Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

J. Lyman Silsbee and the APL

A FaceBook friend just posted an image of J. Lyman Silsbee’s 1906 building for the Gary Land Company, in Gary, Indiana. I invoked Silsbee’s name here long, long ago as someone who had designed one of his signature Shingle Style houses in Agincourt for the Tennant family. And who also influenced the choice of career for young Anson Tennant, who went on to design the Agincourt Public Library. I hadn’t thought about Silsbee’s non-Shingle Style work until Gregory Jenkins, AIA, posted this image from a Silsbee focused website:

What struck me immediately was the configuration: 1) two commercial fronts on the building’s short side, facing what is presumably a major thoroughfaire, are prime rental; 2) a public entrance to what is presumably a lobby giving access to office suites on the second floor is located half way along the “side” elevation; and 3) tertiary rental space is situated at the far end of the long elevation, again presumably of lesser rental value. I only point this out because the Anson Tennant design for the 1915 APL has exactly the same organization. Notice how Tennant’s plan (i.e., mine) coincides:

Not certain whether to feel validated, vindicated, or embarrassed.

And then I remembered a building here in Fargo, one that I walk past several times a week, which was one of the first rebuilt after the Great Fargo Fire of 1894: the I.O.O.F. building, better know today as the Hotel Donaldson. The HoDo was designed by Minneapolis architects Orff & Joralemon. But the more likely culprit was a the person whose name appears on the rendering: Albert Levering.

Levering is a curious character in regional architectural history, someone who was for a brief period thought to have been merely the pseudonym for another better-known architect-designer Harvey Ellis. [That’s a story in an of itself and deserves to be told here another time.] What few people know is that the Neo-Classical design that was constructed wasn’t the only proposal; the client had a choice of two and, frankly, I wish they’d chosen the other. You decide:

I.O.O.F. Building, Fargo, ND (scheme A) / Orff & Joralemon (Albert Levering) / 1894

I.O.O.F. Building, Fargo, ND (scheme B) / Orff & Joralemon (Albert Levering) / 1894

So you see what I mean. Fargo’s I.O.O.F. is, like the Silsbee design in Gary, IN of twelve years later, a two-story 50-by-140 box with exactly the same composition, which, I submit, is a very typical configuration for a mixed use building on a prominent street corner. The bottom line for me is that Anson Tennant’s scheme for the APL of 1914-1915 may have been unorthodox for a Carnegie-era library, but it was old hat for the hybrid type it represents.

Vroomfondel & Majikthise

In Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Vroomfondel and Majikthise represent the philosopher’s union and object to Deep Thought, the organic computer created to calculate the answer to the ultimate question of life, the university, and everything. “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty,” they protested, standing their academic ground as the machine is about to be set upon the task which will ultimately eliminate their jobs.

Forty-eight and one-half years into my academic career, I find myself awash in an ocean of doubt and uncertainty, on several counts:

  • Why do I continue to do this, when each semester my grasp on the subject (architecture) seems less distinct and more tenuous?
  • Does my “teaching” help would-be architects understand the fundamentals of what will be their professional life?
  • Do I even know WTF architecture is anymore—even if I thought I might have at the outset of this gig?

You see where this is going, don’t you.

pawson chapel 04

How do you measure success as a teacher? “SROI” is an acronym that strikes fear into untenured faculty. It means “Student Rating of Instruction”, feedback collected from students at the end of each semester; careers can me made or broken by these numbers, which are imprecise because they depend on how many responses there were, which students were motivated to respond, and where the feedback came in the schedule of tests and quizzes. In forty-nine years, I’ve seen these methods come and go and depend on other anecdotal means for my own peace of mind.

Saint Ahab’s R.C. Church

QUESTION: “What’s the most difficult task for a Communist historian?”

ANSWER: “To predict the past.”

Don’t ask me where I read this. It was a Soviet-era joke, I suspect, playing on the notion that the past is shaped by the historian to account for whatever the future slings at us; through reshaping the past, we can unfolding events inevitable. Historians don’t write about the past; they actually write it.

Strangely, Agincourt works pretty much that way, for me at least, since I have the power to imagine the community’s Roman Catholic church, Christ the King, which was built in 1950-1951, without knowing the two buildings that had preceded it. I have, indeed, described the original R.C. parish, Saint Ahab, built about 1862, without actually conceiving the intermediate building which stood from the ’90s until it was replaced by the current church. And even then, I described the first of those three sequential buildings in only the most suggestive language, because I can’t tell you what it looks like, only what it feels like.

Push often does come to shove. And that time has come to show the rest of you what I see dimly in my mind’s myopic eye. The original Saint Ahab’s was implied (more than actually shown) in a piece titled “In hoc signo vinces” in December 2010, very early in the blog’s history.

The church Father Manning conceived grew from childhood experience on the western coast of Ireland; in a fishing village well acquainted with scavenged building materials, the jetsam washed ashore from maritime mishaps. Even now, ten years after that entry, I still have only the vaguest of images in mind: some bizarre hybrid, the illegitimate offspring of a Finnish chapel of 2004 and an eccentric Midwestern house of 1961:

Can you see it? I’m beginning to.

Pictor Ignotus [ca1920]

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

MIN<unreadable> (ca1920)

“Magere Brug” / Skinny Bridge

oil on wood panel / 8.75 inches by 12.75 inches

ca1920

A bridge has been at that site in Amsterdam since 1691, though the current iteration was built almost two hundred years later. It may be one of the most photographed of the city’s five hundred spans in the center city alone. This late impressionist sketch was painted about 1920 by an artist whose signature cannot yet be read.

magere brug 02.jpg

The painting is on loan to the Collection from the van der Rijn family, owners of the Bijenkorf Department Store.

 

The ancient Greeks had no word for religion!

In her book The Parthenon Enigma, author Joan Breton Connelly resolves a good deal of my ignorance.

One of the remarkable things about ignorance, perhaps the most remarkable thing, is that you don’t realize just how much you’ve got. To become informed, that realization is necessary.

The crux of Connelly’s argument is an explanation for the frieze which once ran around the upper wall of the Parthenon’s cella — until the English ran away with it. [PS: The Greeks want it back.] Many interpretations of the frieze have been offered, several so contradictory you’d think they cancelled one another out, but none of them especially satisfying.

I probably bought the book because its publication caused much consternation in the academic community — no bad thing in art history, science, or any academic discipline, for that matter. So I began reading in the middle, to encounter the substance of her argument, and then went back to the beginning and plowed my way through to the end. Not being an exceptionally good reader, I’m at it again. And, who knows, Dr Connelly may not have seen the last of me.

This isn’t the sort of book you casually recommend to friends, though I may change my mind. After all, she changed mine.

In one of the bracketing chapters, she contextualizes the Parthenon as the center, the focus, of what it meant to be an Athenian (Athenonai), relating the Acropolis to the four Panhellenic sacred sites¹ — Olympus, Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea — where there is a coïncidence of four necessary, mutually-contributory aspects, no one of which can be considered apart from the others: a hero’s tomb, a temple, a festival built around those two, and a foundational myth. Even the Acropolis at Athens makes considerably more sense within this framework, though it is not one of the sites sacred in that same way. And so, in relieving me of a little of the ignorance I’ve borne these may years, I inevitably wonder what all this could mean for Agincourt.

Is there somewhere in the broad-brush panoramic view of Agincourt a place where physical elements coincide with social ritual and reflect, through intent or accident, some aspect of the community’s founding myth? Let me ponder this and get back to you.²

¹ The “festival” at each site consisted of athletic games dedicated to the deity associated there: Olympic Games to honor Zeus; Pithian Games at Delphi to honor Apollo; Isthmian Games to honor Poseidon; and Nemean Games to honor Zeus

² My gut reaction? The cemetery chapel at Saint Ahab’s, where there is indeed a coïncidence:

  • A TEMPLE: The former Saint Ahab’s church, which had been used as a temporary place of worship at Grou, before a final relocation as the cemetery’s chapel
  • A HERO’S TOMB: When Fr Manning’s body was discovered during construction of Christ the King, is was ceremoniously reburied beneath the chapel floorboards, the very chapel the priest had built ninety years before
  • A FESTIVAL: Each subsequent funeral conducted there reminds the community of, not only one of its earlier and most energetic and innovative citizens, but also…
  • A FOUNDING MYTH: A reminder of the tolerance for difference (of person, point-of-view, or principle) that has been an aspect of the community since its founding — despite recent expressions to the contrary.

Cobbling

cobble

[ kobuh l ]

verb (used with object), cob·bled, cob·bling.

1. to mend (shoes, boots, etc.); patch.
2. to put together roughly or clumsily.

 

With regard to Agincourt, the second definition applies. There are certainly places where my handling of the place has been rough and tumble. But the interesting aspect of the project is this: “history” can be “corrected”, as is the case with the Linn & Smith shoe repair shop in an as-yet-undiscovered location.

This delightful image has no identifying information, no postmark, not even the name of the photographer (since this is a “real photo” card, it may have been reproduced in very limited supply). The shop is obviously situated on what urbanologists would call a “gore corner”, an acute-angled street intersection, which you’d think would narrow the field. Well, not yet. But in the meantime, while I search for information, I’m also salivating at the prospect of adapting it for Agincourt. This is just too handsome, both as a building and as a photographic image, to let it get away.

Until today, I’d never thought of myself as a cobbler.

Can you behave like a Christian without being one?

David Ignatius’ editorial in today’s Washington Post offers his insight to the absence of civil discourse today and posits a solution. It began the morning Jerry Falwell saw a newspaper headline announcing the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade. At that moment, for Falwell, at least, the goal of Evangelical Christianity was no longer the saving of souls; it had become the amassing of power. There may be other ways to explain the teflon presidency, but this satisfies me, as a convicted binarist. [I don’t think that’s a word.] I’m an Either-Or kind of guy. Sometimes Neither-Nor. But never Both–And.

How else to credibly explain Mitch McConnell or Lindsay Graham, among others, about to swear on the book they  profess to hold above all others that they will seek justice, despite their baser instincts. Both have prejudged the Senate trial a sham whose decision has already been written and merely awaits its moment of publication — as if it hadn’t already been. Which for me poses the question, How can they call themselves Christians?  Their every action suggests otherwise. Every community is peopled with those bearing Christian witness, while ignoring the testimony of scripture, which outlines in great and, as far as I can tell, abundant clarity the message articulated by Jesus while he was with us, leaving aside the matter of where he may have gone and whether he might return. I can distinguish the message from the messenger and accept its merit without assigning the label of “Truth”.

If, as seems apparent today, it’s possible to claim the label of “Christian”, yet act contrary to those beliefs I was taught as a child — which substantially “took”, I think — then it must also be true that there are those among us who act like Christians without actually intending to, because they either deny the label or have not yet heard its “good news”.

The question, “So what of Agincourt?” might be left unanswered. “Agincourt? So what?” Or I might newly entertain notions of Christianity as both label and practice and their four possible combinations, as they walk the streets of my fictional place and interact with all the zeal that we are capable.

By the way, the original title for this entry used the word “act”, which on reflection implies theater, playing a role, rather than behaving, which is what I had intended.

The Ephebic Oath

“Οὐ καταισχυνῶ τὰ ὅπλα τὰ ἱερὰ, οὐδ’ ἐγκαταλείψω τὸν παραστάτην ὅτῳ ἂν στοιχήσω· ἀμυνῶ δὲ καὶ ὑπὲρ ἱερῶν καὶ ὁσίων καὶ μόνος καὶ μετὰ πολλῶν. καὶ τὴν πατρίδα οὐκ ἐλάσσω παραδώσω, πλείω δὲ καὶ ἀρείω ὅσης ἂν παραδέξωμαι. καὶ εὐηκοήσω τῶν ἀεὶ κραινόντων ἐμφρόνως καὶ τοῖς θεσμοῖς τοῖς ἰδρυμένοις πείσομαι καὶ οὕστινας ἂν ἄλλους τὸ πλῆθος ἰδρύσηται ὁμοφρόνως·καὶ ἂν τις ἀναιρῇ τοὺς θεσμοὺς ἢ μὴ πείθηται οὐκ ἐπιτρέψω, ἀμυνῶ δὲ καὶ μόνος καὶ μετὰ πολλῶν. καὶ ἱερὰ τὰ πάτρια τιμήσω. ἵστορες τούτων Ἄγλαυρος, Ἐνυάλιος, Ἄρης, Ζεύς, Θαλλώ, Αὐξώ, Ἡγεμόνη.” — The Ephebic Oath as preserved by Stobaeus

Learning the Pledge of Allegiance was probably my introduction to civic notions of “patriotism”, though that word had not yet become part of my vocabulary. Within a year or two, though, when we got our first television, I distinctly recall news coverage of the hearings by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The senator had made unsubstantiated claims of the army and the government itself being riddled with Communists. And I also recall watching (kinescopes rather than live coverage, I suppose) the now famous exchange between attorney Joseph Welch and the senator: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

At age nine I didn’t know what to make of that. In hindsight I should have been more concerned about the Boys Club leader Verle B***** who was quietly accused of molestation. Perhaps I wasn’t his type. But neither did I comprehend what Communism was nor why we had to root it out. Though we eventually studied small-C communism in civics class — when did those disappear from school curricula, by the way? — any awareness of Patriotism was learned by osmosis, I guess.

During the 1960s (my coming of age) “love of country” was a hotly contested issue and remains so today, as we find remarkably different and often contradictory ways of expression. How do you suppose Archers (the name for anyone from Agincourt; it’s a history thing) are divided on the topic? They are, after all, in the center of the 7th Congressional District, Steve King’s turf.

All this came to mind when I chanced upon something called the Ephebic Oath, taken by young Athenian men at about the age of eighteen as a step in achieving citizenship. I found a wonderful (and mercifully brief) explication, not only its role in that process, but also contrasting it with our own time and practice; contrasting the positions between civic oaths and those for military service was especially interesting. Your Ancient Greek is probably as rusty as mine, so here is an English translation:

Alexander McAdie, The Ephebic Oath and Other Essays (San Francisco / 1903)

The Ephebic Oath

“I will not bring dishonour on my sacred arms nor will I abandon my comrade wherever I shall be stationed. I will defend the rights of gods and men and will not leave my country smaller, when I die, but greater and better, so far as I am able by myself and with the help of all. I will respect the rulers of the time duly and the existing ordinances duly and all others which may be established in the future. Furthermore, if anyone seeks to destroy the ordinances I will oppose him so far as I am able by myself and with the help of all. I will honor the cults of my fathers. Witnesses to this shall be the gods Agraulus, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalius, Ares, Athena the Warrior, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Heracles, and the boundaries of my native land, wheat, barley, vines, olive-trees, fig-trees…“

 

Myrtle Sheldon

Information accumulates in strange and wondrous ways. While searching for an image which had once illustrated the children’s stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (for his poem “The Land of Counterpane”) I stumbled upon the name of his illustrator: Myrtle Sheldon [1886-1941], about whom I had been ignorant. That’s the nice thing about ignorance: it can be fixed.

cropped-myrtle-sheldon.jpg

Ms Sheldon’s talent will appear on the masthead for at least a few days. But I’m certain others of her drawings will come to light and become embedded in the story.

Angevin Iowa

The Angevin Empire extended from the Pyrenees to Ireland. During the 12th and 13th centuries it was ruled by the Plantagenet dynasty of England (Henry II, Richard I, John and others) though some of its more interesting construction is found in western France, especially the town of Angers.

Structures from this place and time weren’t part of my undergraduate architectural history education — sorry Fred and Bill, I guess you had bigger fish to fry — so as I studied one of the church designs of William Halsey Wood (Mount Pleasant Baptist in Newark, no longer with us and a project in another context) and couldn’t quite put my finger on the signature masonry patterns of its tower, the Chateau d’Angers emerged from the undergraduate fog.

What I’m calling “Angevin masonry” is exemplified by the bastions at Angers but it can also be found some distance northeast in the Pays du Caux near the English Channel; I’m thinking particularly about the Manoir d’Auffay near the village of Oherville, where even more diverse kinds of masonry were used in even more aggressive patterns. There is no suggestion that Halsey Wood may have traveled to the continent but that surely doesn’t eliminate the possibility that he had seen examples of this distinctive constructive type published in books.

 

All of this falls in the category of “the way things work”, just me thinking out loud as the design of Fennimore county’s courthouse coalesces in my imagination. But even before I’ve had a chance to adapt these examples and apply them to Halsey Wood’s scheme for Agincourt, you can see where this is going. I hope.

03_746px-Austin_Hall,_Harvard_University