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The Community Chapel at Grou


Sunderland Point, the inspiration for the current project, is a Lancashire landscape appreciated only by those who contend with the sea. The very name, Sunderland, is a clue; sunder, as in asunder, because it’s accessible only by causeway at low tide. As ocean levels rise, how much longer can it persist? Without the assistance of the Dutch, that is. Read Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland to understand the peculiarities of such a place.

George Drew’s painting “Fens at Twilight” (above) portrays a landscape on the other side of Britain—more land than water and probably the sort in Graham Swift’s novel—but similar on a much smaller scale to the picturesqueness of Sunderland Point. Could that have been what drew (no pun intended) the Dutch to that part of Fennimore county: fertile land in need of draining? A map for the county, whether political or geologic, has yet to be produced. It’s the “community chapel” that concerns me this evening.


It’s the year 1938. Anson Tennant is safely returned from his amnesiac twenty-one years in Euskadi. Memory restored, Anson himself restored to the family, he has reconnected with the community, but differently than when he left them. An architect in his former life, work in his father-in-law’s furniture shop in Spain had recalibrated Anson to the scale of woodworking, as his first commission upon returning attests: the table and chairs for Miss Rose Kavana. But a year or so after his return, another architectural job had fallen his way: a chapel for the people of Grou sponsored by a confederation of Agincourt churches. Imagine a scenario like this:

  • Emboldened by the success of the federated summer chapel at Sturm und Drang, several denominations¹ agreed to serve a chapel at Grou on a rotating basis, if it could be built economically. “The Community Chapel” would function at other times like a town or recreational hall.
  • Like St Ferreolus referenced above, this, too, would be developed on the skeleton of an underused farm building, a pole barn approximately 28′ by 50′.
  • Is it more than coincidence that Tennant had been architect for the seasonal lake chapel twenty-six years earlier? Either Anson is altruistic to a fault or I’m in a rut.
  • The contextual parallels are William Halsey Wood (at Mantoloking), George Hancock (at several places in Dakota Territory), and Paley & Austin (at Sunderland Point). The stylistic parallels are 1) pole barn prototypes, the sort from County Extension pamphlets, and 2) the Australian-vernacular-inspired houses of Glenn Murcutt. My challenge is the amalgamation of such disparity: Victorian Era Gothicism, the functional necessities of the Depression, Anson’s new orientation to furniture-building, and the admirable work of Pritzker-Prise-winning architect Glenn Murcutt.²


Mission Church, Sunderlad Point, Morecambe, Lancs., UK / Austin & Paley, architects (1894)

Section of a residence design by Glenn Murcutt

¹ Ministers of the Gospel aren’t always inclined to coöperate. Case in point an organization of that sort in Fargo, during the last days of Dakota Territory: Romans, of course would have nothing to do with it, and, perhaps, for similar reasons the Episcopal church was absent from its rolls because the priest/rector at that time was himself an Anglo-Catholic, which put him at odds with both ends of the spectrum. Howard has written here before of the boundary between St Ahab’s and St Joe’s that bespoke a friendliness untypical. So, for the time being, I imagine Agincourt’s Association to have included Methodists, Baptist (of the Northern sort), Presbyterians, and possibly Lutherans, who were a late arrival and anxious to blend.

² On our tour last May, Mr Johnson and I encountered an Australian father-daughter pair. The father was an architect and (if memory serves) it was he who invoked Murcutt and happily claimed to be from a “Murcutt-Free Zone” in his homeland. It would seem that Mr Murcutt is not universally appreciated by his countrymen—the Pritzker notwithstanding.

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