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Monthly Archives: October 2018

Hans Figura [1898-1978]

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

FIGURA, Hans [1898–1978]

Woolworth Building, New York City


aquatint and etching / 9 1/4 inches by 5 3/8 inches

Serbian-born and Austrian-educated Hans Figura, according to one source, “created over 850 etchings, mostly in color, of the historical tourist landscapes and cityscapes of Europe, using primarily aquatint, similar to his colleagues Luigi Kasimir and Josef Eidenberger”; they might well have included Bohemian etcher Tavík František Šimon. Figura’s American subject, the Woolworth Building, was briefly the tallest in the world. Here the view is across City Hall Park, framed by one of the arches of the Manhattan Municipal Building.

Mary Grace Tabor (Mrs Kurt Bernhard) lived in New York City for several years, when this was probably acquired.


If love means “never having to say you’re sorry,” then friendships are the complete opposite: they obligate admission of error and the making of amends. I know of someone on Facebook who has 8,000-plus “friends” but you and I both know it’s impossible to maintain that number of genuine relationships. Indeed it is possible to be friendly with someone without being their friend.

Let’s face it: social media have recast friendship as a wholesale commodity, and made their number a barometer of social standing. “My dad can beat your dad!” But at what? Tiddlywinks or the calculus? I suppose it depends on values—as in what you value.

What is the range of social relationships in a town like Agincourt (pop. 18,623 in the last census)? Certainly their web is a complex and ever-changing weave. Even within families like the extended Tennant clan, the dynamics can be volatile. I’ve touched on some of those linkages, couplings, whatever you want to call them, but with little recognition of the nuance I know must exist. Howard is in a better position than I, simply because he is on the scene—in the trenches?—while you and I can but watch from afar. The subject interests me particularly today, as I’m in the throes of preparing the third and likely final Agincourt exhibit.

The Agincourt Project has surely depended upon the kindness of strangers. But it has also been a collaborative effort among the barely acquainted. Friendships have grown from close working relationships and they have also, no doubt, been stretched and strained. As I work diligently toward the October 25th opening, I shall try to keep that in mind.

PS: A two week reprieve. Two more weeks to prepare; two more to fret. See you on November 9th.



Messrs Motte & Bailey

Messrs Motte & Bailey, purveyors of lumber and coal, established themselves along the Milwaukee Road tracks soon after the line reached Agincourt. Bailey, the silent partner, never lived here, but Chester T. Motte managed the business locally from the late 1870s until it was sold to the Sawyer family about 1910. Motte’s delightful home at #418 West Agincourt Avenue was built in 1886 or 1887, shortly after he married, and remains largely intact, as fine an example of the “Shingle Style” as the Tennant home seven blocks east, by Chicago architect J. Lyman Silsbee.

Though he wasn’t trained in the field of architecture, Chester Motte designed several buildings (at least he’s credited with them) throughout Fennimore county and slightly beyond. Lumberyards often served that purpose in the years following the Civil War, as the profession of architecture began to distinguish itself from the building trades; using plan books or catalogues as sources.

Illinois became the first state to acknowledge the architectural profession in 1899, though Iowa did not follow suit until 1926. There was little guarantee, however, that the use of the title “architect” was linked to the quality of the work. In Motte’s case, his designs generally exceeded expectation. Someone ought to undertake a study of his design output.

[This entry, by the way, belongs in the general category of (TW)² — “the way things work” — which makes sense in the context of an earlier entry.]

A Country Cottage

These last few days I’ve been absorbed in various late 19th century architectural journals — many have come on-line recently in OCR searchable format — looking for nothing in particular and enjoying nearly everything I find (i.e., stumble across). Among the incidental discoveries were a few of the late buildings by British architect J. D. Sedding, a familiar name who produced some unfamiliar work. Time to correct that situation. And then there is this charming pen-and-ink perspective of “A Country Cottage” by New York architect C. T. Mott.

Charles T. Mott [1855-1935] was an architect of no great significance; I doubt that any history of architecture in New York State even mentions his name. History has a way of being written by the victors. Which often has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the work. Witness this small, utterly charming house, whose plan I’ve been trying to imagine all afternoon. Sure, the Shingle Style is a favorite of mine, but this is textbook S.S. and as such deserves a place in Agincourt.


Yesterday I reflected on 19th century given names, some of them staging a comeback. I doubt that “Orson” is among them, however. Beside Orson Welles, the only other “Orson” I know is Orson Squire Fowler, a mid-19th century character with a foot at each end of the genius–crackpot spectrum.

Mr Fowler popularized the octagonal house during the middle of his century, precisely when the Agincourt townsite was laid out and incorporated. Any of the city’s earliest settlers could have been familiar with his idea, which appeared in numerous popular journals and ultimately the 1853 book The Octagon House: A Home for All, the notion being that centrally-planned buildings—circles and octagons, primarily—held more useful interior volume with less surface area. They were easier to heat and ventilate and potentially enjoyed less space wasted for corridors. [The plan shown above left isn’t necessarily the finest example.]

Agincourt’s doodads, gewgaws, gimcracks, and thing-a-mabobs — all those eccentric artifacts that have made the town interesting to me — have had a tendency to survive. I wonder if the published inventory of Octagon houses nationwide might have overlooked an example in northwestern Iowa; the state had thirty-eight of them at one time. Why not one more.

Oh, and at the opposite end of the spectrum (the crackpot end), you’ll find Fowler’s name prominently connected with phrenology, the 19th century pseudo-science of reading the bumps on your head as analytical tools for understanding human behavior.

PS: Someone has just reminded me of Orson Bean, with a comparably looney theory about Orgone, “a pseudo-scientific spiritual concept variously described as an esoteric energy or hypothetical universal life force.”


Alone Together (still)

Still alone together

Was at the neighborhood coffee emporium this morning, alone at the big table. Eventually five 20-somethings gathered at the other end. I was busy writing in my journal [some thoughts on the William Halsey Wood project manuscript] and glanced at my table mates: four of them were staring silently at their laptop computer screens (one playing air drums along with whatever was piped into his head through a set of earphones Princess Leia would envy); one was busy on his smart phone. They were aggressively “alone together”, not speaking, except to rotate a computer and point something out to one of the others, who would nod approvingly. I don’t think twenty words were uttered in twenty minutes. Then I had a stray actuarial thought.

Assuming eighteen years to a generation, I’d become intrigued by five people who were the age of my great-grandchild at the point he/she would have birthed my now one-year-old great-great-grandbaby. No wonder I haven’t the remotest notion of the current generation. I was pondering the state of late 19th century Anglo-Catholicism and its impact on church design. What do you suppose they were up to?

Five years ago I wrote something here on this new age of shared aloneness. Apparently things haven’t changed. Incidentally, I’m having coffee tomorrow morning with a few of them. I’m anxious to meet them—and learn something.