[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
VLAHAKIS, Anthony [1926–2008]
Canal Saint-Martin, Paris
oil on canvas / 14 inches by 18 inches
Vlahakis was born in Greater New York City to emigrant Greek parents. He joined the U.S. Marines in 1943 and saw active duty in Saipan and Okinawa, receiving an honorable discharge in 1945. He then attended The University of Mexico, the Art Students League of New York and the Academy de la Grand Chaumiere¹ in Paris. His obituary identifies him as a “multi-lingual world traveler, a strong supporter for human rights and social justice and the autistic community”.
This undated and untitled work — probably a study of the Canal Saint-Martin which inspired other artists like Alfred Sisley — was created during his time in Paris in the early 1950s.² The painting has a nostalgic connection with the Bernhard family who once lived at #65, Quai de Valmy, on the canal’s west bank, in the 10th Arrondissement.
¹ The Academie de la Grand Chaumiere was established in 1904 as an economical alternative to the École des Beaux Arts.
² Emigration records document Vlahakis’s 1951 departure for France and his U.S. arrival in 1953, which probably bracket his time at the Academie.
Pay no attention to the words; just the image.
Opera Alley is one of Agincourt’s named service lanes; perhaps its first. Running along the south side of The Auditorium (whose first season was in 1895, if memory serves), the adjacent alley became convenient for carriages awaiting those out for a night of dinner and entertainment, this was especially true after the Blenheim opened across First Street, when the two buildings were linked by a pedestrian bridge. Those two conjoined buildings may be among our few claims to big city pretense. So imagine everyone’s consternation when a cat house opened next door. You know what I mean: a “sporting house”, as my grandmother used to say; a house of ill repute; a brothel.
Stockholders in the Blenheim hotel project hoped to enhance their property, increasing the number of rooms by acquiring Mrs Belle Miller’s tobacco shop and thereby achieving a full southern exposure. Mrs Miller’s husband had died suddenly (of pleurisy) in the fall of 1895, leaving few resources beyond her wits. Their shop and the drayage he had operated from a stable at the rear of the property were more than she could manage, so her brother Armand Schert arrived (from Memphis or Vicksburg or some other Mississippi river town) to guide his big sister toward financial stability. His suggestion? Bring some girls and set them up in the remodeled haymow. He would continue the drayage below. And act as Mr Madam?
The Blenheim’s architects had proceeded on the basis of a fourth exposure, so Schert had them over a barrel. It came down like this: The Blenheim would get its bonus rooms. Ten feet would be shaved from the Miller tobacco shop and stable, creating the new alley and giving Miller her own “new” facade (and better access for the horses and wagons); and the Blenheim would pay Miller’s remodeling costs. Everybody won—everyone except the hotel, however: they hadn’t counted on the whores.
See how spite works?
Agincourt’s tradition of “alley culture” (a current buzz concept in my town, too) often attached names related to their circumstance. This stubby stretch of pavement became “Easy Alley” almost overnight and for obvious reasons.
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.
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.
An Unlikely Agincourt-Albuquerque Alliance
On January 6th, 1912, New Mexico joined the Union; less than a month later, on February 14th, Arizona followed suit. Forty-seven years later Alaska and Hawai’i rounded us out at fifty. But during that winter of 1912, Albuquerque and Phoenix were the places to be. The southwest had already become a tourist destination, thanks to a partnership between the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey chain of restaurants and hotels. For a Hollywood recreation, look for “The Harvey Girls” on Netflix.
January was a cool dry month in1912; Albuquerque enjoyed a median temperature 32.1°F and just 0.02 inches of precipitation; and if it didn’t warm for the midday festivities—marching bands and speechifying—sturdy turn-of-the-century woolen menswear kept everyone comfortable. Dignitaries and local residents were joined by a goodly number of tourists who attended by chance or choice, among them six members of the Tennant family (Jim, Martha, and the four children) who’d made the arduous 1,000-mile journey specifically for the occasion. I’d like to think they took rooms at the Alvarado Hotel.
Albuquerque’s Alvarado Hotel (with adjacent dining facilities, the Santa Fe depot, and a room crowded with local arts and crafts) had opened ten years earlier on May 11th, 1902. But despite its stylistic sophistication and level of service, the central city was a cultural grab bag of territorial aspiration and native persistence; witness the photo below with an earth lodge juxtaposed against the best Victorian Gothic that frontier builders could provide. This experience alone would have transformed an architect like Anson Tennant, but another encounter made it more deeply personal.
A mile and a half northwest of the Anglo town’s Jeffersonian regularity was the Old Town plaza del pueblo and a different culture—one that most of us could only have known through the pages of the National Geographic. It was there, in a flat-roofed territorial-style building that had once been a Masonic Lodge, Anson found the workshop of furniture maker Manuel Galvez y Paz; one of his chairs was displayed in the Alvarado craft shop.
Galvez’s style used the simple planar construction promoted by The Roycrofters. Squint and you can also sense it in the Prairie Style furnishings of Frank Lloyd Wright, or more obviously in Mission Style furnishings sold by Gustav Stickley. Anson understood it in the larger context of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts and visited the Galvez shop with more than a casual interest.
The Tennants enjoyed the city for ten days, a cool dry winter unlike the one back home. They bought some Galvez pieces, including a hefty buffet (which required a crate as big as the house it would occupy), but Anson stayed for at least two more weeks, learning the rudiments of furniture-making and building a friendship with “Manny” that would have consequences neither of them could have imagined.
As the de facto spokesperson for the Agincourt community, I’m mindful of that responsibility. I do not speak for more than my own hopes for the place and not for what may actually be afoot there. To whit, I saw an advert in the current issue of the London Review of Books which torqued my sense of self.
I Speak for Me
I speak for me, just me, me alone. If you mistake anything I have said, or might yet say, as representing anyone but myself I apologize and wish to set the record straight.
The current London Review of Books (05 July 2018) notes a new anthology of short stories centered on “the love that dare not speak its name”. As a gay man, this title ought to have risen to the top of my list of must-reads, you might well imagine, but it holds less interest for me than, say, a new biography of Nelson Mandela or Royal Bodies, a collection from the LRB of pieces about the current British royal house, the Windsors, prurient voyeur that I am. Would I read a collection of gay-related fiction to see if I’m doing it right?
The publisher’s blurb promises treatment of “the social, cultural, psychological, and emotional issues facing the LGBTQIA community in the world today”, and therein lies its off-putting-ness. The acronym for the segment of the population which includes me, in one respect, has grown well beyond my antediluvian point of view. LGB had already stretched my sense of community, but its expansion represented by the addition of T, Q, I, and A has introduced at least one letter for which I have no point of reference, and by implication affords a sense of wonderment about just how inclusive any “community” can be before it ceases to be one. If this connotes a lack of sophistication or inability to acknowledge nuance which put me among the luddites, so be it until I can reassess the situation. To others in this LGBTQIA community, I apologize if this seems insensitive, but I want to share with you an opinion—and it is just that and just mine—formed thirty years ago when there were far fewer letters in the acronym.
At the time our then mayor had the foolhardy temerity to declare Gay Pride Week (for the first time and for which he took considerable heat), the local press was eager, as it always is, for a spokesperson, someone to prop before camera and microphone to speak to the general public—the Others—about what the LG (and possibly B) community felt/believed/had to say on the issue of celebrating its existence. And it should probably go without saying that someone was more than willing, anxious even, to stand before that camera and allow the press to construe that he spoke for me—as though there had been a plebiscite sweeping them into that position. To the Others whom he addressed there may have been the impression that his words were mine, his opinions mine, his positions mine. They were not, but I chose silence over stepping forward, because I believed my words-opinions-positions were no more than mine and warranted no forum (pun intended).
And so it is, this book ought to be on my list, if for no other reason than it represents a sampling of points-of-view (twenty-one short stories by, presumably, twenty-one authors—all likely younger than myself and at least one of whom might actually not be LGBTQIA) which might very well expand my consciousness and, at the very least, provide some nouns for all those new letters in the ever-expanding acronym. Until that time, I suppose, I shall continue to be a voice whining in the wilderness, but whining for none other than myself.
Cromwell: Yet how can this be? Because this silence betokened, nay, this silence was, not silence at all, but most eloquent denial! More: Not so. Not so, Master Secretary. The maxim is “Qui tacet consentire”; the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent”. If, therefore, you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied. Cromwell: Is that in fact what the world construes from it? Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it? More: The world must construe according to its wits; this court must construe according to the law.