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The Role of Architectural Competitions

Architectural Competitions and the Dispersion of Style

Architectural styles are dispersed in a variety of ways in popular culture. Only rarely does it involve direct connection with a particular example of that style; the mechanism far more often involves publication—books, periodical, newspapers. One of the more interesting and direct is connected with the 19th and early 20th century phenomenon of architectural competitions.

From my perspective architectural competition are valuable for two reasons: first, they represent a cross section of architectural thinking at a moment in cultural evolution. The Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1922, for example, invited architects from around the world to submit ideas for the new Chicago headquarters of the self-described “World’s Greatest Newspaper”. The submissions were published in a handsome volume for all to appreciate but also as a stylistic slice of the times. One byproduct of the competition concerns the second prize winner Eliel Saarinen who, on the basis of his new North American notoriety emigrated to the United States from his native Finland, bringing with him his young son Eero who would become a major figure in the development of Modernism.

Their second value is closely related but concerns a building type rather than a stylistic choice. Like the aforementioned corporate competition—the design of a skyscraper—competitions are most often focused on a particular building type. And among those, some of my favorites were sponsored by the manufacturers of building materials and their purpose was to promote the use of those materials. The White Pine Manufacturers Association, for example, or the Indiana Limestone Institute sponsored such competitions. And their results—published in architectural or trade periodicals or as stand-alone publications—can be used to assess the state of the art for, say, single-family residential design. I’m appending four illustrations that are of special interest to me, because they are all in the Prairie School style of Midwestern Progressivism. Three of these were the work of Russell Barr Williamson [1893-1964], a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice during the WWI years. If I’d had my poop in a scoop, I could easily have met this man.

“Design for a White Pine House for the Vacation Season” / Russell Barr Williamson, architect (ca 1917)

“Design for a White Pine House to Cost $12,500” / Russell Barr Williamson, architect (circa 1916)

“Building of Hollow Tile Construction to Cost $4,000” / [not certain of the designer]

“Design for a Detached Residence of Indiana Limestone” / Russell Barr Williamson, architect (1917)

The point, as usual, is to demonstrate how remote pockets of America could easily be exposed to current, even avant garde, architectural thinking. And lest you think that all of these came to naught, here is a Williamson design in Kenosha, Wisconsin looking very much like the Indiana Limestone proposition.

Frank and Jane Isermann residence, Kenosha, WI (1923) / Russell Barr Williamson, architect

One of Wright’s last houses in the Prairie Style was the Allen-Lambe residence in Wichita, Kansas. RBW was an apprentice at the time and, apparently, supervised the Wichita project, then went into private practice. Compare the Allen house with Williamson’s nearly contemporary entry in the vacation house competition.

Henry J. Allen residence, Wichita, KS (1917) / Frank Lloyd Wright, architect

Lud Heat

If you are drawn to English that doesn’t just sing, but sings the blues and does scat and rocks the joint, try Sinclair. His sentences deliver a rush like no one else’s (Washington Post)

Christ Church, Spitalfields as seen by John Piper (lithograph, 1964)

Forty-three years ago British poet Iain Sinclair published Lud Heat, a book that is hard to categorize. I read about it somewhere—God knows what I was reading at the time that would have taken note of it—and sought a copy from the publisher Albion Village Press. [I didn’t know at the time that this was Sinclair’s own press, and that the edition was probably very small.] I sent them payment (at a time when primitive international banking would have been an improvement) and promptly forgot about it. Imagine my surprise when a thin stiff envelope arrived with a yellow-covered copy that still resides somewhere on my shelves, because I had to buy a replacement copy recently for reference. Incidentally, if you should stumble upon a first edition, buy it, because there’s a “true” first edition, autographed, for sale on-line at £750.00.

Its full title is Lud Heat: A book of the dead hamlets and refers to the eastern boroughs of London which have since been combined administratively into the Tower Hamlets; an entirely remarkable district of London that, in 1975, would not have been a tourist destination. Today we would classify Sinclair’s treatment as psychogeography, defined by Guy Dubord twenty years previous as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” For that is precisely what Sinclair has done in this act of literary phrenology, reading the bumps and furrows of his city to find the history lying just below its surface. I was intrigued because English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor is a principal character in Lud‘s juxtaposition of poetry and prose—Hawksmoor being, then as now, one of the stars in my firmament.

So, what about this psychogeography? If I were a scholar, understanding Agincourt in those terms would be the subject of a conference paper. Sadly, I am not, so for the time being it will remain simply an interesting question awaiting a response, and I’ll conclude here with a lengthy quote from an Introduction to a later edition Lud by Allen Fisher. It’s written in the form of a letter to the author himself:

The more people communicate, by building-environments’ symbolic natures as well as verbally, about their surroundings and social practice, the more they get to know about their place, enabling them to comprehend, thus appropriately deal with, their situations. It becomes increasingly necessary, in a society fashioned into obliged mobility, the jet set and tile economically insecure, to insist that home be made. That we “feel at home” whether as settlers and locals, or as nomads looking for rest in comfortable surroundings. At the same time it becomes necessary not to be fooled by, what at best is, the romanticism, the Ivor Novello, and, what at worst can lead to that blut-und-Boden Homeland propagated by the Third Reich. The necessity to locate, to place ourselves becomes increasingly apparent to people living, as you do Iain, in the throws (sic) of, up against the old walls of a city. When this City—London—is now one borough of 33 held in the name of The Greater Council. The idea of (City), to someone in this situation, becomes of city dissolved, of an amoebic and pulsing cloak moving all bounds of geographic possibility leaving behind most bounds of etymological meaning in the name City. To give sense of emotional attachment to locality, to the knowable and unrepeatable, does not mean to do so as an individual. The territorial ties are not made alone. There are subtle mechanisms at work subjugating our psyches, trying to keep and often succeeding to keep, our senses, awareness at a lower level than they need to be in view of the social and economical potential of our situation. Kant held that enlightenment meant the liberation of people from the bondage from which they were themselves to blame. This is not to suggest that all of you are concerned with is a matter of this rooting, But you symbolic concerns strongly relate to and impinge upon this area. Your work just is not semiotics. But Lud Heat assumes the kind of symbolic value particular architectural forms possess: what associations they are capable of evoking in individuals: what those associations depend on. Symbolic attachment to place, apart from the social relationships of groups, concerns itself primarily in the built urban environment. It is from these building that the energies of the area are—I was going to say, “generated”.

I think I know what this says, but may have to find someone to translate it from British English to American English. As someone—possibly George Bernard Shaw—has observed, we are two nations divided by a common language.

St Anne Limehouse as seen by John Piper (lithograph, 1964)



Stephen McMillan [born 1949]

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

McMILLAN, Stephen [born 1949]

“East of Orcas”


etching and aquatint / 11.6 inches by 8.6 inches

West Coast artist Stephen McMillan’s interest in the landscape grew from his early years in Berkeley, CA and a home with a view of San Francisco Bay. The Warnock Gallery, one of his dealers, has this to say about his education:

[McMillan] studied art at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and also one year at Hornsey College of Art in London, England, where he concentrated on sculpture. It was at Santa Cruz, in 1969, that Steve was first introduced to etching. Since receiving his BFA from UCSC in 1975, he has focused on creating aquatint etchings of landscapes, drawn freehand from photographs he takes.

From 1975 to 1979 he worked at Graphic Arts Workshop in San Francisco. For most of the years from 1979 to 1992 he was an artist in residence at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, where he taught classes in printmaking, and wrote three technical articles about aquatint etching. In 1992 he moved to Petaluma, California, and set up a printmaking studio in his home. In 2006 he moved north to set up a new studio in Bellingham, Washington.

Orcas is one of the San Juan Islands in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, between Washington State and Vancouver Island.

The Richardsonian (1.1)

Richardson and the Romanesque

H. H. Richardson’s value in the evolution of late 19th century American style is twofold. First, he introduced a version of Early Medieval architecture influenced by his time at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. [As a Louisianan, it was a good place to ride out the Civil War.] It was in France and Northern Spain that Richardson gleaned the value of simple geometries and strategic ornament, lessons that would prove to be vital during a career barely twenty years in length.

The architect’s second contribution is subtler and can best be understood looking at his entire career. As an ersatz historian I can cherry pick specific works and put them together or in sequence to prove pretty much anything, but Richardson’s career is so compact and the examples so comparable that I’m convinced he almost single-handedly reformed the excesses of Victorian and Ruskinian Gothic that dominated post-Civil War America. Project by project, Richardson limited his shapes, restricted his material palette, and simplified or eliminated ornamentation. And in doing so, he facilitated the movement toward Modernism that premature death at the age of forty-eight denied him.

HHR emmanuel

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh), PA (1886) / commissioned in tandem with the Allegheny County Courthouse & Jail.

HHR potter2

Henry S and Margaret Potter residence, St Louis, MO (1886) / demolished / Richardson and his successor firm Shepley Rutan & Coolidge designed at least four buildings for the linked Potter and Lionberger families.

The architect’s reductionist tendency achieved its ultimate expression in late works like Emmanuel church in Pittsburgh and the Henry S. Potter residence in St Louis, both completed in 1886, the year of Richardson’s death. Each has been stripped of extraneous ornament: brackets, moldings, gratuitous textures or shifts in material for the sake of contrast. Emmanuel’s hairpin plan has the simple efficiency of a paperclip. Its windows, cut almost directly into (out of?) a plain brick surface; articulated only by sandstone sills and basic concentric courses of brick that define their semicircular tops. What could be more elemental.

Richardson’s suburban residence for Henry S. Potter* [1850–1918; president of the St Louis Steel Barge Co.] once stood at Goodfellow and Cabanne, on a large lot in a leafy suburban enclave. Its simple massing, an external expression of internal function, used shapes that are at once childlike and sophisticated. Its skin, a uniform sheet of shingles pulled taught like a drumhead across walls and roof alike.

But these prescient buildings seem to have had little influence on a wave of “Richardsonian” design only amplified by his untimely death. Throughout the Midwest, dozens of courthouses, city halls, schools and other building types reflect the influence of his earlier work, which was easier to parody and to extract design riffs. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery—which leaves for each of us to answer a question which ought to be on the mind of every architect: Where lies the distinction between imitation and inspiration? And is that distinction a mere gap or a gulf?

*H. S. Potter lies beside his wife Margaret Lionberger Potter in the Lionberger plot at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Two other members of the family—one of them very likely Margaret’s brother—were also HHR clients.


Spell-checking software will not like this word. But I hope readers understand it in the context of putrefaction: a not entirely welcome process that is unstoppable once it has begun.

District 21 has been a reliably Democratic electorate since I moved here in 1980; thirty-eight years of relative liberality in a state that is otherwise scarlet red. The district constitutes much of the inner city but my precinct seemed a residential wasteland until I canvassed the neighborhood, roughly forty blocks between our two transcontinental rail lines and from Tenth Street to the river, most of it commercial, institutional, or devolved to parking. The local parking authority was devoted to the idea that parking generates business, but failed to notice the reciprocal aspect of that formula: more of one necessarily means less of the other. By the time this sank in, a regional shopping center drew most of the remaining businesses in the CBD (the “B” ought to be in lower case) and our own personal Dresden had become ripe for redevelopment. But when I had canvassed the area for Democratic candidates, imagine my surprise to find hundreds of resident voters—the aged, the childless, the single—hidden in rooming houses, second floor apartments, probably illegal basement rooms (there being inadequate escape windows, if there were windows at all), and the very rare single-family detached home (mine being among them). It was the 70s and these voters were reliably Democratic.

I recall a Republican candidate at my door one autumn evening, a piece of campaign literature thrust at me with a cheery introduction. I passed the pamphlet back—”It will just go in the trash”—and wished him well. In nearly twenty years I had voted for a Republican just once and that was a protest against a Democrat who had come to see his office as a right, rather than a privilege. Things are about to change and I now appreciate my role as an agent of that shift.

When I bout my inner city home, you could barely give downtown property away; my modest house cost one-third of a decent automobile these days. But most of the precinct’s voters rented rather than owned. Today, with a major new institutional presence, the neighborhood seems more like Berlin after the Wall came down. Construction of new apartments—both rental and condo—has changed the demographic hereabouts and I know this from a meeting of the Downtown Neighborhood Association some months ago.

Among the issues that brought us together at the Public Library meeting room, I would have expected parking to rank high on the list. Not so, I discovered when a tall close-cropped woman related how there were disreputable people lingering about the vicinity of her door. More police presence was necessary in her estimation, an opinion seconded by several others in the room. Improved street lighting and surveillance cameras would surely lessen the problem. At some point, in my silence, I began to understand the Great Divide represented in that room.

“How many of you here tonight,” I inquired, “live in security buildings?” and ninety percent of the hands shot ceiling-ward. There’s the rub, I thought; the neighborhood demographic had up-ended. I and my ilk were now the minority in an area havily gentrified. We now boast more caffeine emporia per capita than Seattle! Not to mention high-end fashion shops, vendors of truffle-infused extra virgin olive oil, and gelato. As a reality check, I shared an observation from my bedroom window: “I’m sorry that disreputable people seem to threaten your security, But I wonder how many of you were awakened by your dog and looked out a rear window to see two people fucking in the alley.” No show of hands this time. I’ll cut to the chase and say that neither I nor my husband were notified of another DNA meeting. Nor are we surprised.

So as the November mid-term elections approach, I fully expect a new crop of Republican candidates at our door and that they have a very good shot at winning. District 21 has gone topsy-turvy and the state has turned a little more red.

The Richardsonian Romanesque

It’s not an especially round number, but this year will be the 180th anniversary of H. H. Richardson’s birth. When September 29th rolls around, will you join me for a beer?

There were actually two Romanesque Revivals during the 19th century: there was the Rundbogenstil, which (as you might gather from the name) was Germanic and included elements of both the Renaissance and the Byzantine. Then there was a late flowering of Romanesqueness courtesy of the great American architect Henry Hobson Richardson and the style that bears his name—if not his personal imprint. The irony of the Richardsonian Romanesque is that it had less and less to do with the direction of Richardson’s own developing style. Which is to say that, ultimately, the Richardsonian Romanesque wasn’t particularly Richardsonian. If he’d lived beyond his forty-eight years, who knows how discrepant they might have become.

Paul Clifford Larson has explored what HHR’s work had come to mean in the Midwest: his influence can be felt from the Superior shore of the U.P. to the courthouse squares of Iowa and Kansas. Locally, it appears in Fargo at “Old Main” on the NDSU campus. But would HHR have approved or even recognized himself in it? I wonder.

One of Richardson’s more exotic disciples was William Halsey Wood, who I chose as the architect for Agincourt’s Fennimore County courthouse of 1888-1889. Once again, my planning is better than the three-dimensionality and detailing of it. But I will admit more than subliminal influence from the Cerro Gordo courthouse at Mason City. Ultimately, I hope my design shows more of Wood than Richardson, but a defense of that claim will have to wait.

Cerro Gordo Co. C. H., Mason City, IA (1903; demolished 1962)

Williams Co. C. H., Bryan, OH (1891) / E. O. Fallis, architect

Come to think of it, don’t wait until September 29th to suggest that beer.

courthouse #2a

The Second Fennimore County Courthouse (1888-1967) / William Halsey Wood, architect.

Asbury UMC

I pretend that what goes on here matters to others. My latest dilemma concerns Asbury United Methodist church, a 1919 building fronting the courthouse square (actually, the courthouse irregular pentagon; the Square isn’t square), an example of the Akron-Auditorium plan, possibly among the very last ever built. Architects for the design were Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen of Des Moines (a real firm), there being no resident architect in Agincourt at the time.

The design is, if I can be immodest, not bad. There are still a couple glitches that need to be worked out but I have the matter in hand and will modify the plan some time very soon. In the last couple months, my biggest concern was in elevation, not in plan. I spend far too much time in the latter and believe naively that elevations will work out in the long run. this means, of course, that I put them off until it is too late; they resolutely refused to resolve themselves. I scrounged everywhere I could for inspiration: what would a Midwestern Gothic Revival design look like, especially if brick and terra cotta were the predominant materials? Nothing on the interweb was forthcoming—until late last week.

Serendipity plays an exceptionally strong part in this project, as it did last Thursday. Searching for something completely different, I stumbled on a book I’ve know for more than forty years; there was a copy on the shelves of the Architecture Library at OU. It documents a competition sponsored by the Hydraulic Press Brick company to promote their products, and sought designs from architects for “The Brick Church and Parish House”. The date is 1915, which puts more than thirty examples at my fingertips to see what was on the minds of relatively Progressive designers at the very time I was working. The one that caught my eye is by Edmund S. Campbell of Park Ridge, IL—about whose career I know bupkis.¹

This is still way too orthodox for an A-A church—which it is, but only in the most remote way. But it does put me on a path, however, that is relatively level and strewn with fewer obstacles.

¹ In the “that was then but this is now” department, Edmund Schureman Campbell (1884-1950) has emerged from the shadows as both an architect of renown and a watercolorist of considerable skill. Nearly ten of his paintings have been sold at auction and his professional papers are at the University of Virginia.

Squatters Rights

The river where I live is the very reason there is a place to live. Without its course and the limits (during the late 19th century) of its navigability, the railroad would not have chosen this as most convenient and economical crossing, creating the nexus of exchange between two modes of transport. From that time—circa 1870—to the present, the river has been variously curse, blessing, or general nuisance. Those thoughts must have been at the back of my thinking about the mighty Muskrat when Agincourt was in the early stages of development. Some postcard views of the Blue River, in the Greater Kansas City, MO urban area, had also become a more conscious part in shaping the Muskrat’s role in the city.

I had always imagined the west bank of the river, opposite the city, as a convenient place to recreate and, in the process, erect confabulations like this ramshackle pile. As a non-fisher, I hope you will both approve and also set me straight.

Wasted Space

Looking at architecture of any size or species, I often hear the wee small voice of my grandmother Clara Markiewicz Ramsey speaking about what I see. “Dust catchers!” she would exclaim about extraneous doodads, gewgaws, gimcracks, and thingamabobs likely to accumulate crud and require her attention. Wasted space was another comparable irritant. In fact, I’ve come to think of Clara as a proto-minimalist.

So you can imagine my discomfort designing the second Fennimore County Courthouse at Agincourt: more that one-third of its volume consisted of attic beneath a massive hipped roof and cupola. Sure, I placed several secondary county functions up in that cavernous space: miscellaneous dormered meeting rooms; portions of the county law library; even a meteorological station to monitor weather conditions and keep records. Was that the act of a desperate man? Imagine my relief when examples have shown up to justify my initial design instincts.

The former Christian Church in Marion, Iowa has a massive octagonal roof, but it is likely to be open to the sanctuary below (even if it seems not to be skylit. Then, yesterday, the city hall in La Salle, Illinois helped even more: it sports one of the simplest and most massive roofs I’ve seen on a public building—that is, not designed by Imhotep the Wise for his pharaoh client.

Christian Church, Marion, IA

City Hall, La Salle, IL (1907)/ Victor Andre Matteson, architect

Neither of these gets me completely off the hook, but I thought you might find them interesting.


The weighing of the heart


It was a normal Sunday at Asbury UMC, yesterday. By which I mean Pastor Varenhorst challenged her congregation to think. Her sermon was drawn from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Hollywood films of the 1930s have not only colored our understanding of ancient Egyptian religion; they’ve prejudiced us to imagine the Egyptians preoccupied with death. But Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the avenging mummy, kept alive by the distillation of three tana leaves, has as much to do with Egyptian salvation as fruitcake does with the meaning of Christmas.

At the British Museum, there is a copy of the Book of the Dead prepared especially for Hunefer, a scribe of the 19th Dynasty (ca 1275 BCE). In addition to spells and incantations meant to evoke the favor of the gods, it also includes the list of forty-two questions that will be asked of the deceased in his or her pursuit of the afterlife. Hunefer lived knowing the questions he would eventually be asked. And he knew the consequences for providing replies that were either unsatisfactory or untruthful. Frankly, they make the Ten Commandments look like a CliffsNotes study guide. Try your hand at them today—but its O.K. to keep the answers to yourself. My current score is well below fifty percent.

  1. I have not committed sin.
  2. I have not committed robbery with violence.
  3. I have not stolen.
  4. I have not slain men or women.
  5. I have not stolen food.
  6. I have not swindled offerings.
  7. I have not stolen from God/Goddess.
  8. I have not told lies.
  9. I have not carried away food.
  10. I have not cursed.
  11. I have not closed my ears to truth.
  12. I have not committed adultery.
  13. I have not made anyone cry.
  14. I have not felt sorrow without reason.
  15. I have not assaulted anyone.
  16. I am not deceitful.
  17. I have not stolen anyone’s land.
  18. I have not been an eavesdropper.
  19. I have not falsely accused anyone.
  20. I have not been angry without reason.
  21. I have not seduced anyone’s wife.
  22. I have not polluted myself.
  23. I have not terrorized anyone.
  24. I have not disobeyed the Law.
  25. I have not been exclusively angry.
  26. I have not cursed God/Goddess.
  27. I have not behaved with violence.
  28. I have not caused disruption of peace.
  29. I have not acted hastily or without thought.
  30. I have not overstepped my boundaries of concern.
  31. I have not exaggerated my words when speaking.
  32. I have not worked evil.
  33. I have not used evil thoughts, words or deeds.
  34. I have not polluted the water.
  35. I have not spoken angrily or arrogantly.
  36. I have not cursed anyone in thought, word or deeds.
  37. I have not placed myself on a pedestal.
  38. I have not stolen what belongs to God/Goddess.
  39. I have not stolen from or disrespected the deceased.
  40. I have not taken food from a child.
  41. I have not acted with insolence.
  42. I have not destroyed property belonging to God/Goddess

In some translations of the Forty-two Principles there is one I particularly like: Is there one upon the Earth who is glad thou hast lived?

At the far left of the scroll shown here, Hunefer is being escorted by Anubis, the god of the dead, to the scale of ma’at [pronounced “may-et”], where the deceased’s heart will be weighed against the single feather of Truth. Whether personified or shown as an ostrich plume, Ma’at refers to the ancient Egyptian concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice. A heavy heart will be eaten by Ammit, “the devourer of the dead”, and the deceased will cease to exist. But a successful weighing will bring Hunefer one step closer to eternity in The Fields of Bullrushes.

For a full treatment of the subject, I heartily recommend: