Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

“…the better angels of our nature.”

In the American Conservative (an unfamiliar periodical), senior editor Rod Dreher writes about the White House response to the current pandemic. Herein he quotes Jonah Goldberg with specific reference to Donald Trump’s recent press conference — forgive me if even yet I cannot bring myself to use the title of the office he now occupies:

Here’s why that made me strangely sad, more than angry [about Trump’s denial that the buck had made its way to his desk, and even if it had…]. I thought: This man is a symbol of America’s shadow side: bloated, vain, rich, incompetent, and impotent. In a word, decadent.

But that is not all that we are. Somewhere out there in this country, there are men and women who are not this. These are men and women who will show themselves as heroes in this hour, in cities and small towns and rural regions of this country. Some of them are no doubt in senior levels of government right now, working hard to keep things from falling apart despite the vacuum, moral and otherwise, in Oval Office leadership. They’re the ones we have to count on now. One day, we will know their names.

If Goldberg is right, we will eventually know their names; some we already do. Dr Anthony Fauci, for example. Or Governor Andrew Cuomo. Or former Baltimore health commission Dr Leana Wen. Why do I instinctively believe their assessment of our predicament and of its course?

With twenty-two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in seven counties, as reported on 16 March (including Carroll county, one county south of Fennimore), it’s closer than we might wish. I wonder what my friends and erstwhile neighbors in Agincourt and vicinity are up to. Are they listening to the voices of the better angels?

The Carousel (1.1)

Agincourt’s carousel in The Commons (the original design by David Rock) was an Arts & Crafts affair, braced frame with mortice and tenon connections. It was quite lovely and also quite a bit different from all of these examples — I chose just nine from the 850+ currently on eBay. By far the plurality were polygonal-on-the-verge-of-circular, with conical roofs and cupolas. Mr Rock probably has too much on his plate to give this another try, so I’m trolling for designers who’d like to fill this niche in the project.

Grace

Grace

Grace Arbogast was more than a qualified success by any standard. Her story hasn’t been told completely yet, but its outline is simple enough: unassuming high school student, dismissed by her classmates, relocates to New York City where she enters the garment industry and rises to its upper ranks; returns to her hometown and extracts a modicum of revenge.

Her shop on East James became a training ground for other young women from our part of Iowa, taking them seriously, building confidence and skills for success, and raising the general level of women’s fashion hereabouts as a fringe benefit. A recent discovery in the local history files at the Fennimore county library brought two of Ms Arbogast’s fashion sketches to light

The shoulders of others…

We stand on the shoulders of others, sometimes pygmies, often giants. My feet are precariously planted, always have been, on the accomplishments of people well above average height, intelligence, and achievement.

Great teachers not only touched my life, they enabled, inspired, enriched it. Not because I was special; because they were. These names will mean nothing to you, but saying them aloud just one more time keeps their memory alive a little while longer — though my debt to them can never be repaid:

  • Mary Hletko¹
  • Edna Rapp
  • Veronica Piper
  • Virginia Lawton
  • Rose Spellman
  • James Francis Baker
  • Morton Newman (librarian)
  • Dean Bryant Vollendorf
  • William “Bill” Burgett
  • Fred D. Shellabarger
  • Agnes Miller (librarian)
  • Mendel Glickman
  • J. Palmer Boggs
  • James Marston Fitch
  • Adolf K. Placzek (librarian/archivist)
  • Blake Alexander (archivist)
  • M. Wayne Bell

¹ Grade School / High School / University of Oklahoma / Columbia University / University of Texas at Austin

What I know is my responsibility. How I came to know it and recognize its worth is attributable to them. You’ve never met these people, nor are you likely to encounter their names anywhere but here, though a few have been incorporated into this project. I will forever see a bit farther because they were teachers in the truest sense of the word.

Actually, it’s my fervent hope that what I owe them is paid forward each time I enter a classroom and follow their example to the best of my ability. Who can say?

Malcolm J. Hitchcock [1929-1998]

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

HITCHCOCK, Malcolm J. (1929-1998)

“Portmadoc from Morva Harlech”

oil on board / 6.7 inches by 12.6 inches

mid-century

Morva Harlech (“morva” or “morfa” is Welsh for a marsh, hence Harlech Marsh) is on the Welsh coast facing Cardigan Bay, not far from Portmeirion, the synthetic village made famous by the BBC series “The Prisoner”. Portmadoc is the terminus of the narrow gauge Ffestiniog Railway, the picturesque sort of line which Hitchcock preferred to paint. This mid-century oil is in a late Impressionist style variation made famous by George Seurat. According to one on-line source:

Malcolm John Hitchcock was a painter in both tempera and oils. He was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and received his art education at Andover School of Art. World War II led to his early withdrawal from his courses and he was apprenticed to a dental technician before serving with the Royal Army Dental Corps as his National Service. This led him to Singapore, amongst other places, where he was never without sketch pad or paint box. There followed a period of experimentation in both technique and subject matter, with Hitchcock eventually settling on the railway theme executed largely in a pointillist style.

He traveled extensively throughout Europe and became well-known for his pictures of narrow gauge steam trains. He exhibited in Düsseldorf, Brussels, Paris Salon, the Royal Academy and the Royal West of England Academy and his solo shows have taken place the Bramante Gallery, Ashgate Gallery in Farnham and Hiscock Gallery in Southsea. He married the author Zaidee Lindsay in 1984. His work is in the collection of Reading Museum and the Royal West of England Academy.

In the summer of 2018 Howard Tabor and a friend traveled from Llandudno to Minffordd, part of which ran on the Ffestiniog line to Portmadoc.

“The Last Picture Show”

“The Last Picture Show” is the title of an ARCH 771 architectural studio in the Fall of 2020. Though that title may suggest something else, it is indeed an Agincourt-based studio, yet one more iteration of the project begun in 2006 and possibly its last—which may be a relief to some; they’ll get over it.

For those unfamiliar with Agincourt, it’s a smallish town in northwestern Iowa, about midway between Fort Dodge and Storm Lake. A “purple” town in a very red congressional district, the population is slightly in excess of 17,500 in the last census but holding steady.

Its demographics are typical for Iowa, mostly White and middle class, but tending toward brown due to agriculture and an influx of foreign refugees. We hope the 2020 count will confirm that the population has stabilized, stemming the outflow of youth and the aging experienced by other communities throughout the Midwest and into the Great Plains. If you’ve got any questions about Agincourt, chances are pretty good that they’ve never been asked before. We’ll probably just sit down and work it out together.

In academic terms, Agincourt is an exercise in the relationship between narrative and design, that is, the intimate reciprocal connection between story-telling and place-making. Architects do the latter in each of those pairs as a normal part of their work; those who do a better job tend to incorporate the former. What I mean is that every good story generates mental images of its setting, and every real place worth remembering cries out to tell its tale. I’d like to think that playing in the sandbox of history — designing any building in any period and using it to tell a story, a shard of historical fiction — is an exercise worth engaging. Because there is something to be learned from what we know, what we don’t know, and, perhaps most important, what we shouldn’t know because its future hasn’t happened yet. So much for a brief introduction to Context.

The Challenge

The original intention was a historically based 771 studio, but more abstract, more analytical, taking apart good representative examples of particular styles (and particular architects) during the last 150 years to see what makes them tick. But at the suggestion of others (those in our department who see a picture larger than I do), it will revert to “Agincourt — the town that time forgot and geography misplaced”.

There have been (as some of you will know) three Agincourt-related exhibits, all the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead, MN, facilitated variously by the Messrs O’Rourke and Rutter, who have believed in the project from its inception. Indeed, they would not have happened without them. Two thousand seven was the first, a celebration of the community’s 150th anniversary. Number two came eight years later, appropriately commemorating the 600th anniversary of the actual Battle of Agincourt. Indeed, Daron Hagen’s “We Few”, Shakespeare’s speech coming from the mouth of Henry V on the eve of battle, was premiered at 2:15 p.m. on 25 October 2015, the very day of the battle that settled the Hundred Years War. Number three happened for no particularly good reason, other than we had some new artifacts to share. And now number four will be something quite different than a physical exhibit on a museum’s walls; rather, it will occur on your computer screen, where it should have been all along, had I but the talent to achieve that technical feat.

The Agincourt website (agincourtiowa.com) is not user-friendly; feel free to visit but don’t expect to maneuver easily. I know that and realized too late that it had been created primarily for me to jot down miscellaneous memories of the early years before they totally evaporated. So the strategy for this upcoming studio is the let the project go digital. What it might look like I can’t say. But the department has an in-house computerological expert, Andrew Yang, with the skills to make it happen. Some things you may eventually find there:

  • an interactive map or maps that will allow you observe community development in ten-year increments
  • a map (the same one) that will permit the study of a particular block as it evolved, with specific references to buildings and historical events
  • genealogical charts to follow families through multiple generations
  • a digital gallery of the Community Collection
  • clippings from The Daily Plantagenet
  • “foot notes” (which takes a lot of explanation)
  • objects, artifacts, and other pieces of material culture (there’s quite a lot in my basement)

Having just published blog entry #1411, you can assume that I enjoy this — even if few others do. So be it.

 

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Hazzard House

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

“Hazzard”

It’s a point of contention whether the sign on the old Hazzard House hotel was an advertisement or a warning. The building caught fire so often that its reputation had spread to Omaha, Des Moines, and beyond: register there at your own risk. And prepare to be turned out in the wee hours in your long johns, when the corridors fill with smoke.

A. S. J. Tessimond

If Agincourt has a poet laureate, it may be A. S. J. Tessimond [1902-1962], who one writer describes as “perhaps not the most well-known British poets of the 20th Century and suffered for most of his life from bipolar disorder.” With credentials like that, how can we have gone wrong.

Tessimond’s collected works don’t constitute a thick volume. But his poems are liquid, luminous, and entirely appropriate for a sufferer with bipolar tendencies. I offer you just these three:

Polyphony in a Cathedral

Music curls
In the stone shells
Of the arches, and rings
Their stone bells.

Music lips
Each cold groove
Of parabolas’ laced
Warp and woof,
And lingers round nodes
Of the ribbed roof

Chords open
Their flowers among
The stone flowers; blossom;
Stalkless hang.

One Almost Might

Wouldn’t you say,
Wouldn’t you say: one day,
With a little more time or a little more patience, one might
Disentangle for separate, deliberate, slow delight
One of the moment’s hundred strands, unfray
Beginnings from endings, this from that, survey
Say a square inch of the ground one stands on, touch
Part of oneself or a leaf or a sound (not clutch
Or cuff or bruise but touch with finger-tip, ear-
Tip, eyetip, creeping near yet not too near);
Might take up life and lay it on one’s palm
And, encircling it in closeness, warmth and calm,
Let it lie still, then stir smooth-softly, and
Tendril by tendril unfold, there on one’s hand …

One might examine eternity’s cross-section
For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection?

and, finally

Music

This shape without space,
This pattern without stuff,
This stream without dimension
Surrounds us, flows through us,
But leaves no mark.

This message without meaning,
These tears without eyes
This laughter without lips
Speaks to us but does not
Disclose its clue.

These waves without sea
Surge over us, smooth us.
These hands without fingers
Close-hold us, caress us.
These wings without birds
Strong-lift us, would carry us
If only the one thread broke.

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