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Monthly Archives: January 2020

In the Commons

This student study for a fountain and shelter was done, perhaps, in the 1920s in the very typical medium of pencil, a minimum amount of ink line work, and ink or watercolor washes. Part of the Beaux Arts legacy, this sort of presentation style lingered into the WWII years, only to be supplanted by Modernism.

Don’t let that word “Modernism” suggest watercolor-ink washes went the way of the dodo. They worked perfectly well on the sharp-edged planar surfaces of something a la LeCorbusier as they did a Beaux Arts casino on Lago Magiore.

I bought this for $25, thinking it would make a good addition to the most collection of architectural drawings in our library. But as I unrolled it from its mailing tube — it just arrived from France today — it occurred to me that Agincourt’s public park, The Commons, has needed a fountain for some time and this might fit. Not sure that it requires a backstory of any substance. It’s just nice the way it is.

Casual Dining

Among the many inspired student contributions to the first Agincourt exhibit — in October 2007, celebrating the community’s 150th anniversary — was a diner on South Broad Street, the 1950s pizza shop hangout catering to my generation; not me, necessarily, just people my same age, because it may have been my generation, I just wasn’t part of it.

In the intervening thirteen years I’ve lost track of everyone who was part of that show. I did a poor job of documenting the early years of the project and don’t know quite how to fix that. But I can tell you a little about it and why it was inspired. And one contributor who’s stuck in my mind: Mitch Dressel. If memory serves — which it does less and less these days — Mitch proposed designing a 1950’s burger joint and pizza shop, Agincourt’s first, and the backstory which made it a genuinely American tale.

A substantial number of G.I.s came home with brides they’d married during their WWII service overseas: Italy, Germany, and France in Europe; Korea and Japan in Asia. The second category grew even larger during the Korean Conflict. Mitch wrote a story about an Italian war bride from Naples, who brought the family recipe for pizza, and the couple opened one of northwestern Iowa’s earliest pizza shops. I don’t recall the family name or any other aspects of the story, but I do vividly recall the project: Mitch had gone into considerable detail, producing a restaurant design, a thoroughly researched menu, even one of those table-side vendors of recorded music. There may even have been a soundtrack during the run of the exhibit. And all of that came to mind with this vignette titled “Ed’s Easy Diner”, a painting in oil by British artist Stephen Brook.

First Person, Singular

Among the meanings of “explanation” is one which implies its use in justification. That’s not my intention here, nor, I hope, has it ever been; at most, what follows is a basis for understanding and acceptance, nothing more. File this is the category “Valediction”.

First Person, Singular

Forty years ago I had the notion to write my autobiography. The working title was “It’s not about me” and the entirety of it—today it would be far shorter than it might have been then—was to be written without first person singular pronouns: I, me, my, or mine would appear nowhere in its text.

The challenge of writing about oneself without actual self-reference appealed to my sense of challenge; we often test ourselves far more than do those around us, or am I projecting? So, to accomplish this, I had intended to write several other biographical sketches and vignettes depicting people of my acquaintance and the situations in which we often, even habitually found ourselves. In short, I heartily agree with Alfred Lord Tennyson that I am a part of all that I have met and, reciprocally, they have become part of me. Could a biographical sketch of our friend Cecil Elliott, for example, first do justice to the person he was and, second, reflect in the person I knew a bit of who I may have been at the time. Likewise, am I today a different (better?) person than I might otherwise have become?

To write about Cecil is to reflect on our relationship and its evolution, and to a large extent, Cecil and many others who I would have portrayed are here already, in Agincourt—and are likely to remain after me, so long as the internet exists. In that sense, I’m glad to have shared my memories (with any of you who read this thing), because, as James Carse has written, “If you can’t tell a story about what happened to you, nothing happened to you.” To tell you about them is to relive the experiences I had of them and with them. Read the “Ghosts of Christmas Past” series and you’ll see what I mean.

In the beginning I ruminated about “first person, singular” and the likely sequence of those pronouns in my early development. “I”, for example, is probably the last of them we learn. “Me” is far more probable, because it’s in the objective case; I act, while me is acted upon, the recipient. Things come to me—my mother’s teet (yeah, fat chance of that!) or my bath or my teddy bear. And there’s a likely close second in the arrival and awareness of that possessive pronoun group: my and mine, since we are acquisitive little bastards at the start and some have never given up the quest to possess, to own, everything in their reach and some distance beyond.

“I” is the last of those personal pronouns to enter our vocabulary and our self-awareness. For (again in the words of James Carse), “I am the genius of myself.”


The end of the academic year is a time for reflection on many things: done (well or badly) and undone. And since this is the forty-seventh opportunity given me to engage in such personal introspection, and since I see at most three more years of this, I’ve grown warmer to the idea of saying goodbye. If I’m able to withstand the rigors of the job six more semesters, a friend in Las Vegas has promised a farewell that my employer is not soon going to forget. So during those 3:00 a.m. epiphanies, when the words flow more readily and eloquently than when I’m fully awake, I nightly reconsider that valedictory address. You have no idea how many very rough draughts have gone down the mental drain. So here I go again.

It was a difficult birth, eight hours, I’m told. Probably even long before the trip to the hospital, Marge had decided one of these was enough; I’m actually surprised that the pregnancy wasn’t terminated. At any rate, she had her tubes tied, to prevent another conception.

Frankly I do not ever recall feeling wanted. Which is not to say that Marge and Roy were bad parents. As their first and only child, they were without experience, as ignorant as I. Hindsight suggests I was merely a symptom of the problem: a marriage gone terribly wrong for reasons that are now much clearer: First, do not create a child out of simple biology or because you think it might patch a failing relationship. No child, however miscreant, ought to be introduced to such a household and shaped by it.

Second, never move in with your in-laws; the mother/daughter-in-law relationship is toxic and only intensifies under a mutual roof. I do not know if I actually saw this, or that I’m simply recalling something I was told, but there was one morning scene involving a meat cleaver and a flying loaf of bread. It’s no surprise I have few memories before the age of seven. Looking at myself then—if that’s even possible—I understand that Marge had no love to give and Roy did but didn’t know how and did the best he could.

In 1953 I was eight years old and Ike was our president. It was a soggy spring when, one evening in March or April, Mrs Shake came to visit. While my grandmother and I sat in the kitchen and entertained her, Marge was upstairs packing, unbeknownst to us, a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash. She took it out the front door, then came into the kitchen, chatted for a moment, and left with Mrs Shake to run some errand or other. That was the last we saw of her.

Eight-year-olds are inclined to bear the weight of the world. I tried then and for the next fifty years. My grandmother and I would walk to the corner market (operated by the Bieniek brothers) and along the way—it was just two blocks—we might stop to chat with Mrs Schiewe or Mrs Pluto (do you get the feeling we lived in an Eastern European ghetto?), but of course I was never part of the conversation. That spring, especially, I was talked about, never spoken to. And heard phrases like “Oh, isn’t little Ronnie taking this all so well”, delivered as a statement of fact, rather than a question. And so I understood my role in all this as threefold: I was its source; I was its victim; I was its responsibility.

I have absolutely no memory of my father speaking to me of what had happened to us; not a word of the divorce and, especially, of child custody. We had little experience with divorce in the early 50s, so I was unaware how rare it was for a father to retain custody. Abandonment simply reinforced the notion that I was not wanted. If I had been, Marge would have found space in that suitcase amid the lingerie and cash.


I was a feral child, self-motivated, anxious to explore the world, and allowed to go where I pleased and do what I chose.

<to be continued>

The Roundhouse

It’s unlikely that Agincourt would have been a section point on the Milwaukee Road or its subsidiary feeder lines. In fact, I have to plead ignorance on the mileage between such points. North Dakota is far more regular this way, with four service points along the Northern Pacific and another four along the Great Northern. Iowa’s railroads run every which way and fan outward. So, for the sake or argument, let’s say there had been a section house here, all of which means we may have enjoyed a roundhouse for at least a little while.

Roundhouses were necessarily radial. But, let’s face it: they’re a lot more interesting and present even more opportunity for adaptive reuse — if it hadn’t burned to the ground, that is.

This wonderful RPPC is too expensive for my wallet [$40], so I’m just going to “borrow” the image and spruce it up a bit. Somewhere in the literature of railroadiana there must be some guidelines for dimensioning a building like this.

Stephen Brook [born 1957]

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

BROOK, Stephen (British; born 1957)

“The Execution of Lady Jane Grey”

oil on board / 6 inches by 6 inches


British artist Stephen Brook is the most recent artist to join the Community Collection with a small but powerful glimpse of the art experience: viewers in London’s National Gallery admiring Paul Delaroche’s 1833 painting “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey”— a framed view of a framed view. And as viewers of Brook’s painting, we add one more layer to the telescoping experience.

This work was an anonymous gift to commemorate the student-faculty exchange program between Northwest Iowa Normal School and Millstone-Jennings College, Greenbridge, Essex, UK.

Agincourt’s early elevators…

I was born with a birth defect, a partial club foot that required special shoes and a nighttime brace that kept my feet spaced apart and pointed outward. I endured that shit for several years.

A couple times a year, my mother would take me to a foot specialist on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Other than a fluoroscope which revealed the bones in my feet in ghostly green, more vivid memories involved a ride on the “L” and second “ride” in the building elevators.

The elevators were grouped in banks of four or five, as I recall, in a large rectangular shaft lit from above or behind. Each elevator cab was an open grille-work box set next to other boxes which, as they passed one another going in opposite directions, made conversations wax and wane, and the counterweights and cables moved in contrary motion. Mesmerizing for a six-year-old and never equalled by the peas-in-a-bean-blower experience of newer, faster systems. What is mystical about stepping into a closet and having the door open somewhere else — unless you’re Dr Who.

Agincourt’s earliest passenger elevator was installed in the F+M+M Bank in 1908, which also boasted the city’s first revolving door. Each was a trap for ladies’ full skirts.

So the second elevator installation was unremarkable, except it only served the two library floors; that the equipment was located in the basement beneath it. I also suspect that the cab held one passenger at a time, and that children made nuisances of themselves treating it as a carnival ride until the novelty passed. Really, it was just an excuse for more metalwork in a remotely Sullivanesque style.

J. Lyman Silsbee and the APL

A FaceBook friend just posted an image of J. Lyman Silsbee’s 1906 building for the Gary Land Company, in Gary, Indiana. I invoked Silsbee’s name here long, long ago as someone who had designed one of his signature Shingle Style houses in Agincourt for the Tennant family. And who also influenced the choice of career for young Anson Tennant, who went on to design the Agincourt Public Library. I hadn’t thought about Silsbee’s non-Shingle Style work until Gregory Jenkins, AIA, posted this image from a Silsbee focused website:

What struck me immediately was the configuration: 1) two commercial fronts on the building’s short side, facing what is presumably a major thoroughfaire, are prime rental; 2) a public entrance to what is presumably a lobby giving access to office suites on the second floor is located half way along the “side” elevation; and 3) tertiary rental space is situated at the far end of the long elevation, again presumably of lesser rental value. I only point this out because the Anson Tennant design for the 1915 APL has exactly the same organization. Notice how Tennant’s plan (i.e., mine) coincides:

Not certain whether to feel validated, vindicated, or embarrassed.

And then I remembered a building here in Fargo, one that I walk past several times a week, which was one of the first rebuilt after the Great Fargo Fire of 1894: the I.O.O.F. building, better know today as the Hotel Donaldson. The HoDo was designed by Minneapolis architects Orff & Joralemon. But the more likely culprit was a the person whose name appears on the rendering: Albert Levering.

Levering is a curious character in regional architectural history, someone who was for a brief period thought to have been merely the pseudonym for another better-known architect-designer Harvey Ellis. [That’s a story in an of itself and deserves to be told here another time.] What few people know is that the Neo-Classical design that was constructed wasn’t the only proposal; the client had a choice of two and, frankly, I wish they’d chosen the other. You decide:

I.O.O.F. Building, Fargo, ND (scheme A) / Orff & Joralemon (Albert Levering) / 1894

I.O.O.F. Building, Fargo, ND (scheme B) / Orff & Joralemon (Albert Levering) / 1894

So you see what I mean. Fargo’s I.O.O.F. is, like the Silsbee design in Gary, IN of twelve years later, a two-story 50-by-140 box with exactly the same composition, which, I submit, is a very typical configuration for a mixed use building on a prominent street corner. The bottom line for me is that Anson Tennant’s scheme for the APL of 1914-1915 may have been unorthodox for a Carnegie-era library, but it was old hat for the hybrid type it represents.