The origin of the Agincourt Project lies in an idle rumination on architectural history. Expressed here in a logical framework:
- IF Chicago architect Louis Sullivan designed a series of small-town banks during the years 1908-1919, and
- IF many of those communities were considering the construction of a Carnegie-era public library
- AND the clients for both projects were likely to overlap [civic leaders, bank presidents, etc],
- THEN why wasn’t Sullivan challenged the with opportunity to design a Carnegie era library?
But, perhaps more important, what would that building look like if Sullivan had? Those thoughts crossed my mind during a commercial break — it was the summer of 2006 and I was watching summer reruns of “C.S.I.” — and before the program resumed I’d challenged myself to answer that ultimate question.
Clusters of particular building types are always interesting as variations on a theme: H.H. Richardson’s suburban railway depots for the Boston & Albany; Sullivan’s aforementioned banks; Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London churches. The phenomenon surely extends to the realm of art, also, where Sir Frank Brangwyn illustrated a series of historic windmills for a 1923 book by Heyter Preston. Not every mill discussed by Preston was illustrated, however, so one wonders how Brangwyn might have rendered others in the series. Are there sufficient clues in the illustrations to predict the artist’s response to another example? I’ll leave that question for students of art; the library proposition is more to my liking. Even literature is capable of the same enlightened speculation—not always with the best intentions: Mark Hoffman, a dealer in rare manuscripts, once created a fake Emily Dickinson poem and sold it, convincingly, for a bunch of money. He’s now in Utah prison.
Louis Sullivan’s late work in dispersed in small Midwestern communities far from his Chicago office, places like Owatonna, MN, Sydney, OH, and Columbus,WI. Since there are five Sullivan projects in Iowa — three banks, one church, and a department store — and since that state enjoyed considerable beneficence from Mr Carnegie —ninety-nine grants underwrote 101 libraries — Iowa seemed to most likely place to imagine a Sullivan design. The next issue was site selection.
Any actual Iowa location would come with too much baggage, questions begging answers I couldn’t provide. Why not invent a typical mid-19th-century railroad town, whose form was nearly dictated by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The town plat came before settling on its location. And the opportunity for that in Iowa history presented itself in the northwest part of the state when the Sac & Fox nation’s reserve was “opened” to white settlement. [As troubling as that process was, it was real and documentable.] So, before that episode of C.S.I. was over and Gil Grissom had solved the crime, my mile-square townsite was situated and named Agincourt.
As long as I was at it, why not add one more county to Iowa’s ninety-nine. Being the county seat meant an opportunity to imagine a 19th century courthouse.
This will look frighteningly familiar to anyone born between the Appalachians and the Rockies, where the cartesian grid is ubiquitous, except where either French or Spanish settlement occurred before English speakers arrived.
If ye seek precedent, look at the William Penn plan for Philadelphia. Or 150 years later, examine Col. Doty’s plan for Madison, Wisconsin. They bracket the period of cartesian influence, so Agincourt is very much a child of its time and place. Our task has been interpreting what happens when the ideal meets the real.