For reasons yet to be adequately explained, I seem to be a Mannerist. In architectural terms, that corrals me with the likes of Michelangelo and Nicholas Hawksmoor, company I’m pleased to keep. But associating with such august historical figures puts considerable responsibility on my aging, arthritic, and sadly sagging shoulders.
There are several periods of architectural history that particularly interest me—the Prairie School (for obvious reasons), both Gothic Revival and Victorian Gothic, the Arts & Crafts among them—but there is a style associated with Edwardian Britain which is scarcely represented and comparably little appreciated here in the U. S.: the Baroque Revival, which seems as much Mannerist as it does Baroque. For Brits, it may have prompted Hawksmoor’s rise from obscurity. I recall articles about him from the Architectural Review in the 1960s and Kerry Downs’s biographical study. Since then, it’s hard to count the mounting number of paeans to the self-effacing man who lingered too long in the shadow of both Wren and Vanbrugh. I was reminded of all this when the bank postcard appeared in my daily eBay scan.
Mannerism is largely an Italian phenomenon, short-lived and characterized by optical tricks played with geometries and perception. Renaissance mind games. But in English hands it became a game of scale; generally, design components far too large for their “proper” role in a Renaissance vocabulary. Like the exaggerated masonry coursing on this marvelous bank, for example, scaled for stone but contrarily executed in brick. And the columns are engulfed, as though someone with a rake rode past on their unicycle, gouging one hundred and forty-foot routs in the wall from corner to corner. Regardless.
Despite the ionic column caps, there is also something fundamentally Prairie School about the proportions: Classical window openings aren’t supposed to be horizontal. From where I sit, there are so many things wrong with this building that it’s right. Wish I could see the interior.
What all this folderol has to do with Agincourt isn’t certain. I just know that it will in the fullness of time.
- SMITS, Jeroen / a.k.a. Jerome (active 1910-1930) — A cousin of the van der Rijn family, Smits emigrated to Agincourt circa 1910 to work at the Kraus Foundry. It is possible he had some architectural experience in Amsterdam, because several credible designs issued from KBI during the years 1910-1930. The line between architecture and engineering was less finely drawn a hundred years ago.
This afternoon, I nearly missed having a long conversation with someone preparing promotional material about the the architecture department at NDSU. It’s been that sort of day, though you needn’t know what lies beneath it. Things have had a way of working out—until they don’t. In the meantime, a new character joined the Agincourt cast. Actually, he was always there; I just hadn’t noticed.
Jeroen Smits has become my link with the Amsterdam School. Many of you may be unacquainted with that important design movement, one of three dominant schools of architectural thought in the Netherlands in the early years of the 20th century. The others are interesting in their ways, academically, but it is the Amsterdam perspective that holds my attention, partly from a stylistic point of view but also because it is so closely entwined with the architectural expression of Democratic Socialism in that city during the early years of the century.
The two other Dutch perspectives are linked with the Modernism and Traditionalism. The poster child for Expressionist Amsterdam, however, is Michel de Klerk, though there are several others like Piet Kramer, Johan van der Mey, and less familiar names like Boeyinga and Wijdeveld. [I learned of Berend Tobia Boeyinga a few months ago with great pleasure.] But it was de Klerk who drew me to Amsterdam more than forty years ago and brought me back several times since.
There’s scarce little chance that de Klerk-like brickwork will find a place on Broad Street, or that van der Mey’s wrought iron could have been the source for the wreathes on the public library (I’m very sad to say). But someone schooled in those crafts might be Agincourt’s link to a peculiar brand of Modernism with little traction here in the U.S.
I’ve had visions of diluted Amsterdam School elements here and there and wondered how that could have occurred. Enter Jeroen Smits, who may have had a hand in the design of the Northwest Iowa Traction Company maintenance building near the “Industry” station on the city’s southwest trolley loop.
Those skilled in real estate and development know there is in each community a place known as “100% Corner”. It serves as a benchmark against which all other properties are valued. Technically, I suppose, there are two of them facing each other at the intersection of Agincourt Avenue and North Broad Street. The old public library occupies one of them, though its predecessor there was the Masonic Lodge, which burned in 1912, and the other is still dominated by the F+M+M Bank. But there are two other valuable corner properties — I’ll rate them at 98%, for the sake of argument — which must have seen a comparable degree of interest and desirability.
De Bijenkorf’s Department Store has stood at #1 South Broad Street from about 1905, when the Van der Rijn family acquired the first of three buildings conjoined to make the building seen there today. Property on North Broad Street was too costly to assemble such a multi-building parcel, and De Bijenkorf’s was the first business to cross the Avenue onto the less fashionable end of Broad. It was more than a calculated risk, though, because the Auditorium had opened in ’95 and the Blenheim Hotel just five years later. The pedestrian bridge and ground level arcade united them establlished a climate-controlled complex of shopping, dining, and entertainment that North Broad couldn’t offer.
Blending narrow 19th century Victorian storefronts was common enough in smaller communities. Upper floor levels differed by no more than twelve to sixteen inches, but varying façades made a unified corporate identity difficult. The block plan shown above identifies the 75 by 140 foot footprint — part of it hollowed out to create an atrium and reorient the store onto the Square — but I’ve never actually come to grips with the inevitable resurfacing that might have been postponed until after the war (WWI, that is). I have an idea, however, that early 20th century architectural terracotta will come into play.
As our current fifth-year class prepares to enter the world of work, I often reflect on the profession I once hoped to join. Researching (to the extent one can) the modus operandi of historical figures, and watching current practice vicariously through the experience of recent graduates, I understand it was a good thing to not have joined the fray. Given that architecture is an art, a science, and a business, I might have had some success in one of those areas, been tolerably good in another, but a dismal failure in the third. So, all things considered, the world is far better off as I watch from the wings. Which does not mean that architecture has not been the focus of my life. It has. It will continue to be — for the time remaining.
Quite outside what constitutes the nature of architectural practice — and there is a wide interpretation on that score — there is the compounding factor of public perception. Even the college-educated segment of the populace have only a remote and often distorted appreciation for the design profession. They’re quite aware of the skill set required for brain surgery, and the plumbers craft is clear enough (shit continuing to run downhill), but I could retire on the nickels collected for each utterance of “…my architect just drew up the plans.” Clarifying my understanding of the design-construction spectrum won’t alter that popular understanding. So why do I go one about it here? Probably because venting is no bad thing and reflection has its merits.
Anson Tennant, my avatar in early 20th century Agincourt, died when I was twenty-three. I could have known him. And if our paths had crossed, what questions might I have posed? When did you know what an architect was? When did you decide to become one? What were the influences on your growing sense of design? But most important, When your returned home from an amnesiac twenty-one year absence, why didn’t you also return to the profession that you’d loved? Anson Tennant enjoyed a three-year professional life, at most; the “honeymoon” was barely passed. And his architectural commissions, until others come to light, can be numbered on one hand: the remodelled Wasserman Block, which included his studio; the Agincourt Public Library and Tennant Memorial Gallery; and Saint Crispin’s Chapel, added to St Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal Church. Why did he decide to quit while he was ahead?
Introduction (an updated draught)
Agincourt is a town located in northwestern Iowa, America’s heartland, and typical of many middling communities in the Midwest. Founded on the banks of the Muskrat river in 1853 by settlers from Pennsylvania and western New York State, it soon became the seat of Fennimore county. And long before the arrival of the railroad, it had also become a center for large scale agriculture. Agincourt’s establishment, growth and development during the next one hundred and sixty-plus years have been subject to the same conditions experienced elsewhere, especially in the Midwest and on the Great Plains. And like other communities of its time and place, those large-scale phenomena continue to adjust for local conditions, the influence of special interest groups, and even specific families and individuals. All of these and more have played their part in shaping today’s Agincourt.
Oh, yes, there is one more thing you should know: Agincourt doesn’t exist. But the tale of its evolution and of the characters integral with that organic process present an opportunity to explore the relationship between story-telling and place-making, the intimacy of a narrative and its natural setting.
Situated twelve hundred twenty-eight feet above sea level, its population of 17,693 according to the last census is holding steady. The elderly from smaller rural communities in the hinterlands come to socialize and shop, have access to health care, and attend funerals of friends and family until they themselves ultimately become one. Meanwhile, young adults bolt for economic opportunity elsewhere. Anywhere! Lately, though, that displacement has slowed. Building a diversified economic base through enlightened self-interest and the internet has made the future less cloudy, if not actually bright for small towns like Agincourt.
Culturally, the community is Protestant and 91.38% White — with marginal representation of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans. Conservative, with a lingering whiff of Progressivism, yet the likes of Teddy Roosevelt could not field a candidacy in today’s political color spectrum: Agincourt is purple tending toward red, in the otherwise bright crimson of the 7th Congressional District. Its current representative might have done a cameo in “Pleasantville” and remained uncomfortable with the film’s shift from black and white to technicolor. He and another prominent political figure hold that White Nationalists are “fine people.”
The city was founded in 1853, when the former reserve of the Sac and Fox Nation opened to White settlement, and incorporated four years later. The only plausible reason for its name — the definitive battle in the Hundred Years War between the French and English — is the Classics background of the town site’s promoters Virgil, Pliny, and Horace Tennant, East Coast investors who intuited Horace Greeley’s admonition that the country’s surplus population “Go West” years before he actually said it. With financial backing from their brother-in-law and a Philadelphia banker, the Tennants acquired a mile-square section of The Louisiana Purchas — the physical building block of Manifest Destiny — and then conceived a rational plan for growth based on Enlightenment Philadelphia, let it waft onto the unplowed tall-grass prairie, and stood back to watch.
The consequences weren’t unexpected considering their plan had provided for all the civic virtues: education and culture, government, enterprise, and spiritual nurture, in no particular order. Long before arrival of the railroad, the mighty Muskrat River offered rudimentary water power for the milling of grain and wood, as well as fish and fowl to supplement the frontier diet. And when the seat of government at Muskrat City proved flood-prone and untenable, the block already designated for a courthouse was another stroke of foresight. The frenzy of railroad speculation twenty years later effectively sealed the city’s good prospects.
Forces, Factor, Faces
A middling Midwestern town, Agincourt’s establishment, growth and development for one hundred and sixty-seven years have been subject to the same factors and forces experienced elsewhere, especially in the Midwest and Great Plains; and like other communities, those large-scale phenomena continue to be modified by local conditions, by special interest groups and even by specific families and individuals. The Civil War and the westward march of Manifest Destiny mentioned earlier; the arrival of the railroad and impact of the automobile; large scale agriculture, all but industrialized even in the 19th century; government initiatives (or their absence), war, pestilence and other natural disasters; shifting population and economic uncertainty: these have all played their part in shaping today’s Agincourt. For purposes of telling this story, let’s call them Forces, Factors, and Faces.
FORCES are the raw natural conditions into which we are born: geology and plate tectonics, climate, the force of gravity, disease. It would be comforting to think we have some effect over them — planetary warming suggests we do, in spite of our better intentions — but rivers jump their course and cyclones rage in season. The influenza pandemic of 1918 is just one case in point where an event with worldwide implication had very local consequence.
FACTORS, on the other hand, are generated by us and our intent as a society; they are driven by purpose: culture and all its sundry institutions, such as commerce, education, religion, government and all that flows from them. How might Agincourt have reflected phenomena like these:
- The Second Great Awakening washed over us, as it did Western New York State, bringing salvation to the banks of Crispin Creek.
- Agincourt was a station on the Underground Railroad as former slaves fled north to the Union states and Canada.
- President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order #9066 incarcerated everyone of Japanese ancestry, regardless of citizenship, while leaving German lives unaffected.
- The Hill-Burton Act of the 79th Congress underwrote a spate of hospital and rural clinic construction. Other acts at different times have funded law enforcement facilities and historic preservation.
FACES, finally, are individuals. Their reach may be long, like Pope John XXIII, JFK, or Dr Jonas Salk, or more localized and immediate, like the founding Tennant family and other community leaders past and present. Without two of these faces, Andrew Carnegie, for example, who funded 2,500 public and academic libraries between 1883 and 1929 and Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose small-town banks brought Progressive design to Main Street, this project would’t exist.
And so, as radio announcer Fred Foy opened each weekly episode of “The Lone Ranger”, “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!” We invite you to explore the community of Agincourt, Iowa, the town that time forgot and geography misplaced.
Maybe it’s time you met Howard Tabor, writer for The Daily Plantagenet and principal voice for Agincourt’s past. I can’t honestly tell you what motivates Howard to tackle the topics he has since 2006, the year his sesqui-centennial series began on the back page of the Saturday paper. But I can tell you that his style is anything but journalistic and wouldn’t survive a week of scrutiny at a “real” newspaper — of which fewer and fewer exist each year. Howard should be proud of that. Since he’s such a self-effacing guy, I wrote a short biographical sketch last Sunday on the drive back from Minneapolis. A lot of rumination occurs during those 240 miles:
Howard Tabor, purported author of “A few figs from thistles…,” lives a quiet unassuming life in the modest Iowa town where he was born seventy-four years ago.
As a high school graduate in the early 1960s, a career in journalism for Tabor was farfetched, not to say unthinkable. He aspired to be an architect, like his great-uncle Anson Tennant, designer of the old Agincourt Public Library in 1914-1915. But one semester at the State University in Ames convinced Tabor that the profession might tolerate him at best; it would certainly never welcome him into its ranks or files. Architecture, he knew, was both art and science; the art he could learn, the mathematics he would endure, but it was the unforeseen business of architecture that dissuaded him from making any further commitment to its five-year course of study. He was, it turned out, a devotee of words; words carefully chosen but not always deployed with diplomacy or tact. A quick lateral move to the English department afforded Tabor a comforting anonymity and time to marinate in language. Seven semesters later, he graduated into a world where uncertainty was sure, and his job prospects obtuse at best. It was 1968 and all that that entailed. It was the year that changed us all: Anson Tennant died during the winter; Howard Tabor graduated in the spring; and American political life ruptured during the summer of our discontent at the Democratic National Convention. Tumultuous times leave their mark.
Chicago called to him—perhaps with the same voice that had beckoned great-uncle Anson — to engage there with the architecture of words. So in the fall, Howard found an apartment on Chicago’s north side and a job on its south, as part-time staff for Draugas, a Lithuanian Catholic newspaper — an odd choice, since Tabor was neither, and journalism hadn’t even been his major. Additional income came from work at a used and rare book dealer on North Dearborn Street near his apartment; incidentally, it was at this now forgotten book store that I met him. Coincidentally, he also lived only seven blocks from the Chicago Historical Society headquarters in Lincoln park. This triangle defined life for the next three years, until an opening at the Plantagenet brought him home.
If you hadn’t already guessed, Tabor is part of the extended Tennant family, a double-edged sword in his part of Iowa. The Tennants were interested (i.e., had their fingers) in everything — media, manufacturing, culture and heritage — so it’s hard to say if those connections played a role in landing the job at the newspaper. From July 1971, Howard has honed his craft, writing everything from ads to obits; selling ad space and subscriptions; working hard to keep the paper afloat into the digital age; and now and then working with bucket and mop. The up-side of this extended family has been easy access to information, the sort that rarely qualifies as “public record.” His columns are redolent with those intimate personal insights; history as oral tradition enabled by a family of chroniclers. While we’re at it, you may as well have a Tennant family tree:
More personally, Tabor lives with his partner Rowan Oakes, history teacher at Fennimore County High. The two of them recently undertook a daunting project: restoration of the Wassermann Block, home of The Periodic Table, Agincourt’s newest restaurant, and also a bed-and-breakfast on the second floor. Other “bucket list” projects include writing a family history (for private circulation), a more public anthology of his “Few figs…” columns, and yet another exhibition in October 2015 which celebrated the actual Battle of Agincourt.
Howard Tabor and I will form a tag team, passing the narrative back and forth, alternately telling the story as well as telling the story of telling the story.
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”
― Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
“I’ve long believed that one of the mainsprings of our own liberty has been the widespread ownership of property among our people and the expectation that anyone’s child, even from the humblest of families, could grow up to own a business or a corporation. Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a land of small farmers, of shop owners, and merchants. Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act that ensured that the great western prairies of America would be the realm of independent, property owning citizens—a mightier guarantee of freedom is difficult to imagine.” — Ronald Reagan
When Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in May, 1862, Agincourt had already existed for nine years; as an incorporated municipality, for five. But it wouldn’t have affected the community in any but the most general, indirect ways. Yes, the legislation might have encouraged Agincourt’s earliest residents—barely unpacked and settled in—to leap-frog even farther westward. It could also have brought others to and through the place on their way to 160-acre parcels of cheap public land. Would we have had Laura Ingalls Wilder without it?
Is there any parallel, do you imagine, between this massive redistribution of wealth from the public coffers and more recent “investment” propositions, investment in ourselves, like eliminating student loan debt, or providing higher education at no cost. By asking the question, I believe there is.
“Homestead” has another more profound meaning, however, inherent in both noun and verb, which links it intimately with the family unit: it is the beginning, the multi-generational wellspring; a talisman infused with power disproportionate to its modest size. We return to tap that energy and leave refurbished, refreshed, ready to engage the World once again.
“Homestead” came immediately to mind when I saw this card. Three rooms at most; probably achieving indoor plumbing late in its service to a family with neither benefit nor need for birth control. Imagine father, mother, a widowed mother-in-law, three kids, and another one on the way. Imagine bathing once a week, chores, preparing meals and consuming them together, after giving thanks. Its walls are saturated with whatever the Christian species of karma could be.
Preservationists couldn’t care less as tractors lay waste to it, clearing the site for something else. But link its humility with the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the battle lines are drawn.
So, whose house was this? Where do they stand in the spectrum of Agincourt history?
What kind of event requires three generations of a family to travel together? A weekly or monthly shopping excursion might have brought dad to town for business at the courthouse (filing a deed, paying taxes, obtaining a permit, perhaps even jury duty); mom and the kids, to the department or other stores; grandmother for church work or to visit a friend at the hospital. The entire group could also be going to church for a regular Sunday service; dressed differently—in darker more reserved clothes—they might attend a wake or a funeral. But the real questions are more basic: Why did the group pose for a photograph in the first place?
Also what’s the horse’s name?