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The Last Dinosaur


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 he 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 for 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.

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