Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

First Person, Singular

Among the meanings of “explanation” is one which implies its use in justification. That’s not my intention here, nor, I hope, has it ever been; at most, what follows is a basis for understanding and acceptance, nothing more. File this is the category “Valediction”.

First Person, Singular

Forty years ago I had the notion to write my autobiography. The working title was “It’s not about me” and the entirety of it—today it would be far shorter than it might have been then—was to be written without first person singular pronouns: I, me, my, or mine would appear nowhere in its text.

The challenge of writing about oneself without actual self-reference appealed to my sense of challenge; we often test ourselves far more than do those around us, or am I projecting? So, to accomplish this, I had intended to write several other biographical sketches and vignettes depicting people of my acquaintance and the situations in which we often, even habitually found ourselves. In short, I heartily agree with Alfred Lord Tennyson that I am a part of all that I have met and, reciprocally, they have become part of me. Could a biographical sketch of our friend Cecil Elliott, for example, first do justice to the person he was and, second, reflect in the person I knew a bit of who I may have been at the time. Likewise, am I today a different (better?) person than I might otherwise have become?

To write about Cecil is to reflect on our relationship and its evolution, and to a large extent, Cecil and many others who I would have portrayed are here already, in Agincourt—and are likely to remain after me, so long as the internet exists. In that sense, I’m glad to have shared my memories (with any of you who read this thing), because, as James Carse has written, “If you can’t tell a story about what happened to you, nothing happened to you.” To tell you about them is to relive the experiences I had of them and with them. Read the “Ghosts of Christmas Past” series and you’ll see what I mean.

In the beginning I ruminated about “first person, singular” and the likely sequence of those pronouns in my early development. “I”, for example, is probably the last of them we learn. “Me” is far more probable, because it’s in the objective case; I act, while me is acted upon, the recipient. Things come to me—my mother’s teet (yeah, fat chance of that!) or my bath or my teddy bear. And there’s a likely close second in the arrival and awareness of that possessive pronoun group: my and mine, since we are acquisitive little bastards at the start and some have never given up the quest to possess, to own, everything in their reach and some distance beyond.

“I” is the last of those personal pronouns to enter our vocabulary and our self-awareness. For (again in the words of James Carse), “I am the genius of myself.”


The end of the academic year is a time for reflection on many things: done (well or badly) and undone. And since this is the forty-seventh opportunity given me to engage in such personal introspection, and since I see at most three more years of this, I’ve grown warmer to the idea of saying goodbye. If I’m able to withstand the rigors of the job six more semesters, a friend in Las Vegas has promised a farewell that my employer is not soon going to forget. So during those 3:00 a.m. epiphanies, when the words flow more readily and eloquently than when I’m fully awake, I nightly reconsider that valedictory address. You have no idea how many very rough draughts have gone down the mental drain. So here I go again.

It was a difficult birth, eight hours, I’m told. Probably even long before the trip to the hospital, Marge had decided one of these was enough; I’m actually surprised that the pregnancy wasn’t terminated. At any rate, she had her tubes tied, to prevent another conception.

Frankly I do not ever recall feeling wanted. Which is not to say that Marge and Roy were bad parents. As their first and only child, they were without experience, as ignorant as I. Hindsight suggests I was merely a symptom of the problem: a marriage gone terribly wrong for reasons that are now much clearer: First, do not create a child out of simple biology or because you think it might patch a failing relationship. No child, however miscreant, ought to be introduced to such a household and shaped by it.

Second, never move in with your in-laws; the mother/daughter-in-law relationship is toxic and only intensifies under a mutual roof. I do not know if I actually saw this, or that I’m simply recalling something I was told, but there was one morning scene involving a meat cleaver and a flying loaf of bread. It’s no surprise I have few memories before the age of seven. Looking at myself then—if that’s even possible—I understand that Marge had no love to give and Roy did but didn’t know how and did the best he could.

In 1953 I was eight years old and Ike was our president. It was a soggy spring when, one evening in March or April, Mrs Shake came to visit. While my grandmother and I sat in the kitchen and entertained her, Marge was upstairs packing, unbeknownst to us, a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash. She took it out the front door, then came into the kitchen, chatted for a moment, and left with Mrs Shake to run some errand or other. That was the last we saw of her.

Eight-year-olds are inclined to bear the weight of the world. I tried then and for the next fifty years. My grandmother and I would walk to the corner market (operated by the Bieniek brothers) and along the way—it was just two blocks—we might stop to chat with Mrs Schiewe or Mrs Pluto (do you get the feeling we lived in an Eastern European ghetto?), but of course I was never part of the conversation. That spring, especially, I was talked about, never spoken to. And heard phrases like “Oh, isn’t little Ronnie taking this all so well”, delivered as a statement of fact, rather than a question. And so I understood my role in all this as threefold: I was its source; I was its victim; I was its responsibility.

I have absolutely no memory of my father speaking to me of what had happened to us; not a word of the divorce and, especially, of child custody. We had little experience with divorce in the early 50s, so I was unaware how rare it was for a father to retain custody. Abandonment simply reinforced the notion that I was not wanted. If I had been, Marge would have found space in that suitcase amid the lingerie and cash.


I was a feral child, self-motivated, anxious to explore the world, and allowed to go where I pleased and do what I chose.

<to be continued>

The Roundhouse

It’s unlikely that Agincourt would have been a section point on the Milwaukee Road or its subsidiary feeder lines. In fact, I have to plead ignorance on the mileage between such points. North Dakota is far more regular this way, with four service points along the Northern Pacific and another four along the Great Northern. Iowa’s railroads run every which way and fan outward. So, for the sake or argument, let’s say there had been a section house here, all of which means we may have enjoyed a roundhouse for at least a little while.

Roundhouses were necessarily radial. But, let’s face it: they’re a lot more interesting and present even more opportunity for adaptive reuse — if it hadn’t burned to the ground, that is.

This wonderful RPPC is too expensive for my wallet [$40], so I’m just going to “borrow” the image and spruce it up a bit. Somewhere in the literature of railroadiana there must be some guidelines for dimensioning a building like this.

Stephen Brook [born 1957]

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

BROOK, Stephen (British; born 1957)

“The Execution of Lady Jane Grey”

oil on board / 6 inches by 6 inches


British artist Stephen Brook is the most recent artist to join the Community Collection with a small but powerful glimpse of the art experience: viewers in London’s National Gallery admiring Paul Delaroche’s 1833 painting “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey”— a framed view of a framed view. And as viewers of Brook’s painting, we add one more layer to the telescoping experience.

This work was an anonymous gift to commemorate the student-faculty exchange program between Northwest Iowa Normal School and Millstone-Jennings College, Greenbridge, Essex, UK.

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 cast unfolding events as 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 uncomfortable, often embarrassing, 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 absconded with it. [BTW: The Greeks want it back.] Many interpretations of the frieze have been proffered, several so contradictory you’d think they’d cancel one another out, but none of them especially satisfying.

I probably bought the book because its publication caused so 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, coïncidence, 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? Yes. 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.