reason, I leapt to Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy—Mesopotamia being, arguably, the most democratic place in Agincourt and Fennimore County:
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” — Abraham Lincoln
Armed with these as a frame of reference, defining the core values of Mesopotamia won’t be much easier, but it will be more rewarding.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
DONALD, Demelza (1887-1963?)
aquatint on paper / 4.8 inches by 6.9 inches
Little is known of Cornish artist Demelza Donald, other than her given name, which places her origins squarely in the southwest of England. Donald was likely a student in the post-WWI years at the Newlyn School, an artists colony at that fishing village adjacent to Penzance (made famous by Gilbert & Sullivan). Newlyn attracted artists for its mild climate, high proportion of sunny days, and picturesque coastline, countryside, and surviving instances of British folk life. Donald’s small aquatint depicts—we believe, based on photographic parallels—a caravan of Romany or Gypsies moving across the dunes; such sights were still commonplace in Britain well into the 20th century, attested by this photograph taken in April 1929 of an encampment at Epsom, in far-south suburban London.
Donald’s name appears in the British census of 1921 (listed as “spinster”), though it is absent from surviving records of the Newlyn colony.
Among three influences contributing to Agincourt’s condition, to its physical form — Forces, Factors & Faces — I have no particular favorite.
FORCES are those influences over which we have no control: witness the volcanic activity at Pāhoa, in Hawai’i, above. Under normal conditions (whatever those may be; I’m unfamiliar with such), weather and geology would be the principal forces at work—the clouds above us; the rocks beneath—but sometimes they can get out of control, and that’s because they are beyond our control—not for lack of trying. Apparently, through plate tectonics, those rocks can become molten and erupt randomly, without notice, and with considerable disruptive, even destructive, effect. I’m happy to report such phenomena are unfamiliar in Iowa. Our disruptions are more likely to have been caused by tornado, flood, or fire. Mesopotamia, for example, will have been more adversely affected by flood, low-lying and between two water courses, than other parts of town. And if the southwest quadrant is Mesopotamia, then the northeast is the Acropolis.
Disease is a more egalitarian Force, ignorant of class distinctions. Tuberculosis, for example, decimated rich and poor alike. When Elizabeth McCormick, grandchild of the founder of International Harvester, died of “the wasting disease”, her family crusaded for its elimination. The Influenza Pandemic—Spanish Flu—of 1918 claimed 20 to 40 million people world-wide, nearly 700,000 in the U.S. Each of these public health phenomena touched communities of every size and rank. And some of them resulted in programs which fall in the second category: Factors.
FACTORS encompass large-scale human phenomena, the actions of government or institutions which affect large numbers of people, whole classes, even entire populations. The Civil War robbed the nation of its innocence and its youth, as did the Great War, the war to end war. But some other factors have been more positive in outlook, even if they struck a prohibitive position, like the Eighteenth Amendment and the elimination of alcohol. The Hill-Burton Act of 1946 strove to erect hospitals across the nation, while others have underwritten law enforcement centers, community colleges, or public libraries.
Now and then a single person might be classified as a Factor, like Andrew Carnegie, whose benefaction built 2500 libraries between 1883 and 1929, most of them in the “wholesale” phase toward the end of that period. So, Carnegie might be classified as a FACE.
FACES are the individuals whose efforts have altered the course of our history, globally, nationally, or at the local level. Carnegie is certainly one of that group, but so are Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr Jonas Salk, President John F. Kennedy. This is a category where people can have been effective at the community scale: politicians (like Agincourt’s half-term mayor Edmund FitzGerald Flynn or its Social Gospel Methodist minister B.D.E. Barnes or one of its captains of industry Benjamin Tabor. Either singly or in combination, it is easier to understand the background or underpinnings of the community’s physical form in positive (and, I suppose, negative) ways. Perhaps its time for me to review the Who’s Who, the case of characters identified in the story thus far for the various ways each has shaped what Agincourt looks like today.
Do you think I need to consider a fourth set of influence: FECES.
Anyone over sixty-five might remember The Saturday Review of Literature, the magazine’s longer name while I was in high school. Why I subscribed is a mystery; but it looked good in the mass of stuff I carried around much of the time. One of the highlights was a regular cartoon by Burr Shafer titled “Through History with J. Wesley Smith.” If you need a testimonial, consider President Harry Truman’s compliment addressed to Shafer: “I’m very proud that I’m smart enough to get the point.”
The eponymous J. Wesley Smith ricocheted from Egypt through the Enlightenment, making offhand observations along the way that history would ultimately prove to have been accurate. One toga-clad Roman overseer, for example, turns to another in the construction shack, grumbling, “Romulus must be crazy. He expects us to get all this done today.” Or a ruffled, misshapen swan, watching its elegant counterpart glide across the pond, grouses, “I, on the other hand, have a beautiful mind.”
In one of my favorites, a thoughtful dinosaur comments to his friend on change in the weather: “I don’t know about you, but this cold snap has me worried.” I’ll admit the average dinosaur had a brain the size of a tangerine, so any speculation about awareness of their doom is silly. But is it possible architects are equally oblivious to the passing of an architectural trend or even an entire movement? Philip Johnson was notable for his chameleon-like ability to morph from one style to another. A former colleague once observed: “And there would go Philip, running after the train, as it left the station, and shouting ‘Wait! Wait! I’m the engineer!'”
Asbury UMC: The Last Dinosaur
In 1919, during the final months of the Great War, the vestry of Asbury Methodist Episcopal church recognized the limitations on programming imposed by an outgrown building. Reverend B. D. E. Barnes—known to his friends as “The Venerable Bede”—had become pastor a few years earlier, afire with the Social Gospel and frustrated in his attempts to expand church programs for its members and the community at large. The cramped 1880s Gothic Revival sanctuary required three Sunday services (at 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00), daycare had taken over the rectory’s living and dining rooms, and Sunday school held classes in a space without toilets. Pastor Barnes had convinced his governing board (well supplied with successful merchants) that the time had come to build. So an announcement appeared in the Improvement Bulletin inviting architects to schedule interviews and hawk their wares.
It was common practice for clients to seek architectural services this way: 1) assess parish needs and estimate available resources; 2) schedule two or three evenings for interviews; and 3) schedule interested architects for 30-minute time slots.¹ Architects from as far afield as Omaha, Sioux City, and Des Moines might have evidenced regional interest, but others like W. C. Jones of Chicago were already doing work in the state (at Cedar Rapids) and would have found little difficulty working at a distance from their home base. Though Jones specialized in church design—with several “Social Gospel” designs to their credit—it was Des Moines architects Liebbe Nourse & Rasmussen² who prevailed. [Frankly, I was surprised, since Jones, alone or with his former partner Gilbert Turnbull, had already designed precisely the sort of Akron-Auditorium building which would have satisfied Rev Barnes’s Christian Socialist vision. Could Jones have been presumptive; too sure of himself?]
Architect and client would normally have thrashed out the program elements — what was possible within the budget, the ideal versus the real; needs versus bucks — and developed two or three preliminary schemes for discussion, at which point proposals might be accepted, rejected, or combined and developed further. It’s that sort of historical information which frequently disappears into the waste basket, so we may never know how the final design was achieved and approved.
Then there is the matter of the dinosaur. I’ve done a good deal of research on the so-called Akron-Auditorium Plan and developed a database of more than four thousand possible examples—really—and I can say with some assurance that A-A churches were built well into the mid-1920s, but that Agincourt’s example may be among the last and the largest—a dinosaur in a new ecclesiastical age. It was, in fact, more than an A-A church; it provided space for broader social involvement with issues of the day: meeting space for community groups, adult education, daycare, even provisional housing. The YMCA began in Asbury’s “garden level” before moving next door. A church operating at this scale would have been called “institutional” and programs of its kind weren’t, as you might expect, unique to large urban areas where social issues were more pronounced.
¹ There is an apocryphal story hereabouts which I shall repeat without names. It concerns a local architect of some considerable reputation among Lutheran congregations; he had designed dozens of their church buldings. It seems he would arrive for an interview but, of course, have no control over what slot in the schedule he might be assigned, for which eventuality he had two strategies: 1) Regardless of the sequence, he would keep a small New Testament in his suit breast pocket. At some point during the discussion, he would need to mop his brow, reach for the handkerchief, and “accidentally” spill the book onto the table: clearly, here was a man of the Faith. And 2) if had not been the last interviewee (and even if he had) he would lag behind the other departing competitors, his excuse being a pair of unruly galoshes, the putting on of which gave him opportunity to have a last word with the Building Committee. Now this is “professional practice” of a sort not taught in school.
² Since Anson Tennant’s “passing” Agincourt had lacked a resident architect. Henry F. Liebbe [1872-1951], Clinton C. Nourse [1863-1950], and Edward F. Rasmussen [1867/8-1930]. Liebbe’s son Henry J. was also a draughtsman in the firm. Rasmussen, however, is an especially interesting character. He was born and raised in Owatonna, Minnesota, where he would have known Sullivan’s National Farmers Bank; draughted in the Saint Paul office of J. Walter Stevens; then relocated to Sioux City, home of the Woodbury County Courthouse, the largest public building designed in the Prairie Style, a style never fully embraced by LN&R.
The World of Work
The decennial U.S. Census has been an important source for information on many topics. Though the format of each census changes, 19th century versions are useful for understanding ethnicity, marital status, birth rates, occupation, home ownership, etc. What you may not know is that the census for 1890 — potentially one of the most important for an especially volatile period in U.S. history, documenting the end of “the frontier” — burned in 1921 before it could be opened for public access. Anyone doing on-line genealogical work was hampered by that gaping hole in resources.
Realizing that city directories could be a useful tool, a massive effort was put into scanning them in OCR format and posting them on pay sites like ancestry.com. Beginning with major urban areas, like Chicago, for example, and extending outward from 1890, the process continues and has included smaller and smaller communities, even to the potential scale of a place like Agincourt. So it’s easy to imagine the 1915 volume of “Needle & Haystack’s Directory”. And how significant it could be in telling the story.
It may surprise that directories like this existed long before there were telephones; their purpose was quite different. Directories were vital tools for finding people in cities of all sizes, and included both alphabetical and classified sections. Advertising space was sold to underwrite their cost and make each annual volume (not every town has one for every year) affordable for most residents. I’ve found them particularly helpful in documenting the presence of building professionals, architects, masons, carpenters, etc. The title page and accompanying map for the N&H 1915 directory may become part of the proposed Agincourt book currently underway.
Among the things I find most useful is the classified listing. Not only does it identify businesses and professions — butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and the like — but it also enables us to calculate how many of those are likely on a per capita basis. How many residents, for example, are required to support an architect? — given that the profession was unregulated and virtually anyone could use the title. How large a community is necessary to justify a public library? A blacksmith? A department store? You get the idea. So it is with great interest when images like this appear at auction sites.
I wasn’t able to acquire this photo (it’s not a postcard) but I can tell you it is unidentified by name, location, or date, though we can make an educated guess. Certainly a town of very modest size warranted boot and shoe repair, especially repair. But there is additional information that can be gleaned from it: minimum signage [see the ice cream?], brick sidewalks, shop floors of varying levels, hybrid construction (cast iron and masonry), ceilings of 12-14 feet in height. And then there is that young man on the right. A budding cobbler waiting to take over the family business?
Hradek’s Shoe Repair had already become part of the narrative before this image came along, a shop on South Broad Street on the “wrong” side of town. Perhaps this is it.