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Monthly Archives: March 2019

“Main Street”

Playing by the rules…and with them

Four blocks of Broad Street (two north of the civic squares; two south of them) are divided in twenty-five-foot wide increments, each 140 feet deep. These were standard building blocks of commerce in any city west of the Appalachians. Their rhythm is ubiquitous, unfailing, so much so that when it does deviate, we notice — like adhering to the cardinal points of the compass, until you don’t.

What was built on them followed an unspoken set of rules governing each storefront’s appearance: central or side entrance; show windows parallel with the street or angled; a secondary door giving access to stairs leading to the upper floors. They accommodated signage, though none of them needed a neon notice that the shop was “Open” because you could easily tell that it was. Protection from sun or rain swung out to form colorful canopies. The material palette included wood, pressed metal, brick, stone, and cast Iron. Glass was in large sheets (at least during Agincourt’s history, they were), but might also include patterned or stained glass transoms (and another opportunity for advertising). As a designer, there might as well have been a drop-down menu and default settings.

I can’t say when those rules ceased to be acknowledged or when they were forgotten or ignored. But the affect on our historic commercial cores has caused a subtle shift.

I chanced to find this image of a business front in Tonganoxie, Kansas, and was shocked by its sophistication. This was no vernacular exercise; a designer’s hand is clearly evident. What seemed remarkable was the inclusion of iconography, symbols representing the virtues of thrift and its part in achieving the American Dream. The Tonganoxie Building & Loan probably dates from the early 1920s and (I’m guessing here) may have been the work of Kansas City architect Ernest O. Brostrom. There is also a particular reference to the famous Woodbury County courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa, designed by a consortium of local architect William L. Steele and his collaborators Purcell & Elmslie. Take a look at the courthouse entry and tell me I’m wrong.

This tells me that the rhythm of commercial fronts along Broad Street can be a good deal more creative than long blocks of purely vernacular design. The “rules” still apply but not without some wiggle room for personality to emerge.


Ivan Messenger [1895-1983]

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

MESSENGER, Ivan [1895–1983]

“Loading Chips”


soft-ground etching and aquatint / 6 1/16 inches by 7 1/4 inches (image) / edition of 35

Ivan Messenger, painter, printmaker, teacher and author, was born in Omaha Nebraska in 1895.  He came to California in 1916 to attend the Panama California Exposition held in San Diego.  In 1921 he graduated from Stanford University with an MA degree in romance languages, after which he taught linguistics at Stanford and the University of Texas until about 1925 when he moved to San Diego.

In San Diego he taught at the State University and held classes in life drawing at Balboa Parks Fine Art Gallery.  His most productive period was prior to 1945, and though he is best known for his watercolors, he was just as facile with pastels, gouache, oils and more.  He was a member of and exhibited with the Laguna Beach Art Association and the California Watercolor Society and his work was exhibited at the California-Pacific International Exposition.

In 1969 Messenger wrote Not For Tourists Only: An Early Portrait of San Diego and illustrated it with reproductions of his drawings, paintings, lithographs and aquatints.  He died in San Diego on September 6th, 1983. —Annex Galleries, Seattle, WA

Messenger must have seen the Benson Lumber Co., lumberyard in San Diego, California, during his visit to the Pan-Pacific Exposition or after moving there in the mid-1920s. The Benson company was established circa 1908 by lumbermen from Portland, Oregon. Messenger’s subject may have been the distant structure in the vintage photograph shown below:

Omaha-born artist Messenger was a cousin of Edward Weise, father of Ellen Weise, Northwest Iowa Normal School faculty member and keeper of the Community Collection. This was added to the collection in memory of her father.


What’s in a name? What, for example, is the distinction between neighborhood and community? As I write about Mesopotamia, that part of Agincourt “below sea level”, I’ve blithely euphemised it using both terms interchangeably. But are they indeed synonyms?


Art Werger, “Descent” / color etching, 24″ by 24″. ed. 25.


Chicago, city of my birth and foundation for my world view — there, now you’ve got something to blame it on — is a city of neighborhoods, officially recognized urban territory with names and, more importantly, identities recognized through the city. Admittedly, those names often derive from a geographical feature or some abstraction now murky in the public consciousness but more often than not the harken to an area’s ethnicity, the and perhaps even now.

Chicago neighborhoods centered on church or synagogue. And with that came celebrations of faith and food, in restaurants, street fairs and festivals. Though the church may now be closed or occupied by another denomination or sect, the memory lingers on, like the recollection of a great meal and the company it kept.

Then there’s the city that has been my home for far longer than Chicago claimed me; I shan’t name it. But it, too, has established official neighborhoods (far smaller than Chicago’s), based on section-line streets, railway tracks, and such. Most of them make sense — except, of course the one where we live. Ours is the residue when all other proximate parts of the city have been certified and set apart. Except for one. And it may be that truth which raised my initial question: what’s in a name?

Living at the edge of the CBD is marginal, literally, a place in obvious dramatic cyclic change. Change isn’t a bad thing but it’s not entirely comfortable when power rests in other hands. So let’s label ours the Downtown Neighborhood Association and imagine one of its meetings.

We were a motley bunch that night. But our diversity was no more apparent than when the subject shifted to safety. Some DNA residents were concerned about unsavory types lurking near their apartment lobby door. I’ll admit downtown has the city’s heaviest concentration of alcoholic beverage dispensaries, what we in these parts distinguish as “on-sale” and “off-sale” establishments. And they may attract patrons more concerned with consuming the stuff than using it as a medium for socialization, if you know what I mean.

At some point the bulb above my head glowed brightly: I understood from whence came their concerns. “How many of you live in security buildings,” I inquired, meaning building with locked entries requiring a passcode or other means for obtaining entry. Multiple hands went up, most if not all of them the hands of those expressing concern about safety outside their thresholds. Ah, there’s the rub, I thought, these folks need a reality check. I observed, politely, that not all of us enjoy their reassurance, a boundary between US and THEM. “How many of you have found someone passed out on your porch,” I wondered. “How many have found a prostitute servicing someone at 3:30 in the afternoon in your backyard?” I didn’t expect a reply, nor did I get one.

Oh, I should also add that we’ve not been asked to another DNA meeting.


So, on the question of labeling the place where I happen to have lived for forty years, I hold the opinion that we are neither. But what of Mesopotamia?