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You don’t say?

Germania Club Building, Chicago, IL / August Fiedler, architect (1889)

I grew up in Chicago, one of North America’s most ethnically diverse cities. As in Toronto and New York City, the measure of that diversity is the number of foreign language weekly newspapers; prominent among them and boasting the longest continuous publication is the Illinois Staats-Zeitung. But there is far more evidence of Chicago’s German-ness.

A building once known as the Germania Club still stands at 108 West Germania Place; and in that same neighborhood is Goethe Street—but don’t pronounce it properly and expect to be taken there by uber; it is locally pronounced “goh-thee”. Closer to my own native habitat on the far southwest side is a Lithuanian neighborhood. I know because an habitual bus route took me past Draugas, the Lithuanian Catholic Press. Don’t jump to conclusions about Lemont, the town where my grandmother was born, about twenty-five miles southwest of Chicago: a hundred years ago it was predominantly Swedish (Lutheran) and Polish (Catholic) and there on Blue Hill (niebieskie wzgórze) you’ll find the intersection of two streets named Ledochowski and Moczygemba. Times change; cities evolve. But not without the persistence of memory; not everything can be whisked away or even bulldozed into oblivion. At one time I knew where the best Czech pastries could be found; the best pierogi; the most reliable tamales. Schnitzel of heroic proportion existed (and probably still does) on Milwaukee Avenue, while other streets like Pulaski and Cermak highlight the important contributions of Eastern European stock.

That Midwestern German presence is attested by place names (Chicago’s Goethe Street or its Hegewisch neighborhood), by social clubs or church dedications (that often make no sense as the ethnicity of neighborhoods shifts), and commercial enterprise, like beer (Leinenkugel, Pabst, Schlitz, and Schmidt) and banking. On the west side of Agincourt’s Broad Street, for example, is one of those institutions: Hansa House. It ought to have been “haus”, you say, but that wouldn’t have pushed the envelope of assimilation far enough.

Hansa, of course, refers to the Hanseatic League, an association of Medieval cities bound together for trade and mutual protection from piracy, from the eastern Baltic to the British Isles. Cities like Gdansk, Poland, or Lübeck, Germany retain their Hanseatic luster in the form of churches, guild and municipal halls, all underwritten by commercial prosperity and especially by the architectural character of the Hanseatic trading house: a tall, narrow-fronted building facing the water—all commerce traveled by water—probably with four floors, each with a wide warehouse door, and served by a winch-and-pulley system projecting from the stepped attic gable. Brick is the nearly universal material, save for Scandinavia where wood was in greater supply. The Hansa style was widely emulated by German enterprise in 19th century North America, including the German-American Shipping and Insurance Co. in Agincourt.

Hansa House, #8 North Broad Street, Agincourt, IA / architect unidentified (1898)

Various tenants have occupied the main floor, currently a purveyor of pianos, while floors two and three have always concerned themselves with the pushing of paper, until computers were touted as the salvation of deciduous forests, The cathedral/attic fourth floor housed the Deutscher Verein, a men’s club and chorus, until the Great War, when Germans sang alone in the shower or garage and armed conflict thousands of miles away interrupted the thirty-year expectation of Oktober Fest or a Christmas concert. The U.S. didn’t join the war effort until 1917, of course, but another event brought war-consciousness to the home front far sooner.

Like all good businessmen of the time, Anson’s father Jim Tennant spread his custom around the community, not wanting to favor one vendor and offend all others. He was a member of several clubs and was generous to charities of every sort—long before such contributions became a tax deduction; they were simply good business practice, threads in the fabric of social connectivity. And so it was that he’d done business with the German-American Insurance Co. at Hansa House.

When Anson returned from Chicago, intent on establishing an architectural practice, rental space at the Hansa was a contender, favorable terms no doubt tied to his father’s business. It was chance that the opportunity to put his studio-office above Wasserman’s Hardware and luck, perhaps, that the Wassermans were Austrian. So when he sailed in 1915 for a well deserved rest aboard the RMS Lusitania, who knew that a German topedo could strike so close to the heart of landlocked Agincourt, Iowa.

The still grieving Tennant family underwrote the design and placement of a Lusitania Memorial in the Commons, strategically opposite the door to the new public library. But when it was dedicated on the anniversary of the sinking—an event that, under and other circumstances, would have been enhanced by the Deutscher Verein men’s chorus—were the community’s Germanic residents conspicuous by their absence or their presence. Often, what we don’t say, speaks loudest.

 


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