Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2020 » January

Monthly Archives: January 2020

Protected: Valediction

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:




A new book by Christopher Millen struck a chord, or at least the title did, from the morning mail. There have certainly been far more literary fabrications than I am aware. Howard Hughes’s diaries, for example, or the counterfeit poem supposedly by Emily Dickenson that put its actual author behind bars for decades—not for the audacity that he could simulate the signature literary of a renowned and reclusive author but because he attempted murder to conceal his unraveling crime spree. Arguments around the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays will smolder on well beyond my own life, and then, of course, there are those who speculate on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hoaxes of these and other sorts can be drawn by financial gain or the simpler pleasures of pulling one over on academics and the Literati. My not-so-idle speculations in the realm of architectural history originate in mere curiosity, the wonderment of attempting to understand the mental proceses at work in the design of buildings. My contributions in this arena will hardly rise to the level of a university press production. Indeed, until I was challenged by a colleague to “go public” with this project, I was content to be an audience of one.

Were someone to publish a study of architectural hoaxes, what would its table of contents include—or exclude, for that matter? Are there even enough examples to warrant at least a few paragraphs in an obscure mimeographed, stapled, and three-ring-bound newsletter for limited circulation? In one category, there are the faint hopes of finding a lost, misidentified, or previously unknown design by the phenomenally production Frank Lloyd Wright, author of 1,100 designs in a 75-year career. Yet they disappear, even if with exceptional rarity, several years ago a young scholar of the great H.H. Richardson identified a commercial building in Boston as his. <Cynthia Zaitzevsky>

Early works of LeCorbusier are now included in lists of his own projects—not lost or forgotten, but simply overlooked, (inconvenient) in the developing canon of early Modernism. Early works by Frank Lloyd Wright, on the other hand—projects that date from his contractual terms of employment with Adler & Sullivan were suppressed by the architect himself as violations of that agreement. So suppressed that even Wright had lost track of them. Preparation of the project list in 1940 for publication In the Nature of Materials illustrates Wright’s own faulty recollection and calls some entries into question. Richard Allin Storrer has not only corrected the list but also added several works which had slipped Wright’s memory altogether. Enlargement of even this expanded list has become a cottage industry (parlor game) among Wright oficianados.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh is yet another early Modern revisited in recent years, which involves speculation about projects from his apprenticeship and early partnership, but also late works from the last years of a practice dissolved into (again) the orthodox history of Modernism—thanks largely to the writing of sir Nicholas Pevsner—where Mackintosh’s reliance upon ornament and the quainter highly personal aspects of the Arts & Crafts made him an inconvenient figure, worthwhile only as an interruption in the flow of historical forms, a necessary belch t the end of an overly rich meal. Perhaps that is the value of revisionist history; the opportunity to fill gaps, patch ellipses, and balance the convenient narrative of orthodoxy/convention.

The most successful architectural hoax in Agincourt? There are two of mine and one designed by a friend of the project. My favorite, though it is far from being complete or even passable for its moment in time, is Asbury United Methodist church, one of the five original congregations and recipient of a coveted “church lot”, northwest of the courthouse. It was a challenge to cope with one Methodism’s contributions to the traditions of church architecture: the Akron-Auditorium plan popular during the years s1885-1920, pushing its envelope, I chose to design A-A church at the end of its popularity, when its possibilities, all its permutations and combinations might have been exhausted. Could I coax one more iteration from the matrix of A-A types?

It certainly helped for mine to be the second or third building occupied by Methodists on that site. the prosperity of the post-WWI years are likely to have encouraged a scheme as large as the one I proposed, an ambitious program for a community of Agincourt’s size at the time, not a true “institutional church” of major urban proportions, but complex nonetheless.

The irregular pentagonal site precluded a more conventional solution (though A-A churches were hardly ever that, i.e., conventional), since there was no self-evident “front”. The angled edge, the nicked corner not on the orthogonal grid which regulated the rest of the O.T. [original townsite] and thereby called attention to itself seemed too obvious at first. But the south side face nothing in particular, certainly nothing comparable, and the east was too residential—though that’s no bad thing for the A-A. Since by 1919 (the birth of the project) the Avenue had likely become a one-way and traffic would approach from that direction, it seemed logical for the church oblique to that audience and (in a wonderful twist of logic) at the same time address the courthouse (another of my design efforts and one in which I also take some satisfaction). So much for parenthetic insertions.

It’s difficult to describe my process without first explaining the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon of which Asbury was an example—if not an exemplar. In brief, the A-A type was a marriage of two post-Civil War developments in Protestant church architecture: 1) the evolution of “sanctuary” into auditorium; and 2) the invention of Sunday School as an education delivery system based on the efficiencies of factory production and sound business models. Someone about 1885 had an adventurous notion: What would happen when an auditorium meeting room was placed adjacent to an Akron Sunday school, itself a plan form without precedent? And suppose the wall between them was a movable partition? The rumbling you feel is A.W.N. Pugin whirling in his eternal resting place. Architecture for religion has not known such heretical innovation since Hagia Sophia. Thirty years of unbridled experimentation by American architects had produced such remarkable variation of that simple theme that even Bach would be impressed. Some of them were fruitful for further development; some dead ended; a few embarrassingly awful. so what did I have to lose. After all, I’d seen plenty of the bad.

With that as a too lengthy, jargon-infested introduction, my first sketch on the inside of a telephone company billing envelope tells most of the story—though you should know that it came from twenty-one years’ study of the A-A. Look at enough examples of anything and they haunt your dreams. In the Akron-Auditorium nomenclature I had developed—a matrix of six auditoria and three Sunday school types, which yielded eighteen variations and several sub-species—this was a variant of the B-1 type. [Though I must admit the rigor of the matrix continues to be challenged by the A-A type’s resistance to classification. I may scrap the whole thing and begin again.]

Where the Asbury falls apart is not its three-dimensionality, its volumetrics; the approach I too is what I call “packing the suitcase”, conceiving a shape dictated largely by site conditions and then coordinating the various program elements within it—with an understanding that, when packing an actual suitcase, shoes don’t belong near the shirts. And again, as in preparation for travel, there may be room for something extra or (more likely) at least one item may have to be left behind. In this case, the program expanded slightly and in interesting directions. In addition to the pastor’s residence (an idea more Catholic than Protestant, but not unheard of), there was also space for a sexton’s apartment and, with some judicious manipulation of floor-to-floor heights, an opportunity for emergency housing, such as would be welcome just ten years hence during the Great Depression.

My failure, my great shortcoming, was, instead, in the realm of elevation. I am far too inclined to wallow in the realm of plan and volumetrics and put facade study off to the end: how it works is more important than what it wears. And so I am able to argue that Asbury M.E. church is a highly credible example of the A-A phenomenon, as I’m equally reluctant what it looks like to those congregants on the westward journey along the Avenue.

But what of its future? With some notion of the A-A’s complex origin and evolution so multi-faceted as to be practically invisible to historians of religion and embarrassing to those of art and architecture—the vast majority of whom come from art history—we don’t have to guess what happened to such ambitious, even Progressive architectural piles such as Asbury in Agincourt. The congregations, indeed all mainline Protestant denominations, peaked during the ____ (in the United States, at least) and began their retreat dur to falling birthrates, social mobility, and concomitant economic and geographic shifts, the plate tectonics of sociological change. The Social Gospel itself passed from the scene, replaced by I know not what.

Many of those Social Gospel service, components more visible in the examples known as the “Institutional Church”, prospered and attained independence. Adult education separated as colleges and institutes—Temple University began this way—lending libraries seeded the public library movement, encouraged by Andrew Carnegie philanthropy; and recreational facilities which drew youth away from the evils of pool halls and street corners, were the foundation of YM and YWCAs, something I had anticipated at Asbury.

It was surprising to me the range of community sizes where a “Y” could flourish. They were not exclusive to dense urban settings. Yes, they appeared in Hell’s Kitchen and the Tenderloin, but also in communities of modest size, often those with a one-industry work force likely to have attracted young unmarried males, or women, but rarely both. Railroads especially provided this need at service centers spaced along their mainline routes (of which Iowa had a few) where they offered clean supervised housing for permanent staff and as “motels” for section-line workers awaiting a return to family at their permanent place of residence. It was too much to hope that Agincourt might have worked this way.

My independent, long-term study of the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon has shown me several scenarios for the WWI-era overbuilding which put so many A-A churches at risk. Changes in the system of religious education (replacement of the Uniform Lesson Plan with graded Sunday schools) antiquated the Akron facility overnight; those unable to adapt were remodeled extensively, converted to another use, or demolished to make way for a facility which looked and functioned like a standard early 20th century elementary school. So Agincourt provided an opportunity to explore why a full-service Social Gospel church might have materialized there; the decades of imagery which had preceded it, but also the shifting social patterns which may have altered or eliminated it.

Any national or even regional phenomenon, no matter how potent or pervasive, still requires a catalyst. Methodism was not a monolith; neither were its clergy, I suspect. Until the United Methodist church formed in 1956, there were Methodist Episcopalians, Methodist Protestants, Evangelical United Brethren, and southern Methodists separated becasue of the issue of slavery. <to be continued>

Phyllis Brodsky [20th century]

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

BRODSKY, Phyllis [20th century; American]

Room with a View

oil on canvas / 26 7/8 inches by 21 3/4 inches

We have been unable to learn very much about 20th century artist-teacher Phyllis Brodsky. And so must let the work speak for itself.


“When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.”
Joan Bauer

Possibly the nicest thing anyone ever said about me and to me was simply this: that I thought like a librarian.

In small communities like Agincourt, the profession of librarian evolved slowly. An initial impulse to have a public collection of books brought them out of the woodwork; indeed, they may have set the process in motion. There were few schools that taught “library science”, however, and systems for organizing books were often no more complicated than alphabetical order. I can’t even tell you who Agincourt’s first “keeper of books” may have been. There were probably several, like a relay race passing the date stamp for one to next.

There surely must have been someone approximating a librarian when the new building was planned in 1914, though it would be just like a building committee entirely made of men to imagine they know best. And she — yes, it was probably a woman — may have played a role on the building committee, at least I hope so. Too bad I can’t tell you who she was. Once I’ve had a chance to talk with Howard, I’ll get back to you, because this seems a gaping hole in the community’s story.

Channeling Bruno Möhring

Bruno Möhring [1863–1929] was a German architect who worked in the Jugendstil, German counterpart of the Art Nouveau; I associate the style with Munich but can’t tell you why. Möhring’s career produced a wide variety of project types but among the most interesting is the U-Bahnhof at Bülowstraße which opened for service in March 1902. Comparing this early tinted photograph of the station with the building we saw in 2016, it was doubled in length some time later. I have great admiration for this building and am glad that it has survived, given all that Berlin has experienced in the last one hundred and eighteen years.

Just seven years after Bülowstraße began serving Berliners, Agincourt, too, opened its own “U-bahn” station at the southwest corner of Louisa where it crosses Broad Street. Much smaller in scale and hybrid in function, I’d conceived the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. headquarters on a more obviously American pattern — like postcard views I have for terminals throughout the Midwest and in expected styles — with both masonry construction (probably glazed terra cotta) and cast iron for the train shed. Why Möhring hadn’t crossed my mind is disappointing: I’d have had a much easier time with this beautiful building as inspiration.

The gable end of Möhring’s design is so beautifully balanced. The heavy masonry pylons counterpoised with delicate cast iron tracery of the curtain wall and the wafer thinness of the metal roof are masterfully done (in my not-so-humble opinion) and have much to offer my reconsideration of the NITC station.

By the way, notice how his design grows into its full expression: three bays of actual covered platform eventually becoming five. That’s one of the advantages of industrialized building, of which this is a fine example, where modularity played such a powerful role.

For sheer contrast, consider the Forest Hills station on the Boston T elevated system, a structure of remarkably similar size and proportion. This was a building circa 1909, just seven years after Bülowstraße.

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 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 — excess baggage. If I had been “a choice”, Marge would have found space in that suitcase amid the lingerie and loose 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 [born 1957; British]

“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.