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Monthly Archives: July 2018

The Stationary Traveler

Jamiroquai and Dune¹

Cecil Elliott, long-time chair of my department and a friend of this project despite having died three years before its beginning, often spoke of his ideal retirement habitat: as the proprietor of a hybrid bar, bookstore, and travel agency. Well, we have little need for travel agencies these days and the on-line site that dare not speak its name has virtually eliminated independent neighborhood bookstores, so if he were alive today, Cecil would be operating one of the world’s oddest drinking establishments. And that would be me on the second stool from the end.

He possessed a peculiar sort of mind, the kind that could satisfy an appetite merely reading a recipe in a cookbook or epicurean magazine. From our conversations, I know that he could also travel without moving, through evocative writing by the likes of Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, or Jan Morris. I recall one of our earliest conversations; a discussion of London — a passion we shared — and an obscure restaurant near the V&A: Daquise, a Polish restaurant with a French name. Just talking about it transported each of us back to that place and to a meal savored a second time. No thanks to British band Jamiroquai or the “Holtzman Effect” of folding space in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Cecil and I both enjoyed the benefits of traveling without moving.

I can visit Agincourt, despite its non-existence, as often and whenever I like: during those 3:00 a.m. epiphanies that punctuate my dreams, or the tedium of an especially pointless meeting. [Dr Bob has warned about packing for the move, however, and calling United Van Lines.] I wrote the death notice and obit for Maud (Mrs B. F.) Adams during one of those impromptu transmigrations. And I could “see” The Obelisk on axis with one of the entries to Asbury Methodist Church as I designed the building and imagined its context. Portions of the city are that vivid. Some are sketchy at best; others terra incognita.

All of this is overture to a current enterprise: writing about Mesopotamia, that flood-prone neighborhood in Agincourt’s southwest quadrant which seems precisely the kind of place my friend Howard would have known as a boy. Now, if my writing were only half as good as Jan Morris, I could take you with me.

¹ Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it.

Karl Schmidt [1890–1962]

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

SCHMIDT, Karl [American; 1890-1962]

“In Brittany”


charcoal, ink and wash drawing with varnish / 6 3/4 inches by 5 5/8 inches (image)

Karl Schmidt was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on 11 January 1890 and began drawing and painting when quite young.  After graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he traveled to England where he studied art and painted land- and seascapes of Cornwall and the coast of Brittany. While in England he probably came under the influence of the arts and crafts painter Frank Brangwyn and, in turn, Japanese art through Brangwyn’s association with Yoshijiro Urushibara.

Schmidt returned to the US and was a resident of Boston and Worcester until 1915 when he moved to Santa Barbara, California where he was associated with the group of painters who worked in California artist Alexander Harmer’s mission-style studio. In California, Schmidt expanded a decorative painting style in which he abstracted landscape forms, rendering them as flat planes of color thoughtfully arranged within his compositions. His approach suggests the influence of the art of Arthur Wesley Dow, whose method was disseminated by the many Dow students who settled in the Los Angeles area in the early twentieth century. In 1918 he joined the Navy and served in the Bureau of Aeronautics. He later pioneered construction of lighter-than-air craft and rose to the rank of commander.

Karl Schmidt died in Los Gatos, near San Jose, California on Sept. 26, 1962.

Julian Gordon Mitchell [born 1968]

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

MITCHELL, Julian Gordon [born 1968]

“Dinner with Dennis”

date unknown

oil on canvas panel / 24 inches by 18 inches

“There is another world, but it is in this one.” ― Paul Éluard

A fourth surrealist work by Julian Gordon Mitchell makes him the best represented artist in the collection—though without intention. One British gallery has offered the most succinct statement of the artist’s work: “Julian Gordon Mitchell is an English artist who uses painting as a window into an imaginary, dreamlike world. His work is sometimes macabre, often unsettling and invariably crafted with obsessive care. His unique pictures make conscious references to the European canon of painting as well as metaphysical and surreal art.”

Great Aunt Hester’s beach house at Mantoloking

The Shingle Style Today: Or the Historian’s Revenge

In the spring of 1971 I was still a grad student at Columbia University in NYC, living at 1419 John Jay Hall—in a 1917 building with vintage elevators only one of which worked at any one time. There were days that neither was in service and you packed carefully for the day, praying that seven or eight flights down you didn’t realize something left behind; in that case I usually continued down and bought a new one.

Across the hall from my room were two interesting guys. One was totally blind and just as completely obnoxious. He had a pneumatic typewriter that embossed the paper with a braille pattern. That alone was a revelation; the annoying thing was his choice to rev that baby up at 3:00 a.m., the time of day being of little concern to him. Suffice to say, it made a hellacious racket. One day when the elevators were out of commission, I heard his cane tap-tapping up the stairs as I was on the way down. Whereupon I briefly entertained this thought: If I pushed that prick over the rail, no one would ever know. It was a good feeling.

The other grad student across the hall was John Carrigan, an affable philosophy major who just happened to own a car, which, on Manhattan Island, was no small resource. John’s family owned a vacation house in Greenport, the end of the Long Island railroad on the island’s north prong and one weekend I was his guest for some much needed R&R. I mention this because it and one other vacation “cabin” are my only experience with that sort of lifestyle (a word I use with caution). So, when writing about Anson Tennant’s 1912 vacation at Mantoloking, I have to reach back to those three days.

With a little photo-shopping, this borrowed image will do nicely for Hester Tennant Farnham’s beach house at Mantoloking, site of a 1912 summer visit by the Iowa branch of the family. The background is surely flat enough for the coastal sand bar that accommodates Mantoloking and string of other summer hamlets along the Jersey Shore, but I think it needs better entourage as well as some sand. For late-19th century “Shingle Style” picturesqueness, however, this is hard to beat.

Still working on Mrs Farnham’s place in the Tennant family tree.



Robert E. Marx [born 1925]

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

Marx, Robert Ernst [born 1925]

“Janus and Goat”


etching / 112 of 250 / 12.5 inches by 8.5 inches

Emigrating to the United States from his native Germany in 1927 at age two, Marx’s work embodies the turbulence of those times and sees them mirrored in the disquiet of our own. One of the galleries that represent him expresses it best:

Robert E. Marx is part of a small group of important American figurative artists who comment on what it means to be human in an inhuman age. A kindred spirit with such great but often overlooked social protest artists like Leonard Baskin and Leon Golub, Marx’s work speaks only to those who wish to be challenged by an artist’s idea — those who seek an intense and enduring dialogue with works of art. One of America’s most important exponents of the north European expressionist tradition that goes back to Bosch, Grünewald, and Bruegel, Marx’s work explores the futility of trying to bring universal order or give conclusive meaning to the human condition.

Marx himself states: “The people I draw, paint and sculpt personify the human condition. They are also the people we see around us, every day.”

Marx continues his culturally-driven work today at age ninety-two.

Some of you over fifty will recall Ferdinand Roten Galleries and Lakeside Studio, two commercial art galleries that made the rounds of college campuses selling original art during the 1960s and ’70s. Today student Unions are visited by purveyors of cheap posters strewn on folding tables to decorate dorm room walls. Lakeside’s and Roten’s offerings, by contrast, were commissioned from living artists, from whom they purchased entire editions — often a hundred prints or more. Sold at rock bottom prices, even for the 60s, the prints were presented well and were often the beginning of a personal collection.

Their sales staff consisted of graduate students who drove an art-filled van across America, announcing by poster the day before their arrival. For four hours, morning or afternoon, a wide range of artistic styles could be acquired for as little as $5 or $10. They probably arrived in Agincourt from Drake University in Des Moines and pushed on the Morningside College in Sioux City. This print from Lakeside Studio became part of a small collection that has gradually been donated anonymously to the Community Collection.

The Hester Quest

Further candidates for the Hester quest showed up recently on the auction site that dare not speak its name.

Among this new group of candidates—#s 4, 5, and 6—I’m drawn to #5 because she looks to be the right age and the dour expression on #4 is downright off-putting.

The Tontine

In 1793-1795 Boston architect Charles Bulfinch proposed an elegant crescent of sixteen houses, inspired by similar urban schemes he’d seen in Paris. And like the French prototypes, he intended it to be a novel financial model called a tontine. Essentially the investors contract with one another that, upon the death of each, that share is divided among the others until the entire project is owned by the sole survivor. Ghoulish, isn’t it. The Massachusetts courts were uncomfortable with such an innovative arrangement and refused to permit it, so the project depended upon Bulfinch’s wits alone. Despite that, it was among the most sophisticated urban schemes in the early Republic.

Called “Franklin Place”, it survived just sixty-five years, demolished in 1858, though the graceful curve is echoed in later buildings of no significance. Georgian cities like Edinburgh and Dublin are rich with similar forms—but I doubt they were also examples of tontine ownership. Architecturally, however, there were few other projects of such unity and elegance found in the early United States.

I can appreciate Boston’s Tontine Crescent (the way histories consistently reference it) at three levels: 1) as a work by  Bulfinch, whose career received little if any treatment in history surveys; 2) in the context of Georgian Bath or the “Regent Street” projects by John Nash; and 3) as a rare instance of tontine ownership. The last “tontine” I can recall was a bottle of Napoleon brandy, which was drunk by the surviving investor—with considerable smugness, I suspect.

Agincourt has its tontine; you knew it would, just because it’s exotic in the American architectural experience. But it is also considerably less elegant: a humble lake cabin at Sturm und Drang in which Howard and Rowan own a share. I’ve neither designed that cabin nor found a suitable “donor” but the night is young, as they say. In the meantime, I thought you ought to know about Boston and Mr Bulfinch, simply as a curious moment in U.S. architectural history. It also makes an exotic scrabble word.


PS: Like the so-called Ponzi Scheme, named for a swindler in the U.S. and Canada of Italian ancestry, the tontine is named for Italian Henri de Tonti, a soldier, explorer, and fur trader in service to the French. I simply point them out as both having been Italian and both having developed financial schemes that bear their names.

The eyes of others…

“Seeing through the eyes of others” by C.S. Lewis

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

“My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charges with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog…

“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myraid eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/1992), 140-141.

And then there is another point of view:

“You don’t have to see through the eyes of others, hold onto yours, stand on your own judgment, you know what is, is—say it aloud, like the holiest of prayers, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Part 3, Ch. 4.

I think I’ll go with Option “A”.

Hester Tennant Farnham

Hester Tennant Farnham

Great Aunt Hester’s summer house at Mantaloking, NJ

Hester Farnham (née Tennant) may have been the sister of Horace, Pliny, and Virgil Tennant. Her husband Ellis Farnham and their attorney-banker Morris Hirsch were among the Founders of Agincourt in the 1850s. The Tennant family tree seems to be getting needlessly complex but that’s simply the way my head works these days. While all of this gets sorted out, perhaps you can help me settle on a picture of Aunt Hester. Do any of these work for you?

Aunt Hester lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but summered at Mantoloking, where Anson and the other members of the family enjoyed her hospitality in 1912. It was there that they worshiped in a small Episcopal church, St Simon’s-by-the-Sea, designed by William Halsey Wood. Wouldn’t you know I’d find another way to work Halsey Wood into the story.

Candidate #1 is perhaps too young but I like the pose and the dress

Candidate #2 seems about the right age

Candidate #3 is maybe a little too old

And lest you think I deal in stereotypes, Morris Hirsch grows from a childhood experience in Chicago. Once isolated on a tiny triangle of pavement where West Wacker Drive does a dogleg to follow the Chicago River and what used to be South Water Street peels off to the right heading east, there was a fascinating sculpture by Laredo Taft of George Washington shaking hands with two other figures: Robert Morris and Haym Salomon, two financiers who underwrote the Revolutionary War. The statue has been moved to a more pedestrian-friendly location, so you can now appreciate it without being creamed by a taxi. I honestly don’t know which of these is Salomon.

It’s embarrassing to learn that Congress reneged on their debt to Salomon, an immigrant Polish Jew, and he died penniless at the age of forty-five. I’ll gladly claim him as one of my ancestral countrymen.

“For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”  —President George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 1790


Cimetière du Père Lachaise

The Cimetière du Père Lachaise is one of a half dozen urban cemeteries around the world that need no introduction. I must confess to having a fascination with cemeteries in general and this select group in particular because they confirm for me a Truth: that such places of interment are not for the dead, but for those they leave behind. My favorites are Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, and Père Lachaise in Paris—the others remain on my bucket list. But Père Lachaise plays into the Agincourt story in an obscure way: it’s the burial place of Clothilde Sobieski, first wife of Kurt Eugene Bernhard and mother of Howard’s step-cousin (is there such a thing?) Eugene Casimir Bernhard.

Mme Bernhard, her husband and son were living in Paris when German forces occupied the city on 14 June 1940, poorly documented in Ronald Rosbottom’s book When Paris Went Dark. I don’t know the circumstances surrounding her death but it was war-related and her ashes are interred in one of the columbarium niches there. Howard has never visited the place but he’s recently established contact with the children of her brother Adam and sister Irena — relatives so distant and disconnected that a even a genealogical chart won’t help — and is anxious to meet them as soon as travel can be arranged.

What will it mean to Anson, do you think, when he and Rowan are able to bring flowers and place his hand on the square green marble capstone that records her name and dates? Family is an odd phenomenon for anyone (like myself) who has none, so I envy Howard, whose own family is so large and dispersed.