Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Agincourt’s early elevators…

I was born with a birth defect, a partial club foot that required special shoes and a nighttime brace that kept my feet spaced apart and pointed outward. I endured that shit for several years.

A couple times a year, my mother would take me to a foot specialist on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Other than a fluoroscope which revealed the bones in my feet in ghostly green, more vivid memories involved a ride on the “L” and second “ride” in the building elevators.

The elevators were grouped in banks of four or five, as I recall, in a large rectangular shaft lit from above or behind. Each elevator cab was an open grille-work box set next to other boxes which, as they passed one another going in opposite directions, made conversations wax and wane, and the counterweights and cables moved in contrary motion. Mesmerizing for a six-year-old and never equalled by the peas-in-a-bean-blower experience of newer, faster systems. What is mystical about stepping into a closet and having the door open somewhere else — unless you’re Dr Who.

Agincourt’s earliest passenger elevator was installed in the F+M+M Bank in 1908, which also boasted the city’s first revolving door. Each was a trap for ladies’ full skirts.

So the second elevator installation was unremarkable, except it only served the two library floors; that the equipment was located in the basement beneath it. I also suspect that the cab held one passenger at a time, and that children made nuisances of themselves treating it as a carnival ride until the novelty passed. Really, it was just an excuse for more metalwork in a remotely Sullivanesque style.

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


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.



[ 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.