A Brief History of the Community Collection
by Ellen Weise, PhD
with an Afterword by R.H.L.M. Ramsay
From its inception as the G.A.R. Exhibit of 1912, Agincourt’s civic art collection has been a small but vital part of our community history. Organized by Amity Burroughs Flynn as a one-time event — a showing of just twenty works of art gathered from private homes and local business — what has become the Community Collection boasts more than two hundred pieces and hosts an annual event of considerable pride and more than local interest.
The 1912 exhibit and social events connected with it proved so successful that another show was held two years later, and by 1915 participation had grown to such a degree that space was allocated in the new public library for a permanent gallery and reception room. Whether the Community Collection was its intended occupant can be inferred from the festivities surrounding the library’s opening in September 1915. That show in the new Tennant Memorial Gallery (dedicated as a testament to its young architect Anson Tennant) displayed forty works, double the number shown just three years previous; but here, too, the works were borrowed from local sources, what today we would call a “grass roots” expression of Agincourt’s cultural life.
It’s clear that by 1919 a permanent collection had evolved, though records from those early years are incomplete. Local lore hints that Mrs Flynn, still the guiding spirit, had cajoled a few of the early lenders to donate their art works from a combined sense of civic pride, vanity, and gentle coercion; she seems to have understood the definition of diplomacy as “the art of letting others have your way.” Whatever the underlying motives, a unique civic enterprise had been born, identified at the 1920 exhibition as the “Community Collection” and officially housed at the Public Library. Mrs Flynn’s guidance for nine critical years shifted to an oversight committee and remained a collaborative effort until 1950, when Ruth Arbogast became the first official Keeper of the Community Collection, a role and responsibility I have fulfilled since 2010.
In addition to the annual exhibit, the Keeper’s responsibilities have evolved to include the collection’s care and record-keeping, adding new works and researching those with incomplete documentation. When conservation is required, museums in Des Moines, Omaha, or Sioux City have provided those professional services, paid from an endowment that has kept pace with the collection’s numbers, growing at an average of just over two acquisitions per year since 1912.
When the new Fennimore County Public Library facility opened in 1970, the Collection became a 501(c)(3) charitable trust and negotiated a permanent home in the old library, a good neighbor to the commercial and professional activities elsewhere in the building. And beyond its use as a gallery for travelling exhibits and the Collection itself, the Tennant Memorial serves as a venue for weddings, receptions, meetings and other events compatible with its higher calling, fulfilling the Founders intentions more than a century ago.
At an event several years ago, someone (presumably unfamiliar with the collection) described it as “landscapes and livestock”, superficial but true enough, because there are so many bucolic pastoral scenes, many with safely-grazing sheep and cows, content ‘neath puffy clouds. We especially here in Iowa, are an agricultural people, so a philosophic and artistic connection with the land is natural. But why, then, in a place a thousand miles from an ocean, do seascapes constitute such a prominent type? One, so close, so familiar; the other, a faint recollection for the earliest settlers and others, even today, who’ve been to neither coast.
The breadth of genre (land-, sea-, and city-scapes, still lives, portraits, and abstractions), of media (paintings in oil and watercolor; pastel, ink, and pencil drawings; photographs and prints, but most of it two-dimensional); and of age and, therefore, of style are remarkable for a collection so unintentional. And that may be its greatest strength and source of interest: the Community Collection has had no single guiding vision, no articulate editorial point of view. The nearest approximation may be a form of Japanese poetry called a renga, probably unknown in the Edwardian Midwest of 1912:
renga (連歌, collaborative poetry) is a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry — poetry written by more than one author working together. A renga consists of at least two ku (句) or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku (発句), became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry.
Each new line of the poem is dependent upon, grows naturally from, what precedes it. And it is that spirit of organic growth which may have been the unintended pattern underlying our collection: each individual work may be considered in isolation, out of context, but it is the relationship between and among works that bring the collection to life. And because the entire collection cannot be displayed at one time, our ability choose, combine, and juxtapose works in various ways reveals something fresh each time they are shown. The curator’s job is magical.
BREADTH vs. DEPTH
It’s difficult for a collection of modest size (200-plus pieces) to enjoy both breadth and depth. Yet there are clusters of works here comparable in medium or subject which enable the sort of comparison revealed by depth. Multiple examples of woodblock prints, for example, in the Japanese style called ukiyo-e or “floating world”, were created in the 1920s by both native Japanese artists and by Europeans, especially British artists, who imitated Japanese style. Seeing them side-by-side explains much about our cultural differences and the ways that diverse societies interact.
By remarkable coincidence, there are also pairs of works by artists who not only knew but were friendly with one another. Exploration of their biographies and the circumstances which brought them together offers insight to the very process of creativity and illustrates who an artist is may be intimately linked with what an artist produces or how they go about their work. It was American artist-craftsman Elbert Hubbard who observed, “Art is not a thing, it is a way.”
SIMPLE vs. COMPLEX
Simple is not simplistic just as complex is not chaotic. Both have their proper place as characteristics in works of art and our appreciation for them. It is pattern and its detection which are common to these opposing ideas.
ART TELLS A TALE
“If we cannot tell a story about what happened to us, nothing has happened to us.”
Each work of art involves a story. It may have been intended by the artist. It may have been inferred by another, a critic, authority, or art historian. But equally likely and probably more important, the story may be drawn from the viewer. Something about the actors or actions within the work resonates, conjures reaction from the observer, brings to mind …
TALISMAN, TOUCHSTONE, METAPHOR
<a work in progress; come back soon>
Many of my research interests would be crippled without the world of postcards. You might be surprised, shocked even, to realize that as I write this entry there are 3,725,395 postcard offers at “the on-line auction site that dare not speak its name”. And several of those offers are for multiple cards, so we can safely assume that there are more than four million cards up for auction right now.
Given the number of postcards available, there simply isn’t enough time to review all that might be of interest, so I’ve had to develop search skills that hone the number down to something remotely manageable. But even within those limits, the range is daunting. Consider this group of offers showing an urban fire on Wabash Avenue in Chicago:
The prices of these five range from $3.97 to $19.95, for essentially the same card.
See what I’m up against?
And PS: I can’t even estimate the number of times I’ve walked that block of North Wabash. the Morris Book shop was at #24 and I think it was Colby Furnishings next door. The storefront on the far right says “Remington”, as in typewriters.
Among the unsung contributors to early 20th century residential design — overshadowed by his near contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright — Lawrence Buck may have had as much public recognition during the years 1900-1920 as his more renowned Chicago colleague. Born just two years apart, Buck died in 1929, while Wright lived another thirty years, sufficient time to add considerable luster to his reputation. I’m a Chicagoan, too, and inclined to honor the also-rans of architectural history — not those who finished as win, place, or show, but who simply finished the race — and find considerable interest in Buck.
Born in New Orleans in 1865, Buck studied art with his father, a well-known painter of romantic moss-draped landscapes, but entered the architectural profession when his mother was widowed. Following a few years of early practice in Birmingham, Alabama, Buck and his employer-partner John Sutcliffe relocated to Chicago during the late 1890s, where he maintained a small office and supplemented his income as the delineator-for-hire for other architects. I became aware of his work when a house of Buck’s design showed up in a survey of pre-WWI North Dakota buildings. By what means did a Chicago practitioner get a commission at the edge of the known universe? Answering that question has led me a merry chase.
Followers of the Agincourt blog will know that Buck designed three houses in the community, each of them plausible and an opportunity for me to play in the design sandbox of history:
- the substantial home for Aidan and Cordelia Archer at 108 N.E. Agincourt Avenue
- a far more modest home for school principal Miss Rose Kavana, and
- an actual Buck design replicated from his Ladies Home Journal scheme of about April 1908
Two of these are my effort to “channel” Buck’s design idiom. But their inspiration has come from a survey of Buck work in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, California, both Dakotas, and, most significantly, in Iowa. I present for your consideration the substantial home in Cedar Rapids for John Ely (above) — sadly destroyed several years ago to make room for an apartment complex.
If memory serves (which it does far less reliably these days), there were six Lawrence Buck houses in Iowa at one time, all of them dating from about 1905-1910, three in Cedar Rapids and another three in Dubuque. Of those, the house called “Four Mounds” at Dubuque was even larger.
I’m not, by the way, trying to make a case that Lawrence Buck was an architect of comparable talent to Mr Wright; his work is far more modest and of a decidedly more English Arts & Crafts character. But for those very reasons, I find him a wonderful case study in the nature of residential design a hundred years ago and also the mechanisms for regional architectural practice.
Among the most useful historical sources, in my experience, is the city directory. During the 19th century they were published with regularity — annually, sometimes every other year — a snapshot of the community, as much as the U.S. Census, though preserving different information. I’ve wanted to produce an Agincourt directory, not all of it, but just enough to illustrate my point. For several reasons I chose 1912, the first year that Anson Tennant would have advertised his services as the community’s resident architect.
Many of you may know that the U.S. Census for 1890 was stored at the Library of Congress, but unfortunately most of it was destroyed by fire. Because the census is so important in genealogical work, companies like Ancestry.com began to compensate by microfilming city directories between 1880 and 1900 to compensate. Initially, only large cities like Chicago were scanned but gradually other cities and towns were added to that database. I think it may be safe to say that for a state like Iowa, most published directories are available.
So, I consulted the 1915 directory for Fort Dodge (a city I mistakenly thought to be representative) and found it to have been published by the R.L. Polk Co., established in 1870 and still active; their format became the model for the Midwest and beyond. I’d prefer that Agincourt’s be a local production, however, so I’ll have to check other Iowa cities to find how pervasive the Polk presence may have been.
Here is a fairly typical page from the classified section, showing the several architects serving Fort Dodge and its hinterlands. Presumably they’d have poached in Agincourt, as well. “architects & Superintendents”, by the way, represented a wide variety of professional ability, ranging from services we’d recognize today as “architectural”, but it would also have included skills more akin to contracting and construction supervision; Iowa didn’t require professional licensure until 1926.
Using Fort Dodge as a template is problematic because the city’s population increased dramatically between 1900 and 1910, perhaps representing the untypical presence of the U.S. Army. So I may have to find another city like Storm Lake. More as the story develops, including a company profile for N&H and the identities of its management.
“In suburban communities, McMansion is a pejorative term for a large ‘mass-produced’ dwelling, constructed with low-quality materials and craftsmanship, using a mishmash of architectural symbols to invoke connotations of wealth or taste, executed via poorly imagined exterior and interior design.” — Wikipedia
Somewhere on the edge of Agincourt, perhaps within sight of the urban fringe, there is likely to be an example of the late 20th century species called the McMansion. The southern outskirts of my own city has several, most of them interchangeable with their cousins across America. Products of the housing boom of the ’80s and ’90s, fewer were built after the market crash around 2008. Several websites are watching as these architectural dinosaurs reach an age when normal deferred maintenance will require a new roof, re-windowing, or energy updating. Let the fun begin.
To learn more, I recommend a visit to McMansion Hell or Homes of the Rich; the latter currently features a 24,000 monstrosity in Indiana. Here is one of my favorites, simply because it is the “weekend” home of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (annotated for your amusement):
I’ve been reminiscing this week about the trip a friend and I made of the British Isles last year. Yes, we necessarily visited a few houses of the 19th and early 20th century rich-and-famous, places like “Blackwell” on the shore of Lake Windermere or “Hillhouse” in the distant Glasgow suburb of Helensburgh. And, yes, these homes are almost obscenely large for single-family occupancy. Their redemption lies in one simple characteristic: each is an architecturally distinguished design that has stood the test of a century’s critical attention; they are worthy of our attention despite their size. Their craftsmanship was generally impeccable; the cohesiveness of home and furnishings, the product of a single designer’s mind.
Wealth, however, has not always equated with size; the height of the front door or the number of dormers and turrets are not a barometer of your stock portfolio. And the example (again from our 2018 trip) that came to mind is the home of W. J. Bassett-Lowke at Northampton, better known by its address, #78 Derngate.
If the Bassett-Lowke name seems familiar it may be that your hobby is model railroading, because the family manufactured trains, model ships, and other similar “toys”, in quotation marks because they aren’t always bought by or even for children. The home at #78 was bought for W. J. and his new wife as a wedding present, a nondescript house of 1815 remodeled during 1916-1917 by Scottish architect C. R. Mackintosh.
From the street, the only clue to the hand of “Toshie”, as he was known, is the front door, which merely hints at the wonders awaiting within. And despite the family’s probable wealth, the interior volumes are modest, indeed, and not simply because the project was undertaken during the height of Britain’s involvement with the World War.
The modesty of its interior space is more than compensated in two ways: 1) the inventive manipulation of those spaces within such cramped dimensions (the house is barely twenty feet wide) and #2) the enrichment of practically every surface with paneling, stenciling, stained glass (for borrowed light), light fixtures themselves, and carpets.
The degree of the designer’s attention is comparable to large homes by Frank Lloyd Wright from the same years — say the nearly contemporary house in Los Angeles for Aline Barnsdall — but the similarity ends there. For this is an exercise in proto-Art Deco hardly known in the United States. But what struck me in hindsight is simply this: to the casual passerby, #78 Derngate belies its qualitative attention to detail, content to be something unknown today, an example of inconspicuous consumption.
Take that, Thorsten Veblen.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
PLATT, John Edgar (1886–1967)
“Building the Trawler”
woodcut / 25.1 cm x 37.2 cm / edition of 72
Platt was one of the earliest British artists to incorporate aspects of Japanese ukiyo-e or floating world printmaking in his work.
Consumption of meat in America is much higher than most other countries and that was even more true in the 19th century. But it was the era before refrigeration, so every city, Agincourt included, would have had an abattoir or slaughterhouse for the daily processing of beef, mutton and pork for local consumption.
There are four fundamental ways that meat can be preserved: drying (jerky), smoking, salting (brine), and corning. Fresh meat required a daily supply and even a modest community of 5,000-7,500 would have generated a great deal of offal—everything that’s left over when the process is complete. Meat, organs (liver, kidney, testicles, etc.), brain, tongue, even hooves (“pickled pigs feet”) left some pretty foul stuff for disposal: the remaining skeleton, horns, skin, and guts. Where do you suppose all that stuff went?
Fargo and the story of Long Lake
There is a true story that played itself out in the early years of the 1880s, one which illustrates all too clearly the awareness of public health as a matter for general concern.
On Fargo’s near west side, just south of the university, there is a paved drainage channel currently straddled by the soccer fields. But during the 19th century that was a natural seasonal watercourse called Long Lake, one of several coulees part of the Red River drainage system. Just outside the city limits, it was unregulated and therefore available for dumping, including the offal from Fargo’s multiple meat markets. Imagine wagons driving the mile or so from the CBD the make the days deposit. One especially hot August, in 1882, the “lake” transformed into a toxic soup, surely as organic matter settled to the bottom and decomposed.
That fall, two families resident on North Fourteenth street (it had a different name then) were struck with some sort of fever which especially affected the children. Several became ill, including at least one of the parents, but it was the children who succumbed, four of them, as I recall. Two were in the Frank Irons family; I don’t remember the other name.
The deaths occurred in October and early December by which time winter had set in a roads to the cemetery were impassable and the children couldn’t be properly buried. Since at least one of them sang in the choir of Gethsemane Episcopal church, Father Cooley volunteered the church grounds for quick interment, Oddly, though the scandal of Long Lake was completely unregulated by any ordinance, the city itself had enacted strict control of human burial within city limits. So the situation which effectively killed the children, came down on Fr Cooley with a $50 fine. I’ve always intended to set the story down in much greater detail but this serves my purpose for the time being. And I raise it only because Agincourt would have endured a parallel situation, but much earlier and possibly more egregious.
In the meantime, if you’d like to read about a British instance of large-scale meat production for an urban population, take a look at this story of The Shambles, a street in York, England, famous for its concentration of meat markets.
By the way, that’s where we get the word “shambles”.