“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
In the 1970s I hung out at the Minnesota Historical Society a lot, in their old building, not far from the Capitol. Their reading room was frumpy and newspapers, of course, were on microfilm in a room across the hall. If you’ve ever used a microform reader, you know they were designed by Dr Mengele.
Staff at the reference desk were business-like but pleasant, helpful to a fault. I was especially pleased with the photocopying, which had to be done by staff, on their schedule, not yours. Resources were retrieved from the “stacks” by runners, again, when there were enough call slips to warrant a trip. Once you got used to the rhythm, your time was unbearably productive.
One of the more unusual staff wasn’t part of the archive, so your path was unlikely to cross his. Frankly I can’t recall how or when we met but it was memorable. His name was Charles W. Nelson and he was the Society’s “historical architect”, in charge of the statewide survey of historic resources and involved with National Register nominations, which is probably how I met him.
I didn’t know Nelson well enough to call him “Charlie” but I did hear stories about his time in the architecture program at the UofMN, while it was still a Modernist institution. Apparently, Nelson took assignments seriously but betrayed the interest in historical buildings by responding to all the studio projects with buildings that were Richardsonian Romanesque or Italianate or whatever struck his fancy, I suspect. I wasn’t intelligent enough to ask him about that, nor did I see any of the actual work. But the very idea fascinated me and laid the foundation for my contributions to the Agincourt Project. To whit:
- a 1915 Carnegie-era public library — the project which generated the whole project in the first place — in the style of Louis Sullivan, with an Arts & Crafts spin. I’m very happy with the planning of the library; it would work well, I feel. The scale of the building is good, but the details are still a challenge…after fourteen years. Stay tuned.
- A Methodist Episcopal church circa 1920 in Akron-Auditorium mode. Having studied A-A churches for twenty years, if I couldn’t meet that challenge it would have been time to hang it up. But here, too, I’m a plan guy: I have doubts about its three-dimensionality.
- The Episcopal church of St Joseph the Carpenter was also a cake walk, possibly the easiest of the projects I took on: A modest 1870s “Gothic Revival” design, renovated in 1898, with an Arts & Crafts chapel addition in 1915.
- Fennimore County courthouse #2, an opportunity to lock horns with the Richardsonian Romanesque. But that was too easy, too generic, so I increased the “degree of difficulty” by assigning the commission to my research interest William Halsey Wood. Why? Because #1) I admire his work; #2) he never designed a public building, hence I was free of precedent; and #3) it’s a complex program with multiple departments (which can become little fiefdoms) more or less equivalent.
There are other projects but these are my favorites.* Some time before I cut ties with SODAA, it would be fun to stage an exhibit of this stuff. Fun for me. Others? Who knows.
And now it would valuable to chat with Charlie Nelson about something we seem to have in common — except he died in 2007. RIP, Mr Nelson, fellow traveler.
* The sign insanity is doing the same thing repetitively, but expecting different results. Such has been my experience in doing history-based studios. Enough said.