Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2020 » May

Monthly Archives: May 2020


Twice in my life I have heard voices, just two times, and technically it was the same voice each time: a deep basso-profundo Robert Goulet-like resonance that I felt more than heard. The first occasion was about fifty years ago, on a sunny summer afternoon in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with my friend Richard. And, no, it wasn’t his voice, nor was he privileged to hear it. The message was just two words, but you shouldn’t ask. If I hadn’t followed their directive, however, you wouldn’t be reading this today.
The second message came, equally off the cuff, three weeks ago in the early stages of the pandemic and directly related thereto. It said, simply, “Get your house in order”— no exclamation point required. This sort of event is so rare that I take heed and act accordingly. [Lest you think this was God or the Son of Sam, don’t. I credit both of these communiques to my innermost being whopping the outer shell up the side of the head as a course corrective. God works in far more mysterious ways; She really does.]
Peter and I are each in the “high risk” category for COVID-19; one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, if I should breathe too deeply in the check-out line at Ace Hardware or put the change in my mouth. I took this message at face value: circumstances may remove any opportunity to settle scores before they put me on a ventilator in isolation. So I did an inventory of relationships in need of repair. That’s what matters. All my stuff can become Fargo-Moorhead’s second biggest garage sale. After Jim O’Rourke’s, that is.
A quick tally reveals a pretty uneven balance sheet: there are many apologies I must bestow, and countless more I may not even recognize, but the list of people who’ve wronged me is remarkably short — there are just three. These are cases where the words of another cut so deep and refused to heal that I recall them vividly; where and when and what was said, though I’m also clueless why those words were necessary at the time. I’d like to forget them but don’t seem capable. The first injury was six words; the third was seven. The second instance requires a paragraph of paraphrase but it boils down to four. Just seventeen hurtful words in seventy-five years is a pretty good record. On the flip side of that spread sheet, however, I can’t begin to count all that I’ve said and done, much of it just being flippant or “clever” but just as hurtful, whether intended or not. Probably not.
Blanket or wholesale apologies are, as they say, not worth the polyester they’re printed on. So I’ll spare myself that embarrassment. Real apologies, on the other hand, happen at the boutique level of commercial exchange; close, intimate, intentional, and heart-felt. I hope to be up to that task. I tried a few weeks ago — even before “the voice” — to correct a wrong I had done to someone I like very much. Sadly, it only made things worse, so I hope for better results now. Here goes.
There is one person whom I owe the largest possible apology; oddly, it’s someone who authored one of those three hurtful statement hurled at me. Wish me luck on that one. There are some others that have gone out recently in the mail; handwritten notes count for more that tweets. [Take note, Mr President.] If you should receive one, there’s no need to handle it with tongs; I ran it through the microwave on the way to the post office. And I genuinely believe the contents are even less toxic than the envelope. Read it and react as you see fit. If the apology is insufficiently large, let me know and I’ll adjust accordingly.
Then there are all those harms I have done unwittingly, by simply being the creature I have been. If you fall in that possibly very large category, I implore you to reach out to me, identify the harm that I have done, let me consider it and make amends as required. In all these cases, I shall attempt to follow the spirit of the law, rather than the balance sheet of pure numbers tabulated by an accountant. Forgiveness doesn’t work that way.
When I was an undergraduate, most of the guys in my wing of the dorm went to St Thomas More, the university parish for Catholics of the Roman persuasion. I went with them out of companionship to “hangover” Mass on Saturday afternoon — knowing full well that we’d be hung over the next morning and not make it to the 11:00 o’clock service.
One day I had an issue that needed spiritual guidance, so I made an appointment with Fr Chuck. Once we’d talked it through, he observed, “Say, I haven’t seen you at communion lately.” I said the likely reason was that I wasn’t Catholic. He wondered if I’d like to do something about that, to which I said, “Why not.” So we went through a couple hours of “Can you buy into this?” and one Saturday afternoon, I was duly baptized (for the second time) in the chapel, with Dorothy Ryan, the parish secretary and a former nun, as my witness/sponsor. This didn’t happen without another important step: Confession. And remember, this was the early 60s and Vatican II was underway.
The Friday night before the baptism, Fr Chuck and I had dinner at the Howard Johnson’s, the all-you-can-eat Lenten fish special. So there we were in the booth, facing one another, with the waitperson passing by frequently, asking “More fillets?” and the priest inquiring about the condition of my soul. Shortly before the check arrived, he absolved me of those sins I’d acknowledged and issued an appropriate penance: no “Hail, Marys” were involved; I simply had to do something nice for the person I disliked the most. Can you imagine the agony!
First I ranked the people I disliked, and then decided what act of kindness would satisfy God, while at the same time not alerting the person that an actual act of kindness had been done to them — a balance only Solomon could achieve. Well, I did it in good faith. But the “conversion” lasted only as long as it took to get home to Chicago and discover Vatican II hadn’t happened in the conservative Polish parish that was my local church. Cardinal Wotija couldn’t be elected John Paul II soon enough for them so the pendulum could swing back where it belonged. That Friday night Lenten special at Howard Johnson’s, however, has stuck with me, even if Holy Mother Church has not. And I afford you the benefit of that experience today.


‘B-but, Mr Jimson, I w-want to be an artist.’
‘Of course you do,’ I said, ‘everybody does once. But they get over it, thank God, like the measles and the chickenpox. Go home and go to bed and take some hot lemonade and put on three blankets and sweat it out.’
‘But Mr J-Jimson, there must be artists.’
‘Yes, and lunatics and lepers, but why go and live in an asylum before you’re sent for? If you find life a bit dull at home,’ I said, ‘and want to amuse yourself, put a stick of dynamite in the kitchen fire, or shoot a policeman. Volunteer for a test pilot, or dive off Tower Bridge with five bob’s worth of roman candles in each pocket. You’d get twice the fun at about one-tenth of the risk.’
Joyce Cary, The Horse’s Mouth


Eugene Raskin’s Architecturally Speaking treats basic aspects of design rarely encountered these days in undergraduate education; notions of scale and proportion, for example, discussed in light-hearted fashion as are the book’s illustrations by cartoonist Robert Osborn. This one (with apologies for the splice; the drawing spans the book’s gutter) offers a corrective to notions of originality: what was true in the 1950s is equally true today, if somewhat less obvious. Far too many architects are trying to be different but all in more or less the same way. Where’s the fun in that? While reading the Joyce Cary novel (of a decade earlier than Raskin) The Horse’s Mouth, eccentric hardly describes the principal character Gulley Jimson, whose point of view Cary exemplifies with the passage above.

His point is simply that all those folks who’ve convinced themselves of their originality haven’t got a clue. “you should be different, just like me!”

Incidentally, I think the Community Collection has a painting by Jimson. Damned lucky if they do.


Homogenous only works for milk.

If the populace of Agincourt, Iowa and the Muskrat Valley were entirely from my experience, it would be a fairly homogenous place. Happily, friends have come along and volunteered their relations to the cause. Such is the case with Wendelin Wangler, an emigrant from Odessa in the Ukraine, whose relationship with a third-year architecture student is a little foggy in my mind.

Photos like this crave identification. In this case, nothing is known; neither people nor place. And so it is vulnerable to invention, such as the identification of the elder Mr Wangler [1876-1949] with one of the builders taking a break from their work. With a little photoshopping, the image can be darkened a bit and some contrast added. Would that I knew how.

Stay tuned for the story of this house and all those connected with it.


Saint Elsewhere

Inclined as i am to repurpose borrowed images for Agincourt application, this wondrous pile appeared for the second or third time in my life. But this time it arrived with intent: I’d been looking for something to serve as an orphanage (introduced in a post titled “The Night They Raided Pinsky’s” nine years ago) but hadn’t found anything that would suit my purpose; suddenly here it was on my doorstep!

“The Oaks” was a private club in the Chicago suburb named Austin, later absorbed by the city and surviving as a neighborhood; it’s the area immediately east of the much trendier Oak Park, home of Frank Lloyd Wright. Austin Boulevard is the line between the two areas and there is no doubt when you cross from one to the other. The Oaks is, obviously, long since gone but once anchored the intersection of Waller Avenue and Lake Street.

It was built from the plans of Austin architect Frederick Schock, thirteen years older than Wright and a respectable designer in the Queen Anne mode. Schock’s own home is still located just two diagonal blocks away. The Oaks, however, has been replaced by mid-rise apartments. And though the Oaks clubhouse is perhaps a bit grand for an orphanage, I think its story is still plausible. It only remains to photoshop the adjacent church out of the image and modify the narrative written several years ago.


O.K., so it’s more complicated than I thought it might be.


In the parlance of model railroading, “traction” means two different kinds of running stock: trolleys (i.e., streetcars) and interurbans (something between a trolley and a train in size and service; as you might guess, they run between towns). The N.I.T.C. provided both levels of service; the NITC cars ran between Fort dodge and Cherokee — with the intent of pushing on toward Sioux City — while the Agincourt City Line traversed a lopsided figure-8. Both used the NITC depot at Broad and Louisa as a principal stop and interface for transfer.

When the company incorporated in 1909, its stock offering was quickly subscribed. But those were reasonably heady times; emigration was high and the gaps between the Midwest and Rockies were filling with farmers and ranchers, despite their incompatibility. In North Dakota, where I live, the western part of the state enjoyed the Second Dakota Boom. Frank Lloyd Wright “eloped” to Europe in 1909 with his inamorata Mrs Cheney, the wife of a client. Meanwhile in Agincourt, there was the fiftieth anniversary in 1907 of the city’s founding and the vacant county orphanage at the edge of town became Northwest Iowa Normal School, one of the state’s teacher colleges. The future seemed bright

I’m no historian of transit — though I can lay claim to having ridden the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee interurban on its last day of service on 20 January 1963 and I recall riding Chicago streetcars with my mother while they still ran and before she did. So the joys of transit are integral to who I am, even though I may know little about the actual history of the movement.

Designing the NITC depot was great fun, taking inspiration from postcard views of other similar stations and concluding that cars would not simply sidle up to the building; they would pierce it through a glazed greenhouse-tunnel. “A trolley runs through it!” It also afforded an opportunity to imagine the capitalist notion of making money: people using the station might like to snack while waiting for the next car; they could arrive weary and in need of accommodation; once refreshed, they could buy a newspaper or get a shave and haircut. A facility such as this would have served as a hub of activity from early morning until the last car at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. This would be one of Agincourt’s most diverse centers of activity, one I could have fun with.

For one of the exhibits I had optimistically believed a model could be built. But it’s a good thing it got postponed, because the one-eighth or one-quarter scale would have missed a wonderful opportunity to more fully understand the building and its multi-faceted purposes: why not include an actual piece of rolling stock? It was then I realized that HO model railroading is scaled 1:87 and, happily, that converts to one inch equalling 7’–3″, slightly larger than eighth scale and considerably smaller than quarter. The model, of course, would differ in that regard from any other models built for the project. So be it.

The N.I.T.C. depot at Broad and Louisa / built 1909 from the designs of Joachim & Perlmutter, Sioux city

Shopping for cars and track has been fun. It was also a time for learning: the 45-degree passageway allowed sufficient turning radius for the cars — I thought. But I’d failed to understand the implications of a long wheel base and now must do a recalculation: the opening may not be wide enough, which means redesigning either the building or the streets that flank it.


“How many architects does it take to…”

The answer to that question is twenty-one.

The evolution of architecture as a profession during the last 250 years is both complex and simple. Complex because it happens at the local level and varies widely through space, time, and circumstance. Yet also simple because it is the slow but inevitable process of a trade becoming a profession. The more readily documentable portions of the process occurred during the 150 years between 1850 and 2000, roughly.

A survey of 2015 counted nearly 110,000 architects in the United States, a tabulation from the several state registration boards which regulate the practice of architecture “in the interest of public health and safety.” Licensure of anything, from brain surgery to cosmetology, is a state function within our federal system. The definition of a “profession” was set by Abraham Flexner, an early 20th century social scientist, more focused on social workers than architects, but his criteria apply equally well,

Flexner identified six characteristics of a profession and its professionals: (1) “professions involve essentially intellectual operations with large individual responsibility”; (2) “they derive their raw material from science and learning”; (3) “this material they work up to a practical and definite end”; (4) “they possess an educationally communicable technique” (their own language); (5) “they tend to self-organization”; and (6) “they are becoming increasingly altruistic in motivation.” [Thoughts on Flexner and Professionalism, 1915-2015]

Insofar as architecture is concerned, that process can be compartmented in three periods of approximately fifty years each: 1850-1900—organization of the profession for the passage of legislation regulating practice, effectively licensing the use of the term “architect”; 1900-1950—the half century required for enabling legislation in all fifty states; this actually required fifty-two years, from 1899 (Illinois) to 1951 (Wyoming); and 1950-2000—fifty years, more or less, of regulated inter-state practice, coming to the next logical consideration: questioning the societal value of such regulation, and consideration of its elimination in favor of other marketplace controls. I have been interested in the middle years of these three phases, particularly as evidenced in the presence of architects in the Great Plains.

A map of the U.S. overlain with the dates of each state’s passage of architectural registration is curiously chaotic and seems unrelated to “the interests of public health and safety”, the nearly knee-jerk phrase linked with each state-by-state effort. Were that the case, that public interests prevail as motivation, then we should logically see the issuance of licenses in state with high population, large urban areas, and densities where poor design and/or construction put large numbers of our citizens in jeopardy. Yet New York State did not regulate architectural practice until 1915, while Arkansas did in 1901. Indeed the pattern of professional registration follows no obvious pattern, if we limit our understanding to the mosaic of state boundaries. Overlay the geography of jurisdiction, however, with the network of passenger rails which would enable an architect to extend his/her practice beyond the immediate market area and another motivation suggests itself. New Jersey’s law preceded New York’s by thirteen years; North Dakota’s was enacted four years prior to Minnesota. If “public health and safety” were the motivation, it ought to be the opposite.

The pattern of registration laws in Canada offer a simpler geographic pattern and another possible rationale. Consider the Prairie Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, insulated, if not actually isolated, from incursions from other provinces by mountains and huge areas of unsettled land. Their pattern of settlement had been from east to west, excepting British Columbia. So we would expect architecture to be regulated in accordance with the arrival of urban concentrations. Yet the pattern is opposite: Alberta (1905), Saskatchewan (1911), and Manitoba (1940). It is difficult to avoid the possibility that architects in each province were protecting themselves from “poaching” by architects in provinces that had been established earlier. Why should professionals in Alberta, for example, find themselves competing for work with their brethren from Saskatchewan? Then, prevented from seeking work to their west, Saskatchewan architects sought to protect their clientele from poaching by Manitobans. It has seemed to me that “turf” may have been as significant a motivating factor as more altruistic public concerns.

What has this to do with Agincourt, Iowa? you may well ask. Very little, as concerns the simple question of professional registration; Iowa did not enact professional registration for architects until 1927, so the period of my particular interest (the years around WWI) were unregulated. But Agincourt was subject to exploitation from other larger communities. Its early architectural services would have come from Des Moines, Sioux city, Omaha, and well beyond that; perhaps even Chicago.


“A House is not a Home”

“A chair is still a chair, even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house and a house is not a home
When there’s no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight.”

Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, this lyric was sung by Dionne Warwick (before her days as shill for the Psychic Friends Network) as the theme for a 1964 movie of the same name. I was nineteen and the film, about the life of (in)famous 20s madam Polly Adler, must have made an impression, because I can still hear the melody in my mind’s ear. But it’s simple message is all too true: I’ve been in several houses that weren’t homes and vice versa. The evocative real-photo postcard above seems the ideal combination, and so I’ve conscripted it for Agincourt’s housing stock.

Long observation tells me that designing a home is one of the two most difficult tasks for a student of architecture. Such projects ought not be assigned casually nor undertaken with a presumption of success. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the same house, my home despite the dysfunctional family who lived there. And its idiosyncrasies are imbedded in my memory, as much as those of the family that dwelt in it. It’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. And so I accept both as the comfort of old shoes; long since gone from fashion, they fit in all the proper places.

Another important lesson, a revelation, really, but falling in the category of “forensics”, comes from the act of interpreting the interior of the house: what is likely going on in there that can be intuited from its exterior features? Visual clues come from the overall mass and proportions of the house, its pattern (rhythms) of door and window openings, and an understanding of domestic life from the period in question; expectations of space and functional relationships vary with time, location, and social standing. One could anticipate differences in these patters to be reflected in the housing stock of a community like Agincourt — presuming a degree of typicality.

That, I suppose, remains to be proved.


Dave Garroway

Louis Edouard Fournier (1819-1880), “The Funeral of Shelley” (1889) / Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Those “of a certain age” recall NBC’s “Today Show” and its founding host and anchor Dave Garroway, as thoughtful a personality as television has ever known. Insightful and dryly witty — he worked with a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs — Garroway ended each program with several lines of poetry that may not have been attributed or I may simply not have payed attention; I was, after all, eight or nine years old. Some time later I learned that these were part of the concluding stanzas of “Renascence”, a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay. Millay alternates with Charles Bukowski as the poet laureate of Agincourt, depending on my mood at the time. I’ve appended here those twelve concluding lines, though Garroway quoted just the first eight. The final four were too grim for early morning T.V.

“The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.”

What I hadn’t known until this afternoon was Garroway’s fate in the entertainment marketplace: He departed the show in 1961, shortly after his wife’s death of prescription overdose sent him into a deep depression from which he never recovered. Complications from heart surgery some years later only worsened his mental state and he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1982, sensing long before that he had become a dinosaur in the Ice Age of 70s T.V.

Somewhere in my heart, if not in Agincourt itself, there is a shrine to Garroway’s easygoing reassuring presence throughout the cold War of my youth. I can still hear his voice in my mind’s ear.

How, I wonder, would Dave have dealt with the current occupant of the White House — He who shall not be named — given that Garroway’s “co-host” was a simian with greater intelligence than DJT; certainly possessing a larger vocabulary. Do you suppose there are old kinescopes of his programs?



Wyalusing Hotel, Wyalusing, PA

In the midst of the coronaviris lockdown (self-imposed or otherwise), hostelry is one of the most hard-hit industries. From restaurant personnel to housekeeping staff, empty beds are equivalent to absent paychecks. Hotels, motels, air B&Bs, inns, resorts, hostels, and the like may not make it through this pandemic and it is smaller communities that will suffer the most, particularly those dependent on travel and tourism.

Though I might enjoy some aspects of innkeeping, its the business portion — the hiring and firing, supervising, and quality control — that are not my forte. I have, on the other hand, stayed in a wide range of these facilities, from the grossly overcharged [someone else was paying the tab] to the grubby and economical. My friend Richard and I relish the lower end of that spectrum. I recall one particularly bad example in Evansville, Indiana, a second-floor room above a convenience store-cum-gas station, where we were installed in a room without windows and where the plastic laminate on most of the furnishings sported long cigarette burns, partially accounting for the lingering stench of tobacco. Don’t ask what we paid for such luxury; it wasn’t much. And so it is that you may understand my perspective on Agincourt’s places of public accommodation.

Cities like Agincourt would have enjoyed a wide price range of hotel prices. At the turn of the century, a room might cost as little as $1.25, a bit more if you preferred a private bath. Chains hadn’t come into being quite yet, so there was a dizzying array of names posturing for your custom. I settled on “The Blenheim” for Agincourt’s upscale establishment circa 1900, and its predecessor the Hazzard House.

More on this as ideas develop.

NITC (2.5)

In the nature of a recurring theme, “The Way Things work”, here are some ideas about N.I.T.C. facilities.

Toward an Interurban Timetable <a work-in-progress>

  • Ft Dodge
  • Barnum 10mi (fs)
  • Manson 9 mi
  • Pomeroy 7.5
  • Grou Jct 9 mi (fs)
  • Agincourt 8 mi
    • Industryº
    • Fennimore County Fair (seasonal)º
  • Fahnstock 7 mi (fs)
    • Resort 5 mi (seasonal)º
  • Newell 10 mi
  • Storm Lake 12.6 mi
  • Alta 6 mi (fs)
  • Aurelia 7 mi
  • Cherokee 8 mi
  • Meriden 8.5 mi (fs)
  • Marcus 10.5 mi
  • Remsen 8.5 mi
  • Le Mars 19 mi
  • Merrell 7 mi
  • Hinton 7 mi (fs)
  • Sioux City 11 mi

fs = flag stop

º = connection with Agincourt City Lines

italic = projected extension

N.I.T.C. Corporate Imagery <likewise, a work-in-progress>

The NITC Depot at Broad Street and Louisa also served the Agincourt City Lines streetcar “system”, a one-way figure-eight loop with probably a single car operating at one time. In addition to its regular stops (marked with a sign), the city line also served three additional points: regular stops at Industry on the Muskrat’s west bank, and seasonal service to both Sturm & Drang and the Fennimore County Fairgrounds. Another possible service point might have been the cluster of cemeteries at the city’s east edge.

Inspiration for the integrated system’s stations could have included four related designs, perhaps growing from one germ idea: 1) a festive fairgrounds shelter; 2) a more serviceable stop at Industry (likely to have heavier traffic morning and evening); 3) the original shelter in the Commons, used until the main depot was complete; and 4) a modular unit adaptable to several of the stops along the main line.

Inspiration comes from one Frank Lloyd Wright design included in the Wasmuth Portfolio, the River Forest Tennis Club.