Welcome to Agincourt: Architecture teacher designs town and its history
MOORHEAD — You won't find Agincourt, Iowa, on a map, but if you want to visit the town, just talk to Ron Ramsay.
Ramsay is the welcoming committee, historian and, in a way, founder of the 162-year-old town.
Agincourt is a product of Ramsay's imagination, but the small town doesn't exist solely in his mind. He's collaborated with others to collect and display the town's relics through Sunday at the Rourke Art Museum.
The exhibit, "Agincourt Homecoming," winds up with a closing reception on Sunday, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, a definitive English victory in the 100 Years War, for those who don't remember their late Medieval history.
Ramsay, an architecture teacher at North Dakota State University, is not one of those people. As "Agincourt Homecoming" illustrates, he has an eye for history and details. The show is a mix of architectural models, ornaments, maps, vintage outfits, paintings, fabric art and even a family tree. The display is an imagined history exhibit in an art museum instead of a small-town heritage center or library.
"It's the oddest accumulation of stuff," Ramsay says joyfully.
The project started in summer 2006 during a commercial break in a "CSI" rerun when he found himself wondering why the turn-of-the-century architect Louis Sullivan, the father of modern architecture, never designed a Carnegie Library.
So Ramsay decided he would design his own library. He decided it would be built in 1915, around the time Sullivan was building banks in Iowa.
Good architecture reflects the community and land around it, but as this was an imaginary construction, it could be set in an imaginary town.
"I didn't want to put it in a town that already existed. Who the hell wants to go to Iowa in the summer? I've got better things to do," Ramsay says, sidestepping a field trip for research.
So he created Agincourt. Of course, every town has a history, so the architect started developing the backstory for the community and its inhabitants, including a sharp young architect, Anson Curtiss Tennant, to design the imaginary library. (Tennant's office is represented with a door made by Bradley Rutter and a stained glass-window by Daniel M. Salyards.)
Soon the rest of the town started to fill out with streets named after authors that would be known in 1915.
A co-worker was intrigued by Ramsay's project and suggested he teach a seminar on how towns were formed. About 15 students took the seminar and pitched in to put their own stamp on Agincourt's history. When Ramsay was discussing the train tracks that ran through the town, a student corrected him about which lines crossed northwest Iowa. When Ramsay moaned the lack of quality blacksmiths in the Fargo area, another student, Christopher Meyer, stepped up to say his family ran a forge. Meyer's ornamental iron wreath is part of the show.
"The students bought into it big time. I was just astounded, Ramsay said. "Everybody brought something to the table. It was really interesting to have it confirmed that students are multi-dimensional and they have interests other than architecture."
One student thought the town needed a pizza shop in the 1950s, so he not only designed the space, but also the menu and thought up the proprietor, who left Agincourt a young man to fight in World War II and returned with an Italian war bride.
There's a dollhouse, allegedly a replication of one Tennant built for his little sister, Claire, constructed by students Matt Saatkamp and Brian Prunty. Nearby is the Tennant family tree, allowing visitors to follow the lineage through the years. It hangs next to portraits of a young Anson Curtiss Tennant, by Michael Paul, and his mother, Martha Cormin Curtiss Tennant, by Jonathan Taylor Rutter, and a quilt from the sesqui-centennial, created by Ramsay's husband, Peter Vandervort.
"It's like Ancestry.com exploded," says Jeanne Aaske, president of the board of directors at the Rourke. "All of these bits and pieces add so much to the exhibit."
Aaske recalled Ramsay's first guided tour of Agincourt, a 2007 show at the Rourke, featuring models and architectural drawings, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the fictitious town. To mark the auspicious occasion, Ramsay commissioned the noted (and very real) composer Daron Hagen to compose "Agincourt Fanfare" for brass. There were even appropriate sweets — windmill cookies, a nod to the Dutch presence in Agincourt.
Hagen has composed a vocal piece for this Sunday's opening.
"We're trying to tell the story of a town with cookies, wedding dresses and stained-glass windows in doors," Ramsay says.
Aaske was so engaged by the 2007 exhibit, she asked Ramsay if he was interested in an updated display of Agincourt's history since the project is ongoing.
The new show also features over 50 paintings, attributed to a gallery in Agincourt. In reality, they are part of Ramsay's own collection, many of which were bought off eBay. He's spun stories from the works, like one image with a cat in the background, which Ramsay insists is Mrs. Schoenfeld's pet, Clara, that has mysteriously affected the lives of many Agincourt citizens.
Ramsay knows diving so deep into the characters of an imaginary town (ask him about Anson Tennant's trip on the Lusitania) may prompt some to speculate on his mental health.
"My shrink says Agincourt is very therapeutic. I've been able to work through personal issues," Ramsay says, reassuringly. "He said it's OK until I decide to pack my bags and move there."
Indeed, don't look for Ramsay in the Tennant family tree or any of the displays.
"Somebody once accused me of being the mayor," he says. "That's an elected office, and no one would cast a ballot for me."
He may not be mayor, but he's something more powerful — creator.
"I get to name schools after people schools would never be named after. I seriously doubt there's a Clarence Darrow Elementary," he says.
He credits the Agincourt project with making him a better teacher.
"I'm lucky to have the job I do, to hang around with people more creative than me. My contribution has largely been hallucinatory," he explains. "This has been a joy to have inadvertently created this, largely because so many people have come to play, to have people come collaborate and bring to the table skills I could never possess, like a quilter or a blacksmith."
If you go
What: Closing reception for "Agincourt Homecoming"
When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Rourke Art Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead
Info: www.therourke.org or (701) 236-8861