E. Easton Taylor [early 20th century]

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

TAYLOR, E. Easton (early 20th century)

Portrait of Sophia Iphigenia Tennant


gouache on heavy paper / 14.25 inches by 11.5 inches

This portrait of Sophie Tennant was recently found behind another far less interesting or significant painting. It has not yet been conserved, but despite all its folds and tears, Miss Tennant’s wistful smile still conveys a sense of dignity and grace. Sophie and her sister Phoebe were the unmarried siblings of A. J. Tennant and the aunts of architect Anson Tennant.

Edwardian artist E. Easton Taylor painted Miss Tennant in 1918.

Jeffrey Boys [contemporary]

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

BOYS, Jeffrey (contemporary)



oil on panel / 6 inches by 8 inches

With degrees from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia College of Art, and Indiana University [an MFA], Boys appears to have been active primarily in the ’80s and ’90s, when he painted this small work. “I like to paint something that will not be there five minutes later,” he says, and this snapshot of people on a beach conveys that immediacy. It has that in common with other works in the collection, especially two by Gabriel Spat, another much earlier impressionist.

“Beach” was a gift to the Community Collection in memory of Willis Fahnstock, a Fennimore county artist who had also attended PAFA a hundred years ago.

The Old Urbanism: how cities happened

It may come as no surprise that I am no fan of the so-called “New Urbanism”, especially as it has been defined by Seaside and Ave Maria in Florida. It may be unfair to judge the movement by those early example, but I invite you to visit them on Zillow, RedFin or some other real estate website and investigate the realities of property values.

Seaside was touted at its beginning as cross-cultural and inclusive — words I may be putting in New Urbanist mouths but which I have heard applied to it. The notion that the resident who strolls to the city center for a burger at the Malt Shoppe will be served by a waitperson who lives in the apartment upstairs is ludicrous. Those residents will have come from a single-family detached home on a single-lane residential street that is appraised at something between $1.5 and $2.8 million [i.e., a monthly mortgage payment between $6K and $10K]. Meanwhile that person slinging burgers had better be making a bundle in tips: their second-floor condo is valued at just shy of $1M, with a monthly mortgage of $3.5K. The reality is that everyone staffing the dry cleaner, the bank, or the post office may very well live in a trailer park ten miles down the road. New Urbanism is trickle-down economics. But, remember, these observations are coming from a Marxist.

There is much to recommend a return to the aesthetic of small-town America; what is depicted in films like “The Truman Show” and “Pleasantville” or episodes of “Twilight Zone” that I’ve mentioned in the section here called “Additional Reading and Viewing.” One of the issues inherent in those paradigms is the unapologetic absence of diversity: Seaside or Ave Maria are not places to seek out “the other.” Returning to Smallville will not make America greater; it will simply make it whiter.

Agincourt #3

I invoke the New Urbanist agenda as preface to an idea for the third iteration of an Agincourt exhibit. In retrospect I wonder whether this ten-year-long experiment may not have touched upon at least a few principles of the Old Urbanism — the situation that got us in this fix in the first place.

At 4:oo a.m. today I settled on that topic of urbanism [spellcheck does not like that word] and a revisitation of the early phases of the project and an exploration of the principles that may have underlain it. So imagine if you will an October exhibit titled “The Old Urbanism: how cities happened” and its late 19th and early 20th century context.

Elbert Peets, Werner Hegemann, Charles Mulford Robinson, et al.

Messrs Hegemann and Peets published in 1922 The American Vitruvius: An Architect’s Handbook of Civic Art, a seminal work on civic design in America. Peets had served as an engineer-planner in the U.S. Army during WWI and subsequently expanded his knowledge through a traveling scholarship that allowed him to investigate various European capitals in 1920. His collaboration with Hegemman had begun in 1916 (before our entry to the war) and continued post-1919, resulting in the joint authorship of American Vitruvius.

Charles Mulford Robinson, on the other hand, had died three years prior to the Hegemann-Peets volume. He was untrained academically and entered the field of planning by the side door, through a career in journalism. Robinson had written a guidebook to the Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World’s Fair, a landmark event at the beginning of the City Beautiful movement. On the basis of that work  and the publication in 1901 of The Improvement of Towns and Cities, possibly America’s first guide to city planning. I haven’t investigated what influence, if any, he may have had on Hegemann-Peets.

Insofar as the American Midwest is concerned, Robinson had a more direct influence here, having received commission from St Joseph, Missouri, Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Stillwater, Minnesota for planning reports that applied City Beautiful principles to modest communities in Middle America. Proposals for Colorado Spring and as far as Honolulu followed prior to his death in 1917.

Frank Lloyd Wright would never had admitted any knowledge of C. M. Robinson, but his son Lloyd’s design for the Los Angeles Civic Center owes much to Robinson’s influence.

Los Angeles Civic Center proposal / Lloyd Wright, architect

So where does this leave me? It outlines a good deal of required study and analysis: What if any were the ideas that influenced the appearance and growth of America’s smaller towns and cities? And what role might they have played in the creation of Agincourt? Peets, Hegemann, Robinson and a handful of others were not unknown to me throughout these past dozen years; their influence had to have been subliminal.

De Bijenkorf (1.1)

Mappa Mundi

Block E-1, Original Townsite, Agincourt, IA / circa 1925

Several areas in Agincourt are “detailed” in maps of this sort. They tended to grow organically and may not actually represent that neighborhood at a single point in time. Cities are like the palimpsest of the Middle Ages: a sheep skin inscribed with message after message, each scraped away to use it for another.

The texture of the city is set in its townsite plan, the pattern of streets and alleys, the grain of lot sizes and orientation. You can see it here: east-west running commercial lots (25 by 140 feet) would be far easier to sell than those running north-south. Why, you ask? Come visit Fargo some time and chart the vacancy rate for commercial space that faces north: I’ll bet they have a far higher turnover rate and command lower rents than those lots facing virtually any other direction. So Broad Streets commercial lots avoid a northerly orientation. In fact, so do most of the residential blocks — though there are exceptions in the T-blocks related to school sites.

The three 25-foot lots at the northeast corner were typical two-story late Victorian store fronts: shops with an upper floor of rental offices for the professions (law, medicine, dentistry, etc.). There is no guarantee of uniformity in floor heights or architectural details. So as the de Bijenkorf foothold at the corner allowed them to acquire adjacent stores as their business grew. By 1920 they occupied about 18,000 square feet on two floors — allowing a rectangular light well at the center for stairs and just a hint of big-city style.

Variations in second floor levels can be accommodated with stairs and ramps — a freight elevator is likely, but not one for passengers, I suspect (though I’ve drawn one here). But then there is the matter of harmonizing the disparate brick façades. That’s why the prosperous 20s are a good bet for this renovation: #1) strong economic conditions and #2) snazzy terracotta units to clad the exterior with Art Deco style. That is also why I was so happy to run into the Delmar–DeBaliviere Building in St Louis and its remarkable adaptation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “textile block” houses in Southern California. Isadore Shank was a figure unfamiliar to me but I think he’s given me “an out.”

Delmar—De Baliviere Bldg., St Louis, MO / Isadore Shank, archiect

Het Scheepvaarthuis, Amsterdam / John van der Mey, architect (1913-1916; 1926-1928)


And you can also see why stylistic connections with the Netherlands are very likely.

De Bijenkorf

Our second AFS foreign exchange high school student was Tjipke, a very Frisian name from the north of the Netherlands. At some point during his eleven months in Fargo, I asked what was in hindsight an embarrassingly silly question.

During each of my visits to Amsterdam, I’ve visited it fine department store, De Bijenkorf, on the Dam in the heart of the city. De Bijenkorf is much like Selfridge’s in London or Nordstrom’s in the U.S. It turns out that the Dutch chain of stores is owned by the same holding company that operates Selfridge and similar chains in Ireland and Canada. What was my silly question, you ask? I asked Tjipke was de Bijenkorf meant, assuming that it wasn’t a family name and might be something akin to Seattle’s Bon Marche (which translates “cheap” or “economical”). Tjipke’s expression was just short of patronizing: “It means ‘the beehive'”, he said.

Agincourt’s department store bears that name (simply because I like it) because it was founded by a Dutch family of merchants, the van der Rijns, I felt comfortable with that origin, there being so many Nederlanders in Iowa: Pella is a Dutch community and I also knew from former NDSU student Steve Varenhorst that there was a department store in Storm Lake of similar origin — if memory serves, which it doesn’t always. The van der Rijn family were contributed to the mix by Mark Roelofs, another SU student in the first Agincourt seminar.

De Bijenkorf

Not much has been set other than its original owners and a site on South Broad street just opposite the Square. Mark and I sketched out a likely scenario which involved an initial twenty-five foot wide building that would grow through time the include three mismatched Victorian buildings that would eventually have to be unified inside (to rectify differing floor levels) and outside (to blend what were presumably buildings in three different styles).

Presumably the van der Rijns were familiar with the namesake chain of stores in the Netherlands, regardless of their year of emigration. Not only was De Bijenkorf a high quality retailer, it also relied on the best that contemporary architecture could provide. Dutch Modernists like Michel De Klerk and Piet Kramer contributed to that corporate image:

De Bijenkorf Department Store, The Hague / Piet Kramer, architect (1926)

It’s interesting that there was a near contemporary architect in St Louis, Isadore Shank, who used remarkably similar materials to achieve effects that are almost “Amsterdam School” in appearance. There is a modest commercial complex at the corner of Delmar and DeBaliviere clad in terra cotta panels that knocked my socks off when I stumbled on the building several years ago and wanted as much background as possible:

Imagine a veneer of these unifying three dissimilar store fronts at the corner of Broad Street and Agincourt Avenue.

[#1000, a landmark]

Drama Therapy (1.something)

The first task in realizing Reinhold Kölb’s drama therapy is the playhouse” itself. Two examples come to mind: #1) Frank Lloyd Wright’s puppet theatre for his children and those of Mrs Cheney; and #2) Radio City Music Hall. The first is chronologically wrong (circa 1914, long before Kölb’s arrival in the community), while the second is temporally better suited but totally out of scale. Is there a median here?

Puppet Theatre designed circa 1914 / Frank Lloyd Wright

Radio City Music Hall (1932) / Edward Durrell Stone (architect) and Donald Deskey (interiors)

Some of the earlier entries connected with Reinhold Kölb can be found here and here. Jim (a.k.a. Seamus) Tierney is “Ghost of Christmans Past” #19.

Agincourt Redux…again

“A meeting of two: eye to eye, face to face.
And when you are near I will tear your eyes out
and place them instead of mine,
and you will tear my eyes out
and will place them instead of yours,
then I will look at me with mine.”

[and see me for the first time.]
― Jacob Levy Moreno

Last weekend while at my volunteer post at a local museum, the director casually asked when the next Agincourt exhibit might be expected. Frankly, the thought had never entered my mind: despite my own enthusiastic engagement with the ongoing project, it had never occurred to me that any of the visitors to either of the two exhibits (2007 and 2015) could possibly muster the strength for another bout. The seed safely planted, it took just a couple days to send out some tendrils.

Among the many undeveloped ideas for wither of the previous exhibits, there was one for a puppet theatre, or more properly, marionette. The story line involves Dr Reinhold Kölb’s clinic Walden Retreat, southeast of town along the banks of Crispin Creek. Among the good doctor’s innovative therapeutic techniques was one adapted from the psychodrama therapy of his former Viennese colleague Jacob Levy Moreno. Kölb’s spin on the technique was to combine puppet theatre (marionettes, actually) and aspects of Japanese Noh plays, at least insofar as they can be understood and adapted by Westerners unfamiliar with Japanese culture and language. I had thought to make a puppet stage for the 2015 exhibit but, like so many ideas for which I lack an appropriate skill set, it went like snow on water. Perhaps with a new fire built beneath me (and some woodshop experience), Kölb’s experiment will finally take physical form.

To pull this off, I have to undertake several unfamiliar tasks:

  1. Designing and building a stage and, presumably, some of the necessary scenery;
  2. Constructing marionettes and their costumes (Do you think Mr Vandervort will buy into this nonsense?);
  3. And, naturally, write the play that would have been acted out by several of Dr Kölb’s “guests”.

Wish me luck. And don’t hold your breath.

PS: Since we don’t yet have a photo of Dr Kölb, do you think it would be kosher to borrow one of his friend Levy Moreno?


PS: The story thus far:

The interconnectedness of Agincourt’s stories provided an opportunity to link Dr Kölb with another character, Jim Tierney¹, eventual director of Agincourt’s theatre company. It was one of the last of these performances that convinced the your Tierney to pursue a career in the dramatic arts.

Kölb’s methods worked like this: Each patient at Walden will develop a character — who might be themselves, someone they know (a family member or authority figure), possibly a stranger, or a mythical being not even necessarily a human being — an avatar of sorts, through whom they would express their situation (i.e., condition; they reason they’ve come to Walden) and interact with others. With Kölb’s guidance in group therapy sessions and individual counseling, the story line will develop, each participant effectively being a therapist for the others [“and when you are near I will tear your eyes out and place them instead of mine…”]. Then, while the script develops, each player builds a puppet/marionette, as well as its costume, and learns the rudiments of puppetry. It is easier to speak in public through the mouth of another, just as it is to see through their eyes.

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” – Carl Jung. [I suspect it also works the other way.]

¹ Jim Tierney, by the way, is a thinly veiled inclusion of an actual person probably known to most of those who read this blog.