Agincourt’s original townsite was optimistic, providing more than a hundred blocks for single-family housing. But it was the middle of the 19th century and Manifest Destiny hadn’t played itself out. The proportion of families, parents with children, gauged any community’s chances for stability, longevity, permanence. But the majority of Agincourt’s buildings, however — contributed by students, faculty, friends and your curator — have been “architected”. Writing a report on an historic house in Grand Forks several years ago—in preparation for a National Register nomination, I suppose, though I was never asked to write it—I considered housing stock from the 1880s into the 1930s and came away with a more diverse view than I had at the outset. My preconception imagined that architects designed big houses on prominent streets for what, at any one time, constituted the One Percent and the rest of us lived in hovels from the lumber yard. It turns out to be far more nuanced than that, thankfully.
Yes, there are those large, sometimes pretentious homes for bankers and such (and sometimes for architects themselves as testament to their skill and a form of advertising). And, yes, there are significant numbers of largely anonymous houses at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum. But it turns out there are a number of options between those extremes. I was surprised to discover that here in Fargo, for example, early architects were involved with modest houses and even generic designs for real estate speculation. Then there are pattern books—published by architects, material manufacturers promoting their products, periodicals (especially aimed at women, keepers of the home fires) and organizations promoting home ownership like the American Small Homes Service Bureau (of which I’ve just been reminded)—that have yielded a dizzying variety of single-family detached houses. Is our experience here in the Red River Valley typical of other communities from the same time period? So how might Agincourt have been shaped by these several sources?
LUMBER YARDS: Lumber yards (like Motte & Bailey along the Milwaukee Road right-of-way) could increase sales by simply throwing in a set of plans; a lagniappe ready-made for construction, with a list of building materials and a known price tag. You could hire a contractor or build it yourself.
LOCAL DEVELOPERS: Those same builders could also be developers: purchase three or four lots beyond the edge of development, when prices are affordable, and build a cluster of identical homes on spec. “Vary the monotony” by flipping the plan left-for-right or modifying the porch or painting them different colors or all of the above. In time, owners will make their own modifications and increase the variety.
PLAN BOOKS: Material manufacturers, like lumber yards, could promote their products by asking architects to design small homes using those materials. The Building Brick Association of America did. So did the Southern Pine Association, the Byrd Roofing Co. and the Morgan Sash and Door Co.
LIBBY, OWENS, FORD GLASS Co.: In 1947 L-O-F asked an architect in each state to design a passive solar home — which would obviously feature their product. There were forty-nine; Hawai’i and Alaska weren’t states yet.
19th CENTURY ARCHITECTS: Up to World War I, many American architects published catalogues of plans for houses, stores, churches, schools, and a few other building types. Palliser & Palliser of NYC and Bridgeport, CT sold pattern books of their designs; Geo. F. Barber of Knoxville, TN likewise marketed worldwide.
ARCHITECT’S PERIODICALS: Minneapolis architect Walter J. Keith published a monthly magazine on home-building — and featuring his own work, of course — during the ‘teens and ‘twenties: Keith’s Magazine.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN BUILDING MONTHLY: A monthly magazine from about 1890 to about 1930. Each issue (in the early years) featured a two-page centerfold.
WOMEN’S MAGAZINES: House Beautiful, Ladies’ Home Journal, House & Garden, and Country Life in America among others promoted middle-class domestic life, often by providing ideas for single-family houses. The LHJ famously commissioned architects to design economical homes, including FrankLloyd Wright’s “Fireproof House for $5,000” in their April 1907 issue.
GOVERNMENT AGENCIES: Agricultural agencies at both the federal and state levels offered ideas for improvements in rural life, including small towns. In Minnesota, the Small House Service Bureau offered low-cost plans for the same reasons.
SEARS, ROEBUCK & Co.: “Honor Bilt Model Homes” — complete houses in kit form — were marketed by Sears during the ‘teens and ‘twenties.
LUSTRON: The Lustron Corp. sold prefabricated enameled steel houses manufactured at their Ohio plant from 1947 until about 1950, a peace-time adaptation of war-time manufacturing.
Any of these could easily be across the street from where you were born. And each of them, I suspect, exists somewhere in Agincourt.