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Toward a Virtual Reality

I am woefully unprepared to create any sort of virtual Agincourt, much as I might want there to be one. An opportunity opened last Monday afternoon that generous than I can imagine — and I can imagine a lot!

The current exhibit at the Rourke includes artifacts from various periods of community history, including the beautifully crafted door to Anson Tennant’s architectural office, opened in 1912, occupied by the young architect until his departure for England in the Spring of 2015, and preserved by his family when they thought he had sunk with the Lusitania off the southwest coast of Ireland. that door is an important artifact in the backstory which brought young Tennant to the task of designing a Carnegie-era public library in the style of Louis Sullivan. That backstory looks something like this, though the components weren’t necessarily invented chronological order:

1900-1904 — From about age twelve, Anson spends summers at the farm near Mason City of his maternal grandfather Corwin Curtiss, where he learns the rudiments of carpentry.

1905 — Sixteen-year-old Anson builds a dollhouse for his little sister Claire, ill with diphtheria and not expected to survive. His inspiration comes from a house seen in the pages of a magazine, one of many stacked in the attic of the Tennant family home on NE Second Street.

1908-1909 — Long recognized by his dad to have some inclination toward building construction, Jim Tennant challenges Anson, recently graduated from high school, to design an addition to the family home. Anson has already moved into the carriage house loft as his “bachelor quarters” and studio.

1910-1912 — On the advice of family friend Joseph Lyman Silsbee (architect of the Tennant homestead), Anson goes to Chicago to study architecture at the Art Institute and hopefully gain some office experience. In 1912 he works for a few weeks without salary in the office of Louis Sullivan.

1912 January — The family make a vacation trip to New Mexico and Arizona in the late Winter to celebrate statehood (in January and February that year). While in Albuquerque, Anson meets woodworker Manny Galvez (Manuel Luis Jesus Galvez y Paz) and stays an extra two weeks to gain some skill in furniture making.

1912 March — Returning to Agincourt, intent on establishing an architectural practice there, Anson barters his services remodeling the second floor of Wasserman’s Hardware. His payment is a three-year lease on one of the office suites, adapted as his studio-apartment, #204-206 (though sometimes identified as #205-207). It is this office, decorated in the Arts & Crafts style with simple furnishings, baskets and rugs from the New Mexico adventure, that presents the dutch door with its stained glass “Als Ik Kan” window as his public persona.

The next logical development it seems to me (and has for several years) is to imagine what you would see walking through that door. And the creation of that virtual reality is what has been offered.

Much has already been written about these events, casually and in no particular order. So I’ve created some links for easier access to those fragments of the story:

2010 OCT 21 / 2010 OCT 21 / 2010 OCT 27 / 2011 NOV 27  / 2011 DEC 06 / 2013 APR 182013 SEP 30 / 2014 JUN 03 / 2015 MAR 04 / 2015 OCT 17

 

Uncle Evard

Among the several happiest memories of my father’s last years is one which defines each of us as remarkably different people.

As the only son of an only son and gay besides, it was clear I was the last of my particular branch of the Ramsey family in America. As the end of my line, I felt compelled to do some genealogy and find what it was that I would terminate. It turned out that the earliest ancestor I could determine at that time—this was in the mid-1970s, my personal Bi-Centennial project—was Thomas Ramsey Sr, born 1741 in Bucks Co., Pennsylvania. If, at each generation of Thomas’s progeny there were the same number of children, by the time my generation arrived on the scene there were at least five hundred male children bearing Tom’s chromosomes. Takes a little of the load off, doesn’t it, when you understand just how much of his genetic material is walking the streets of the United States today.

In those years I was pretty inexperienced in genealogical methods, so I hired some professionals in D.C. to undertake a lot of the basic research. And for Christmas that year—1977, I think—I made a gift of all that preliminary research to dad. It initiated one of the most revealing conversations we ever had.

During our discussion, he told me of visits to his grandparents in southern Indiana while he was a young boy, people I knew from just one photograph that made me glad I hadn’t inherited their dour 19th century Presbyterian demeanor. John and Nancy Emma Park weren’t a fun couple, if facial expression is any indication. But then Roy told me something profoundly disturbing: he was unsure whether Clara Frances Markiewicz Ramsey, the woman I knew as my grandmother, was actually his mother.

His father, another Roy Ramsey, had been married twice and the first Mrs Ramsey had died, perhaps in childbirth, and that he had been the surviving child. That information was merely surprising. The shocking part of it was that my father was uninterested in finding the truth of that rumor. I, on the other hand, couldn’t sleep until there was a definitive answer. So I immediately headed to downtown Chicago and the Cook County Court House for whatever documents they held. The bittersweet answer satisfied both of us.

Roy L. Ramsey had been married in 1908 to Nellie Laurina Kemp in Indianapolis. After the move to Chicago she gave birth four years later on February 18th, 1912 to Evard Wallace Ramsey—Uncle Evard. Sadly, the baby lived just seven weeks and his mother only a bit longer. They are buried together at Kent Cemetery in my grandfather’s home town of Kent, Indiana.

So when I claim to be the only child of an only child, that’s not entirely true. My dad had a half-brother and I a half uncle, if there is such a thing. Far more important was the reassurance that Clara was, indeed, his mother and my grandmother, and we both slept more soundly that night.

(#1175)

1937

Nineteen thirty-seven was a banner year for Agincourt and the Tennant family. You’ll recall that Anson Tennant had sailed for Liverpool on May 1st, 1915 — sadly, on the RMS Lusitania. Six days later, at 14:12 local time off the coast of Ireland, a German torpedo sank the Lusitania, with the loss of 1,198 lives from the total passenger list of 1,959. It was thought that young Tennant had been among the casualties (though his name does not appear on casualty lists; I’ve checked). The story of his rescue, recuperation, and restoration to his family has been told elsewhere — and often. But it’s the reunion that interests me today.

During all those amnesiac years in the post city of Donostiako, Tennant had worked in the carpentry shop of his father-in-law Eitor Urrutia building furniture. And when he returned to Iowa shortly after the restoration of his memory he continued in that modest occupation, rather than the loftier professional status of being an architect. [Licensure hadn’t been necessary in 1915 when he designed the Public Library but he didn’t test Iowa’s 1926 registration law to be “grandfathered” in.) So, in the spirit of his old friend Manny Galvez, Anson opened a furniture workshop and retreated from the prominent pubic life his family’s position might have expected. His first commission came appropriately from Miss Rose Kavana, his old school teacher at Charles Darwin elementary. During all those intervening years, Miss Kavana had become school principal and then retired to a modest home on NW Third Street.

Though it didn’t have time to become a tradition, Anson had “dated” his projects from the ‘teens with cornerstones of sorts: coins from the project’s year. His office door incorporates a 1912 “standing Liberty” U.S. quarter dollar, and each set of children’s building blocks has a coin from their year of manufacture. So why not the set of “Rose Kavana’s Table and Chairs”? And why not with a Spanish coin still in his pockets when his new family (wife and three children) and his old one (sisters Molly and Claire) boarded the Franconia bound from Liverpool to New York City.

The Grange

The Grange Movement reached Agincourt early, if not immediately, but it had long-lasting impact on the community’s institutions. A 1959 article by Myrtle Beinhauer in The Annals of Iowa outlines the formation of the movement nationally as well as the statewide network of granges (chapters chartered by the national office) that eventually grew to nearly two thousand.

Organized at the behest of President Andrew Johnson, it was the response to O. H. Kelley’s¹ observations about Southern agriculture. Kelley’s report observed that, even though they were financially distressed, farmers had the “blind disposition to do as their grandfathers had done” and persist in antiquated and unproductive methods. Organized on December 4th, 1867, as the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, its purpose was the advancement of agriculture through education rather than through political action.

Membership in the Grange was open to both boys (age 16+ and a $5 fee) and girls (age 18+ and $3) through the organization of local chapters, Iowa’s first was located at Buena Vista, near Newton, in 1868 and within three years that number had grown to thirty-seven. Remarkably, within another year, more than half the nation’s eleven hundred and fifty Granges were located in Iowa! Agincourt’s unit must have been charted in that initial wave. But, other that an aversion to overt political action, what consequences might have grown from the statewide association?

Oliver Kelley’s original report had identified several issues that continued to trouble farmers set in their ways; finances were near the top of that list. Which may account for the organization of an early Agincourt bank — the Farmers’ and Mechanics” — though I don’t recall whether it had a state or a national charter. It also seems likely to have been active in establishing the fairgrounds and the Fennimore County Agricultural and Mechanical Society which operated it. Each of these helps to develope the timeline of significant events in Agincourt history, which is sketchy at best on some topics. Statewide, Grange chapters were also behind formation of the Agricultural College at Ames, which we can assume also had healthy support from Fennimore county.

Some days I’m especially happy to ask silly questions.

¹ Minnesotans may recognize Kelley’s name from signs along the interstate directing you to the Oliver H. Kelley Farmstead, a National Historic Landmark operated by the Minnesota State Historical Society.

Seymour Remenick [1923-1999]

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

REMENICK, Seymour (1923–1999)

“Diana at Work”

undated (but probably circa 1950s)

oil on board / 9.5 inches by 7 inches

Agincourt’s longstanding association with Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley dates from its founding in 1853. The story of those origins is celebrated on “Founders’ Day” but it is also reflected less obviously in the Community Collection. Seymour Remenick‘s painting “Diana at Work” is an instance.

Remenick studied art successively at three schools, finally at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) where he taught in the 1970s. “Diana” is reported to have been Diane Huygens (born 1928), daughter of Gerrit and Truus Huygens of rural Grou. She studied art in Philadelphia during the 1950s and may have known Remenick as faculty or a fellow student. She is depicted here working on a sculpture.

 

L’affaire Dreyfus

This kindly, grandfatherly gentleman was notorious in his youth as an officer of the French military, wrongly accused of treason, tried, and summarily consigned to Devils Island. The verdict against Alfred Dreyfus was delivered on 22 December 1894 and the years following saw a large exodus of French Jewry in one of the most virulent episodes of anti-Semitism in recent history—save for the Holocaust itself. Both France and Austria remain places of disproportionate anti-Semitism in Europe today, and I thought to broaden the Agincourt story based on large scale Jewish emigrations earlier in the century.

German migration of the 1920s and early 30s seemed too convenient (convenient for me; an act of survival for those who departed), so we used l’Affaire Dreyfus to bring French haberdasher and managing partner in the Blenheim Hotel Moise Cohen to Broad Street. It might just as easily have introduced M. Zilbermann to the mix.

Much has been written about Dreyfus and his story has even made it to the big screen. Perhaps not enough attention, however, if we’re unwilling to acknowledge the persistence of such intolerance in American culture today.

The Federal Presence

Scanning a large number of “church” postcards yesterday, I came upon this image of a Christian Science building in San Francisco and was struck how un-church-like it seems. Christian Scientism across North American was heavily influenced by the Mother Church in Boston and especially by the many Midwestern variants designed by S. S. Beman, a Chicago architect and early convert. This example in San Francisco wasn’t designed by Beman and Agincourt doesn’t need it anyway, since I’ve already designed it.

Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, in San Francisco looks so much more like a federal building that I wonder if it can’t be adapted that way for the project. The architect in 1923 was Carl Werner of Oakland.