Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Henry and Mathilda Utz

Henry Utz stands casually in the entry of his delicatessen-cum-bakery on Chicago’s south side; at least I think it’s on the south side, because the U.S. Census for 1910 puts his residence at 2973 South Cottage Grove Avenue. Much farther south Cottage Grove forms the west edge of the University of Chicago campus, but his old neighborhood was urban-renewed during the 1960s and LeCorbusi-fied with repetitive slab-like apartment blocks at a jaunty angle with the urban grid. Presumably this place of business was somewhere nearby.

Henry Jacob Utz was born in Germany in 1874 and emigrated to the United States in 1893, just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition. His wife Mathilda was a NYC native, but also from emigrant German stock, and six years his junior. They had (at that time) one child, a son Clarence, aged three. Their sister-in-law Florence Spitznagel (age 17) lived with them and was a domestic, probably in another household.

Cottage Grove is a Chicago section-line street, running north-south, probably lined with party-wall row houses or low-rise apartment blocks; the census puts two other families at the same address. To live a block or two east or west would have put the Utzes in a single-family or duplex home and a comparably upscale neighborhood. Cottage Grove enjoyed the convenience of a streetcar line, with frequent service and the shriek of steel wheels on steel rails throughout the night. Wouldn’t it have been fortunate if the Utzes had craved the quieter life of a smaller town, a place where his skills as a baker might have been more fully appreciated? I’ll see what I can do to change his mind.

MISSING

Few things instill more fear in a parent’s mind than the word “missing”.

A U.S. Attorney’s Office recently conducted a raid connected with a child sex-trafficking ring. I don’t know the number of arrests, but I do know the number of children recovered was substantial. It was also staggering to learn that a number of the children had never been reported missing! Let that sink in. The only explanation for such forgetfulness is hard to fathom: were the children sold?

These days, with condition at our borders at human-rights-violation levels, it shouldn’t surprise us that some of the children in the custody of I.C.E. might have been consigned to a wide variety of indentured servitude. Remember that I.C.E. is destroying records. [And don’t tell me that my imagination is suspect; that human beings are above such heinous actions. We both know better, and these days are proving it more true than we can stomach.]

People go missing all the time, but there is usually someone to miss them; to alert law enforcement and otherwise undertake a search — “search and recovery” sounding too fatalistic. From the Lindbergh baby to Patty Hearst, the end of these tragedies are rarely happy. Whatever the rate of resolution, the restoration of a loved one to their family and friends happens at an unacceptible rate. Yet each story is both unique and the same: whether run-away, kidnapping, or far, far worse, communiteis of severy size and color are affected. Dare I say it, even a place like Agincourt.

This postcard tells a story, sadly an anonymous one since it is unidentified by either date or location. Only the label “midday dig at the boneyard” suggests something grim, perhaps something grim in a dark corner of Fennimore county. I feel a story coming on.

Infrastructure 1.2

Paris Sewers

Since the earliest European settlers arrived shortly after 1850, residents of what would become Agincourt needed to drink and bathe and pee and poop. How they did that and where have changed dramatically since in nearly 170 years. But incrementally, in spasms of complacency and progress; hardly a steady measured march into our future.  But I’m not a civil engineer and neither are you, probably, so we have to leave such speculations to the imagination.

There is a story about Walter Burley Griffin that I’ve told elsewhere (and should review it, just to be certain I’m telling it accurately). Griffin was a Midwestern American architect, collaborator with early Frank Lloyd Wright, who won an international competition for the design of Canberra, the relocated capital of Australia.

The capital had been situated at Melbourne since 1901, while most of the country’s population lived within a few miles of the coastline, leaving the vast interior untapped. Parliament decided to boldly go where few Australians had gone before, dragging its government agencies kicking and screaming to a virgin site with little but scrub and grazing cattle. Nearly fifty years later, Brazil would make a similar choice for comparable reasons and create Brasilia.

I can’t speak for the politics of Brazil at mid-century, but those of post-WWI Australia were volatile. The government that had envisioned Canberra was replaced with one which did not support the plan, but might have gone out of its way to sabotage what had only just begun. Griffin as director of planning for the ACT (Australian Capital Territory, like out District of Columbia) and increasingly aware that the integrity of his plan was in jeopardy, made an equally bold move to insure its continuation.

You and I (sorry, I shouldn’t speak for you) might have gone for the gold, seeing the writing on the wall, and pushed for completion of the Parliament building itself to a hasty completion. But that building would have been the tombstone for Griffin’s innovative scheme. Rather he chose to push completion of the laying out of the city’s unseen infrastructure: the thing no one would see, but which would be the most expensive to remove or abandon; the plan’s water, sewer, and telecommunication lines. His dismissal shortly thereafter proved the wisdom of his decision. Canberra today appears much as Griffin had foreseen.

Oh, and that Capitol Building waited for another seventy years and was likewise the product of an international competition won by an American. What was a dusty plain is now home to 410,000 people. [Brasilia, on the other hand, in half the time, is a city of 3 million.]

SO…

  • Where did Agincourt get its water supply? The Mighty Muskrat or Crispin Creek? Wells or cisterns?
  • How did it deal with not only human waste but also the leftovers from slaughtering fresh meat?
  • And with regard to yesterdays entry, would the relative luxury of a municipal swimming pool have been likely early in the community’s history?

aitch-too-oh

Two aspects of the Agincourt story are of special interest to me now, and both of them involve water. First (and possibly least enticing) is the question of the city’s water supply and how its sewage treatment complicates that need. My simplistic view of civil engineering reduces the issue to “down stream theory”: get your water upstream, eject your human waste downstream, and let the folks below you worry about it. The other is more alluring because it is more “architectural”: a municipal recreation facility to extend the summer swimming season from spring into the fall. In the 19th century, it would have been called a natatorium.

Roman Baths, Bath, England

Front and Thompson Public Bath, Philadelphia, PA / 1915

The Natatorium & Physical Institute for Scientific Instruction in the Improvement of the Physical Powers, Philadelphia, PA / 1858

Broadwater Natatorium, near Helena, Montana / built 1889, year of MT statehood

From the Roman Temple of Minerva at Bath, England (the baths gave the city its name) to one of its most elegant successors, the Gellert Baths in Budapest, Europe was blessed with these glorious facilities wherever there was a natural spring. Generically they were called spas, after the town of that name in Belgium, places where the well-to-do resorted for the healthful application of the mineral water in any way possible: bathing, drinking, and mud, but also the enema and douche. There were other less elegant places, of course, and priced accordingly.

Here in the United States they took that form — the spa as resort — but another in urban areas for the working classes who may not have enjoyed the blessings of indoor plumbing. For them, municipal baths were a matter of public health and safety. The picturesque Physical Institute and its humbler cousin, both in Philadelphia, represent that range. Two of the more renowned 19th century baths were the Broadwater Natatorium outside Helena, Montana, and the Sudro Baths, on the Pacific coast of San Francisco. Both of these are gone but hardly forgotten.

AGINCOURT

Agincourt could hardly have justified a facility like the Broadwater, with a main pool that measured 100 by 300 feet. It also lacked a ready and reliable source of fresh water requiring minimal filtering. There was the Mighty Muskrat, of course, but there was also spring-fed Crispin Creek, with its source northeast of the city near Grou. Somehow I should be able to make one of these work and add another facet to the Agincourt story.

Depending on its site and water source, this is also likely to be closely linked with the earlier question of water for drinking and flushing.

 

Sanguine

Language being what it is, sanguine is a color — which I recognize from conté pencils purchased from Dick Blick — which is difficult to describe, because it resembles dried blood, though I don’t think that’s its source. What that has to do with another of the dictionary definitions (optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation) I can’t quite fathom. Unfortunately, the O.E.D. isn’t handy.

For a split second I flashed on Donald Trump and tried to imagine him uttering the word “sanguine”, and deemed it improbable, despite it having just two syllables, because it involves introspection, an intellectual exercise beyond his capability because it is also beyond his comprehension. Odd, because I wonder if sanguinity may come with age; he is but seventeen months younger than I. Like other mental states that involve being on the cusp, the edge, a point of change or transition, it comes with reflection that more of life lies behind than ahead.

I wrote in a recent application for promotion of a difference between myself and the college committee that had reviewed my dossier. “My guess,” I wrote to the university provost, “is that the median age of the committee might be thirty-six.” [University committees are populated with mid-career faculty whose “service” will reinforce their own quest for advancement.] I went on, “But I am seventy-two and can tell you that a career ahead looks remarkably different from one substantially in a rearview mirror. And also that my promotion and my death are likely to be a photo finish.” I made a point, but probably at a cost yet to be paid. And so, as I wax nostalgic, reminisce, reflect, resign myself, yes, I’ve become sanguine: of what lies in the past and does not; of what lies before me and cannot. Therein resides my sanguinity.

LOOSE ENDS

My seventy-fifth birthday is six months from last Wednesday, and, though I’m enjoying moderate good health, this has become as good as any opportunity to plan….and tie up all those loose ends. Three are underway: restoring the Little House; creating a 501(c)(3) non-profit to carry the L.H. into a useful future; and establishing a fund at the F-M Area Foundation named for my grandmother, Clara Frances Markiewicz, to support causes dear to my heart. So…

When the time comes…

…and it will all too soon, and should you wish to remember me in some modest way, may I make a comparably modest suggestion. The Markiewicz Fund will support programs that: 1) advance medical research (heart disease, cancer, and alzheimer’s); 2) promote social justice (voter’s rights, anti-discrimination); 3) underwrite architectural education (scholarships and travel); and 4) support the arts (museums and commissions). The Fund is generating about 3%, contributions are tax exempt (to the extent provided by law, i.e., for the time being), and it is guided by a committee of five good friends, most connected through the Department in some way and committed to the same goals (you’d recognize their names). Together with the 501(c)(3) and other provisions, these contribute significantly to our sense of sanguinity.

I’m just saying.

And then there’s the matter of putting Agincourt to bed.

Birthing a Bilding

…or is it berthing a bilding?

Planning Agincourt’s Public Library

Beyond his role in the public library movement — he underwrote the cost of 1,800 libraries between 1889 and about 1920 — the frugal Scot Andrew Carnegie felt that large amounts of ink, paper, and time were consumed preparing documents, and that a significant savings in all three categories could be achieved if we just simplified the spelling of the English language. In 1909, concerned that the early stage of his library benefaction had been misspent, Carnegie hired someone to analyze the program’s expenditures and rein in its excesses. James Bertram contributed mightily to its reform and, for the first time, provided guidance, rather than money alone, and it was Bertram who penned a simple two-fold pamphlet title “Notes on Library Bilding” which used the reformed spelling favored by Carnegie and a few others.

You may be surprised to know that a Carnegie grant was the result of a formula based on population in the last U.S. Census, provision of a centrally-located site, and commitment to annual support equal to ten percent of the grant. Carnegie played no role in programming the new library, nor were his staff involved with architectural selection. The pre-1909 result was monumental design that failed to work: Grandiose lobbies and Carnegie’s name in massive Roman letters, but poorly organized spaces that might have been more appropriate for an art museum.

There were 101 Carnegie-funded public libraries in Iowa and another seven for academic institutions. They range from 1892 until 1917, so there was no lack of enthusiasm for library construction, nor an absence of precedent. Indeed there were other libraries not underwritten by Andrew. I elected to fund the proposed Agincourt Public Library from local sources for two reasons: #1) it afforded greater latitude in design (e.g., I could add program elements beyond the library itself), and #2) it generated an exclusively local narrative. Also, by delaying the project until about 1915, Louis Sullivan had time to complete his five Iowa projects, and the Neo-Classicism that dominated earlier library design had passed its prime.

The clear majority of Iowa’s public libraries were Classical Revival or Neo-Classical in style, a logical result of influence from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This example from Iowa Falls is more extreme than most, but it illustrates the problem that Bertram uncovered: he found that grandiosity trumped functionality in far too may cases. Local building committees construed Carnegie’s benefaction as a wish for architectural immortality. They were wrong.

Iowa Falls is also typical in being a free-standing structure, splendid isolation on a prominent site, they have an almost suburban character, rather than genuinely “urban”. Examples in dense settings are rare, indeed, and may be limited to major urban areas like Pittsburgh or New York City. In many ways, these buildings are formulaic, so much so that many people actually believe they were built from a single prototype. They’re wrong, too.

You can see why I was fascinated, imagining an unconventional approach Louis Sullivan might have taken.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” ― Walter Cronkite

“From coast to coast, elementary and high school libraries are being neglected, defunded, repurposed, abandoned, and closed.” This is the first line of a 2015 article that documents a situation which can only have deteriorated during the last four years. Remember, we were still in the midst of a political campaign then that has brought us to the brink of a new Dark Age. If that seems pessimistic, you haven’t been paying attention.

I prefer the view of Jorge Luis Borges — someone probably from one of those “shit-hole countries”, so pay him no heed — who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” but he continued, expansively: “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” Eat your heart out, Herakleitos.

At odd moments during the last two years, I’ve wondered [as someone educated to be an architect but who never followed through, for obvious reasons] about the Donald John Trump Presidential Library. Where will it be located, do you imagine? Who will be its architect? That is, who will have the cojones (or lack of good judgment) to even seek the commission, let along have their name and repute linked with it for all time? Putting all that aside, if you can, try to form in your mind’s eye an image of the completed building; I’ve tried and have only a migraine for my trouble. It is even more frustratingly amusing to conceive its contents. I briefly considered developing a studio design project for the DJTPL but realized it would be the end of my so-called career in higher education. These are perilous times to have socio-cultural views measurably left of center — especially when you are suckling at the Public Teat.

If you fear an ongoing treatise on the decline of American culture, rest easy: This is merely the politically-loaded introduction to some thoughts on the origins of the Agincourt Public Library.

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, Rio de Janeiro / founded 1837; constructed 1880-1887

America’s public library movement during the 19th century had its roots in New England about 1850. Earlier libraries were “social”, joint stock companies providing access to those who could afford a membership. Libraries supported by taxation, and thereby accessible to the public at large, began in 1849 in New Hampshire and spread rapidly westward. It was Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s influence, however, between 1880 and 1920 that shaped the library networks we enjoy today.

Efforts toward a public library in Agincourt date to about 1880; prior to that time there were small lending libraries in churches (the Methodists and Episcopalians primarily). Planning for a new county courthouse begun in 1886 — the earlier stately Italianate courthouse was wooden and had long since been outgrown — afforded inclusion of a library room (at county expense) which would be centrally situated. It would be readily accessible during normal business hours and some evenings by arrangement with the Ladies Literary Society. Indeed, the new courthouse, dedicated in 1889, evolved into a genuine cultural center: courtrooms were used for lectures and recitals (and the occasional religious service); the northwest corner room was dedicated to the G.A.R. (a gathering place for Civil War veterans to reminisce while their numbers dwindled); and the newly-formed library collection. So, beyond its use for civic business and law enforcement, the second courthouse welcomed a broad audience of adults and children before the suffrage movement and while Victorian norms consigned children to the home and the care of mothers, older sisters, and maiden aunts.

Like the Community Collection of art, which originated there (in 1912 in the increasingly ceremonial G.A.R. Hall), the library collection began in much the same way: with no formal organization or source of financial support, the shelves filled slowly from family donations and the occasional business. Newspaper and periodical subscriptions were divided among a core of contributing families; books arrived from overcrowded shelves at home, for the first dozen years or so. The library functioned this way, informally, for almost twenty years. But my 1910, still in the early years of “library science”, the growing collection required an orderly system of shelving and circulation other than the honor system. A trained librarian was sought.

At about the same time, the first “library board” was established, in a loose affiliation with the city council, and discussions began in earnest for a free-standing, self-sustaining library on another central site. Several were suggested, but none had suitable “prominence”, and those that did were beyond the budget — until the tragic Masonic Lodge fire of New Year’s Eve 1911. Before the smoldering ruins cooled, what may have been the ideal site was suddenly open, a gift from the A.F. & A.M. Lodge “…in the interest of Civic Virtue.”

The next installment of the story will outline the planning process for the new library: developing a professional program within budgetary constraints; interviewing architects; and the actual construction process which yielded the building we enjoyed for fifty-five years.