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Mid-Century Modern

Mid-Century Modern

Yes, the lush semi-tropical setting of this house by Gregory Ain places it securely in Southern California. And the mid-century modern style itself is one you’re unlikely to find in Iowa. But I can dream.

Last semester I worked with a student in a 5th-year architecture studio on the design of an MCM house. He was twenty-two or twenty-three, I’m guessing, and I, of course, more than three times his age, which may account for why it was more difficult than I had thought it would be. But that was my problem, not the student’s, because this was one of the architectural styles of my youth: I am, indeed, mid-century, if not actually modern. So, the earmarks of that historic style are more familiar to me than they would be to a twenty-something. Despite my hope that there is, in fact, very little other than age between me and my students, I’m living a life of quiet delusion.

Your Solar House

A 2008 article by A. Denzer, “The Solar house in 1947,” treats the significance of a book published that year, 1947, by Libby-Owens-Ford Glass Co., promoting L-O-F products and the design of passive solar homes — which one assumes would very likely have been done in an MCM design vocabulary. That was the first architecture book I can recall reading at my local public library some time in the mid-50s. So it became my go-to source for the state of mid-century modernism across the U.S. I bought a copy and gifted it to the student mentioned above — MCM has made a strong resurgence of late and he is far more likely to apply some of its principles than I am. But, for my current purposes, it raises the issue of when Agincourt might have received its first (only?) example of MCM single-family residential design.

Ain, by the way, proves to be a more interesting architect than I had recalled.

Karl F.J.M. Wasserman [1900–1972]

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

WASSERMAN, Karl Franz Joseph Maria (attributed) [1900–1972; American]

Audience / Piazza

oil on wood panel / 11.7 inches by 10.2 inches


Though unsigned, this small study is thought to have been painted by community artist Karl Wasserman. During the summer of 1925, young Wasserman interrupted his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy to take a two month study tour of Europe and Britain. Despite discrepancies in the building profile, the family have believed this was a quick oil sketch of the Piazza San Pietro in Rome. We have titled it simply “Piazza”, to be on the side of caution.

Agincourt, the board game 1.2

For the gamers among you, there is a new periodical on your horizon: Senet, a name borrowed from an ancient Egyptian board game, often found in tombs, for the deceased to enjoy wiling away their eternal hours in the afterlife. I acquired a couple issues and am more than a little intimidated. With a little more courage, I’ll send a letter-to-the-editor, seeking some guidance on the notion of adapting Agincourt as a board game.

My track record for engaging strangers in the Project is a mixed bag; most “solicitations” have gone unanswered. At least no one has replied with suggestions for institutionalization. Yet.


There’s an old greeting card box, probably older than me, which is filled with family photographs; it may be in the roll-top desk. I know they are family because I recognize two or three people. But certainly not because there are any names pencilled on the backs. Why would anyone do so foolish a thing? “Everyone knows that’s Aunt Toodie” — until everyone who knew Aunt Toodie is dead.

I suppose that explains the number of unidentified “real photo” postcards on the auction site that dare not speak its name. Nameless faces, faces that at one time had meant so much to others or they’d never have been photographed, are a waste of perfectly good visage. So I buy them — often at $3–$5 each — and sketch the lives they might have lived in a small Iowa community a hundred years ago. Some are fleshed out more than others; many are just a name — so far.

And don’t claim better things to do with my time. This is a far higher calling than some I could mention.


It came to me this morning that this young man is Hobart; no surname or family yet. But there is a disconcertedness on Hobie’s face that belies his young age. Clearly this photo op was an interruption in his otherwise purposeful day.

Addendum [05 July 2021]: A hasty scan of the Who’s Who will tell you a lot about the curator here: that he is a well-past-middle-age White guy doomed to populate Agincourt with persons not unlike himself. Mea culpa. So, yes, I was drawn to this disconsolate little fellow, perhaps because he reminds me of myself. It then remains for me to fabricate a family for little Hobart.

“Hobart” as a given name is German, related to “Hubert”. Identifying its central European origin, a searched a list of surnames and their meaning — pretty subjective stuff, I realize. I tried several of them just for the sound and settled on a few with one or two syllables, ultimately choosing Koch (“cook”) for two reasons: 1) there was a well-known architect from Milwaukee named Koch, and 2) it is pronounced at least three ways: cook, coke, cotch. I’m going with “coke”. Now to generate some parents, siblings, and a plausible emigration story.


Schadenfreude: when simple envy isn’t enough.”

During the Cold War, there was the joke about the English speaker (by which I mean American english) feeling superior to the Russian who did not have a word for peaceful coexistence in his Russian vocabulary, and had had to borrow “detente”. The humor lies in the truth that neither does American English; though we use the French detente — not so much since the C.W. is past — for that same deficiency in our own tongue. And so it is, I suppose with Schadenfreude.¹

It is made up of two German words: Schaden, which means “harm” or “damage,” and Freude, which means “joy.” Hence Schadenfreude is the phenomenon of taking joy or satisfaction from the bad fortune of another. A self-satisfied sort of “Told ya so!” As I’m not an etymologist, the distinctions between schadenfreude and karma are subtle. But what of schadenfreude in Agincourt?

¹ Why did this remind me of Dankmar Adler, onetime partner of architect Louis Sullivan? Adler’s mother had died in childbirth and, so, was given the name Dankmar, meaning “sweet sorrow”. How sad to be reminded each day of the circumstance of your birth. And the painful joy it had brought to another.


Florence Craig Phalen [1891-?]

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

PHALEN, Florence A. (née Craig) [1891–?]

Winter’s Eve, New Snowfall

ca. 1915

oil on board / 10 inches by 8 inches / signed

The former Florence A. Craig married John J. Phelan in 1911 and established their family in St Louis, Missouri. Mrs Phelan was, apparently, self-trained, a hobbyist who painted solely for personal satisfaction, for family and friends. This charming winter scene came into the possession of an Agincourt family related to the Phalens.

The painting is an example of Arts & Crafts simplicity displayed in an Aesthetic Movement frame of twenty-five years earlier. Since one movement grew from the other, the relationship is entirely appropriate. This is on anonymous long-term loan to the collection.

On Writing

“Cipher 10” and “Cipher 11” by Federico Cortese / drawing / 11.8 by 11.8 inches each

…and creating something to write about.

“[A] city is more than its physical landmarks: it is how it interacts with its people. They know a city needs more than signature buildings and retail, leisure and investment opportunities. It needs remembered pasts, closely-observed presents, imagined futures, and some collision of all three. It needs maps not only of the city’s streets, but of the skies above it, the tunnels beneath it, and the rivers and canals which run through it, of the things that are there only if you listen, only if you look carefully enough, only if you read the book you now hold in your hands.” — C.D. Rose, from the Introduction to Birmingham (2020).

This pair of imaginary urban plans comes from a 2018 calendar by Italian artist Federico Cortese (born 1971) — not to be confused with another Italian artist of the same name [1829–1913], nor with the current music director of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra; popular name in Italy, apparently. I’m still looking for a copy of that calendar but in the meantime someone on the WWW has put all the images on pinterest. These and others in that collection are inspiration for the map I’ve been trying to create for the Agincourt city directory.

For those with an interest, I recommend Urban Geofiction. There is even a map generator at Maps Mania.


Accidents happen. Sometimes they’re intentional and made to look random. But let’s give everyone the benefit of doubt — one of the few occasions when doubt can work against the public good.

Photographs of train wrecks come up for auction frequently and are usually well beyond my budget. Images of trolley and interurban mishaps are less frequent and proportionally higher in value. That’s the way of the market. This one, of a car that ran along the Ohio shore of Lake Erie, had an opening bid of $35, too rich for a flunky faculty member. So I’m content to merely heist a jpeg.

Interurban cars like this one were made by a few companies. Their subtle differences are obvious to “rail fans” among whom I can’t yet count myself. But it does look like the sort of car the NITC would have run from Fort Dodge to Storm Lake: a hybrid, with a passenger area but also a portion set aside for freight. Despite these differences, their measurements were more or less standardized, from tack gauge to clearances, which might have useful for a company like the NITC whose “fleet” may have been mixed breed. The design of this car might have looked something like this:

Those clearances are important for designing station platforms or depots, especially like the NITC facility in downtown Agincourt, where the track passes through the building. Though, at 50’–6″, this would have protruded out each end of its shed and blocked the sidewalk a few times a day for brief periods.


“We must build one house. We must build one family.” — Congressman John Lewis


COVID vaccination has reached levels where it may be possible during these summer months to see some family reunions around Agincourt. Technically, I’m having one right now; indeed, anywhere I happen to be is a reunion of my family of one. There is the family we get, of course, but then there is the family we make. I’ve recruited a pretty awesome one, but we could still get together in the corner booth at Mango’s. What’s a “cousin”?

Reunion reminded me of a subtle shift in advertising on TV; probably in print media, too, but I don’t see much of that. What now constitutes a “family” is no longer the 1950s model presented in “Pleasantville.” I’m seeing families that look a whole lot different and, in fact, more representative of who we are. Couples that are Black and White with bi-racial children might be expected in 21st century America. But now I’m also seeing a more representative percentage of Asian-Americans. And those couples are often same-sex — actually showing affection for one another and their children. Now this is making America great.

Commercials seem directed at a broader range of age, as well as race. In fact, holiday gatherings are opportunities to extend this idea generationally, too. I’d jump at the chance to lurk in the corner of a Madison Avenue ad agency as they strategize the casting call for a shoot. The Supreme Court (certainly not the current court) allowing me to marry my husband was a landmark day in modern culture but it wasn’t real until it was used to sell me insurance or corn flakes. Or make-up (not that I’m using eye shadow these days) but cosmetics constitute a huge and lucrative market, with a broader range of skin color and hair type. Products go where the money is and advertising dollars follow suit.

I’ve tried, in my halting, myopic, aging-White-guy way to broaden Agincourt’s base, who lives there, where they come from, how they relate. But I’ve got a long way to go. And not much time to do it. But is there a tent big enough; if not, we must build it.

Stay tuned.

[Appropriately, this is entry #1500]



Pads, Paws & Claws

Osteology is the science of bones. Like most of our scientific terminology, it derives from the Greek: ὀστέον ‘bones’ and λόγος ‘study’. William Plane Pycraft [1868–1942] was renowned for his work in both osteology and zoology. But it’s the rare scientist who can share their knowledge with youngsters without “talking down” to them. Pycraft was that rarity.

One of his best publications for children was Pads, Paws & Claws, which gains some of its charm from the illustrations of his near contemporary John Edwin Noble [1876–1941]. And it is bones which seem to have bonded these two men, because Noble himself wrote about the anatomy of animals as an aid to drawing them proportionately, accurately, convincingly. Pads, Paws & Claws may be the perfect collaboration. I found and bought my first copy of the book at a flea market in Rochester, Minnesota, and it was the first of several other books illustrated by Noble, including more produced with Pycraft.

I sat down one day to expand the business life of Agincourt and realized that any rural community of modest size was likely to have a veterinarian and that “P,P&C” was the near-perfect name for a veterinary practice. “Near-perfect” because the only thing missing is hooves. And so it is that northwestern Iowa acquired its animal doctors — though I can’t at the moment tell you their names. Working on it.

Suggestions are always appreciated. As is constructive criticism.

[Hard to believe this is blog entry #1499!]

PS: Most readers will know that I find “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” to be a pessimistic point of view; it’s usually more like two or three degrees. One of Noble’s artistic predecessors and mentors was Sir Edwin Landseer [1803–1973]. Landseer’s name was passed along to the son of a friend; that child became Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, renowned Edwardian architect.