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Trickle-down Aesthetics

“Provenance” in art is the unbroken sequence of ownership from the artist’s studio or gallery to the auction house floor. It is usually taken as proof of authenticity, not unlike the chain of evidence in prosecuting a crime. Works of art attributed to renowned artists — Picasso, for example, or Whistler — can command significantly higher prices when they come with an unblemished provenance.

An architectural idea can leave a similar record; its trajectory, so to speak, from a supposed point of origin, a “smoking gun”, to a second iteration and to the next and the next, often exhibiting evolutionary change along the way — like the passing on of a rumor. In the case of Chester Motte’s modest home imagined on the east Avenue — an exceptionally skillful exercise in platonic geometry, if you ask me — its antecedents are reasonably easy to trace. The most likely candidate for “smoking gun” (or “patient zero” in the realm of epidemiology) might be the 1886 William Kent cottage at Tuxedo Park, New York, by architect Bruce Price.

While Price is hardly a household name, one of its earliest offspring was the first suburban home of the recently-married Frank Lloyd Wright, whose notoriety is sufficient for him to become a question on “Jeopardy”. The Kent cottage was widely published but not the sole Shingle Style example, surely, to have crossed Wight’s line of sight. The young Wright was, if nothing else, a stylistic sponge, absorbing and making over in his own evolving idiom a phenomenal amount of current architectural work.

For the twenty-two year old Wright, someone inculcated with the educational methods of 19th century German educator Friedrich Fröbel, the Shingle Style was a cake walk; Wright’s personal touch was the stylized Palladian window motif in the front gable. So when the C. T. Mott’s “Country Cottage” came along, I knew its family tree at least two generations back. In fact the sequence here isn’t 1, 2, 3, that is, Price-Wright-Mott, because the dates put Mott between the other two. The provenance of an idea is an ever broadening tree, not a single knotted rope.

This simple (simplistic?) case is even less predictable, because the Mott and Price designs are so close in date that an even earlier expression of that platonic composition may yet to be found lurking in the shadows.


The Fennimore County Agricultural and Mechanical Society

Three substantial components of the project’s physical form have eluded me: #1) the pair of public spaces at Agincourt’s core—The Commons and The Square—and their respective character, the estrogen and testosterone of civic life; #2) the cemeteries at the east edge of the Original Townsite—The Shades (non-denominational), St Ahab’s (Roman Catholic consecrated space), and the Hebrew Burial Ground; and #3) the Fennimore County Fairgrounds. Of these, the most enticing is the third, because I can at least identify with midway carnival rides, cotton candy, and images of Pope Francis crafted from peas, beans, and pasta.

Two students have approached me about imagining this space at the west edge of town on the far side of the Mighty Muskrat. Understanding this site is not the most user-friendly on the web, I’ve gathered some of the miscellaneous references to the fairgrounds for them—and for you as well.

  • The Fennimore County Agricultural Association may have been my first serious consideration of the topic. And Improving the Gene Pool dealt with the fundamental purpose of such cultural institutions in the 19th century.
  • The Fennimore County Fair [2017.12.12] was an early observation of the topic. As was Brigg Fair, a romantic reference to a folk song orchestrated by Frederick Delius. See also: American Passtime (which has one too many “s”s but I prefer it that way) and Chautauqua (part 1) and Chautauqua (part 2) about another 19th century cultural institution often linked with fairgrounds but operating independently.
  • “Meet me at the Fair” [2018.01.03] was one of several attempts at linking the problem with parallels in my own experience. Here I wrote about William A. Wells, an early Oklahoma architect of my acquaintance who had designed several features at an amusement grounds in suburban Oklahoma City at the time of statehood.
  • The Northwest Iowa Traction Co. served the fairgrounds after about 1911 with seasonal service, which required a trestle over the Muskrat for access. And Infrastructure is yet a further inquiry into the fairgrounds’ connectivity with other parts of the community.
  • Romantic allusions to the fair brought me to write about Lover’s Leap, while “Sumer is icumen in…” attempted to integrate the fairgrounds with the river that borders its east edge.

Never having considered what all these musings may mean when taken together, I leave it to the two intrepid student volunteers who’ve elected to take this issue head on.

Little Gifts

“Real Photo Postcards” (RPPCs) are simply what they claim to be: actual photographs, rather than printed by offset lithography or some other process. For that reason alone, it is difficult to gauge how many of them there may be; perhaps as few as one. Which is why they are so expensive. This beauty is priced at $75, a very good reason why it won’t be added to the Agincourt Project collection. And yet…

Gifts like this don’t come along as often as I might like. Agincourt’s principle bank, the F+M+M or Farmers, Mechanics & Merchants Bank, came about through the merging of two earlier institutions on shaky financial grounds. I’m only slight bothered that the sign behind these gentlemen reads “Farmers and Merchants”, rather than “Farmers and Mechanics”, which would mesh more readily with the story line. It will take little time, however, to adjust that story to fit the evidence we see before us. The bonus, of course, is the group standing in front of the bank, four of them named, who could easily be connected with the bank in some way. Sure, I could photoshop their names, but why look a gift horse in the mouth. How are you at reading old handwriting? I see “Nelson” and “Grandfather Haugh” and “Carl” on the far right, but having trouble with Mr T.

BTW, “Haugh” is an English surname and is pronounced haw. And wouldn’t you like to know who was giving a lecture. That sort of detail doesn’t show up in a printed card.

Hans Figura [1898-1978]

FIGURA, Hans (1898–1978)

Woolworth Building, New York City


aquatint and etching / 9 1/4 inches by 5 3/8 inches

Serbian-born and Austrian-educated Hans Figura, according to one source, “created over 850 etchings, mostly in color, of the historical tourist landscapes and cityscapes of Europe, using primarily aquatint, similar to his colleagues Luigi Kasimir and Josef Eidenberger”; they might well have included Bohemian etcher Tavík František Šimon. Figura’s American subject, the Woolworth Building, was briefly the tallest in the world. Here the view is across City Hall Park, framed by one of the arches of the Manhattan Municipal Building.

Mary Grace Tabor (Mrs Kurt Bernhard) lived in New York City for several years, when this was probably acquired.


If love means “never having to say you’re sorry,” then friendships are the complete opposite: they obligate admission of error and the making of amends. I know of someone on Facebook who has 8,000-plus “friends” but you and I both know it’s impossible to maintain that number of genuine relationships. Indeed it is possible to be friendly with someone without being their friend.

Let’s face it: social media have recast friendship as a wholesale commodity, and made their number a barometer of social standing. “My dad can beat your dad!” But at what? Tiddlywinks or the calculus? I suppose it depends on values—as in what you value.

What is the range of social relationships in a town like Agincourt (pop. 18,623 in the last census)? Certainly their web is a complex and ever-changing weave. Even within families like the extended Tennant clan, the dynamics can be volatile. I’ve touched on some of those linkages, couplings, whatever you want to call them, but with little recognition of the nuance I know must exist. Howard is in a better position than I, simply because he is on the scene—in the trenches?—while you and I can but watch from afar. The subject interests me particularly today, as I’m in the throes of preparing the third and likely final Agincourt exhibit.

The Agincourt Project has surely depended upon the kindness of strangers. But it has also been a collaborative effort among the barely acquainted. Friendships have grown from close working relationships and they have also, no doubt, been stretched and strained. As I work diligently toward the October 25th opening, I shall try to keep that in mind.

Messrs Motte & Bailey

Messrs Motte & Bailey, purveyors of lumber and coal, established themselves along the Milwaukee Road tracks soon after the line reached Agincourt. Bailey, the silent partner, never lived here, but Chester T. Motte managed the business locally from the late 1870s until it was sold to the Sawyer family about 1910. Motte’s delightful home at #418 West Agincourt Avenue was built in 1886 or 1887, shortly after he married, and remains largely intact, as fine an example of the “Shingle Style” as the Tennant home seven blocks east, by Chicago architect J. Lyman Silsbee.

Though he wasn’t trained in the field of architecture, Chester Motte designed several buildings (at least he’s credited with them) throughout Fennimore county and slightly beyond. Lumberyards often served that purpose in the years following the Civil War, as the profession of architecture began to distinguish itself from the building trades; using plan books or catalogues as sources.

Illinois became the first state to acknowledge the architectural profession in 1899, though Iowa did not follow suit until 1926. There was little guarantee, however, that the use of the title “architect” was linked to the quality of the work. In Motte’s case, his designs generally exceeded expectation. Someone ought to undertake a study of his design output.

[This entry, by the way, belongs in the general category of (TW)² — “the way things work” — which makes sense in the context of an earlier entry.]

A Country Cottage

These last few days I’ve been absorbed in various late 19th century architectural journals — many have come on-line recently in OCR searchable format — looking for nothing in particular and enjoying nearly everything I find (i.e., stumble across). Among the incidental discoveries were a few of the late buildings by British architect J. D. Sedding, a familiar name who produced some unfamiliar work. Time to correct that situation. And then there is this charming pen-and-ink perspective of “A Country Cottage” by New York architect C. T. Mott.

Charles T. Mott [1855-1935] was an architect of no great significance; I doubt that any history of architecture in New York State even mentions his name. History has a way of being written by the victors. Which often has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the work. Witness this small, utterly charming house, whose plan I’ve been trying to imagine all afternoon. Sure, the Shingle Style is a favorite of mine, but this is textbook S.S. and as such deserves a place in Agincourt.