Five rural communities pepper Fennimore county: Muskrat City, about fifteen miles south of Agincourt; Nimby, in the southeast part of the county; Grou, almost due east of Agincourt; Fahnstock, ten miles west on Hiway #7; and Resort, a loose assortment of rustic hotels around the lower portion of Lakes Sturm und Drang. Depending on your definition of “community”, Resort may not qualify.

Muskrat City was a robust contender for the seat of county government in the years before the Civil War, but the land was too flat and the Muskrat River too prone to flooding for it to succeed, despite its boosters. Within three years of county formation the court house had shifted to Agincourt. The land between Agincourt and Nimby is called “The Barrens”, such marginal land for either crops or grazing that Nimby’s growth was stagnant; and the community’s no-can-do attitude didn’t help. Grou, on the other hand, was settled by Dutch immigrants from Friesland who are so used to terra-forming—desalinating land and managing water resources—that agriculture, dairy cattle and swine have become local industries; Grou goat cheese is renowned throughout the area.

Continuing counter-clockwise around the county, Fahnstock was established by eastern financial interests represented locally by brothers Willis and Rudyard Fahnstock, the latter also an MD with a brisk practice in Agincourt. The village is close enough to Agincourt and the highway sufficiently reliable, even before macadam paving, that it has been a virtual bedroom commuter suburb since the last quarter of the 19th century.

And finally, there is the loose accumulation of resorts along the east, south and west shore of Sturm und Drang. When the NITC extended a spur line for summer traffic in 1910, the area came to be known popularly as Resort, with the Station-Store serving as interurban depot, rural post office, and general store. Regular service on the NITC mainline treated both Grou and Fahnstock as flag stops.

Of those five satellite communities, Muskrat City and Nimby (for obvious reasons) hold little interest for me. The others have played varying roles in the story so far, but Fahnstock and Resort have been in my mind—notice I didn’t say “on”—and are likely to play some part in the upcoming October exhibit.

One of these days I have to draw a map of Fennimore county, don’t you think?

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The way things work: “Portrait une famille” (Part 2)

Entries in “The way things work” category are usually about the mechanics of some element in the Agincourt story. Often it concerns the role played by an object in developing a character or event, in this case the painting by Gabriel Spat titled “Portrait une famille”.

Yesterday’s entry outlined the process of identifying the artist Gabriel Spat, whose on-line bio was sketchy at best. But today I’ll turn to the characters actually in this family portrait and how the painting came to be in Agincourt.

  • Howard’s aunt Mary-Grace Tabor married Kurt Bernhard while she was living in NYC, studying to be a Montesorri teacher. The painting shows the Sobieski family, parents of his first wife Clothilde, who were vintners in the Alsace-Lorraine. A lot of this is already treated in “History as Genealogy” and “Family Trees“. And all of that is put into perspective in an entry titled “Relativity“.

  • Three of Spat’s paintings in the Community Collection are treated separately here, here and here. Each of these has come from the Bernhard connection and together they reinforce the link between Bernhard and his European origins. The story of his first wife’s death during the Nazi occupation of Paris has yet to be told, but I suspect it will involve her burial at Pere Lachaise cemetery.
  • Inherent in all this is the Community Collection itself, a community resource that began innocuously enough with a one-time exhibit at the G.A.R. Hall in 1912 organized by Amity Burroughs Flynn. The CC contains well over eighty.

In the end, I suppose, the thing that gives me greatest pleasure is the search, not only for information about Gabriel Spat, for example. But also for giving more meaning to this wonderful work of art; of giving names and faces to the anonymous family recorded in the work itself—people unlikely to ever be known, otherwise; and to add both depth and breadth to Agincourt’s history and its multiple connections with the outside world.

The way things work: “Portrait une famille”

This afternoon, someone asked a question they may very well have regretted. It generated a fifteen-minute conversation which, in turn, seems to have required this blog entry, another in the series, “The way things work”. The question concerned this painting, “Portrait une famille” by Gabriel Spat [1890–1967], acquired at auction long before I knew who the artist had been.

Actually, it was the combination of painting and frame that caught my attention: the family portrait oozed with charm, but the frame was clearly of a different period and not part of the original pairing. The painting has a late-impressionist style about it, while the frame is of the Aesthetic Movement, a style that flourished in this country during the 1870s. It seemed very likely that these were united at a much later date than the painting itself. But who was Gabriel Spat? It seemed worthwhile to write a few words about the facts, the fiction, and the stuff between them regarding “Portraite une famille” or “A Family Portrait”.

Spat, the artist, and his dates were readily available on-line. He seems to have been active in both Paris and New York City, with additional gallery representation in Florida. It was curious, however, that French sources claimed he had been born in the U.S., while galleries in the United States stated flatly that he had been born in France. Those of you who know me will understand that sort of ambivalence doesn’t sit well; that it might just as well have been a gauntlet hurled in my direction, demanding resolution. I simply cannot abide the lazy scholarship of some gallery curators.

What is often true of architectural history is doubly true in the history of art: once something has been set in print, it takes on a life of its own, regardless of truthiness. Somewhere in my initial on-line survey there must be a smoking gun: the first attestation of Spat’s birth that was picked up and repeated again and again. Someone’s initial indecision has been batted back and forth like a shuttle cock in a badminton match. I spend a good deal of time in genealogical websites, however, where such issues can often be resolved with thirty minutes’ effort, which proved true for Mr Spat.

Gabriel Spat is, in fact, a made-up name, an invented persona. He was born, not in the U.S., not in France, but in Chișinău, the capitol of Moldova, a former Soviet republic which is now one of the most impoverished parts of the former Soviet Union. His birth name was Solomon (more likely Schlomo) Patlagen, middle child in a prosperous Jewish family. His father owned a cement factory at the turn of the 20th century. Nearly half of Chișinău’s population were Jewish at the time of the Russian pogrom of 1903, when the senior Patlagen was blinded by the mobs. Two of his sons, Nahum and Shlomo, had been art students at the city’s art academy and managed to escape the country for further study in the west; one source says Switzerland, others Paris.

Both became part of the expatriate art community in Paris, among better known figures like Marc Chagall. I suspect that the two Patlagen boys needed to distinguish themselves from one another, so Nahum became Naum, while Shlomo went through a more drastic transformation: he took the “S” from his given name and the first three letters of the surname (pat) and became Spat; where “Gabriel” came from is anybody’s guess. So Gabriel Spat was born.

It’s doubtful that he had actual studio space at La Ruche, a cluster of artists’ studios in Montmartre, but is known to have hung out there, collecting scraps of canvas from other artists, ostensibly the reason for his miniature works from the 1920s. I don’t know the date of his first one-person show but he was certainly a figure in the Paris art scene, an especially popular figure among the city’s early film makers: a collection of his sketches of actors and directors was published in a very limited edition and he designed the cast bronze relief sculpture for the grave of a prominent director. [I have somehow acquired a copy of each of these.]

Spat was living in Paris at the time of the Nazi occupation and recorded the German presence in sketches published in newspapers elsewhere, an early first-hand record of the city’s darkest days. He managed, with his older brother, to move south into unoccupied parts of France, near Antibes, and from there managed to leave Europe for Casablanca and then for New York City. Spat’s arrival card records the date of arrival, but also petitions the courts for a legal name change—typed on the back of his arrival record. After the war, Spat travelled often between Paris and New York and exhibited in both cities, as well as other American galleries. One of his Florida exhibit catalogues lists prominent people who had bought his works, including the Duchess of Windsor (the former Wallis Warfield Simpson) and Mrs Robert F. Kennedy. Clearly, he had a following, if not an accurate biography. Do you suppose he encouraged the ambivalent treatment of his past?

Most of the above information is true—other than some of my own speculation. What follows, however, is the story of “Portrait une famille” as it came to become part of the Agincourt story.

Look for Part Two tomorrow. Right now it’s time for bed.

A trolley runs through it.

Now and again, when I set out to write about some aspect of Agincourt history, it occurs to me to review previous entries for coverage of that topic and the likelihood of duplication—a very real possibility, given that I’ve been writing about this for ten years, more or less. So I apologize for writing again about the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. transit station at the corner of Louisa and South Broad Street.

During my pre-college days I was a huge fan of trolleys, which still ran on Chicago streets when I was much younger. I never rode on the South Shore Line, nor on the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin—respectively serving the south suburbs and those on the far west of the city—but the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee was scheduled to cease service in January 1963, so I dutifully rode it as far as Waukegan, I think, some time during early January, just to be able to say that I’d done it. Those trains were packed with rail fans, for precisely the same reason, cameras dangling from neck straps and recording the hell out of the event, as an era of rail transit passed into history—as I, too, will, soon enough. So please pardon another of my many trips down memory lane.

The NITC serving northwestern Iowa communities from Fort Dodge to Storm Lake is patterned, unconsciously, after my CNS&M experience. And its depot in downtown Agincourt grew from several postcard images I have seen of depots throughout the Midwest. Today I ran across a truly stunning example that once stood in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, now sadly gone the way of the dodo.

The street-view card is currently on auction (for $45!) and confirms my contention that the NITC depot would have accommodated a diagonal path for the trains themselves through the building. Buildings of this sort are more common than you might suspect; including not only the passenger ticketing and waiting area, but also the company’s offices and some commercial activity. In the waiting room itself there would certainly have been a news stand and tobacconist and I’d guess that a barber shop might have been somewhere close by. The Wilkes-Barre depot is unusual for allowing cars to park within the building, but also to pass beside its covered trackside platform. Notice that cars could loop for convenient reversal of direction; presumably this was a dead end station.

Some day soon, I should put links here to the other dozen or so entries related to this important Agincourt building. But for the time being, enjoy the Wilkes-Barre images that I’m unlikely to afford.


The Prairie School in Iowa

Two previous entries here dealt with Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore in Chicago, a favorite hangout on Saturdays when I was fourteen and fifteen. Henry Tabor, shepherd of the art and architecture section on the K&B mezzanine, sold me my first three books about Frank Lloyd Wright, wise investments and books still on my shelves. And while Wright himself is unlikely to have designed a building in Agincourt—he did get as far into Iowa as Mason City, but the whole of Iowa is well seasoned with the Prairie School that Wright initiated. If you need evidence, visit The Prairie School Traveler website and prepare to be swamped with examples.

In addition to Wright, Sullivan and their immediate associates (Walter Burley Griffin, William Drummond, Barry Byrne), there are houses by George Maher and dozens of works by William Steele and a large number of names you’ve never heard. So why not a homegrown Prairie School building, say the country club circa 1908-1910. There are some preliminary sketches in my journals, schemes that started out quite large and gradually shrank to something appropriate for Agincourt’s population at that time. I’m thinking about something half the size of William Drummond’s River Forest Women’s Club.


K & B (1.1)

Frank Lloyd Wright—about whom I’ll be doing an adult education course later this month, or is it April? I forget—probably means a great deal more to me than he does to the majority of students I interact with every day. That’s not a value judgment; just a matter of fact, since he played such a pivotal role in my career choice—or at least the career I had hoped to pursue.

Not only was I fixed on Wright from about the age of fourteen, Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore in downtown Chicago contributed significantly to that preoccupation. Certainly the most important book I purchased during the late 1950s was Drawings for a Living Architecture, a 1959 production from Horizon Press. Underwritten by the Kaufman family (of Fallingwater fame) as a gift to Wright, I just learned that my $35 purchase had actually cost $75 to print, the difference was their subsidy to produce one of the most lovely books ever published about Wright. But there were two other early acquisition that had a more direct and more immediate influence on my emerging architectural point of view.

My first Wright-focused book was Grant Carpenter Manson’s first volume of a projected three-volume series, Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: the first golden age; sadly, volumes two and three never materialized. I recall buying 1910 in 1958 when I was thirteen and still have that copy, though one of its corners was chewed by a dog I once had during my student years at OU. Manson covered the period of Wright’s work most easily available to me: his Prairie style work concentrated in Oak Park, just seven miles north of my home in another nearby suburb. I especially recall Manson’s treatment of the Chicago townhouses Wright designed for Robert Roloson on South Calumet Avenue; I went to see them when that was hardly the safest neighborhood in the city. Roloson and his father-in-law Edward Waller, by the way, were frequent Wright clients during those early years.

Though I’ve not had an opportunity to visit any of the four townhouses, Manson’s reproduction of early black-and-white images inspired me to visit them and that led to yet another Wright book which included fragmentary plans, with sufficient detail to challenge my ability to manipulate architectural space in my head—the split-level interiors are that complex. So my third Wright book was an older one, published in 1940 but still in print: Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s In the Nature of Materials.

Hitchcock—better known as Philip Johnson’s collaborator on the International Style exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art—worked directly with Wright on the book’s writing  and supplementary material, especially a list of projects in the appendix. It was there that I was entranced by a project identified only as “Three Houses for Honoré Jaxon”—ask me about that some time but bring plenty of bourbon.

So by the time I got to high school, the “Wright” shelf in my library had grown to three. And I’m pleased to report that all three are still on my shelves.