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Bench Marks

I’m not one who values quantity over quality, presuming I can tell the difference between good writing and its opposite. But every now and then I do enjoy checking on the stats for this site, the number of pages viewed since its beginning. So, today I looked and found 43,223 pages viewed. Just thought you’d like to know.

NITC (2.4)

Nothing says “end of the line” quite like this station at Third and Jones streets in Sioux City, Iowa.

Many words have been spent here on the subject of infrastructure, especially of the interurban and trolley variety. For the classic treatment of interurbans in America, consult the volume by George Hilton, but it’s gonna cost you.

What may not be widely known is that the third elevated railway in urban America, after New York City and Chicago, was in Sioux City, Iowa. An idea born in 1888, it ran neither very far nor very long. But I wonder if its incongruity may not have inspired Agincourt’s N.I.T.C. enterprise begun in 1909 (but conceived a couple years earlier, I suspect).

Beginning in Fort Dodge (or ending there, depending on your point of view), the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. went to and through Agincourt but never achieved a connection with the Missouri River valley. Whether money or enthusiasm ran out isn’t recorded. Either Council Bluffs or Sioux City would have been logical targets — I never quite decided, myself — but the trackage of the Sioux City Transportation Co. would have been a lure to head northwest, rather than west. An article about the company is unclear how long it operated or how long the elevated trackage remained. If it was long enough for the NITC promoters to obtain the use of its right-of-way, I suddenly have inspiration to get back to work on that piece of community history.

 The scale of interurban cars can be intimidating, somewhere between passenger rail and a streetcar or trolley.This two-car Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Railway train is stopped at Ames, a heavily-used station due to the State College traffic. I suspect ridership on the N.I.T.C. might have been substantially less and required only single cars.

The challenge at the moment is to create a schedule or stops, mileage and estimated time between them. Which means tweaking Iowa geography just a little than we already have — to squeeze the state’s one-hundredth county between at least four others. A typical schedule would have looked something like this:

“Opera is actually a lot better than it sounds.” —Cecil Elliott

Our dear friend Cecil Elliott left us long before the Agincourt Project was (ill)conceived but his fingerprints are everywhere. One of his more memorable quotes — those who knew him have their own — is the title of this piece: a suggestion that what we may see as a substantially aural experience is anything but. I learned this lesson quite by accident.

Twin City composer Dominick Argento, who passed just over a year ago, is renowned for the several operas in his long list of compositions. A 1987 work “The Aspern Papers” is based on a Henry James novella written a hundred years before. Commissioned and premiered by the Dallas Opera, it was performed soon after at the Ordway in St Paul. I was there for the second performance in one of the very cheap seats in nose-bleed territory.

The plot centers on the supposed existence of American poet Jeffrey Aspern’s papers. They may be held by an old lover living in Venice. An American visits the old woman and beguiles her to reveal the papers’ existence. Desperate to have access, the narrator seduces the old woman’s niece toward that end.

This is from the Dallas production, not the Minnesota.

There is an amazing scene at the opera’s conclusion with two revelations: the spinster-niece realizes she has been used and her aunt protects herself and Aspern’s memory by burning the papers. At an earlier point, however, when Aunt Juliana reminisces about her passionate relation with the poet fifty years earlier. And so in one and the same room where those events transpired, there is a quartet — the couple, young Juliana and Aspern, and the other pair, the aged Juliana and the writer. What is remarkable is the quartet they sing, two duets entwined with one another. On stage it is easily understood because the costumes are period appropriate, light pastels for the flashback characters and somber Victorian for the present day (1880s). Each pair has to negotiate the room oblivious of the other, no easy staging, yet their voices blend and complement. It was a stunning experience.

I hadn’t realized until the next day how true Cecil Elliott’s observation had been in this case. On the next day, Minnesota Public Radio did a simulcast, which I enjoyed at home, reliving the event of the night before. But when it came to that crucial, magical scene, it fell completely apart. Without the costumes and staging to explain its complexity, it became what I’d characterize as an aural swamp: nothing made sense without costume, set, staging AND music. Opera was, in fact, a lot better than it sounded.

Why am I harping on this here today? Because Agincourt, too, is a multi-sensory experience. Or at least it should be, optimally, and has been with the aid of the community’s Composer-not-in-Residence Daron Hagen and the contribution of authentic “Windmill” cookies from Marcie Baker, still warm from the oven (the cookies, not Marcie).

Frank Lloyd Wright in Iowa

During the Prairie School years, the early period of Frank Lloyd Wright’s long career, Iowa was privileged to have at least two of his buildings: the Dr Stockman house and the combined City National Bank and Park Inn, all in Mason City. From an Agincourt point of view, that’s interesting on several counts.

First, both of those projects date from 1908-1909, a little earlier than Sullivan’s bank and church commissions. In 1908, our hero Anson Tennant was nineteen years old and already oriented toward a career in architecture. Second, both of these Wright designs were located in Mason City, which coïncidentally happens to be the home town of his mother Martha Corwin Curtiss. Indeed, summers at his maternal grandfather’s house exposed Anson to carpentry and construction, important events in young Tennant’s life. Why had the question never arisen in my mind: Was Anson Tennant aware of the Wright projects during any of his visits to Mason City. Since all this is substantially fiction, perhaps I get to decide.

A third coïncidence is the 1909 construction of Agincourt’s street railway company, Northwest Iowa Traction. Anson would have been too young and inexperienced to have been involved with the NITC depot. BUT — and this is an important “but” — a small trolley station was built in the burgeoning industrial district on the Muskrat’s west bank. Anson’s dad Jim Tennant was an NITC stockholder and in a position to nudge a small project like that in his son’s direction. I can’t speak for you but that’s enough justification for me to break out pencil and paper.

The Wasmuth Monograph

A fourth and clinching coïncidence was the publication in Berlin of Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright, usually abbreviated as the Wasmuth Monograph or Portfolio after its publisher Ernst Wasmuth. Published in 1910 in two folio volumes, it included one hundred large plates of his work to that date. Some were drawn by Marion Mahoney Griffin, some by Wright’s son Lloyd Wright (FLlW junior) but all in the style of ukiyo-e Japanese prints that characterize the Oak Park years.

I don’t know the number of folios that were published, but those destined for the American market were shipped to Wright’s home in Wisconsin, “Taliesin”, where they were promptly destroyed in the fire of August 1914. I don’t know the number of copies that actually found buyers, but Wright did advertise its availability in architectural journals. If you’d like a copy today, there’s one offered for $85,000. Please buy it and remove the temptation.

My point is simple: Anson Tennant could easily have known and actually seen an important early work by Wright, the City National Bank and adjacent Park Inn. And as Jim Tennant’s only son and heir, one wonders if a copy of the Wasmuth Portfolios could have materialized under the 1911 Tennant Christmas tree.

Early Water-powered Industry

It’s doubtful that Agincourt ever boasted anything so grand as these, the Five Rise Locks at Bingley, in the U.K. Before the arrival of railroads, transport was chiefly by river and there was never a need for an engineering feat like Bingley — which I’ve visited twice in my life, so far, and would gladly go again but with a picnic lunch this time — due to Iowa’s mellow topography, except along the Mississippi. It is surprising, however, how many water-powered mills there were, each requiring some sort of dam or weir to create a millpond.

Something was built early in Agincourt’s history (about 1860) for the Occidental flour mill, on the Muskrat’s west bank. [The irony must have been lost on its founders.] What sort of dam/weir initially held back the river to power the mill isn’t determined (one of those gaps in the story and material culture of Agincourt that aren’t necessary) but it may have have been enhanced for the next piece of industry, the Syndicate Mill of 1868. Something like this sluice gate would have allowed the new mill to access that energy.

 

The Greek Revival

The Greek Revival is probably the earliest architectural style that arrived in Agincourt in the mid-1850s. Vestiges of the style remained on the East Coast, but it had largely spent itself there and came West only as a memory of the “home” that had been left behind.

As with many styles, its heyday in Britain and on the Continent was spent before Agincourt had been founded. Architects like William and Henry William Inwood, father and son, designed St Pancras church in London, taking inspiration from Stuart and Revett’s Antiqvities of Athens, published in 1762, such as using the “Porch of the Maidens” on the Erechtheion or the “Tower of the Winds” that he adapted as the vestries and bell tower, respectively, on the church. Karl Freiderich Schinkel in Germany became expert in applying its simple dignities to the rebuilding of Berlin so the Hohenzollerns might keep pace with the Bourbons and the Habsburgs.

Here in the U.S., the Greek Revival style coincides with our Federal Period and put its stamp on such early buildings as the Second Bank of the United States and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. But I believe its highest calling may have been the small churches of New England, New York and Pennsylvania like the one at Holland Patent, NY.

New England, western New York and Pennsylvania are peppered with carefully-proportioned buildings such as these, usually of frame construction and very often carpenter-built, i.e., without benefit of architect. A skillful master building could produce elegance of this sort and, as itinerants, they plied their trade from one community to the next, creating clusters or garlands of them across the landscape. It was buildings like this that came farther west into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and beyond up into the 1850s. And it was this model that inspired the First Baptist church in Agincourt, a building of 1858 from the hand of the aging builder Amos Beddowes.

In addition to the Greek Revival style, First Baptist was also an opportunity for this latent Victorian (me) to explore classically-inspired proportioning systems such as were used by the ancient Greeks, particularly the “Golden Section”, one of the half dozen most remarkable numbers in all of mathematics.

ARCH 771, Fall 2020

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
― Plato

25 April 2020

RE: ARCH 771 / Fall Semester 2020

Greetings, Everyone:

Yes, I know it’s a little early to be communicating with you about a class next semester, but these are unusual times and we’re learning to expect the unexpected. I’m already strategizing how we can effectively stage a studio design class through “remote” means (while I clumsily finishing ARCH 272 yet this term). So I want to share a few thoughts: 1) my gratitude for your confidence — or abject sense of adventure — during your last year at NDSU by signing onto this experience [I note only three of you as familiar from earlier studios, probably 371]; 2) some thoughts on conducting “remote” studios; but most of all, 3) a little more information on the course and what I hope we can accomplish. I’ll address them in reverse order.

I understand full well that ARCH 771 runs parallel with Thesis Programming, which is likely to occupy proportionally more of your time than Fall semester studio; I’ve seen it happen again and again, though not with every student in every semester, but often enough to bring the topic up. Selfishly, the 2020-2021 academic year will be my last in the department (as it will also be yours), so I’m anxious to make the most of our opportunity to work together. But work toward what? you may well ask. That’s a reasonable question, given the one-page promo that Cindy circulated for your consideration. And from that you can guess that it will be history-based — whatever the hell that means — and linked with the long-term Agincourt Project. [Mr Gutowski has already ventured into that swamp several semesters ago; apparently this is an itch that needs scratching again. Good to see you, Mr G.]

NDSU’s architecture curriculum is a cumulative experience; each year builds on the previous, adds to your knowledge base, while increasing complexity, comprehensiveness, and sophistication. You’ve already figured that out. What I’m asking you to do is another thing altogether, since it involves “forgetting” or putting aside some information and taking on some that will be new, even unfamiliar.

I’ve found personally that a good way to understand what I know is to put myself in a situation where I’m not supposed to know it. In this case, we will be working in time periods earlier than our own and trying to understand the conditions which operated there and then. Case in point: the Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) was passed by Congress in 1990. So by designing for, say, the WWI years circa 1915, it won’t apply to you, and in the process you may become more aware of its meaning and intention. By not having to meet its standards, i.e., forgetting it, you may have a heightened appreciation for the societal issue Congress will try to address seventy-five years in that future. [Something similar might also be said if our altered frame of reference were set today but in, say, Botswana or Thailand, places with cultural norms we aren’t used to and may not understand.]

“What’s past is prologue” —William Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

The overall goal for the Fall semester is twofold: #1) immersing ourselves in one project (type to be negotiated) in a late 19th or early 20th century context. Research both the building type and its historical context exactly as you would any studio design exercise and proceed accordingly. Try to be true to both the aesthetic and other circumstances of that context [which may vary among you] and, as I’m inclined to say, play in the sandbox of history. It may well be that some of my colleagues, past and present, see this as a waste of time. I do not; otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting yours. Frankly, I don’t have that much time left to invest poorly myself.

Goal #2 for the semester involves bringing the Agincourt Project to some state of “completion” and adapting it as a website. Thankfully, we will have a computer specialist to guide that process. And I suspect all of us will benefit from that.

The second of my initial three points — running a “remote” studio — is likely to involve a lot of give and take between and among us, more even than a traditional studio or laboratory might. Why? Because working in another time frame and its aesthetic sense necessitates understanding a different set of design principles (scale, proportion, balance, solid-void relationships, color, and especially ornament), not to mention older and more conservative (but not necessarily less sophisticated) structural systems. You’ll find, I think, that there will be a set of defaults operating which will make the process easier than it might sound right now. But doing this remotely is something I’ve not attempted before.

And because you will be working within a century-old set of circumstances — I’d say anywhere from ca1880 to ca1950 — the computer ought not play a role (other than background research). So, perhaps, my most challenging request is asking you to draw, initially in pencil and then in ink, throughout design development and presentation. To get a taste of what this looks like, I invite you to visit the Architecture Library [if/when conditions for actually doing that are determined, given social distancing] and inspect the collection of drawings displayed there. They’re intended to be inspirational rather than daunting.

Now, will you ever be asked to do this in a professional setting? Probably not. But will this experience contribute to your arsenal of skills? I hope so; I genuinely believe so. Which brings me to the first of my three points: This expression of faith for what I’m proposing and your willingness to venture with me into uncharted territory. Thanks for that. [I know my way around there a little and can help you find yours.]

If this hasn’t scared the crap out of you — which is not my intention — I hope you’ll email me during the summer with questions, concerns, and/or insights. All I ask, really, is that you engage this process sincerely and seriously as we play in that aforementioned sandbox of history.

Archilocus tells us that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα” (The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing). May you all may be foxes.

Regards,

Ron Ramsay

“Time is a game played beautifully by children.”
― Heraclitus, Fragments

 

Narrative Research

This morning sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 I began a letter to my sister. One of those why-am-I-here-what-am-I-doing missives that go way beyond the bounds of sibling responsibility. It’s in the fine print on your birth certificate. Such things are way beyond the ken. My mid-life crisis happened thirty-five years ago, anyway, so this fits in the “Age and Stage” category. I’ll share part of it here, because it pertains to Agincourt. Doesn’t everything?

It’s just possible I am one of the lest well-educated college professors within a goodly radius. Which is to say, I have a job for which I was ill-prepared but didn’t fully understand the implications of that at the time of hiring: I am tasked with teaching architectural history, but am neither an architect nor an historian. And so I have, as they say, grown into the job during the last forty-nine years. It’s worth noting that in the current academic environment, I’m totally unqualified to apply for the job I’m paid to do. If I were doing it poorly, they’d have brought it to my attention, don’t you think?

My evolution in higher education goes something like this: Graduating from high school in 1963, I set out to become an architect. Growing up in greater Chicago, that might have been inevitable — seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple before the age of eight; hanging out in Chicago neighborhoods (where I ought not to have been) in search of obscure early buildings by Wright, Louis Sullivan, and other less well-known figures in the Chicago School — so I set out in the fall of that year to the University of Oklahoma, where the philosophy was “organic”, and also had the benefit of being 800 miles from “the breast, the nest, and all the rest”. During my seven-year stint in a five-year program (do the math), it was obvious that I would have become an exceptionally bad architect, not in the sense of technical ineptitude or poor artistic judgment, but from the standpoint of architecture as a profession requiring client contact, social savvy, and a keen business sense. I possess none of those skills.

Part of the undergraduate curriculum at OU required  ten semester credits of architectural history, four courses that were more than tolerable; they were downright enjoyable. I had also become aware of the then-new academic field of historic preservation and applied to the graduate program at Columbia University. If I wasn’t going to actually make architecture, I could at least preserve some that already existed. And to accomplish that, a foundation in architectural history was no bad thing. My current employment grew from such beginnings.

As an academic naif with no preparation for actual teaching — undergraduate architectural education provides several bad role models but no experience — I recall being literally pushed into my first classroom, where I clung to a draughting stool like a prop, fully prepared to defend myself with it should the students suddenly turn on me like the lions did on Johnny Weismuller’s B-grade movies from Saturday morning WGN TV. Hindsight offers no clear point when that classroom setting became comfortable; it never did, really. At least it doesn’t hurt.

SCHOOL DAYS

Who knows why I woke yesterday morning with the lyrics of “School Days” running through my head. If you’re younger than, say, fifty, you won’t know it:

School days, school days / Dear old golden rule days / Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic / Taught to the tune of the hickory stick / You were my queen in calico / I was your bashful barefoot beau / And you wrote on my slate, / “I love you, Joe” / When we were a couple of kids

Because a description of my life might be summarized as “reading and writing and rhetoric”. Though I’ve not done nearly enough of either the first or second and far too much of the third. So, in developing a game plan for what time remains, I am making a concerted effort to accomplish these goals:

  • #1—Read only those things that seem to contribute one way or another to the projects outlined in the points below. Recreational reading often turns out to be essential, while many of the books and articles I’ve tracked down, thinking they will solve every research issue, sometimes turn out to have been a waste of time.
  • #2—Prioritize my research agenda (don’t you love academic-esy sounding phrases like that?) and put my waning energy into the most important of them. Now determining “importance” is no easy task; what are the criteria for claiming that “The Episcopal Churches of Dakota Territory” are a greater contribution to scholarship than, say, “William Halsey Wood—American Gothic”? Somewhere in the mix, personal satisfaction must come into play; it has to feel good inside before it can benefit the outside.
  • #3—Write! Write like there is no tomorrow. Because one of these days there won’t be one. Elliott set the goal of writing 1,000 words each day. More important, it was a goal with a reward: he wouldn’t allow himself “a perk” until that 1K goal had been achieved. This also means having a means of showing progress: a timeline, a chart, a bar graph with daily performance recorded—and rewarded.
  • #4—Rhetoric. By which I mean teaching. In this “new normal”, the way the I’ve been a delivery system, a mechanism for information exchange, will obviously be different, and may challenge me in new ways—just as the shift from 35mm slides in carousel trays went the way of the T-Rex and I found myself in the Land of PowerPoint. And now even that seems to be shifting into technical areas beyond my (current) skill set. To be successful in this job, it will be necessary to “interact” with students differently, which does not mean the sacrifice of inter-personal contact—it seems to me. How will I identify those new ways and how will I assess their success?
  • #5—Bring the Agincourt Project to some sort of “fruition”. But I have no idea what that may entail.

And so I’m reading books and articles in the area of “narrative research” — “Narrative research is a term that subsumes a group of approaches that in turn rely on the written or spoken words or visual representation of individuals. These approaches typically focus on the lives of individuals as told through their own stories” — and learning a great deal about character and its development. After all, Agincourt would be merely a chess set of physical forms if there were not someone there to move them.

And once again I am off in a region unknown to me, a diversion from all those bulleted points above and an easy excuse for not fulfilling them.

John Edgar Platt [1886-1967]

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

PLATT, John Edgar [1886-1967]

“The Giant Stride”

1918

color woodcut in eight colors / 6 5/8 inches by 16 3/16 inches / xxi from an edition of 150

Perhaps Platt’s most iconic print, “The Giant Stride” is among the earliest additions to the collection’s foundation established in 1915. It and two other Platt works — “Building the Trawler” and “Pilchard Fishing, Cornwall” — comprise three of our finest works by one of its best known artists.