Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa


The latest candidate for conscription into Agincourt’s industrial district is the factory at Mason City, not too far away. Don’t yet know what the Martin Co. manufactured but it probably wasn’t brick, Mason City’s most famous product. I did find this brief notice in 1916: “The Martin Manufacturing Co., Mason City, Ia., is building a large factory at St. Paul, Minn. for the manufacture of tinware.”

Ruth Freeman (born 1940)

FREEMAN, Ruth (born 1940)

“Boy on a Dragon”

linoleum block print on paper / 9.25 inches by 14 inches


Childlike imagery and dynamic composition enliven this linoleum print by Pittsburgh artist Ruth Freeman. A self-styled Pop artist in the “Andy Warhol Circle”, she studied at Carnegie Mellon University under Joseph Fitzpatrick and with artists Douglas Wilson, Robert Gardner, and William Libby, as did Warhol himself. “Boy on a Dragon” is on loan from Little Ones Pre-School of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal church.

Arthur Machen, flâneur

Dorothy Dehner, “New City” / 1953 / ink and watercolor on paper / MoMA

Arthur Machen was the pen-name of Arthur Llewellyn Jones, a Welsh author and mystic of the 1890s and early 20th century. And his reputation would be secure on that simple foundation. But Machen is also a key figure in the field of psycho-geography (which I’m hyphenating here because spell-checking doesn’t approve it otherwise). Machen’s contribution to this hybrid activity was his 1924 volume The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering, which I’m enjoying now that the semester is over.

One definition of psycho-geography sounded familiar and turns out to have been something I read in the Utne Reader a few years ago: “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” Also turns out that Howard tried his hand at it in the first of the sesqui-centennial articles.

I’ve experienced Agincourt through Howard’s senses but fundamentally his eyes. Like opera, however, which is far better than it sounds, and architecture which is better than it looks, the city is probably a far richer encounter when approached multi-sensorially. Agincourt has to be an aural and olfactory experience, as well as a visual one. What are its thermal delights? How does it speak to the sensitive soles of the blind man’s feet? Then there’s taste: pie-and-coffee at Adams Restaurant; communion wafers at Christ the King (which is more tactile than tasty); or a baguette from Vandervort’s Bakery (whose crunchy crust contributes to the sight, sound, and feel of the bread long before it reaches the tongue).

The science of sense suggests that the nose plays a far more important role in memory stimulation that sight. And I can attest that a whiff of egg salad can transport me to the fridge in my grandmother’s kitchen faster the speed of light. Tell me about the smells of your youth, good or bad? (Indifferent won’t have registered, I suspect.) Map your childhood neighborhood based on sound. Right now I’m working on a large map of Agincourt and Fennimore county as my entry in the Midwestern exhibition at the Rourke. Something tells me I ought to give Howard a call.


For reasons yet to be adequately explained, I seem to be a Mannerist. In architectural terms, that corrals me with the likes of Michelangelo and Nicholas Hawksmoor, company I’m pleased to keep. But associating with such august historical figures puts considerable responsibility on my aging, arthritic, and sadly sagging shoulders.

There are several periods of architectural history that particularly interest me—the Prairie School (for obvious reasons), both Gothic Revival and Victorian Gothic, the Arts & Crafts among them—but there is a style associated with Edwardian Britain which is scarcely represented and comparably little appreciated here in the U. S.: the Baroque Revival,  which seems as much Mannerist as it does Baroque. For Brits, it may have prompted Hawksmoor’s rise from obscurity. I recall articles about him from the Architectural Review in the 1960s and Kerry Downs’s biographical study. Since then, it’s hard to count the mounting number of paeans to the self-effacing man who lingered too long in the shadow of  both Wren and Vanbrugh. I was reminded of all this when the bank postcard appeared in my daily eBay scan.



Mannerism is largely an Italian phenomenon, short-lived and characterized by optical tricks played with geometries and perception. Renaissance mind games. But in English hands it became a game of scale; generally, design components far too large for their “proper” role in a Renaissance vocabulary. Like the exaggerated masonry coursing on this marvelous bank, for example, scaled for stone but contrarily executed in brick. And the columns are engulfed, as though someone with a rake rode past on their unicycle, gouging one hundred and forty-foot routs in the wall from corner to corner. Regardless.

Despite the ionic column caps, there is also something fundamentally Prairie School about the proportions: Classical window openings aren’t supposed to be horizontal. From where I sit, there are so many things wrong with this building that it’s right. Wish I could see the interior.

What all this folderol has to do with Agincourt isn’t certain. I just know that it will in the fullness of time.

  • SMITS, Jeroen / a.k.a. Jerome (active 1910-1930) — A cousin of the van der Rijn family, Smits emigrated to Agincourt circa 1910 to work at the Kraus Foundry. It is possible he had some architectural experience in Amsterdam, because several credible designs issued from KBI during the years 1910-1930. The line between architecture and engineering was less finely drawn a hundred years ago.

This afternoon, I nearly missed having a long conversation with someone preparing promotional material about the the architecture department at NDSU. It’s been that sort of day, though you needn’t know what lies beneath it. Things have had a way of working out—until they don’t. In the meantime, a new character joined the Agincourt cast. Actually, he was always there; I just hadn’t noticed.

Jeroen Smits has become my link with the Amsterdam School. Many of you may be unacquainted with that important design movement, one of three dominant schools of architectural thought in the Netherlands in the early years of the 20th century. The others are interesting in their ways, academically, but it is the Amsterdam perspective that holds my attention, partly from a stylistic point of view but also because it is so closely entwined with the architectural expression of Democratic Socialism in that city during the early years of the century.

The two other Dutch perspectives are linked with the Modernism and Traditionalism. The poster child for Expressionist Amsterdam, however, is Michel de Klerk, though there are several others like Piet Kramer, Johan van der Mey, and less familiar names like Boeyinga and Wijdeveld. [I learned of Berend Tobia Boeyinga a few months ago with great pleasure.] But it was de Klerk who drew me to Amsterdam more than forty years ago and brought me back several times since.

There’s scarce little chance that de Klerk-like brickwork will find a place on Broad Street, or that van der Mey’s wrought iron could have been the source for the wreathes on the public library (I’m very sad to say). But someone schooled in those crafts might be Agincourt’s link to a peculiar brand of Modernism with little traction here in the U.S.

I’ve had visions of diluted Amsterdam School elements here and there and wondered how that could have occurred. Enter Jeroen Smits, who may have had a hand in the design of the Northwest Iowa Traction Company maintenance building near the “Industry” station on the city’s southwest trolley loop.

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De Bijenkorf (1.1)

The Bric-a-Brac Department of De Bijenkorf’s Department Store, Agincourt, Iowa / circa 1910

Those skilled in real estate and development know there is in each community a place known as “100% Corner”. It serves as a benchmark against which all other properties are valued. Technically, I suppose, there are two of them facing each other at the intersection of Agincourt Avenue and North Broad Street. The old public library occupies one of them, though its predecessor there was the Masonic Lodge, which burned in 1912, and the other is still dominated by the F+M+M Bank. But there are two other valuable corner properties — I’ll rate them at 98%, for the sake of argument — which must have seen a comparable degree of interest and desirability.

De Bijenkorf’s Department Store has stood at #1 South Broad Street from about 1905, when the Van der Rijn family acquired the first of three buildings conjoined to make the building seen there today. Property on North Broad Street was too costly to assemble such a multi-building parcel, and De Bijenkorf’s was the first business to cross the Avenue onto the less fashionable end of Broad. It was more than a calculated risk, though, because the Auditorium had opened in ’95 and the Blenheim Hotel just five years later. The pedestrian bridge and ground level arcade united them establlished a climate-controlled complex of shopping, dining, and entertainment that North Broad couldn’t offer.

Blending narrow 19th century Victorian storefronts was common enough in smaller communities. Upper floor levels differed by no more than twelve to sixteen inches, but varying façades made a unified corporate identity difficult. The block plan shown above identifies the 75 by 140 foot footprint — part of it hollowed out to create an atrium and reorient the store onto the Square — but I’ve never actually come to grips with the inevitable resurfacing that might have been postponed until after the war (WWI, that is). I have an idea, however, that early 20th century architectural terracotta will come into play.