Fargo’s downtown is characterized by several generations of buildings that reflect changing popular tastes. Nearly all the buildings date after the Great Fargo Fire of 1893. Following a lawsuit on freight rates that the Chamber of Commerce brought against the railroads in 1929, a sequence of agricultural warehouses was built, sometimes referred to as “machinery row” (see CS7, CS21). They affirmed Fargo’s commercial importance as the regional center of the railroad distribution network. The downtown is framed by two landmark railroad depots, the NP (CS2) and the GN (CS18). The downtown historically included the typical range of retail businesses and professional offices, railroad hotels, movie theaters, tobacconists, and confectionaries that served the immigrant population passing through Fargo en route to rural homesteads.
Only a few High Victorian Gothic commercial buildings south of the NP tracks survived the 1893 conflagration. Within months, Fargo began rebuilding in primarily classically influenced styles. Cast iron from the nearby Fargo Foundry Company and pressed-metal ornament supplied by the Fargo Ornamental Iron and Metal Cornice Company were used extensively. Although many of the more notable Romanesque Revival buildings have been demolished, the NP depot (CS2) and the Robb-Lawrence warehouse (CS4) remain, and are among the better examples. Most buildings are three stories in height and fine brickwork generally predominates over stonework detailing. The cornice line of most buildings is at a scale of about three stories. Several buildings employ terra-cotta ornament, notably the former Ford Assembly Plant (CS15), Powers Hotel (CS14), and Pence Auto Showroom (CS20). A few pivotal buildings from the Great Depression era, for example the Black Building (CS12), reflect Art Deco or Streamline Moderne styles. Buildings associated with post-World War II modernism include Fargo City Hall (CS19).
In 1969 an aggressive makeover of downtown was proposed, which culminated in an ill-advised addition of a freestanding pedestrian canopy obscuring the upper stories of all historic storefronts that later was removed. Happily, the buildings’ historical details had been retained. A substantial downtown residential occupancy, together with restaurants, bars, and boutiques attract foot traffic to an extent that would have been hard to imagine during the era of abandonment in the 1960s and 1970s. Investment of time and money by preservation-minded members of the community has facilitated civic renewal projects including renovation of the Pence Auto Showroom, the Fargo Theater (CS13), and the creation of the Plains Art Museum (CS7). City government offers a variety of redevelopment incentives that includes storefront loans and Renaissance Zone tax credits backed by the state Industrial Commission. In 1983, responding to grassroots concern over two intrusive urban renewal projects and public outcry over the demolition of the historic Carnegie Library for a surface parking lot, one hundred and fifty downtown properties were listed together as a National Register commercial district. Since then, preservation stewardship activity in the downtown has been impressive. Nearly all the industrial warehouse buildings have been renovated for offices, residences (apartments and condominiums), retail businesses, health care, and academic and cultural activities.