Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Conspicuous Consumption

McMansionland

“In suburban communities, McMansion is a pejorative term for a large ‘mass-produced’ dwelling, constructed with low-quality materials and craftsmanship, using a mishmash of architectural symbols to invoke connotations of wealth or taste, executed via poorly imagined exterior and interior design.” — Wikipedia

Somewhere on the edge of Agincourt, perhaps within sight of the urban fringe, there is likely to be an example of the late 20th century species called the McMansion. The southern outskirts of my own city has several, most of them interchangeable with their cousins across America. Products of the housing boom of the ’80s and ’90s, fewer were built after the market crash around 2008. Several websites are watching as these architectural dinosaurs reach an age when normal deferred maintenance will require a new roof, re-windowing, or energy updating. Let the fun begin.

To learn more, I recommend a visit to McMansion Hell or Homes of the Rich; the latter currently features a 24,000 monstrosity in Indiana. Here is one of my favorites, simply because it is the “weekend” home of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (annotated for your amusement):

I’ve been reminiscing this week about the trip a friend and I made of the British Isles last year. Yes, we necessarily visited a few houses of the 19th and early 20th century rich-and-famous, places like “Blackwell” on the shore of Lake Windermere or “Hillhouse” in the distant Glasgow suburb of Helensburgh. And, yes, these homes are almost obscenely large for single-family occupancy. Their redemption lies in one simple characteristic: each is an architecturally distinguished design that has stood the test of a century’s critical attention; they are worthy of our attention despite their size. Their craftsmanship was generally impeccable; the cohesiveness of home and furnishings, the product of a single designer’s mind.

Wealth, however, has not always equated with size; the height of the front door or the number of dormers and turrets are not a barometer of your stock portfolio. And the example (again from our 2018 trip) that came to mind is the home of W. J. Bassett-Lowke at Northampton, better known by its address, #78 Derngate.

If the Bassett-Lowke name seems familiar it may be that your hobby is model railroading, because the family manufactured trains, model ships, and other similar “toys”, in quotation marks because they aren’t always bought by or even for children. The home at #78 was bought for W. J. and his new wife as a wedding present, a nondescript house of 1815 remodeled during 1916-1917 by Scottish architect C. R. Mackintosh.

From the street, the only clue to the hand of “Toshie”, as he was known, is the front door, which merely hints at the wonders awaiting within. And despite the family’s probable wealth, the interior volumes are modest, indeed, and not simply because the project was undertaken during the height of Britain’s involvement with the World War.

The modesty of its interior space is more than compensated in two ways: 1) the inventive manipulation of those spaces within such cramped dimensions (the house is barely twenty feet wide) and #2) the enrichment of practically every surface with paneling, stenciling, stained glass (for borrowed light), light fixtures themselves, and carpets.

The degree of the designer’s attention is comparable to large homes by Frank Lloyd Wright from the same years — say the nearly contemporary house in Los Angeles for Aline Barnsdall — but the similarity ends there. For this is an exercise in proto-Art Deco hardly known in the United States. But what struck me in hindsight is simply this: to the casual passerby, #78 Derngate belies its qualitative attention to detail, content to be something unknown today, an example of inconspicuous consumption.

Take that, Thorsten Veblen.

John Edgar Platt [1886-1967]

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

PLATT, John Edgar (1886–1967)

“Building the Trawler”

1929

woodcut / 25.1 cm x 37.2 cm / edition of 72

Platt was one of the earliest British artists to incorporate aspects of Japanese ukiyo-e or floating world printmaking in his work.

The Shambles

Consumption of meat in America is much higher than most other countries and that was even more true in the 19th century. But it was the era before refrigeration, so every city, Agincourt included, would have had an abattoir or slaughterhouse for the daily processing of beef, mutton and pork for local consumption.

There are four fundamental ways that meat can be preserved: drying (jerky), smoking, salting (brine), and corning. Fresh meat required a daily supply and even a modest community of 5,000-7,500 would have generated a great deal of offal—everything that’s left over when the process is complete. Meat, organs (liver, kidney, testicles, etc.), brain, tongue, even hooves (“pickled pigs feet”) left some pretty foul stuff for disposal: the remaining skeleton, horns, skin, and guts. Where do you suppose all that stuff went?

Fargo and the story of Long Lake

There is a true story that played itself out in the early years of the 1880s, one which illustrates all too clearly the awareness of public health as a matter for general concern.

On Fargo’s near west side, just south of the university, there is a paved drainage channel currently straddled by the soccer fields. But during the 19th century that was a natural seasonal watercourse called Long Lake, one of several coulees part of the Red River drainage system. Just outside the city limits, it was unregulated and therefore available for dumping, including the offal from Fargo’s multiple meat markets. Imagine wagons driving the mile or so from the CBD the make the days deposit. One especially hot August, in 1882, the “lake” transformed into a toxic soup, surely as organic matter settled to the bottom and decomposed.

That fall, two families resident on North Fourteenth street (it had a different name then) were struck with some sort of fever which especially affected the children. Several became ill, including at least one of the parents, but it was the children who succumbed, four of them, as I recall. Two were in the Frank Irons family; I don’t remember the other name.

The deaths occurred in October and early December by which time winter had set in a roads to the cemetery were impassable and the children couldn’t be properly buried. Since at least one of them sang in the choir of Gethsemane Episcopal church, Father Cooley volunteered the church grounds for quick interment, Oddly, though the scandal of Long Lake was completely unregulated by any ordinance, the city itself had enacted strict control of human burial within city limits. So the situation which effectively killed the children, came down on Fr Cooley with a $50 fine. I’ve always intended to set the story down in much greater detail but this serves my purpose for the time being. And I raise it only because Agincourt would have endured a parallel situation, but much earlier and possibly more egregious.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read about a British instance of large-scale meat production for an urban population, take a look at this story of The Shambles, a street in York, England, famous for its concentration of meat markets.

  

By the way, that’s where we get the word “shambles”.

“Willoughby”

James Daly was an actor from the ’50s. Those of a certain age would recognize him from films but especially from early television. He was a year younger than my dad, but died two years before Roy did; very sad in both cases. My most vivid recollection of Daly is from Episode #30 of “The Twilight Zone”, Rod Serling’s gift to American culture, an episode Serling ranked as his favorite story from Season One.

Serling’s introduction to each episode had the elegance and efficiency of haiku. This is what he said for “A Stop at Willoughby”:

This is Gart Williams, age thirty-eight, a man protected by a suit of armor all held together by one bolt. Just a moment ago, someone removed the bolt, and Mr. Williams’ protection fell away from him, and left him a naked target. He’s been cannonaded this afternoon by all the enemies of his life. His insecurity has shelled him, his sensitivity has straddled him with humiliation, his deep-rooted disquiet about his own worth has zeroed in on him, landed on target, and blown him apart. Mr. Gart Williams, ad agency exec, who in just a moment, will move into the Twilight Zone—in a desperate search for survival.

Mechanical problems interrupt one of character Williams’s habitual commutes from the two-martini-burbs to his high pressure advertising job. The train will be at the unfamiliar Willoughby depot for a few minutes. Why doesn’t Mr Williams stretch his legs? Harried by work and family responsibilities, he finds an idyllic small town, the antithesis of his work-a-day world, then re-boards the train for the remainder of his commute.

Some days later, harried and harassed, the train slows as it arrives once again at Willoughby. Williams decides to abandon family and job, to alight at Willoughby and begin anew. The people he’d met during his first visit are there to welcome him. Meanwhile, in the world the rest of us inhabit, the train has made an emergency stop: one of the passengers has leapt from the speeding train and been killed.

Dr Bob warned me. Agincourt was a worthwhile endeavor, he believed, because it allowed me to work through several personal issues in the course of developing a community and its denizens. But, “Call me,” he said, when United Van Lines starts packing for the trip. Well, I’m starting to gather empty boxes.

 

The Ladies of the Literary Society

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

“The Ladies of the Literary Society”

The Japanese tree lilac at Gnostic Grove is at full bloom. But even before you see its creamy effervescence, the scent is overwhelming. Pollenating insects, take note! This annual event triggered several happy memories

Did you know that our sense of smell has more power to stimulate memory than any other sense. For me, that tree is a memorial to the visit of our British friends Margaret and Alec Parks, and my thoughts of them today mean the tree is doing its job.

During their two weeks with us, I was amused more than once that Alec, an army veteran who served in Burma and a plantation superintendent in Rhodesia long before those countries became Myanmar and Zimbabwe, was disoriented by our rational cartesian grid of streets, avenues, and a sprinkling of alleys and lanes. Britain and those other foreign places evaded the Cartesian Curse that came with the Enlightenment and French colonization. Thomas Jefferson was infected with it, otherwise Fennimore county and Agincourt itself would be irregular and organic, and you wouldn’t have to explain metes and bounds as a legal system for recording property at the courthouse.

Rene Descartes offered us a more rational way to position ourselves in space than “…thirty-nine paces from the old oak toward the rising sun on the summer solstice”, so you see why his alternative was seductive. I invite a visit to Salt Lake City: Descartes on acid! And so it was that the original Agincourt townsite filed in the waning years of Enlightenment enthusiasm used a more or less orderly pattern of streets and avenues proceeding in near lockstep outward from a zero-zero point which is still marked with a large bronze “X”.

As the city grew beyond the convenient scale of simply pointing where someone or thing could be found, the abstraction of Fourth avenue and Sixth street as a coordinate for Aunt Harriet became an issue. At which point the ladies of the Literary Society intervened, offering the pattern we know today of N-S numbered streets and E-W avenues named for America’s Transcendental authors — about as UN-cartesian a bunch as you’re likely to find. Invoking Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and James Fenimore Cooper put us all in a literary frame of mind at the very moment a public library was under discussion — by those same ladies, I suspect. Oh, and for inevitable growth they left us Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, and the less-well-known Margaret Fuller as spares.

Be grateful they hadn’t strayed too far outside the rationalist box, or we’d enjoy the pattern of one neighborhood in San Diego where streets and avenues are distinguished by authors and composers, which yields the unwieldy intersection of Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky. Or a very Polish section of Lemont, Illinois which honors revered former priests like Fathers Moczygemba and Ledóchowski. Imagine the brackets required to stabilize those projecting aluminum street signs in a high wind!

Lest you think this was an easy and uncontested change, think again. As always there were diehard traditionalists (ruled by numbers, as I am, sadly) who recoiled at The Founders’ expected reactions; the dead have a way of ruling from the Beyond. Others of a more pragmatic bent saw unacceptable expense printing new stationery and the unspecified disorientation of their clientele; a fear that their shops couldn’t be found. But even more vocal were supporters of characters in other categories: trees and flowers (imagine the sensory overload at Catalpa and Quince); dead presidents (what respectable Republican would live on a street named “Garfield”, who was not yet quite dead?); or simply letters of the alphabet (if numbers work E-W, why not letters N-S and an open-ended pattern for expansion?) What a relief that the ladies prevailed, though not envisioning the arrival of a Literary Dark Age in recent years.

How many young readers checked out an Alcott novel because they had been on her street?

F. J. Meulenaere [dates unknown]

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

Meulenaere, F. J. (dates unknown)

Twilight Maritime Scene

ca1930

oil on board / 6.5 inches by 10.5 inches

Meulenaere is likely a Belgian name originating in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking provinces of bilingual Belgium. There is a marine painter named Edmond de Meulenaere known primarily for maritime scenes, but the signature here clearly indicates “F. J.” Genealogical websites have thus far not been fruitful.

An intriguing possibility, though remote, comes via google: an annual shipping directory lists “F. J. Meulenaere” as captain of the eighty-one-ton sailing vessel “Désiré”, a goelette or schooner, sailing out of Gand (Ghent). It’s poetic to imagine the captain of an ocean-going vessel painting the environment of his own labors.

Whoever he may have been, Meulenaere joins a number of other marine painters represented here in landlocked Iowa, a craving to live on the coast, whereas coastal residents rarely reciprocate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machen on the Stage

Arthur Machen (born Arthur Llewellyn Jones) has become Agincourt’s new cause célèbre — not that he’ll ever replace Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a., Baron Corvo; there’s room in our community for two esteemed writers held in high regard. Coincidentally, they were born just three years (1860 vs 1863) and 135 miles apart, though outside the British Isles you could add a zero to represent the likely cultural distance between them. I’ve bought a number of Machen books in original editions and have begun to understand why his reputation is deserved: he is, indeed, a master of supernatural, fantasy, and horror fiction.

And then I wondered if any Machen works had been adapted for the stage. These seem exactly the sorts of story-line that would have attracted Rennie Gleason or, especially, Seamus Tierney. Had others seen their potential? Google provided an interesting answer: in 1917, during some of the worst of WWI, a Machen short story “The Terror” was adapted as a radio drama. You can listen to a 1981 reenactment on youtube.


What this means for Agincourt is anybody’s guess. I’m no playwright.