Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2021 » January

Monthly Archives: January 2021


In the spirit of ecumenism, the pantheon of Norse gods has grown by one today: Kilo, god of weights and measures. [Not to be confused with Loki.]

collect, verb–transitive

“Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.” ― Jeanette Winterson

This year for Christmas, a dear friend surprised me with a book; that was no surprise. But it was a book unlike any other he’d given me; most were architecture-related. This year’s gift was Mr Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock”, the text of a talk J.A.M. Whistler had given in London in 1885. There have been several editions of this text, one of them available for less than ten dollars. If you’re strapped for cash, the text is also on-line and printable for free.

There have also been at least three limited editions of “Ten O’Clock” in letterpress and various bindings. And those range in price from $10 to $2,500, depending on age, condition, and in some cases the prestige of the press. This new addition to my library is a 1907 edition from the Alderbrink Press in Chicago. You’ve probably never heard of that small press; it produced very few books, many by obscure authors or writers of only local repute.

Those familiar with the Chicago Literary Renaissance, which flourished from 1910 to the mid-1920s, and touched a number of characters connected with the city’s larger Progressive infrastructure, will recognize names like Floyd Dell, Harriet Monroe, Francis Fisher Browne, Theodore Dreiser, and Hamlin Garland. Ben Hecht published 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, Monroe began publishing Poetry magazine. Dell published Moon Calf. Many of them hung out in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. I’m not particularly well-read, so my knowledge is pretty shallow.

A few of these names also happen to be connected with architects of that generation, especially Lawrence Buck and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, for example, created three interiors in Fine Arts for the Mori Art Studio, the Thurber Gallery, and Browne’s Bookstore. None of them survive outside of a few photographs and some expensive pieces of furniture that show up in auction sales. Another occupant of Fine Arts was Ralph Fletcher Seymour, owner, operator, and sole employee of the Alderbrink Press. Seymour published the first American edition of the writings of Swedish feminist Ellen Key (pronounced “kigh”, rhymes with “high”), translated into English by Mamah Bouton Borthwick Cheney, mistress of Wright who eloped to Europe with him in 1909.

Among the qualities which add to the value of an old book are, beyond condition, things like the presence of its original dust jacket; whether the pages have been cut; autographs or other provenance. My copy of the Whistler meets two of those. Imagine a flimsy glassine wrapper that has survived one hundred and fourteen years. Not only am I thrilled to add this to my shelves. But more than that, I’m committed to preserving this volume in the condition I received it and to pass it along to someone else who will care for it when I’m gone.

I mention this for two reasons: First to share with you my happiness at receiving a thoughtful gift from a dear friend. But also, and more importantly, because that book is just one year younger than the M. E. Beebe Architectural Office, an F-M architectural treasure that was also in my care, a job I totally fucked and am now in the midst of a very expensive and humiliating process of its restoration. Mea Culpa. Why should I assume that the Whistler book will fare any better in my care than the Beebe Office. A good question for which I have no good answer.


Enjoyed a FaceBook conversation today about recent events and we stumbled on a new “character” for Agincourt based on a typo: WROGN, Norse God of Blunder.

Now, to work him into the narrative.

[With special acknowledgement to Mr Johnson.]

The Architects of Agincourt

Architect at his drawing board. This wood engraving was published on May 25, 1893, in Teknisk Ukeblad, Norway’s leading engineering journal. It illustrates an article about a new kind of upright drawing board delivered by the firm J. M. Voith in Heidenheim a. d. Brenz (in south Germany). The board measures 1800 x 1250 mm, the total height is 2800 mm, and the weight 220 kg.

A key player in the Agincourt tale is young architect Anson Tennant, an avatar in the community circa 1915, said to have been influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement generally and Louis Sullivan and Midwest Progressivism in particular. His presence in Agincourt required a backstory but it also had future implications that even I hadn’t anticipated; indeed, his presence required multiple generations of family, backwards and forwards. So, Anson [1890-1915/1968] is fictional but several other architects who contributed to the town in one way or another were very real. There is no intended hierarchy here; just a brief introduction to each [color coding relates to the “Who’s Who”, q.v.]:


  • SULLIVAN, Louis Henry [1856–1924] is the Founder of the Feast. A casual question about Sullivan, Iowa, and Carnegie libraries is what generated this project in the first place. He designed nothing in Agincourt but his influence was strong.
  • WOOD, William Halsey [1855–1897]. Halsey Wood has been a major research interest far longer than the Agincourt Project has been active; I pretend to be writing a monograph on his brief but brilliant career. As an aid to understanding his work, I’ve asked the question about Wood that I have also posed for Sullivan: How would he have treated a building type not represented in his oeuvre — the county courthouse. So the second Fennimore courthouse is me trying to be Halsey Wood circa 1888. I hope he won’t mind the bald-faced flattery and inevitable misinterpretation. Hey, at least it was fun.
  • BYRNE, Francis Barry [1883–1967]. Chicago architect Barry Byrne was among the last draughtsmen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio. A fervent Roman Catholic, he is one of the few Prairie School disciples who specialized in churches, all of them for Rome. Byrne’s hand can be seen in the mid-century modern design of Christ the King.
  • MENDELSOHN, Erich [1887–1953] — Byrne’s near contemporary was a European immigrant, instilled with Modernism. Mendelsohn designed at least five synagogues during his years in the U.S.
  • JOACHIM & PERLMUTTER [active 1900–1915]. Anson Tennant’s first commission was a negotiation of services-for-rent; his first office. To make the work proportional to the reward, why not allow him to remodel a less-than-successful, i.e., botched, job for the design of Wasserman’s Hardware. His studio-office was situated on the second floor, which he probably shared with an accountant, a dentist, or a lawyer. Joachim & Perlmutter derived from a black-and-white photo of two architects standing in their office; a friend has labelled them “Hans und Franz” and they became J&P, architects from Sioux City, since Agincourt was unlikely to have a resident architect in 1909. I could be wrong. BTW, I had to invent this architectural firm because actual architects never make mistakes.
  • TENNANT, Anson C. [1889–1915/1968]. The hero of our story. I couldn’t have done this without him.
  • LIEBBE, NOURSE & RASMUSSEN [active 1910–1925]. Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen are an actual Des Moines firm from the early 20th century. Their practice is notable for a number of schools and also several Carnegie libraries. They would logically have competed for the Agincourt commission against Anson Tennant. Besides, I like the sound of their name.
  • PROUDFOOT, BIRD & RAWSON [active 1905-1920]. Another Des Moines architectural firm active in the region. They did the first remodeling of St Joseph-the-Carpenter, adding some Arts & Crafts qualities to the Carpenter Gothic original.
  • DUDLEY, Henry [1813–1894]. Dudley was a well known Eastern architect, especially as a designer of Episcopal churches. He and Richard Upjohn (also real) designed or strongly influenced a large number of churches across the country. As an Episcopalian, Anson Tennant added a chapel/family crypt to St Joseph-the-Carpenter shortly before his disappearance in 1915. But in the meantime he needed the original Dudley building to have enlarged by L,N&R.
  • BUCK, Lawrence [1865–1929]. Buck is a favorite “also ran” in architectural history. A contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, they actually officed in the same building, Steinway Hall, and would have passed one another in the elevator many days. Buck’s version of Progressivism, however, was oriented toward the British “Arts & Crafts” of architects like Voysey, Baillie Scott, and Parker & Unwin. [Sorry to be dropping so many names.] I happen to admire Buck’s work, some of which was promoted through the pages of magazines like Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful, one house in particular, which was built in Illinois, New York State, Kansas and California and probably a few other places not yet discovered. Why couldn’t one of them have been in Iowa? Incidentally, Buck designed at least five buildings in Iowa from his Chicago office.
  • SILSBEE, Joseph Lyman [1848–1913]. Chicago architect J. Lyman Silsbee makes two cameo appearances: First as architect for the home built by James and Martha Tennant, Anson’s parents. Later, Anson was encouraged by his father to design an addition to that Shingle Style home. Finally, Silsbee advised Anson on the young man’s decision to enter the profession and may have provided letter’s of introduction.

There may be other minor players in this category I’ve overlooked but these are the biggies.

My all-time favorite architectural firm was the Montréal-based Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, & Sise, who unfortunately did no work in Iowa.

Frederick B. Kress [1888–1970]

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

KRESS, Frederick B. [Am./1888–1970]

“Palace of Fine Arts” [San Francisco, CA]


oil on panel / 6 inches by 7 7/8 inches

Trained by his father as a sign painter, Fred Kress studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco with Maynard Dixon. He began working at Foster & Kleiser (sign painters) in 1915 and was the supervisor of the paint dept. He did not participate in art exhibitions after 1918.

The Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District of San Francisco, California is a monumental structure originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in order to exhibit works of art. The eclectic designer was Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck [1862–1957]. Completely rebuilt from 1964 to 1974, it is one of few surviving structures from the Exposition.

The town where I live…

…as opposed to the one I might prefer.

It’s exceptionally odd to have lived in one place for so many years. I arrived in the F-M community in August 1971, terrified of the job I had recently accepted, because nothing had prepared me to do it. And the only story I’d ever heard about North Dakota came from my Great-uncle Adam. But that’s another tale.

Technically speaking, Fargo was established a hundred years earlier, 1871, as two ramshackle settlements: Fargo-in-the-Timber and Fargo-on-the-Prairie. Each of them consisted entirely of tents, if early visitors can be believed. Of course I had no idea that an “anniversary” was in progress, or ought to have been, but didn’t seem to be. Four years later, in 1975, we put on our dungarees, grew scruffy bears to look like Grandpa Walton or Gabby Hayes, and broke out the fireworks. There were some longer-lasting products of those months, several of them on my library shelves. I didn’t grow a beard.

Well, a lot of calendar pages have been torn off and drifted to the floor. I’m in my 100th “semester” (if you convert the quarter system we once used at NDSU). Well, now I seem to have survived from what “ought to” have been the Fargo Centennial (in my view) until the year that (again, I think) ought to be our Sesqui-Centennial — damn, I love that word. I have a good idea what Agincourt would do in this circumstance. Fargo is another thing altogether.

Maybe it’s not going to be a thing. I’ll get back to you.

Richard Walker [1925–2009]

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

WALKER, Richard Ian Bentham [1925–2009]

“Irish Industrial Landscape”


color linocut and engraving / 21 inches by 16 inches (image)

Richard Ian Bentham Walker (1925-2009), portrait, figure and landscape painter and printmaker, was born in Croydon, schooled at Canford school where he excelled at Art, but joined the RAF. After a time at Oxford, he trained later at Croydon Art School and became a student teacher there before going to the Slade School of Art in London where he studied under William Coldstream. Richard was elected a member of the United Society of Artists and of the Society of Graphic Artists, and he exhibited widely including at the Paris Salon and Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

This is another mid-century modern piece from the Bendix family collection.

Tod und Verklärung, Op.24

“Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” by J.M.W. Turner (1842)

The tangled links between my various long-term research ventures mystify even me; they make me believe that “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is pessimistic. This evening I’m actually working on the William Halsey Wood manuscript and particularly the chapters which might be called “Birth” and “Death”. It’s a sobering task.

In the wake of 9/11, several works of artistic expression followed soon after. I’m not familiar with specific works of visual art — painting, sculpture, and possibly some other media — but among musical compositions, there is a piece by John Adams titled “On the Transmigration of Souls” which brings me to abject sobbing when e’er I hear it and I don’t care who knows.

Some of you may be aware that Halsey Wood has touched Agincourt three times (through my agency, I must admit): 1) as inspiration for the dollhouse Anson Tennant crafted for his sister Claire the Christmas of her fifth year and his fifteenth; as architect of the second Fennimore County courthouse, the sole example of “public” design in Wood’s oeuvre; and as source for the first set of “Wm Halsey Wood Blox™”. You may not believe at least two of these were innocent borrowings founded with a modicum of logic, though I don’t believe that Wood would object to my interpretations of his creativity. Bringing these to the attention of his grandson WHW III doesn’t concern me because our relationship has grown stronger as the manuscript on his grandfather progresses in recent months. Still, it is humbling to write about anyone’s death, especially an historic figure of Wood’s significance (to me) and architectural merit (again, to me). And intimidating when I think of failure.

Oh, and “Tod und Verklärung” (Op.24) is a musical composition of 1888-1889 by Richard Strauss. If it had been performed in Greater New York City, he might have heard it.

Linear and Lateral

Chart of apple hybridization / Who knew there were so many varieties?


The second of our weekly zoom chats this morning — I can give you the code, if you’d like to eavesdrop — was as productive as the first, though we still don’t have much to show. I’m glad of the slow beginning, however, since we’re laying a foundation for everything that will follow and those footings need to be sound. Slow and steady and all that.

Among the topics today was movement: After being introduced to Agincourt as both a place and an idea, it’s hard to predict where folks will want to go. Are they interested in people, business, culture generally or specific institutions, architecture, historical happenings, yatta, yatta? Hard to say. But in this context, up came the idea of linking genealogy with a site map and how those two notions might reinforce one another.

I’ve done a couple large genealogical charts (none of them for my own family) and found that the kinds of charts you can buy or download aren’t terribly useful for my purposes, because I’m interested in human relationships that stand well outside “family”; relationships which are lateral rather than linear; genealogy isn’t always about begetting. I could show you a very preliminary diagram (I’ll call it that) of a few dozen people instrumental in building and using the early Episcopal church buildings of Dakota Territory. It was my way of understanding the tangency of social, business, and highly personal connections among this cast of characters. Well, it’s on eight or ten horizontal sheets of note paper, taped together, which means it’s about eight feet wide. And the lines of interrelationship swoop and wiggle all over the place. It’s complex but reveals a lot about how the territory “worked”.

Googling “genealogy charts” brings up several types, all of them for sale and none of them very workable for our purposes. Then I discovered the chart above which attempts to show the hybridization of apples into the dozen or so varieties available at Cash Wise.

If any of you out there have some experience with this kind of thing, please let us know at: plains.architecture@gmail.com.


Pictor Ignotus [19th century]

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

Pictor Ignotus (19th century)

Portrait of K. Marx

oil on canvas / 31 inches by 23 inches

Though Karl Marx [1818–1883], author of Das Kapital, was born in Germany and died at London and was buried at Highgate Cemetery there, the influence of his thinking has been worldwide and long-lasting. Marx’s philosophy was directed at the industrializing West but took root, ironically, in rural agricultural Russia, where it was distorted to become Soviet Communism. In our own era, when political labeling is hurled about so thoughtlessly, these two terms have become conflated. Considered apart from its political overtones, however, this handsome work is typical of portraiture at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Ironically, revolutionaries like Marx and Capitalists like, say, Andrew Carnegie were represented in much the same way — not that their “gospels” are interchangeable.

This is another work (without much provenance) which has come from the NINC Art Department study collection. It is on long-term loan to the Community Collection to give it greater exposure.