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“The city is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.”
— American architect Louis I. Kahn
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
October 25th is an ordinary day in most places; it falls on a Thursday this year. But in Agincourt the date serves double duty: as the Feast Day of Crispin and Crispinian, patron saints of leatherworkers (and more recently of sadomasochists), and also as Founders’ Day, our local celebration of Agincourt’s origins in 1853.
Other than a parade and an evening of fireworks, the only prominent marker is the fountain at the west side of Broad Street near the courthouse. Few know that it once stood in the middle of the street, installed at the exact center of the original townsite in 1907. But that original plan, laid out in 1853 and the municipality that incorporated four years later, is the subtler evidence of Agincourt’s origins, something that can only be appreciated from the air.
Comparisons with Philadelphia are inevitable: in addition to similarities of form, all five Founders lived in the Delaware water gap of Pennsylvania and western New Jersey — though just one of them ever saw the Original Townsite. Pliny Tennant acted on behalf of the other four: his brothers Horace and Virgil, their banker Morris Hirsch, and brother-in-law Ellis Farnham, all of them canny traders in the spirit of William Penn’s Quaker town. Pliny Tennant camped near Gnostic Grove and supervised surveying, then abruptly pushed farther west into the white-out of the western mining fields.¹ Their surrogates — the Oracle Land Company — carried the investment plan into reality.
Without the diaries of Harmony Barker Bledsoe, we’d know very little about those earliest days, between the platting of 1853 and Agincourt’s eventual incorporation four years later. Her journals and letters to family in Ohio record a miscellany of weather, diet, celebration, birth and death, and the inconvenience of unpaved roads and outhouses. An 1859 letter to her sister in Ohio records an incident few of us can now imagine but was very real:
Little Marcus [her five-year-old grandson] was missing at supper yesterday and we feared foul play. George, the Fletchers, and other neighbors organized a search but attention soon turned to the convenience [a euphemism for outhouse], suspecting he had fallen from the seat and into the pit! God’s be Praised! We soon found him safe and wandering on the Commons.
She also recorded the curious distribution of the Church Lots, the four large blocks bracketing the four civic squares. A stable population, families rather than itinerant singles, were the foundation of a community, so the proprietors gave building sites for churches, stipulating that construction begin within one year. To make the distribution equitable, they conducted a double-blind lottery, with eligibility based on membership: those with twenty-five households could participate. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Catholics qualified and drew lots to establish the order of choice, then drew again for the actual sites. Four of those congregations continue to occupy their lots, framing the courthouse, the square and commons, and the academy site—now a nursing home. And all of them together represent the transcendental balance between body, mind, and spirit that was a common view in the early nineteenth century.
The names of Bledsoe, Farnham, and Hirsch are faded from public memory; descendants of the Tennants, however, are still represented in the community—myself included—so my enthusiasm for Founders’ Day may be suspect. But it is surely satisfying to acknowledge the sense of their intentions and to celebrate the patterns of civic life they set in motion.
¹ Pliny Tennant disappeared but his yield on the investment was banked for his return. It remains today, a charitable fund for civic projects, known as Pliny’s Purse.
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to your questions.”
― Italo Calvino,
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
The Social Gospel Hereabouts
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” (Sonmi 451)
― David Mitchell,
Religion—by which I may mean institutionalized spirituality—has become a binary proposition in 21st century America: it depends in large part whether the things that divide us outweigh those that unite. Agincourt’s current Methodist preacher Rev Candice Varenhorst is of the inclusive sort.
There are those in the community, a significant number, in fact, who stand against marriage equality, immigration reform, and much of government’s provision for a social safety net. Even the ordination of women remains contentious; just ask Candy. [On that score, Rev Francis Manning’s grave at St Ahab’s chapel has become sacred ground.] So when the history of Asbury UMC is written, there will likely be a substantial chapter on the Social Gospel and a necessary re-acquaintance with 19th century theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden—names even too obscure for Final Jeopardy.
Among the liturgical branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and some Lutheran synods), the Social Gospel was little more than rumor. Rather, it was in the mainstream of Protestantism that it thrived: Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists (of the Northern species) Congregationalists and several smaller denominations, like Disciples of Christ and United Brethren. Despite doctrinal differences, they shared a view that Jesus’ brotherhood with Mankind could possibly matter more than his divinity; the belief that we are our brother’s keeper. And especially, that the church as a physical plant has far more meaning than a few hours’ service on Sunday morning. The result were churches unlike any before or since—until the mega-church movement today, that is, where congregations occupy entire defunct shopping centers.
Our own Asbury UMC is a full-blown Akron-Auditorium plan church, with spacial flexibility between auditorium and Sunday school, as well as the (nearly) full complement of auxiliary services: adult classrooms, social hall, lending library, and athletic facilities (the seed for our YMCA). There are even living quarters for the pastor’s family and emergency housing for the temporarily displaced or dispossessed. Social Gospel churches are often mistaken for civic or neighborhood centers, far more secular than sacred. So, whether Chicago or Agincourt, such facilities addressed the fullest societal needs of their communities in 24/7 fashion.
The founder of this particular feast was Rev B. D. E. Barnes, pastor of Asbury in the ‘teens and instigator of its Social Gospel programming. Working with Des Moines architects Liebbe Nourse & Rasmussen, he crafted a multi-faceted ecumenical facility that has kept pace with Agincourt’s development. The YMCA, just north on Second Street, began in its lower level, offering programs to keep young men from pool halls and other distractions. The social hall sheltered refugees displaced from the Fourth Ward by the Flood of ’34; the sesqui-centennial quilt was sewn there. The auditorium was “lent” to the members of Temple Emanu-El while their synagogue was under construction, and to the Muslim community until the Islamic Center was opened in 2004. Indeed, the parking lot they share can truly be called ecumenical, filled with cars on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Next year Asbury UMC’s building will celebrate its centennial and with it the opportunity to recall a Christian movement whose need is felt across the community today.
τεθνήκαμεν. σώζετε δάκρυα ζώσιν. / We are dead. Save tears for the living.
by Howard A. Tabor
State law and convention regulate what we do with the dead. The Shades, St Ahab’s, and the Hebrew Burial Ground are home to a couple thousand former citizens, the majority of them embalmed, hermetically sealed, in the hope the occupants will step forth at the last trump, needing little more than a change of clothes. Europeans and other cultures farther afield are far more diverse in their burial practices and our growing multiculturalism may yet alter the pleasantries of local custom here.
Visit Sedlec in Czechia and its Ossuary, whose interior is bedecked with garlands and pyramidal piles of human bones, a practice once common there, in Spain, and in Italy. All flesh is removed from the skeleton by means of a species of beetle — don’t ask — and the bones are then grouped by type: femurs stacked here, skulls strung in graceful catenary curves over there. [Frankly, I haven’t thought about catenary curves since Sixth Grade.]
Islamic and Jewish law require burial within twenty-four hours, following a ritual bathing of the deceased. I once washed the body of my friend and found the cleansing worked both ways: it was a calm and contemplative moment; the suspension of self; a focused stillness like none other I’ve known. It may be the most intimate act between two friends, without risk of procreation.
An increasing number of us will be reduced to ash; even at our end, the last chance to give of ourselves, we are consumers of energy. Read Frank Herbert’s Dune for insight to Fremen death rituals and what could be our final responsibility to the tribe.
There are several options for our ashen residue: placement in an urn on the shelf of a columbarium or at home — or, for that matter, in the narthex of your church, at the lodge hall, or why not the bowling alley or your favorite watering hole. There are potters who will make a glaze of you for the pot that holds the rest. Hal Holt’s ashes are at Gnostic Grove; and mine will be scattered at two favorite spots: ancient Delphi in Greece, home of the Oracle whose advice I’d like to have had, and at Hillhouse, Helensburgh, residential masterpiece of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. [Neither place is aware of what’s in store, so don’t let on.] Closer to home, I’m reminded of two exceptional places of interment and who resides there.
Strategically sited at The Shades, and conspicuous from several directions, is the mausoleum of Agincourt’s half-term mayor Edmund FitzGerald Flynn. The sole understated clue to its occupants are the entwined back-to-back F’s in the entablature, FitzGerald Flynn wrapped in himself for eternity. The building’s narcissistic grandiosity is relieved only by its graceful proportions and elegant, borderline feminine detail — attributed to his widow Amity Burroughs Flynn, who occupies the shelf above Ed, perhaps the only instance of Hizzoner not getting the upper hand.
Its spectral opposite is the Tennant family crypt, hidden beneath St Crispin’s chapel, itself tucked into a corner between the nave and chancel of St Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal church. [Take my words here cautiously, since I may be an occupant soon enough.] No bronze doors though; no inscription, nor elegant Ionic shaft, but a simple cellar door hiding what might be the church’s lawn mower and other garden tools for grounds maintenance. Most who avail themselves of the chapel’s quiet intimacy are unaware who lies beneath, nor why their eternal rest is so discrete.
Or is it Reflux?
Revisiting a post from thirteen months ago, this afternoon also brought a conversation with Mr Rutter about the prospect for a third and, very likely, final exhibit this fall. October seems to be Agincourt’s month — St Crispin’s Day is on the 25th; and the previous exhibits either opened or closed on the day — so we’ve tentatively set the end of that month as a target. There is so much to do and so much more I hope to “say” that the creative juices have already begun to seep, if not actually flow. Then again, it may simply be an issue of bladder control.
Themes for the previous shows related to the community’s sesquicentennial and to the all-American idea of homecoming, but this year’s will touch on an equally abstract matter: the question of how cities happen. Despite its roots in the minutia of architectural history — an obtuse musing on Louis Sullivan and Carnegie libraries — there is a more universal issue of urban design to be explored, including the current inclination toward a “new urbanism” as an over-response to the heroic Modernism of the 1960s. And while I may be drawn to the simplicities of “Our Town” and “The Truman Show” and “Mayberry F.F.D.” and several iconic episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, I’m suspicious that a species of Trickle-down Economics lurks within.
These are, as they say, perilous times in which the pretty platitudes of Seaside, Florida (the artificial setting for Truman Burbank’s postcard existence) simply don’t bear the scrutiny that changed Pleasantville from black-and-white to blazing color, with a reciprocal loss of innocence. Or was it the attainment of a necessary ambivalent ambiguity that comes with growing up? Is it naïveté to believe that coal jobs will return or fundamentalist wishful-thinking that traditional marriage — whatever the hell that ever was, if it ever was — is coming back? It’s not for me to say.
“Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.”
― Alexander Pope,
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past #24: Pliny’s Purse
Alexander Pope tells us that anonymity is a donor’s wisest course. I wonder what Pope might say when the donor himself is equally ignorant of his charity.
In the year leading to Agincourt’s 150th anniversary, a wide range of topics occupied this space. And among the earliest was a piece about our Founders, the five investors who planted the seed of Agincourt in 1853. That group included the three Tennant brothers, their banker* and a brother-in-law. I repeat this historical nugget for just one reason: of the three Tennants, Numbers 1 and 3 stayed on, while Number 2 “went west” — swallowed by the gold fields of California. But Pliny Tennant left a larger mark on the community than he could have imagined.
Pliny’s profit from the sale of lots continued to accumulate during his absence. After five years, with no word from the frontier and every reason to believe he’d not return, the others created a fund called “Pliny’s Purse”, intended for charity and specified as anonymous.
Very few of us were even aware of the Five Founders, let alone one-hundred-and-fifty years of benefaction. I called in some favors, applied the little leverage left to me, and —well, yes — I even begged for some insight to the operation of Pliny’s Purse….and didn’t get very far. Frankly, I took all of that as a very good sign Tennant’s legacy is in good hands. Secrets are notoriously hard to keep. Here is as much as I can say.
#1) Three Tennants, Horace and Virgil and their sister Helen, were the first of a self-perpetuating “committee” evolving through recruitment of others from the community at large. There have been as few as three and as many as five at any time, all sworn to a secrecy that remains unbroken.
#2) Their mission from the outset was to follow Alexander Pope’s advice: “Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.” Help those in need. Do it in such a way that no one notices, not even the recipients.
#3) Let generosity be tempered, alone, by discretion and good stewardship.
That model seems to have functioned well in a community of our size, where invisibility is difficult and want can be more easily distinguished from need. I’m told that medical expenses, medications as well as treatments, have been covered. Foreclosures forestalled. Loved ones reunited. The hapless helped. The vulnerable reassured. All of which put me in mind of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur Dent and his fellow travelers meet the Man Who Rules the Universe:
“The Ruler of the Universe is a man living in a small shack on a world that can only be reached with a key to an unprobability field or use of an Infinite Improbability Drive. He does not want to rule the universe and tries not to whenever possible, and therefore is by far the ideal candidate for the job. He has an odd, solipsistic view of reality: he lives alone with his cat, which he has named ‘The Lord’ even though he is not certain of its existence. He has a very dim view of the past, and he only believes in what he senses with his eyes and ears (and doesn’t seem too certain of that, either): anything else is hearsay, so when executive-types visit to ask him what he thinks about certain matters, such as wars and the like, he tells them how he feels without considering consequences. As part of his refusal to accept that anything is true, or simply as another oddity, ‘…he talked to his table for a week to see how it would react.’ He does sometimes admit that some things may be more likely than others – e.g. that he might like a glass of whiskey, which the visitors leave for him.”
The keepers of Pliny’s Purse deserve our thanks as much as they cherish their invisibility.
* One of my favorite urban sculptures once stood on a pedestrian island in the course of Chicago’s Wacker Drive. One of the three heroic bronze figures is Haym Salomon, an obscure figure in American history who financed the Revolutionary War. Of him, Wikipedia has this to say:
“The financier died suddenly and in poverty on January 8, 1785, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after contracting tuberculosis in prison. Due to the failure of governments and private lenders to repay the debt incurred by the war, his family was left penniless at his death at age 44. The hundreds of thousands of dollars of Continental debt Salomon bought with his own fortune were worth only about 10 cents on the dollar when he died.
“His obituary in the Independent Gazetteer read, ‘Thursday, last, expired, after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Salomon, an eminent broker of this city, was a native of Poland, and of the Hebrew nation. He was remarkable for his skill and integrity in his profession, and for his generous and humane deportment. His remains were yesterday deposited in the burial ground of the synagogue of this city.'”
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
The Arts & Crafts style house at 104 on the east Avenue will be one hundred years old next year; many buildings in town will have achieved that status, but this one seems worth noting. Barely broken in by East Coast standards, it qualifies as “old” in these parts and tells an interesting story about its first occupants Aiden and Cordelia Archer.
A design by Chicago architect Lawrence Buck, it was built by David Parmalee as a wedding gift for his daughter; Buck had done work in Rockford, Illinois, for Parmalee. Archer—folks thought the family was related to our Double-A baseball team—had come to manage a factory owned by Parmalee that manufactured “Ironstone” enamel cookware (which often shows up at estate sales and antique shops). Unofficially, I suppose the Parmalee-Archers were part of the gentry, though there wasn’t much oblige in Archer’s noblesse. Great-grandmother Tennant has only this to say in her journal: “Baked a welcome pie for our new neighbors. Gave them some root from the patch.” Of course she meant rhubarb. Pie was one thing, however, but root from the patch went only to her near and dear. Rhubarb was her test for civility.
Cordelia Archer came with one child and bore two more while she was here. But the family were disengaged and departed pretty much as they had arrived, when the factory closed in the early Depression — with little fanfare and minimal disappointment.
Parenthood may be among our higher aspirations. Not being one—a parent, that is, though my humanity also comes into question—I have to content myself being a pseudo-surrogate parent: i.e., a teacher.
“Mom” and “Dad” aren’t words that trip lightly from my tongue or my keyboard, but has anyone noticed that they’re both palindromes and that “mom” is also “wow” upside down? I’m just asking.
Howard hasn’t written much lately. Perhaps Mother’s Day will bring him out of semi-retirement.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
“Mothers and Others”
Our calendar is rife with Days, Weeks, and Months devoted to some topic, status, cause, or condition, long-term or du jour. We’ve just enjoyed National Teacher Day and Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth be with you.”). Some are blatantly commercial or have become so; promoted by florists and greeting card companies. A few mature into national holidays (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day). But just a handful are fundamental to being civilized, Mother’s Day among them.
On this day of reflection on motherhood, I’m drawn to the broader topic of women in Agincourt’s history; our mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts and cousins; even the unrelated women who’ve taught and healed and clerked and served us throughout our lives. For the moment, let my recollection stimulate your own.
A few women of Agincourt
Women who came to maturity before the 19th Amendment—before their ability to vote or even own property in their own name—women from the first years of our community’s history, often found other avenues to power.
<still working on this entry. please be patient.>
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Fern Pirtle [1903-1978]
Growing up with an older sister as my only sibling, our dog Frank made life a little easier. Mixed breed — but mostly mutt — he came to live with us quite by accident. Explaining that will take a minute.
I was about nine or ten, growing up in a town that could have been the set for “Ozzie and Harriet”: still summer nights lit with fireflies, alive with the rhythm of cicadas; winter sledding behind passing cars; leaving my bike anywhere, with every expectation that it would be there when I come back. I was inclined to wander in those amniotic Eisenhower years.
Agincourt is a town of quarters, quadrants, each pattern a mirror of the adjacent sections but each, I was to learn, unique in its evolution. Plant the same seed in four different plots and watch the inevitable variation of organic life. The north-east quad, for example—Pill Hill—is the highest point in town, as are the net worth of its residents. The north-west, where the Tabors live, is home to butcher, baker, candle-stick maker; the business women and men of Broad Street. South-east was the last section to populate, mostly after World War I. Later, Baby Boomers bought there because prices were low as the previous generation headed to retirement in Arizona.
South-west Agincourt, the fourth quad where Crispin Creek meets the Mighty Muskrat, has always been prone to flood. Our earliest industries located there—the Syndicate Mill, the Krause foundry, and a short-lived brick-making operation—and so did the folks who bore those manufacturing jobs. Remember, “manus” is the Latin word for hand and these folks worked with theirs.
The F-F-C Market at the corner of SW Fifth Street and Henry Avenue was one of my discoveries in the summer of ’54. A neighborhood institution, it served a two-block radius with a limited supply of a lot of things. When the proprietress Fern Pirtle wasn’t at the register, she was out back tending her chickens or harvesting produce from the most productive garden in town. Paving and plumbing didn’t reach that part of the city until the 1940s, so there was some speculation about “night soil” contributing to the quality of her cabbages. Best to not ask.
Mrs. Pirtle was a widow; I think her husband Sam had died in a mill accident. Mom sent me to the F-F-C one afternoon to pick up a chicken she’d ordered — freshly killed, de-feathered and still warm, the freshest fowl in town. Mrs Pirtle’s chickens had flavor, too, probably because they enjoyed free range in the yard; they’d “scratched.” The same was true for eggs. There may have been an ordinance prohibiting livestock in city limits; but if there were, everyone looked the other way.
I liked Mrs Pirtle instantly. She had a large grandmotherly frame with, as they say, “ample bosom” and a knowing smile I’d only seen on my great-grandmother, except Mrs Pirtle was Black, complected like the tobacco in her ever-present corncob pipe.
During one of my regular visits to the F-F-C, I asked what those letters meant. “Full Faith and Credit,” she replied, “just like the U.S. government,” which meant, I learned, that very little cash changed hands. Bartering was common and she often waited until payday for folks to settle up. She was a living ledger, recalling accounts to the penny, and people knew better than short change her or contest her reckoning; a couple of her brawnier patrons saw to that.
In the fall of ’54, Mrs Pirtle got news that her sister Reba had taken ill somewhere in southern Missouri. She left for a week or ten days with no one in charge, yet customers came and went; shelves were stocked; accounts kept on a yellow lined pad by the till. Pearl, her dog, was pregnant at the time, so I was asked to stop in now and then and keep an eye on her. Sure enough, the day before Ms Pirtle returned on the Trailways bus, Pearl birthed five healthy pups. And the payment for my midwifery? She surprised me with one of them, who I promptly named Frank, for reasons I can’t now recall.
Fern Pirtle closed the store in 1973 but she still kept chickens. And the cabbages were bigger than ever — perhaps because the “fertilizer” was of questionable origin.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
The Cheshire Bridge
The old Milwaukee Road right-of-way crosses the Mighty Muskrat river three times during its course through Fennimore county. Bad surveying, if you ask me, because it required two bridges and a trestle. And those don’t come cheap. Some of their cost was borne by the Northwest Iowa Traction Co., whose route followed the railway for more than half its length. But NITC ceased operation in the mid-50s and the last regular freight traffic passed through Agincourt twenty years later. Much of the route went through the Rails-to-Trails conversion, so things are running a bit more slowly these days.
Old Timers — which surely includes me — still refer to the trestle as Cheshire Bridge, I suppose because anyone younger has been over the trestle but never stood far enough away to get its full profile. If you do (and enjoy the view shown in this postcard from about 1910) and squint just a bit, you’ll see its Cheshire grin smiling back at you.
<This is a stub awaiting further inspiration. Have patience; Agincourt wasn’t built overnight.>
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past: Shell
In the dogleg of a modest single-story office building at 700 Asp Avenue, where Duffy Street begins, just south of Asp Avenue’s own dogleg on its way to downtown Norman, Oklahoma, I worked for nearly two years in the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger. All our neighbors, in a building you might mistake for a mom-and-pop motel, were dentists, as I recall. [One was an oral surgeon who botched the removal of my wisdom teeth but he’s probably dead now. It’s curious the building is still there.] Fred — known to most of us as Shell — maintained his practice because that’s what architects do: practice, until they get it right, which, by and large, Fred had managed to do. I got $2.00 an hour.
Fred’s clientele were primarily residential — middling to large houses (but certainly not by today’s standards) for university faculty, doctors and the occasional banker. We designed a modest clinic for six doctors and the home for retiring O.U. President George Cross. I was the office go-fer, lowest on the pecking order, beneath Bill Peterson and Richard Kenyon, but because my desk was closest to the phone I was de facto receptionist and taker of messages. I was never asked to do floors or toilets but would have because Fred was a nice guy. He took me on, I think, because we had got along very well in his other occupation, professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma just down the street. A little background seems in order.
FRED DAVID SHELLABARGER [1918-2002]
Shell’s obituary will acquaint you with the outline of his life. Frankly, it says more than I knew as his student-employee. He was born in Decatur, which connects us as sons of Illinois and, besides, Decatur is the site of two iconic Prairie School houses associated with Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin. I never asked if those houses had influenced his career choice. Architecture, of course, was our primary link: he was what I thought I wanted to be. What I didn’t know then was that teaching, Fred’s “other” job, would be our ultimate connection.
During nearly two years in his office, I learned a lot about architecture: how to design and how not to do business. The nicest house of those two years was the retirement home for O.U. president George L. Cross and his wife Cleo. If you should stop by, I designed the mailbox. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence, where his strong suits were kitchens and bath-dressing rooms, the wet places of the house. If those are gendered space, Fred was a better woman than most in my acquaintance. His kitchens were generous and efficient, without the acreage consumed by today’s McMansions. His bath-dressing rooms [the phrase “en suite” makes me gag] were equipped with fixtures and built-ins that avoided the scalar issues of ancient Rome. I learned first-hand the anthropometrics of intimacy, the calisthenics of cleanliness and cuisine. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence. That level of detail has its downside, however: such custom cabinetry does not come cheaply. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have learned from him these and many other lessons that I’ve passed along in my own studio classes.
About 1968, the regional A.I.A. held its annual meeting at Tan-Tar-A, a resort at Lake of the Ozarks. A few of us went as student representatives but Fred also gave me a letter of introduction to some of his earlier clients in Springfield, Missouri. Mrs Shellabarger, Gladys, was from there. I remember being welcomed into two incredible mid-century modern works that were even closer to the Wrightian ideal I treasured than were the houses in Norman. Here also was the chance to meet satisfied clients who spoke warmly of their relationship with their architect; to truly understand the work, talk to the client.
As a faculty member at O.U., Fred taught in three areas: 1) fourth-year design studio, 2) a course that blended interiors and landscape, and 3) the first two of four architectural history courses — Egypt through the Gothic. [William S. Burgett, a.k.a., Billy B, covered Renaissance through Modern, largely I think because he liked saying FRAN•SWAH•PREM•EE•AY instead of Francis the First; Bill was insecure that way.] Shell was the sort of design instructor I’d like to have been: supportive, non-judgmental, prescriptive without being presumptive. Whatever success I may have had came from studio experiences with Fred, Bill and D.B.V., alias Dean Bryant Vollendorf. [More about him another time.] ARCH 273 was the finest design studio experience of my undergraduate life. Fall semester fourth year, it was eighteen weeks of eighteen week-long projects — a Gatling gun of quick intensive studies, assigned on Friday and due the following week, when the next would be assigned. I learned to live with choices made on the fly.
During a crit Shell was poetry with a pencil; ideas flowed with no effort whatsoever, a light lattice-work of lines emerging, one of which eventually became the right one. I’m shocked to realize how, even today, I’m still trying to draw like him. His treatment of architectural history, however, I frankly don’t recall; a lot of slides in a darkened room. If that experience played any role in my eventual career, it was his example that someone could be both an architect and passionate about its history.
I saw Fred briefly in the winter of 1992-1993 when I should have thanked him but didn’t.