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CHAP ##: DESIGNING DESIGN: A CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

No work of architecture stands alone. It comes from a designer’s cumulative experience — historian J. Ritchie Garrison calls it “memory in motion” — and takes form through collaboration with clients and builders (and, dare I say it? bankers, and code enforcement officials). When asked about his best design, Frank Lloyd Wright replied, in that spirit, “The next one, of course”, a design that will, in turn, influence the one following and the next. It also has potential to affect the work of others in both positive and negative ways. Very likely, both. At the same time. The consequence itself becomes consequential.

Those complex relationships exist on a broad spectrum of awareness, a large measure of it subliminal; the result of what designers call intuition. But “the happy accident” is neither accidental nor incidental. And, so, I have to fit young Anson Tennant’s design of Agincourt’s new public library somewhere into this highly organic process.

Carnegie libraries constitute a major event in American cultural history: During the “wholesale” period of his giving, the Pittsburgh industrialist underwrote more than 1,800 public and academic libraries and effectively created an icon. One hundred and eight were built in Iowa alone. And their stimulus encouraged other communities to follow suit through local benefaction or outright public support. But whatever the source, Carnegie’s efforts had established a virtual template for small public library design. Indeed, popular opinion holds that Carnegie provided the plans themselves and that “all Carnegie libraries look alike”. Well, yes, there was bound to be a family resemblance. But there was considerable variation on the basic theme and a measure of downright innovation. Sites and local taste varied, as did the abilities of local architectural talent. And such a prominent public “statement” could only enhance a young architect’s career.

Strict chronology doesn’t quite apply here. I’m not Anson Tennant (no matter how much I might enjoy inhabiting his world for a little while), so the backstory is really mine. And my experience as an historian of architecture predisposes me to certain defaults — Louis Sullivan, for instance, the founder of this feast. Young Tennant would have been a Sullivan enthusiast at age twenty-five but so was I, a Chicago native exposed to Louie’s work for a dozen years by that time in my life. A project like this depends on either 1) this kind of familiarity before the fact, or 2) a necessarily intense exploration to compensate for ignorance. So, the evolving APL design has been interrupted now and then with a need to tell Anson’s backstory, not mine, and allow it to shape the narrative.

Young Tennant’s exposure to Sullivan could have come through professional periodicals. But many Iowa communities looked toward Chicago generally as a cultural mecca. Sullivan’s five Iowa commissions — three banks, a church, and small department store — were a tempting but unlikely factor. Sullivan himself, as I’ve noted more than once, designed no public library facility during the Carnegie Era. But he did produce designs for buildings of similar scale and complexity: small-banks, substantial single-family homes, the aforementioned church in Cedar Rapids. Those were helpful for shaping the library’s space and its sequencing, what Beaux Arts architects like Sullivan would have called enfilade

One of the most useful tools during the project has been another cultural phenomenon at the turn of the century but one likely to fall below our radar: the common penny postcard, popular during the years 1880-1920. They could be bought for a penny and mailed for the same. The U.S. Postal Service delivered twice daily and also on Sundays who says we’re not a secular state? — and folks used “postals” as a common means of communication even within small towns, until the telephone was more widespread. And also because the postcard coincided with the Carnegie era, those new symbols of civic pride were featured in rotating racks at the drug store cashier. I began this project just about the time the on-line auction site that dare not speak its name entered the picture. And as its search engine has become more sophisticated, the number of postcards has compounded geometrically. At the time of writing, nearly six million are offered for bids and a respectable number of them will be library buildings of the 1890-1920 era. One of those cards played a major role in shaping the APL.

Conventional wisdom (which is neither) tells us those Carnegie libraries were built from stock plans provided by Carnegie himself. Not so. Indeed, he commissioned a survey in 1909 to assess how wisely his benefaction was being invested and was shocked to find many communities had wrongly assumed his intent was immortality! Pompous porticoes sporting Carnegie’s name in an august two-foot Roman font. So the thrifty Scot produced a tri-fold pamphlet titled “Hints on Library Bilding”. And, no, that’s not a misprint; Andrew was also a proponent of simplified phonetic spelling which he calculated would save millions of trees and tank cars of ink. So Anson’s initial notion for his design, one which would separate him from his fellow competitors, was a hybrid scheme incorporating both civic and commercial space: why shouldn’t the building generate income to supplement the library’s operating budget?

One day my casual search of postcards at auction produced something I had never seen: a late 19th century public library occupying all of its site something Carnegie libraries rarely did  with two twenty-five-foot commercial storefronts on the major street frontage and the library entrance halfway down the length of the building, a lobby providing access to the second floor library itself [the first floor for Europeans], pre-Carnegie pragmatism. Anson’s building had already taken this form on faith, so I was temporarily vindicated.

An inquiry to the Keokuk Public Library (an Iowa town on the Mississippi River) confirmed this building had served the community’s needs from 1883 into the 1960s. And an interesting footnote: the reference librarian said her mother would not allow the child to go unattended, because the ground-floor space at the rear of the building had at one time housed prostitutes  another American notion of taxing sin to underwrite virtue.

Sullivan’s late house for Henry Babson was an obvious point of departure for Anson Tennant. It was published in the Architectural Record magazine for October 1911, about the time the APL competition would have been in discussion. And the scale of the Babson house was ideal. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses of the time — the so-called Prairie School period of flowing space and blurred lines between inside and out — Sullivan’s spaces were discrete, cellular, and formally sequential. Sullivan thought in terms of rooms and buildings as collections of them, axially organized like an ancient Roman bath: frigidarium — tepidarium —  calidarium. Tennant adapted Sullivan’s pulsing enfilade (spatial progression) to the needs of the small American public library.

No work of architecture stands alone. It results from a designer’s cumulative experience — what historian J. Ritchie Garrison calls “memory in motion” — and takes form through collaboration with client, builders, and (dare I say it?) bankers, and code enforcement officials. When asked about his best design, Frank Lloyd Wright replied, in that spirit, “The next one, of course.” A design that will, in turn, influence the next and the next. It also has potential to affect the work of others in both positive and negative ways. Very likely, both. Simultaneously. The consequence becomes consequential.

Those complex relationships exist on a broad spectrum of awareness, a large measure of it subliminal; the result of what designers call intuition. But “the happy accident” is neither accident nor incidental. And, so, I have to accept young Anson Tennant’s design of Agincourt’s new public library developing somewhere in this highly organic process.

Strict chronology doesn’t quite apply in this case. I’m not Anson Tennant (no matter how much I might enjoy that for a little while), so the backstory here is mine. And my experience as an historian of architecture predisposes me to certain defaults — Louis Sullivan, for instance, the founder of this feast. Young Tennant would have been a Sullivan enthusiast at age twenty-five but so was I, a Chicago native exposed to Louis’s work for a dozen years. A project like this depends either 1) on this kind of familiarity before the fact, or 2) a necessary intense exploration to compensate for my ignorance. So, the evolving APL design has been interrupted now and then with a need for Anson’s backstory, not mine.

Carnegie libraries constitute a major event in American cultural history: During the “wholesale” period of his giving, the Pittsburgh industrialist underwrote construction of more than 1,800 public and academic libraries. One hundred and eight were built in Iowa alone. And their stimulus encouraged other communities to follow suit through local benefaction or outright public support. But whatever the source, Carnegie’s efforts had created a virtual template for small public library design. Indeed, popular opinion holds that Carnegie provided the plans themselves and that “all Carnegie libraries look alike”. Well, yes, there was bound to be a family resemblance. But there was considerable variation on the basic theme and a measure of downright innovation. Sites and local taste varied, as did the capabilities of local architectural talent. And such a prominent public “statement” could enhance any career.

Young Tennant’s exposure to Sullivan could have come through professional periodicals. But many Iowa communities also looked toward Chicago generally as a cultural mecca. Sullivan’s five Iowa commissions — three banks, a church, and small department store — were a tempting but unlikely factor. Sullivan himself, as I’ve noted more than once, designed no public library facility during the Carnegie Era. But he did produce designs for buildings of similar scale: small-banks, substantial single-family homes, the aforementioned church in Cedar Rapids. Those were helpful for shaping space and its sequencing, what Beaux Arts architects like Sullivan would have called enfilade

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