Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Livestock

Sorrel Bellocq and her husband Girons. Between them is Sorrel’s brother Armin.

“Once upon a time…”

Urban life is in constant motion, continuous revision. I recognize the changes that have taken place since I was a boy but may not see the change going on round and about me even as I write this. And when you point these changes out to anyone half your age or younger, their eyes roll back, head tilts to the side, and you hear them think, “Blah, blah, blah. Here we go again! Another trip down memory lane.”

A lot of that youthful experience has shaped the town of Agincourt, consciously and otherwise, I’m sure. Things like home milk delivery, for example, and the once-a-year visit of the knife sharpener. Why is it I have a difficult time imagining these domestic services happening in “New Urbanist” places like Seaside, Florida? If there’s a Good Humor man, his gelato runs about $5 per scoop. Plus tax. Do they even have knives in Seaside?

And so I come to wonder about the legality of livestock within city limits. There must have been a time when it was common — chickens for fresh eggs; a cow for milk — until the sound of roosters at the crack o’ dawn or the aroma of manure were anathema for your neighbors. Well, the pendulum swings and cities the size of Agincourt are reversing their regulation of urban animals. Dogs are one thing; they can be licensed and their poop appears in manageable quantities. But goats are something else. Now, I also imagine the debate (over 3 o’clock pie and coffee at Adams’ Restaurant and eventually before the city council, about putting it to a vote) that may be taking place even as I type this entry — and as you read it.

This change probably follows a pattern of some sort; scales of species and numbers. Chickens, yes. Geese, not yet. Are six chickens too many? Are two too few?

And so, I acquired this RPPC of three folks and their poultry. I can’t tell you who they are, yet, but there must be a story worth telling. Remember what James Carse says: “If you can’t tell a story about what happened to you, then nothing happened.”

[#1478]

PS [21.02.2021]: The photograph at top was taken on the farm of Girons and Sorrel Bellocq. Between them is her brother Armin, visiting from France — possibly riding out the war. They hail from Pau, a small town in Gascogne (Gascony) in southwestern France. Pau is renowned as a wintering place for the English; tea at 4:00 and all that. Mary Todd Lincoln spent some time there as a widow in her declining years.

What brought the Bellocqs to Agincourt, I can’t say. But their small farm was just east of town along Crispin Creek’s north bank. The land (which included an orchard long past its prime) was acquired in the 1950s and developed as one of Agincourt’s earliest post-WWII developments. There should be a plaque about the Bellocqs.

Sorrel’s animal husbandry provided Agincourt with fresh eggs, delivered to her regulars on Monday or Thursday. My great-grandmother Martha Tennant was a customer.

Oh, and the large hen in front of Sorrel is Agathe.

Housing Stock

Agincourt’s original townsite was optimistic, providing more than a hundred blocks for single-family housing. But it was the middle of the 19th century and Manifest Destiny hadn’t played itself out. The proportion of families, parents with children, gauged any community’s chances for stability, longevity, permanence. But the majority of Agincourt’s buildings, however — contributed by students, faculty, friends and your curator — have been “architected”. Writing a report on an historic house in Grand Forks several years ago—in preparation for a National Register nomination, I suppose, though I was never asked to write it—I considered housing stock from the 1880s into the 1930s and came away with a more diverse view than I had at the outset. My preconception imagined that architects designed big houses on prominent streets for what, at any one time, constituted the One Percent and the rest of us lived in hovels from the lumber yard. It turns out to be far more nuanced than that, thankfully.

Yes, there are those large, sometimes pretentious homes for bankers and such (and sometimes for architects themselves as testament to their skill and a form of advertising). And, yes, there are significant numbers of largely anonymous houses at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum. But it turns out there are a number of options between those extremes. I was surprised to discover that here in Fargo, for example, early architects were involved with modest houses and even generic designs for real estate speculation. Then there are pattern books—published by architects, material manufacturers promoting their products, periodicals (especially aimed at women, keepers of the home fires) and organizations promoting home ownership like the American Small Homes Service Bureau (of which I’ve just been reminded)—that have yielded a dizzying variety of single-family detached houses. Is our experience here in the Red River Valley typical of other communities from the same time period? So how might Agincourt have been shaped by these several sources?

LUMBER YARDS: Lumber yards (like Motte & Bailey along the Milwaukee Road right-of-way) could increase sales by simply throwing in a set of plans; a lagniappe ready-made for construction, with a list of building materials and a known price tag. You could hire a contractor or build it yourself.

LOCAL DEVELOPERS: Those same builders could also be developers: purchase three or four lots beyond the edge of development, when prices are affordable, and build a cluster of identical homes on spec. “Vary the monotony” by flipping the plan left-for-right or modifying the porch or painting them different colors or all of the above. In time, owners will make their own modifications and increase the variety.

PLAN BOOKS: Material manufacturers, like lumber yards, could promote their products by asking architects to design small homes using those materials. The Building Brick Association of America did. So did the Southern Pine Association, the Byrd Roofing Co. and the Morgan Sash and Door Co.

LIBBY, OWENS, FORD GLASS Co.: In 1947 L-O-F asked an architect in each state to design a passive solar home — which would obviously feature their product. There were forty-nine; Hawai’i and Alaska weren’t states yet.

19th CENTURY ARCHITECTS: Up to World War I, many American architects published catalogues of plans for houses, stores, churches, schools, and a few other building types. Palliser & Palliser of NYC and Bridgeport, CT sold pattern books of their designs; Geo. F. Barber of Knoxville, TN likewise marketed worldwide.

ARCHITECT’S PERIODICALS: Minneapolis architect Walter J. Keith published a monthly magazine on home-building — and featuring his own work, of course — during the ‘teens and ‘twenties: Keith’s Magazine.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN BUILDING MONTHLY: A monthly magazine from about 1890 to about 1930. Each issue (in the early years) featured a two-page centerfold.

WOMEN’S MAGAZINES: House Beautiful, Ladies’ Home Journal, House & Garden, and Country Life in America among others promoted middle-class domestic life, often by providing ideas for single-family houses. The LHJ famously commissioned architects to design economical homes, including FrankLloyd Wright’s “Fireproof House for $5,000” in their April 1907 issue.

GOVERNMENT AGENCIES: Agricultural agencies at both the federal and state levels offered ideas for improvements in rural life, including small towns. In Minnesota, the Small House Service Bureau offered low-cost plans for the same reasons.

SEARS, ROEBUCK & Co.: “Honor Bilt Model Homes” — complete houses in kit form — were marketed by Sears during the ‘teens and ‘twenties.

LUSTRON: The Lustron Corp. sold prefabricated enameled steel houses manufactured at their Ohio plant from 1947 until about 1950, a peace-time adaptation of war-time manufacturing.

Any of these could easily be across the street from where you were born. And each of them, I suspect, exists somewhere in Agincourt.

morgan03 morgan01 morgan02

 

Hans Ruzicka-Lautenschläger [1862–1933]

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

RUZICKA-LAUTENSCHLÄGER, Hans [1862–1933]

Cityscape

oil on canvas / 5 inches by 7 inches / signed

pre-1900

Austrian artist Hans Ruzicka-Lautenschläger is recognized for his land- and cityscapes, painted in Italy, Austria, and elsewhere. His work in a late-Impressionist style has been mentioned favorably in several Austrian art journals, such as Der Merker. He exhibited in Vienna and Munich.¹

This petite work emigrated to the United States with members of the Wasserman family, who settled in Agincourt in 1900.

Hans Ruzicka-Lautenschläger / “View of the Pantheon in Rome”

¹ An inquiry has been made to the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

Manifestos are for Sissies!

Cadeau 1921, editioned replica 1972 by Man Ray [1890-1976]

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Two thousand and sixteen celebrated the 100th anniversary of Dadaism, a brief but explosive art movement begun in Switzerland, a negative reaction to the folly of war. Though it manifest in two-dimensional print media like posters and collage, some of its most shocking works involved the perversion of ordinary objects: an iron with nails on it surface; a bowl and spoon covered with animal fur; a common urinal. It’s hard to judge whether Dada any of its intended goals, but it did lay the foundation for the surrealism of the next generation.

Like Dutch neo-plasticism, Russian constructivism, and the Italian futurists, manifestos were frequently integral to the rhetoric of modern art. And so, Thought Farm, our loose affiliation of cultural malcontents here in Agincourt and the hinterlands of Fennimore county, chose to celebrate the Dada Centennial with a series of impromptu events around the community. Flash mobs involving unexpected readings of Dada literature (mostly poetry), dance (movement of an especially ungraceful sort), all in costume driven by a profoundly shallow exploration of political satire and philosophical nonsense. At the time we failed to note its appropriateness for the inauguration of a new president — though hindsight now makes it seem downright prescient.

Like Gerard Hofnung’s “Inter-planetary Music Festival” broadcast from the hippopotamus pit of the London Zoo, who can forget dramatic readings of Tristan Tzara poems delivered at the meat counter in Cermak’s Market — by Abe Cermak, the butcher, himself, in a tuxedo jacket and kilt. Or the first Iowa performance of John Cage’s “4’33″” by the ASO. The week-long celebration culminated with a performance at the Auditorium of Clive Somersault-Malm’s play “Six Pronouns in Search of an Antecedent — a comedy in three obscene acts” (1967) which hadn’t been performed since the The League of Decency shut down the first off-off-Broadway production while still in rehearsal in New Jersey. Though the characters are pronouns, their actions involve a considerable number of impolite gerunds and lewd participles, adding new meaning to “figures of speech”. This was not a show for the kiddies — despite the truth that children understand nonsense far better than their elders.

Christian Asmussen [1873–1940]

 

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

ASMUSSEN, Christian [1873–1940]

“Forest Retreat”

oil on canvas / 14.5 inches by 20 inches

1930s

Christian Asmussen was a Danish painter and graphic artist. As a pupil of Soren Lund, Asmussen was educated at the Royal Art Academy in München but then worked abroad most of his life. Already having worked as a theatre painter prior to his artistic studies, Asmussen began his work on decors in Europe’s finest theatres in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. He returned to Denmark to concentrate on working as a painter in 1900. His works were primarily landscapes and he was best known for his bright forest scenes from the Danish nature park “Dyrehaven”. He also produced decorative wood- and linocuts, one of which is also in the Collection.

Danish emigration to Iowa focussed in the communities of Elk Horn and Kimballton, about seventy-five miles south and west of Agincourt. This painting was acquired at an auction sale there several years ago. It is a recent anonymous donation.

Christian Asmussen [1873–1940]

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

ASMUSSEN, Christian [1873–1940]

Pastoral

color woodcut / 8.66 inches by 8.66 inches / open edition

1920s

Christian Asmussen was a Danish painter and graphic artist. As a pupil of Soren Lund, Asmussen was educated at the Royal Art Academy in München but then worked abroad most of his life. Already having worked as a theatre painter prior to his artistic studies, Asmussen began his work on decors in Europe’s finest theatres in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. He returned to Denmark to concentrate on working as a painter in 1900. His works were primarily landscapes and he was best known for his bright forest scenes from the Danish nature park “Dyrehaven”. He also produced decorative wood- and linocuts, of which this is one.

Danish emigration to Iowa focussed in the communities of Elk Horn and Kimballton, about seventy-five miles south and west of Agincourt. This print was acquired at an auction sale there several years ago. It is a recent anonymous donation to the Collection.

Kilo

In the spirit of ecumenism, the pantheon of Norse gods has grown by one today: Kilo, god of weights and measures. [Not to be confused with Loki.]

collect, verb–transitive

“Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.” ― Jeanette Winterson

This year for Christmas, a dear friend surprised me with a book; that was no surprise. But it was a book unlike any other he’d given me; most were architecture-related. This year’s gift was Mr Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock”, the text of a talk J.A.M. Whistler had given in London in 1885. There have been several editions of this text, one of them available for less than ten dollars. If you’re strapped for cash, the text is also on-line and printable for free.

There have also been at least three limited editions of “Ten O’Clock” in letterpress and various bindings. And those range in price from $10 to $2,500, depending on age, condition, and in some cases the prestige of the press. This new addition to my library is a 1907 edition from the Alderbrink Press in Chicago. You’ve probably never heard of that small press; it produced very few books, many by obscure authors or writers of only local repute.

Those familiar with the Chicago Literary Renaissance, which flourished from 1910 to the mid-1920s, and touched a number of characters connected with the city’s larger Progressive infrastructure, will recognize names like Floyd Dell, Harriet Monroe, Francis Fisher Browne, Theodore Dreiser, and Hamlin Garland. Ben Hecht published 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, Monroe began publishing Poetry magazine. Dell published Moon Calf. Many of them hung out in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. I’m not particularly well-read, so my knowledge is pretty shallow.

A few of these names also happen to be connected with architects of that generation, especially Lawrence Buck and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, for example, created three interiors in Fine Arts for the Mori Art Studio, the Thurber Gallery, and Browne’s Bookstore. None of them survive outside of a few photographs and some expensive pieces of furniture that show up in auction sales. Another occupant of Fine Arts was Ralph Fletcher Seymour, owner, operator, and sole employee of the Alderbrink Press. Seymour published the first American edition of the writings of Swedish feminist Ellen Key (pronounced “kigh”, rhymes with “high”), translated into English by Mamah Bouton Borthwick Cheney, mistress of Wright who eloped to Europe with him in 1909.

Among the qualities which add to the value of an old book are, beyond condition, things like the presence of its original dust jacket; whether the pages have been cut; autographs or other provenance. My copy of the Whistler meets two of those. Imagine a flimsy glassine wrapper that has survived one hundred and fourteen years. Not only am I thrilled to add this to my shelves. But more than that, I’m committed to preserving this volume in the condition I received it and to pass it along to someone else who will care for it when I’m gone.

I mention this for two reasons: First to share with you my happiness at receiving a thoughtful gift from a dear friend. But also, and more importantly, because that book is just one year younger than the M. E. Beebe Architectural Office, an F-M architectural treasure that was also in my care, a job I totally fucked and am now in the midst of a very expensive and humiliating process of its restoration. Mea Culpa. Why should I assume that the Whistler book will fare any better in my care than the Beebe Office. A good question for which I have no good answer.

Wrogn

Enjoyed a FaceBook conversation today about recent events and we stumbled on a new “character” for Agincourt based on a typo: WROGN, Norse God of Blunders.

Now, to work him into the narrative.

[With special acknowledgement to Mr Johnson.]

The Architects of Agincourt

Architect at his drawing board. This wood engraving was published on May 25, 1893, in Teknisk Ukeblad, Norway’s leading engineering journal. It illustrates an article about a new kind of upright drawing board delivered by the firm J. M. Voith in Heidenheim a. d. Brenz (in south Germany). The board measures 1800 x 1250 mm, the total height is 2800 mm, and the weight 220 kg.

A key player in the Agincourt tale is young architect Anson Tennant, an avatar in the community circa 1915, said to have been influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement generally and Louis Sullivan and Midwest Progressivism in particular. His presence in Agincourt required a backstory but it also had future implications that even I hadn’t anticipated; indeed, his presence generated multiple generations of family, backwards and forwards. So, Anson [1890-1968] is fictional but several other architects who contributed to the town in one way or another were very real. There is no intended hierarchy here; just a brief introduction to each [color coding relates to the “Who’s Who”, q.v.]:

 

  • SULLIVAN, Louis Henry [1856–1924] is the Founder of the Feast. A casual question about Sullivan, Iowa, and Carnegie libraries is what generated this project in the first place.
  • WOOD, William Halsey [1855–1897]. Halsey Wood has been a major research interest far longer than the Agincourt Project has been active; I pretend to be writing a monograph on his brief but brilliant career. As an aid to understanding his work, I’ve asked the question about Wood that I have also posed for Sullivan: How would he have treated a building type not represented in his oeuvre — the county courthouse. So the second Fennimore courthouse is me trying to be Halsey Wood circa 1888. I hope he won’t mind the bald-faced flattery and inevitable misinterpretation. Hey, at least it was fun.
  • JOACHIM & PERLMUTTER [active 1900–1915]. Anson Tennant’s first commission was a negotiation of services-for-rent; his first office. To make the work proportional to the reward, why not allow him to remodel a less-than-successful, i.e., botched, job for the design of Wasserman’s Hardware. His studio-office was situated on the second floor, which he probably shared with an accountant, a dentist, or a lawyer. Joachim & Perlmutter derived from a black-and-white photo of two architects standing in their office; a friend has labelled them “Hans und Franz” and they became J&P, architects from Sioux City, since Agincourt was unlikely to have a resident architect in 1909. I could be wrong. BTW, I had to invent this architectural firm because actual architects never make mistakes.
  • LIEBBE, NOURSE & RASMUSSEN [active 1910–1925]. Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen are an actual Des Moines firm from the early 20th century. Their practice is notable for a number of schools and also several Carnegie libraries. They would logically have competed for the Agincourt commission against Anson Tennant. Besides, I like the sound of their name.
  • PROUDFOOT, BIRD & RAWSON [active 1905-1920]. Another Des Moines architectural firm active in the region. They did the first remodeling of St Joseph-the-Carpenter, adding some Arts & Crafts qualities to the Carpenter Gothic original.
  • DUDLEY, Henry [1813–1894]. Dudley was a well known Eastern architect, especially as a designer of Episcopal churches. He and Richard Upjohn (also real) designed or strongly influenced a large number of churches across the country. As an Episcopalian, Anson Tennant added a chapel/family crypt to St Joseph-the-Carpenter shortly before his disappearance in 1915. But in the meantime he needed the original Dudley building to have enlarged by L,N&R.
  • BUCK, Lawrence [1865–1929]. Buck is a favorite “also ran” in architectural history. A contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, they actually officed in the same building, Steinway Hall, and would have passed one another in the elevator many days. Buck’s version of Progressivism, however, was oriented toward the British “Arts & Crafts” of architects like Voysey, Baillie Scott, and Parker & Unwin. [Sorry to be dropping so many names.] I happen to admire Buck’s work, some of which was promoted through the pages of magazines like Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful, one house in particular, which was built in Illinois, New York State, Kansas and California and probably a few other places not yet discovered. Why couldn’t one of them have been in Iowa? Incidentally, Buck designed at least five buildings in Iowa from his Chicago office.
  • SILSBEE, J. Lyman [1848–1913]. Chicago architect J. Lyman Silsbee makes two cameo appearances: First as architect for the home built by James and Martha Tennant, Anson’s parents. Later, Anson was encouraged by his father to design an addition to that Shingle Style home. Finally, Silsbee advised Anson on the young man’s decision to enter the profession and may have provided letter’s of introduction.

There may be other minor players in this category I’ve overlooked but these are the biggies.