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Toward a manuscript… (1.something)

ARCH 771 / Fall 2020 / Ramsay

As an exercise in “group think”, let me propose a writing exercise that will be valuable to the ongoing project — beyond your time and certainly beyond mine. [I’m presuming a lot here.] I also believe it will be an exercise valuable to you in practice late next year.

Kate Macdonald, publisher of HandHeld Press, has asked me (some time ago, actually, so the offer may have evaporated) to put the Agincourt Project in book form. You can visit her site here. My initial response/reaction was the dilemma of how to tell the story: Should it be written by one of the characters in town, say Anson Tennant’s great nephew Howard Tabor, who writes for The Daily Plantagenet? Or should it be written by an actual person — most likely by me — as “telling the story of narrating the story”? In other words, is the book a work of fact or fiction? Or is it faction? I’ll be interested to have your thoughts. I’ve got a 76th birthday in the offing that seems as good a date as any to have a first draft in hand; why not by the end of January.

So there is Question #1: What form ought a book about a fictional community take?

The natural follow-up concerns the warp and weft of such a story. Buildings and the people who designed-built-financed-used-and maintained them can be made to tell a large though incremental part of the narrative. But what other elements of material culture would be useful? And what influences ought to be addressed? For example, has COVID-19 affected the community in a lasting and meaningful way? I suspect so. But what about other major events within and outside the community that also played a role? The influenza pandemic of 1918. The Great Depression and all those “alphabet soup” agencies created to put people to useful work. Wars, like the Civil, WWI, WWII, and Vietnam. Positive influences from philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie — the founder of the feast, so to speak.

I’ve grouped these influences in three large categories: FORCES (natural conditions over which we have no control, such as climate, geology, etc.); FACTORS (broad cultural phenomena (or fads) which very often begin elsewhere but have local impact, like government programs, benefactors like the aforementioned Carnegie, or the Stock Market Crash of 1929); and, finally, FACES (of which Carnegie might be one but also including local persons with influence, like teachers, public figures, in or outside government, businesses — even artists and architects who have left a legacy). Sorry, I like alliteration.

So there is Question #2: What elements or topics ought to be considered as significant parts of the story? And how might they be organized?

Grammar And Analysis Made Easy And Attractive By Diagrams : Containing All The Difficult Sentences Of Harvey’s Grammar Diagrammed, Also Many Difficult Sentences From Other Grammars, Designed For Both Teachers And Pupils By Irish, Frank V (1884)

The organization of those elements in a book will be followed chronologically, more or less. But in a website, the path that a viewer might follow begins at a common point but may move in any of several different directions, depending on their interest. How is this organization alike or different from the outline of a book?

Question #3: What might this branching decision-making tree look like as a diagram?

For #1 I’d like each of you tackle that basic but vital question. Which approach would engage readers and hold their attention?

For #2 and #3 perhaps you could divide in three or four groups and each take on the basic outline of the story. Is chronology the best way to narrate? What other options might be equally good or even better? And how does this compare with the organization of a website?

De Bijenkorf (1.2)

Projects, so many projects, have remained just that: unfinished. Some of them are even in the category of “the unbegun”. De Bijenkorf’s Department Store is among those.

“The Beehive” (that’s what “de bijenkorf” means in Dutch), as I’ve written before, evolved from its first 25′ by 140′ foot storefront to incorporate the two neighboring buildings to the south. They would have been, of course, typical late Victorian storefronts, which means of course they would typically be dissimilar. In façade as well as floor levels. Unifying them would have no small project. And that’s why I thought immediately of the De Baliviere Building on Delmar Boulevard in St Louis.

Designed by St Louis architect Isadore Shank, it is one of the more successful adaptations of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “textile block” system of the 1920s — though technically, I suppose it’s not. This was also executed at once, however, rather than in pieces.

The ground floor of commercial retail space was ornamented with this pattern of terra cotta tile in an abstracted rectilinear pattern; some glazed black, some in natural terra cotta red. I guess this obligates me to conceive a pattern for De Bijenkorf, perhaps something derived from the hexagonal preference of bees. Unifying the interior spaces should prove far less complicated.

Materials like this, by the way, were logical in heavily industrial cities of the Midwest because they were relatively impervious to pollutants and could be easily washed with soap and water. They were also a welcome note of color in drab winters landscapes.

Dana Bartlett [1882-1957]

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

BARTLETT, Dana (1882–1957)

Canal in Venice

ca 1920-1930

color woodcut / 12.5 inches by 10 inches (image)

Dana Bartlett, painter, printmaker, teacher, and gallery owner, was born in Ionia, Michigan on 19 November 1882. He studied at the Art Students’ League in New York with William Merritt Chase and Charles Warren Eaton.

Bartlett established a studio for a few years in Boston before moving to Portland, Oregon where he worked as a commercial artist for the Foster-Kleiser Company. For a short period of time he had a studio in San Francisco but in 1915 he opened his studio in Los Angeles. In 1924, Bartlett traveled to Europe where he studied with Armand Coussens in Paris and upon his return he joined the staff of the Chouinard Art Institute.

He was a member of and exhibited with the California Arts Club, the California Watercolor Society, the Laguna Beach Art Association, and the Print Makers Society of California. His work was included in the Painters and Sculptors exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he exhibited at the Stendall Gallery in Los Angeles, and a solo exhibition of his work was mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in December 1927. The following spring he opened the Bartlett Galleries which specialized in sketches and small paintings. Bartlett served as the seventh president of the California Art Club in 1922 and he founded and served as first president of the California Watercolor Society.

Bartlett’s work is represented in the Boston Public Library, Huntington Library, Laguna Beach Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles Public Library, National Gallery of Art, Sacramento State Library, and the Southwest Museum.

Dana Bartlett died in Los Angeles, California on 3 July 1957.

This delightful small print was found on the boulevard during Spring Clean-up Week in 2004. One person’s “trash” in another’s treasure.


The Mighty Muskrat

This is the Blue River, which flows today through the edge of Kansas City. A picturesque stream, it appears to have been a popular recreation spot at and probably before the turn of the century. I’ve always like the jumble of boathouses, summer homes, and their docks and hoped that Agincourt could have had this kind of resource. I called them the “River Rats”; after all, it is the Muskrat.

Sigmund Abeles [born 1934]

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

ABELES, Sigmund (born 1934)

Drawing of Young Woman

conté crayon on paper / 22.75 inches x 17.25 inches

ca 1970-1990

Abeles is an American artist, New York-born and raised in South Carolina.

“In my art, the depiction of the human figure is everything.”

Was born in New York City and raised in South Carolina.  He is a noted printmaker, painter and sculptor who is best known for his work with the human figure.  He studied at the University of South Carolina, Brooklyn Museum School, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and Columbia University. He has taught at Swain School of Design, Wellesley College, Boston University School of Fine Arts, University of New Hampshire and the Art Students League of New York.  His work is in the collections of many museums including The Museum of Modern Art; The British Museum; The Brooklyn Museum; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; National Academy of Design; and New York Public Library.

“His prints, drawings, paintings & sculpture are a body of work which is significant for an inherent sense of beauty and passion, as well as exemplifying a mastery of craft and technique.  His accomplishments have been shaped by an enduring regard for humanistic values as he conducted a never ending search to learn more about his life and his art.”  — Robert M. Doty

“In a time when many artists try their best to be abstract, obscure, and detached from human suffering and human efforts, Sigmund Abeles has the courage to portray real people and even to tell a story in the way artists did for generations. His roots are attached to the soil.”  — Issac Bashevis Singer

Abeles is represented in the collection by a few prints, etchings, but this is the sole drawing.

Material Culture 1.1

“Ed’s Easy Diner” by Stephen Brook / 2020 / oil on canvas / 12″ by 12″

This has been a phenomenal afternoon, almost two hours with students in ARCH 771 and a great deal of discussion [most of it one-way, sadly, coming from me to them] about Agincourt and how it came to be. Did I, in fact, lay a foundation. Or — as may be far more typical of my m.o. — did I erode one that was already there. The Agincourt Project is a weird idea. But, hell, deciding to go to architecture school might be just as weird, so I have my hopes for the semester.

Aside from the general framework of the project — the intimate relationship between narrative and design, between story-telling and place-making, the very thing that architects do — there are some other caveats worth mentioning:

  • The enormous difference between fantasy and imagination, for example. Willy Wonka is fantasy; Agincourt should be so real that you wonder if your mom and dad didn’t stop there for gas that summer you visited great aunt Helen. Agincourt should, insofar as possible, by hyperreal.
  • Material culture, stuff, is more often than not how we will be remembered. For the first Agincourt-based studio in 2007, I as the students, What from Agincourt is being auctioned on Ebay right now? Ebay, the online auction site that has been both bane and benefit to the project, is America’s “garage sale”. Frank Lloyd Wright once said that, if America were turned on its side, everything loose would roll to Los Angeles. My guess is that discarded objects of every sort eventually find their way onto Ebay. Postcards, for example, have provided valuable period imagery for the period 1885-1930; I know because I’ve acquired a bunch of them. Go to Ebay today and you’ll find more that six million postings at this very moment. Now compound that with the wide range of detritus connected to our communities and ourselves: ash trays, calendars, high school yearbooks and letterman’s sweaters, ladies auxiliary church cookbooks, antique license plates, church windows, hardware. Its variety is endless. And there’s someone out there who’ll bid on it.
  • Newspapers are a time capsule of small town life. They tell us who’s sick, who died, whose cousin cam to visit from Keokuk. The record the events of our lives: weddings and funerals, school graduations, crime and punishment. Advertisement illustrate varying tastes and trends; they record inflation. “Going Out of Business” sales and bankruptcies define the spectrum of business life. Likewise the restaurant menu: We are what we eat.

So their task for the next two days is to write a page about their presumptions about the semester. Looking into this strange short-term future, what do they anticipate? Hope for? What form might their semester’s work take on? Time will tell. And this blog may be the palce to tell it.

Stephen Brook [born 1957]

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

BROOK, Stephen (born 1957; British)

“Winter Light”

oil on board / 6 inches by 6 inches


Another small work by British artist Stephen Brook, “Winter Light” is a fragment of London’s Trafalgar Square.

This work was also an anonymous gift to commemorate the student-faculty exchange program between Northwest Iowa Normal School and Millstone-Jennings College, Greenbridge, Essex, UK.

Jean Dryden Alexander [1911-1994]

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

ALEXANDER, Jean Dryden (1911-1994)

“After Frans Hals”

unsigned / date unknown

Oil on canvas board / 13.8 inches by 9.7 inches

Jean Dryden Alexander was the youngest daughter of watercolourists Robert Graham Dryden Alexander and Effie Alexander. Born in 1911 in Essex, her artistic influence stemmed from her parents and their artist circle of friends, who included Hercules Brabazon Brabazon and Sir George Clausen. The whole family spent as much time as possible painting en plein air around Essex and its coastline. Jean was educated at Queen Anne’s School, Caversham and studied art at Chelmsford Art School (1928-1931). She won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art (1931-1935). Exhibitions Include: The Royal Academy, The New English Art Club, The Society of Women Artists and The Whitechapel Art Gallery.

This fine portrait is copied from an original by Dutch artist Frans Hals (1582-1666) and comes from the Art Department at NITC. It may have been acquired by Karl Wasserman for use as a teaching tool. The original is shown at left—a detail of “The Regents of St Elizabeth’s Hospital of Haarlem” (1641):




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.

The Townsite

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.

John Ivor Stewart [1936-2017]

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

STEWART, John Ivor [1936-2017]

Geometric Composition

oil on canvas / 15.7 inches by 28.2 inches


Maureen and William Bendix built a mid-century Modern home in the Riverside Addition on the west edge of the city and furnished it with pieces which quickly became classics. Today their home would be featured in Modern magazine as a de facto museum for the period—were it still intact. The Bendixes have passed away and their daughter Estelle Bendix Morreau lives in Tucson, Arizona. But we have the benefit of four mid-century Modern artworks she has given in her parents’ memory.

How the Bendixes became aware of British artist John Ivor Stewart (a near contemporary of Maureen Bendix) is a mystery. They became enthusiastic collectors of his work, however, acquiring four works, this being the largest and most abstract of them. Stewart came to artistic maturity during the 1950s and his work — especially this composition which strikes one as a city scape — retained a mid-century sense.

“[John Ivor Stewart] studied at Belfast College of Art 1956-60, Reading University for his ATD in 1960, and later the Cardiff College of Art for his ADAE 1973-74. He was a founder member of the Society of Botanical Artists 1982, and was elected a member of the Pastel Society in 1987. He won the Major Prize as a non-member in 1986 and twice again as a member in 1992 and 1997.”