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RMS Lusitania


“A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark

More than a few times in my life, things have had a way of working themselves out. And on occasion they have bound themselves together in ways that make “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” seem pessimistic. Such is the case this afternoon while I was working on the William Halsey Wood project.

Nineteenth century architect William Halsey Wood plays rather large in my range of interests on several counts. Quite beyond his architectural output, which includes a remarkable number of exceptionally curious and interesting works, there is the matter of his also exceptionally short career: a mere twenty years. Yet that window of professional opportunity yielded well over one hundred and fifty projects, most of them built but only a handful surviving. The list of works contains one of highly dubious status, for it was built in Agincourt, Iowa, and stood for seventy-five years before being struck by lightening. Dubious because, as many of you understand full well, Agincourt is a fictional place but equally so a place of fiction. The Fennimore County courthouse of 1888-1889 was a Halsey Wood design by me working on his behalf.

Agincourt’s favorite son architect Anson Tennant had more than one run-in with Wood: Besides the courthouse, dedicated the year of his birth and a fixture of his youth, Anson constructed a dollhouse when he was fifteen as a Christmas gift for his little sister Claire. Again, as some of you may recall, that house was inspired by a Halsey Wood house published in the Scientific American Architects & Builders Supplement, and subsequently resulted in a set of children’s building blocks trademarked “Wm Halsey Wood Blox” in 1912.

It was during that summer, 1912, that Anson and his family made a trip east to visit great aunt Hester Tennant Farnham at her summer house in Mantaloking, New Jersey, where for at least two Sundays the family attended services at the Episcopal church of St Simon’s-by-the-Sea. Oddly, that church was also designed by Halsey Wood, though Anson didn’t know it at the time.

Then in 1915, with his career successfully launched and the public library project nearing completion at home, young Anson Tennant set sail for England aboard the RMS Lusitania. For twenty years or more, he was thought to have gone down with the ship when it was sunk on 7 May, 1915, by a German torpedo. Among the more notable victims of the 1,200 lost that night were Elbert and Alice Hubbard, founders of the Roycroft movement (with whom I hope Anson has several productive conversations), a member of the Vanderbilt family, and many both famous and otherwise.

Curiously, and in that spirit of remarkable coincidence, I was searching this afternoon for biographical information on Fr. Basil Maturin, priest and writer and, as fate would have it, an Anglo-Catholic friend of architect William Halsey Wood. Since Wood had died eighteen years previous, he was unable to mourn the death of his friend, so I’ll have to do that on his behalf.

“It’s hard to believe in coincidence, but it’s even harder to believe in anything else.”
― John Green

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