North Dakota

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Newcomers to the Great Plains soon discover a quality of sparseness in the dispersal of delightful buildings. Perhaps it is that very sparseness that yields insight into the place, people, and architectural purpose of one of the nation’s least known landscapes. People who want to celebrate abandonment can certainly find great online entertainment such as Ghost Towns of North Dakota, but North Dakota’s places, buildings, and landscapes reveal much more that is life-affirming than neglect, nostalgia, or failed visions.1 Even in remote and sparsely populated locales, patient observers will be rewarded with a fascinating story that adds to our understanding of the state’s history, place, and beauty.2

Compared with many states, most North Dakota buildings and landscapes are not lavishly embellished or pretentious. North Dakotans tend to have a good-natured sense of humor about themselves, and an inclination to not take the notion of cultural artifice too seriously. At times they may become a bit thin-skinned about being overlooked by outsiders who dismiss North Dakota as a small city with very large blocks, a vacuous flyover place, or one of those large square states on the Great Plains. However, this northern prairie state is more fascinating than can be imagined by people who dismiss it as terra incognita.

North Dakota is a palimpsest, with discernible layers of information revealed by examining traces of the past that show through in the present. The story of buildings and landscapes inevitably begins with the varied visions of indigenous people, followed by their first contacts with Euro-American cultures. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery (1804–1806) presumed that Euro-American explorers might benefit economically and scientifically from considering the context, conditions, and first-hand knowledge of longtime inhabitants. Like the fur traders and explorers who infiltrated the northeastern part of the Dakota Territory in the late eighteenth century, they attempted to learn by observing patterns and behaviors of indigenous people.

Later immigrant groups imposed their shared visions on an unfamiliar and generally hostile place. They brought their experience with building types and techniques, a familiarity with materials that often reveal cultural identity. Some built faithfully upon a precedent, while others substantially extended and extrapolated from prior experience. Social and government institutions, religion, commercial enterprises, and specialized buildings for such activities as farming and ranching influenced style, materials, and other aspects of architectural expression.

Whether they are high style or vernacular, many first-generation Euro-American buildings on the Great Plains landscape reflect a commonsense response to the climate and landscape, and aesthetic judgment and the craft of making buildings. In other cases, academically trained architects learned a codified set of rules and styles articulated in books. In still other instances, packaged designs for houses, churches, and schools, as well as functional agricultural buildings, were worked out according to an archetype devised elsewhere, and then adjusted to the distinct conditions of local circumstance. Getting the most utility from what we have wrought is a popular North Dakotan value.

North Dakota’s architecture is, above all, pragmatic. In many instances there is forthrightness and beauty in that pragmatism. A modest, unselfconscious beauty of this sort can be discovered in both vernacular and high-style buildings that balance place and materials. One of the best introductions to North Dakota is Ethel Schlasinger’s engaging guidebook, North Dakota: A Guide to the Northern Prairie State.3 This Works Progress Administration (WPA) guide demonstrates that people in rural places, small-town settings, and remote counties deserve quality in their built environment, and achieved it through much of the historical period.


The northern Great Plains is a fairly inhospitable physical environment for cultural features imported from dissimilar settings. North Dakota has a semiarid, continental climate with some of the most dramatic temperature extremes in North America. Periodic and prolonged droughts have been commonplace for the past six hundred years, particularly in the western two-thirds of the state, with extreme drought years occurring from 1934 to 1937.4 But people persist in finding ways to make communities that will enable them to enjoy the bounty and beauty of such a sublime place. Through cycles of economic boom and bust, a perennial optimism affirms and proclaims the view that life can be sustained and that meaningful social institutions can thrive on the northern Great Plains as well as anywhere. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the state’s population rebounded from its low point of approximately 618,000 in 1970 to the state’s all-time record population of almost 724,000 just forty years later, owing largely to a vigorous energy economy of hydroelectricity, coal, shale oil, and wind. It thus defied demographers who predicted North Dakota’s population would inevitably continue to decline.

Compared with those who live in more populous states, North Dakotans have invested disproportionately in the infrastructure of state institutions. In the second and third decades of the twentieth century, a peculiar form of prairie populism took hold that left its mark architecturally. Arising from a variety of factors that included prior cultural experience and a wariness of relinquishing control to distant economic interests, populism set into motion a mode of grassroots collective decision making motivated by the Nonpartisan League (NPL). This led to such institutions as the state-owned bank, the state-owned mill and elevator (GF29), and continuing protectionist policies that restrict ownership of farms and pharmacies to individuals rather than external business interests. Balanced by a strong sense of individualism, autonomy, and independence, the principle of participatory place-making is also apparent in recent public willingness to rehabilitate disturbed natural habitats and neglected buildings.

Imported architectural traditions remain imprinted on the landscape. Geographers have noted similarities in architecture from New England transplanted first to the Ohio Valley region and eventually to Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and North Dakota, where town plans and building forms are referred to as “New England extended.”5 The lateness of settlement is also reflected in architectural traditions of immigrant cultures that remain relatively distinct and unaltered by cultural blending.6 These are particularly evident in house design and some institutional buildings, notably rural churches. Germans, Germans from Russia, Norwegians, Icelanders, and others make up what Father William C. Sherman termed the “prairie mosaic.” His groundbreaking insights in books like Prairie Mosaicand Plains Folkunderpin our understandings of ethnically distinct cultural traditions in North Dakota.7

As a cultural value embedded in this place, an overview of North Dakota’s cultural landscape in National Geographicinvoked the Swedish word janteloven (introduced by the state’s Scandinavian immigrants, but embodying a core value of other cultures as well).8 The word essentially means, “Don’t show off” or “Don’t call undue attention to yourself in relationship to your neighbors.” On the Great Plains, this modesty is evident in the architecture of most culture groups. Whether grounded in Nordic janteloven, prickly Calvinism, or radical populism (well portrayed in the 1978 film Northern Lights), the aesthetic of North Dakota buildings has much to do with an expectation of sparseness, restraint, efficient and minimalist functional performance, and a suspicious tolerance of overtly expressed “beauty.”9

Architecture adapts even to inhospitable contexts with a paucity of resources from which to craft buildings. Rarely does the physical environment determine the only response to cultural needs and aspirations. Many cultural institutions were already undergoing structural change at the time they were impressed on the North Dakota landscape, so it was entirely feasible to seek new ways of shaping and organizing schools or medical facilities. North Dakotans were ingenious in their use of available resources to create buildings. Well-defined academic styles were sometimes rendered in unfamiliar materials, like pressed-metal exterior cladding made to simulate stone. Lodge organizations met in elaborate and architecturally fashionable “temples” or in small clapboard-framed buildings like the ZCBJ/WFLA lodge hall (MO6) on the sparse landscape of Morton County. Buildings associated with farming and ranching remain important to this rural state, but they are far from revealing all we hope to know about the architecture and culture of a state with the nickname (from 1957) “Peace Garden State.” During the Cold War era, North Dakota had the reputation of being the world’s third-largest nuclear power. Far from being a dispensable “energy sacrifice zone” as it was unwisely characterized by oil and energy development interests in the 1970s, North Dakota’s landscapes retain much of value in terms of renewability and productivity, as well as rugged beauty.


Although North Dakota has an abundance of mineral resources for extraction, production, and exportation, it has a fairly sparse palette of indigenous materials from which to construct buildings. In established agricultural communities, the Mandan and Hidatsa people perfected one of the most sensible forms of earthen-walled lodge dwellings. Some of them have been painstakingly reconstructed as an aid to understanding those cultures. Their lodges also embodied other important dimensions of cultural order. Later-arriving Siouan language-speaking groups brought with them an efficient and practical form of transportable dwelling in the tipi and travois. Eastern Europeans and immigrants from the arid steppes of Russia plied a wide variety of mass wall and earthen-roofed buildings that far exceed basic sod house technology in terms of design sophistication and resource efficiency.10 A variant that has been preserved is the unfired batsa brick of the type used to build the Ludwig and Christina Welk Homestead (EM5) near Strasburg. Earthen mass wall building technology was also revived as an experimental building method on the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe reservation during the Great Depression.11

North Dakota lacks a plentiful supply of high-quality quarry stone, but immigrants did use it when available. Sandstone was quarried near Linton in Emmons County and was employed there briefly as a durable, affordable, and distinctive local building material. Much more broadly represented in all parts of the state are granite fieldstones. Pushed up through the soil by frost each year, to the disdain of farmers, fieldstones have been used to construct lasting buildings. Early granite fieldstone buildings were associated with Scots and Irish settlers from Manitoba. During the 1880s and 1890s, Episcopalians employed stone in a series of delightfully textural, rubble-stone and ashlar masonry churches. Granite stonework was revived during the Great Depression as a means of creating opportunities for work relief labor, and has yielded a rich heritage of buildings.

For ornamental applications, sandstone (brownstone) was quarried and shipped by rail from eastern Minnesota, the Bayfield quarries in Wisconsin, and Jacobsville in Michigan. For such monumental buildings as the state capitol (BL1.1), limestone was imported from Indiana. During the Great Depression, Fargo’s Black Building (CS12) and the state capitol were both designed to allow for their facing with North Dakota pressed brick, but more costly limestone was substituted when local brick was not available in sufficient quantities to meet the builders’ time line.

Clay was discovered and exploited for local brickmaking in many communities, including Fargo, Grand Forks, Valley City, Dickinson, and Denbigh. The most enduring producer of indigenous brick is the Hebron Brick Company (MO11), established by German Americans in 1904. The company now produces brick by modern techniques for use on buildings statewide and regionally.

Wood is far from abundant on the prairies, so it was employed judiciously and strategically on many historic buildings in the state. Timber-frame structures are associated with French Métis culture, as in the Gingras Fur Trading Post house (PB9) near Walhalla, and with local carpenters who built country schools in Swedish American parts of the state. Ingenious wood frames were used for buildings like the Danish Windmill (WD17) in Kenmare and in hundreds of well-detailed country churches that stand as reference points on the landscape. On the western frontier, log construction was used for ranch shacks, some of which survive, such as the Peaceful Valley Ranch house within Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit (BI9). Milled lumber is associated with many boomtown commercial fronts on main street businesses in all parts of the state, and it is regarded as the unpainted expression of cow town building exteriors in places like Medora. Minnesota timber from the Crookston-St. Hilaire-Red Lake Falls area was floated down the Red Lake River to lumber mills in Grand Forks.

Immigrants from Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland brought rich traditions of fine woodcraft, observable in many buildings and in historically accurate reconstructions like the stave church (see WD13) in Minot. In an anecdote shared by an old-line Fargo building contractor, a colloquial quote from standard building specifications used by many architectural firms into the 1950s established the high but not unreachable standard of quality for finished carpentry as “all finished woodwork shall be first class, but this is not a Swedish church.”12

Any item that could be procured in Boston or St. Louis or San Francisco could be delivered by rail in North Dakota. Building with cast iron, structural steel, pressed metalwork, and glazing materials was enabled by delivery to railheads located about every fifteen miles along the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railway lines, and from there distributed overland by wagon. Pressed-metal building exteriors were a popular way of assigning a particular architectural style to modest small-town storefronts. The Fargo Ornamental Iron and Metal Cornice Company produced a complete line of pressed-metal systems, which it sold from catalogues.

Cast iron was brought by steamboat from St. Louis, and later produced at the Fargo Foundry Company in Fargo. Architects and building engineers soon adopted longspan metal framing techniques, which were first employed on major bridge construction projects. The Liberty Memorial Bridge in Bismarck (demolished), the original Four Bears Bridge across the Missouri on the Fort Berthold Reservation (demolished), the remarkable Fairview-Cartwright lift bridge (MZ1) in McKenzie County, and elaborate railroad trestles, notably the Hi-Line Bridge (BA9) in Valley City and the Gassman Trestle (1899) near Burlington, pushed the principles of triangulated trusswork to its limits. Longspan framing techniques soon reappeared in buildings like the University of North Dakota Winter Sports Building (demolished), the Grand Forks County Fairgrounds grandstand canopy (see GF30), and for arenas, auditoriums, and opera houses in several communities.

Cement clay was harvested in a few North Dakota locations, and was processed mostly for use in masonry mortar. An obscure story of local material production and entrepreneurship is associated with the ghost town of Concrete on the Tongue River near modern-day Icelandic State Park (PB7). Locally produced cement was promoted on an experimental basis at Concrete in the 1890s, and remains evident on a few buildings, including outbuildings on the G. B. Gunlogson Homestead (PB7). It is ironic to discover that two of the largest twentieth-century concrete structures in the state built for radar missile detection installations (see CV5) are near the abandoned Concrete townsite, even though the materials used were imported from great distances.

At the start of the twentieth century, ready-mix Portland cement was delivered by railroad and site-cast concrete was used to a major extent for Great Depression-era work relief projects, including bridge viaducts in Velva and Stanley, auditoriums, arenas, and town halls, even in tiny remote communities like Venturia and Hensel where the concrete was slip formed and hand rubbed as a labor-making technique. Patented concrete bridges once existed in Mott and in Valley City. At Valley City the preservation community worked with the state highway department to construct a new replacement bridge based on the design principles of the historic Marsh Arch Bridge (1925; replaced 2004). Marcel Breuer made expressive and poetically powerful use of site-cast concrete at Annunciation Priory and the University of Mary (BL18). Precast concrete has been employed at such sites as the Knife River Indian Villages Visitors’ Interpretive Center (ME2), Four Winds High School (BE5), and the Ralph Engelstad Arena (GF22) at the University of North Dakota.

In the 1930s, magazines promoted such new materials as Vitrolite and Carrera structural glass, as well as neon lighting. Soon associated with Art Moderne, these materials appear on small-town movie theaters, often referred to in North Dakota parlance as “show halls,” and as facings on commercial buildings like the unaltered Ace Hardware store (BA5) in Valley City. After World War II, metalwork and glazing became almost ubiquitous with the International Style.

With limited material resources close at hand, local builders made use of what was available, exercising a pragmatic sensibility for economy of means in purchasing materials that were imported by rail. They often rediscovered old ways of building, such as hand-cut stonework, that had largely been abandoned in more architecturally progressive parts of the country. North Dakota builders continue to balance the aspiration for style with sensibly economical use of available material resources.


From earliest contact between European fur traders and indigenous people, each culture fashioned buildings that were well suited to sustaining life. The reconstructed Gingras Fur Trading Post (PB9) and Mandan-Hidatsa earthlodges of Knife River Indian Villages (ME2.1) reinforce the extent to which North Dakota was the site of significant cultural interaction well before Lewis and Clark’s reconnaissance in 1804–1806. These reconstructions are associated with surviving archaeological remnants that enable examination of temporal buildings known to exist in very few places. Cultural meaning and appreciation of Native American sacred sites continue today.13

Early interactions between indigenous populations and nonnatives can be discerned in architectural reconstructions of Fort Abercrombie (RI6) and the Bourgeois House at Fort Union (WI7). Euro-centered buildings like George Armstrong Custer’s reconstructed house (see MO5) in the Fort Abraham Lincoln Historic District demonstrate the imposition of a new, dominant culture. The historical evolution of Fort Totten (BE3) from military post through an era of Indian boarding schools to its current usage as historical site reflects the ongoing struggle between notions of permanence and transience in the way cultures adjust to the landscape. Much of North Dakota’s twentieth-century history is bound up with military infrastructure.

From territorial times, railroad promoters suggested that population growth and density would emulate settlement patterns like those of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa. Like most states on the Great Plains, North Dakota was probably overbuilt from the outset. That, in part, was a result of the Homestead Act of 1862 that encouraged westward settlement. The rich variety of architecture seems peculiarly ambitious, as evidenced in the too many commercial buildings, schools, institutions, and other civic infrastructure that have been abandoned to decay. That naively hopeful pioneering vision created “too many farms, too many towns, too many schools, too many counties and too much government, too much railroad mileage, too many banks, and too much debt.”14

Eighty years of speculative competition between the transcontinental Northern Pacific and Great Northern railways and numerous regionally aspiring branch lines stimulated an unsustainable number of townsites, which had been established in a fairly orderly progression along their tracks. Lingering traces of the influence of the railroads are embodied in the surviving grain elevators and countless abandoned railroad hotels that remain in many small towns, even after removal of the rail tracks that once formed the sole connection with outside markets. Perhaps there was something about the expansive landscape that made entrepreneurs so giddy when it came to claiming and shaping the landscape. Wheat monoculture tied North Dakota landscapes to the unusual and innovative enterprise of bonanza farming, which in turn opened the door for immigrant farmers to eke out a living under dryland conditions. Megalomaniacal ranching aspirations of the Marquis de Morès (see BI7, BI8) were short-lived, and much of the Dust Bowl drought years of the 1930s were spent trying to restore and rehabilitate landscapes.

Although North Dakota has existed as a state only since 1889, even before that date the arid but fertile soil of the northern Plains tempted new and untried forms of agricultural enterprise. Ten-thousand-acre wheat-producing bonanza farms along the Red River Valley, such as that of the Grandin brothers (see TR3) and the Bagg Bonanza (RI1), required buildings to sustain farming crews made up of scores of workers. Expansive, large-scale agricultural buildings helped to assure success of these innovative enterprises. Though the original bonanza farms were later broken up and sold, twenty-first-century farms have been consolidated into enterprises of similarly expansive scale.

Various types of working buildings evolved on farms and in small towns to support agriculture and other aspects of rural communities. A few immigrant enclaves built connective house barns, like the Stern Homestead (HT6) near Mott. Some round dairy barns were constructed in response to recommendations from regional agricultural colleges and extension agents, and other barns employed the lightweight construction technology of laminated Gothic arches. Combination barns that functioned as stables and granaries, grain storage structures (silos, bins, and corncribs), and Quonsets or other machine storage buildings are the principle functional types on farms and ranches.

Though visitors may be surprised by such spectacular landforms as the Pembina Gorge, Turtle Mountains, and the Badlands, North Dakota is mainly a horizontal landscape, with little need for vertical structures. This makes such tall structures as grain elevators, water towers, church steeples, and monumental buildings like the state capitol all the more noticeable. Only rarely have tall commercial buildings been proposed and built. In a seeming contradiction, from 1963 when it was erected until 2008, the world’s tallest freestanding, supported, engineered structure was the 2,063-foot-tall KTHI/KVLY broadcast mast near Blanchard in Trail County.

North Dakota’s high-style architecture reflects the state’s status from 1880 to 1900 as a frontier of European, midwestern, and New England settlement, as is evident in the state’s patterns of town planning, courthouses, schools, and commercial blocks. Architectural pretension and the state’s strong commitment to progressivism are evident in North Dakota’s public institutions. A substantial commitment to institutional infrastructure is affirmed in the forward-looking architectural style of Holabird and Root’s design, in collaboration with local architects Joseph Bell DeRemer and William F. Kurke, for the state capitol (BL1.1). Courthouses were often the first imposition of an external culture of architectural style, and, owing partly to the time when counties were formed, the state has a remarkable set of thirteen Beaux-Arts classical designs by Buechner and Orth built between 1905 and 1919. These orderly and handsome buildings convey the ideal of democratic process as a virtuous civic value.

Against long odds, North Dakota has tried to sustain thirteen institutions of higher education and five major campuses for special social service needs, all of which were provided for in the state’s constitution. Those for social service needs included a penitentiary in Bismarck, the Hospital for the Insane (SN11) in Jamestown, a Hospital and School for the Feeble-Minded (WA6) in Grafton, an Industrial Training School (MO4) in Mandan, a School for the Deaf in Devils Lake, and a Tuberculosis Sanatorium in San Haven. Master planning and landscape design of the state’s campuses were a fruitful exercise for regional landscape architects, especially the Minneapolis-based firm of Morell and Nichols. Public building projects and social service campuses that must have seemed choice commissions for architects at the dawn of the twentieth century are now regarded as burdensome in terms of their need for current maintenance in a sparsely populated state. Pursuant to Nonpartisan League reforms, North Dakota attempted to regulate growth of its state institutions through a Board of Control, an interesting experiment with mixed results and unanticipated consequences.

Public schools and institutions of higher education affirm the commitment of rural immigrant farm families to sustainable learning. The book Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History, the most comprehensive analysis of North Dakota’s ethnic and cultural heritage, emphasizes the disproportionate number of second-generation Norwegian and Icelandic Americans who earned their way into state politics beginning with a law degree from the University of North Dakota.15 At the same time, it should not be especially surprising that for first-generation immigrant Germans from Russia, education beyond the eighth grade was considered worse than frivolous, for it detracted from productive farm work. Rural schools were held to a consistently high standard of student achievement and educational quality. Architects were both designers and advocates for programs of improved public education. William Ittner, a specialist in school designs who was based principally in St. Louis, imparted his design advice to local school boards and to the state’s Board of Education during the 1920s. Though he was influential, in the end each board procured architectural services from local architects. Local architects Arthur W. Van Horn, Gilbert R. Horton, and Joseph Bell DeRemer developed school designs for communities of every size.

Recreation and the arts are celebrated in surviving opera houses in communities like Grand Forks, Lisbon, Ellendale, Jamestown, Kenmare, Ray, and even tiny Marmarth. Movie theaters hold particular interest as repositories of local culture and are among the few flights of fantasy that North Dakotans permitted themselves. With abiding devotion to literacy (often attributed to the interests of the state’s large Norwegian American population), North Dakotans committed vigorously to public libraries. In part supported by the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, they were also funded to a substantial degree by local benefactors. Civic emphasis on recreational infrastructure is embodied in Depression-era playfields, parks, and buildings like Turtle River State Park (GF33) near Larimore, the Riverside Park swimming pool (GF28) in Grand Forks, and the Wishek Civic Auditorium (MT7).

Closely spaced, two-story commercial buildings on small-town main streets have become virtual icons in America. Much of the architectural character of small-town commercial buildings derives from such premanufactured material systems as wood millwork, pressed-metal ornament, cast iron, and glass display windows. In many respects, the widespread distribution network for standardized products has been both a unifier and destroyer of regional variations in architecture. Boomtown false fronts on wood-framed buildings, like the hardware store (GT1) in New Leipzig, hardly come as a surprise, reflecting a desire for an architectural expression of importance and permanence. Countless small businesses sought stylish, tasteful, and up-to-date architectural expression as a positive reflection of their business operation and an affirmation of belief in commercial success.

North Dakota’s architecture demonstrates the diverse range of ways its inhabitants shape livable communities, and the genuine commitment invested in buildings and landscapes that reflect our cultural values and priorities.


North Dakota is rich in vernacular traditions. Immigrant builders often arrived through East Coast ports and were transported directly to homesteads or small towns in North America by railroads, with little exposure to New World ideas along the way. They brought their memories of familiar ways to design and plan buildings, skills in the kinds of techniques needed to construct them, and a working method often described as bricolage,or handicraft.16 Ukrainian and Black Sea German Russian immigrants who settled on the Great Plains brought their traditions of house forms of low earthen walls and heavy earthen roofs that they knew were well suited to the harsh environmental conditions similar to their homelands.17 Norwegians, Icelanders, and other Scandinavians celebrated their religious faith through traditional church designs, as did immigrants of Ukrainian Orthodox and Jewish faiths. Their rural buildings reveal the range of distinctive methods of construction. Swedish post-on-sill construction is found near Falkirk and Regan, German Russian stone slab buildings are seen at the Hutmacher complex, French pièce-en-terrewas used for the Gingras fur trading post and house (PB9) near the Canadian border, and there are vestiges of wattle-and-daub construction on Hungarian immigrant family farm homes in Stark County.18 The German Russian cultural legacy is further visible in the endangered cemeteries with their distinctive iron crosses that are among North Dakota’s most fragile cultural resources.19 It is astonishing that these ephemeral traditions have clung on so tenaciously. What North Dakotans traditionally wanted in their buildings and landscapes over the first one hundred and fifty years was modest comfort and convenience, with only limited awareness of the expression of academic cultural pretense. Aspiration to notions of beauty was reserved for civic buildings. Some of the first, overt expressions of academic architectural tastes were revealed in public institutions and city centers, notably in courthouses, second-generation commercial blocks, schools, and libraries.

Early scholarship about North Dakota architects dismissively minimized their contribution, implying that the only design judgment reflected in a finished project is based on the client telling the architect exactly what to draw. But both parties contribute to the final design, as is evident in the complex collaboration between architects George Hancock, Bishop William D. Walker, and the Reverend B. F. Cooley, as well as stonemasons like Andrew Maconachie and Angus Beaton—yielding work embodied in a series of delightfully pure Gothic Revival Episcopal churches (see CS47, NE2) in eastern North Dakota.

North Dakota’s high-style architecture reflects the process of architectural professionalization. From 1885 until 1917, nearly all architects working in the state were master builders who had learned their craft or trade as craftsmen-builders through apprenticeships. Among those more influential names known to us from published advertisements are Andrew J. O’Shea, Charles N. Daniels, William C. Albrant, Archie Ashelman, Jacob Friedlander, John W. Ross, and building engineer Samuel F. Crabbe. The self-regulated architectural profession, which established its own standards for professional credentials and conduct, emerged suddenly in North Dakota, of necessity. Perhaps sparked in part by protectionist aspirations, but also due to the progressive desire to establish professional standards by such architects as George Hancock, architecture became a licensed profession in North Dakota in 1917, earlier than more densely populated nearby states such as Minnesota and Nebraska. The first generation of professionally credentialed North Dakota architects was educated at institutions throughout the nation and abroad, and they gained their initial design experience outside the region. George Hancock studied at the Department of Science and Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; Walter Hancock attended Syracuse University; Arthur W. Van Horn was from New York’s Cooper Institute; Robert and Clarence Ritterbush studied at Cincinnati’s Mechanics Institute; Joseph Bell DeRemer completed a one-year certificate program at Columbia University; Joseph E. Rosatti graduated from the University of Michigan’s school of architecture; William J. Gage Jr. attended the University of Illinois at Champaign; Henry J. Scherer went to St. John’s University at Collegeville, Minnesota; Gilbert R. Horton attended the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington; Edwin W. Molander and Paul W. Jones both studied architecture at the University of Minnesota, and Jones continued his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Fontainbleau. Minot architect Robert B. Stacy-Judd, who was born in London, England, relocated to Canada in 1919 and to Southern California in 1922. Milton Earl Beebe learned in architects’ offices in Buffalo and New York City, and Joseph A. Shannon became licensed based solely on experience. Bert Keck, Carl Lovin, George H. Bugenhagen, and Frederick W. Keith were qualified based on their technical training as engineers.

Though they may have learned their craft elsewhere, architects and master builders who practiced from 1890 to the 1920s were well rooted in the culture and politics of North Dakota. In 1904 Fargo architect George Hancock prepared a publication for the state school agency that advocated model designs based on local architects’ intimate familiarity with local conditions and local practices.

In 1914, an architectural program was established through the school of mechanic arts at the North Dakota Agricultural College (NDAC, now North Dakota State University). Herman M. Leonhard, Ira Rush Sr., and S. Marius Houkom earned degrees at NDAC, and Houkom continued his education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Architect-engineer Theodore B. Wells graduated in civil engineering from the University of North Dakota.

By the late 1920s, the architectural profession had established itself in North Dakota based on the professional expertise of about fifteen firms: George and Walter Hancock, Joseph E. Rosatti, Ole E. Braseth, S. Marius Houkom, Joseph A. Shannon, Henry J. Scherer, Gilbert R. Horton, Arthur W. Van Horn, Robert and Clarence Ritterbush, Joseph Bell DeRemer, Theodore B. Wells, John W. Ross, William F. Kurke, Edwin W. Molander, and Paul W. Jones.


The Great Depression transformed the architecture profession as much as it transformed public life. Compared to most other states, the various federal work relief initiatives had an enormous and disproportionate impact on the state’s architecture between 1931 and 1943. Architects such as Molander, DeRemer, Braseth, Houkom, Horton, Kurke, Wells, and Ritterbush Brothers played a substantial part in planning, design, and construction of important public buildings during the Depression years.

Federal programs like the Public Works Administration (PWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) supported construction of such buildings as the Art Deco Stark County Courthouse (SK4) and the Moderne ward building at the State Hospital (SN11) in Jamestown.20 The changing role of the architectural profession, new construction technologies and methods, a national design ethic that valued scientific planning and design practices, and regional tendencies in the application of style and material choices all played significant roles in this context. But avant-garde Art Deco and Moderne buildings were also built independently of the federal relief projects, including the United Lutheran Church (GF16) and the B’nai Israel Synagogue (GF17) in Grand Forks, both by DeRemer, and a series of pavilions at the Grand Forks County Fairgrounds (GF30) by Wells.

Often termed “WPA Rustic,” the picturesque architectural style is evident in many projects constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Given the paucity of native building materials, fieldstone came to be associated with this style. Handcrafted rough timbers and even rough ironmongery were labor-oriented material technologies well suited to the CCC and WPA labor forces. These locally processed materials show up prominently in relief construction, and naturalistic qualities were particularly suited to parks and recreational work. The rustic mode came to be associated with much WPA and CCC work partly because the local sponsor was usually responsible for all nonlabor costs.

The National Park Service (NPS) and the State Historical Society of North Dakota supervised landscape architectural work relief projects, including work designed by Weldon Gratton (see MZ3.1), a landscape architect from Illinois who relocated to the Badlands in 1932. Projects like Turtle River State Park (GF33) express rustic picturesque landscape forms and details. State Historical Society superintendent Russell Reid imaginatively guided the work of CCC and WPA crews at the International Peace Garden (RO4), as well as designs at state parks and state historic sites. Des Moines-based landscape architect and cemetery designer Ray F. Wyrick carried out the picturesque theme for Grand Forks’ cemeteries. Colonial Revival influence is reflected to a minor extent in North Dakota work relief projects and is associated mostly with post offices and the hospital facilities built by the PWA for the Veterans Administration. Architectural preference for this style also influenced several projects designed by Edwin W. Molander, notably the Alkabo School (DV4).

During the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, the International Style was not particularly gracious to the state’s architectural landscape, and the architectural technology of post-World War II modernism was not especially sympathetic to popular tastes. Consequently, many recent buildings may be thought of as endangered because of lack of public appreciation for the skillfulness in the work of midcentury modernist architects. Buildings designed from 1950 to 1965 by North Dakota’s architects are uniformly prosaic and pragmatic, and reflect the preferences of both clients and architects. The architectural training of most practicing architects during this time frame reflected a narrowness of experience and an inclination toward architectural engineering. Some of the buildings have weathered well in terms of their construction quality and technical soundness, but few are appreciated by their users. By the late 1960s, more diverse and stylistically ambitious influence is evident in such buildings as the Fargo City Hall and Civic Center Auditorium Complex (CS19) and the Raugust Library (SN10.2) at Jamestown College.

From the 1990s, a healthy reinvigoration in the practice of architecture has occurred in the state. A number of small, energetic, and responsive architectural practices are well positioned with specialized expertise in areas of contemporary Native American architecture, adaptive reuse, and educational buildings. Many of this new generation of architects are from small communities in North Dakota and have chosen to remain in their home state, taking the point of view that every community, no matter how large or small, suburban or rural, deserves quality design in its buildings and landscape. Since 2000 the oil boom in the northwest and southwest regions has generated much growth, but little thoughtfulness in the rapid construction of industrial camps and public infrastructure, while swallowing up and eradicating many important buildings that have long occupied the landscape.

Well-known architects from outside the state have had an important impact on the architectural fabric of North Dakota, perhaps most notably Marcel Breuer’s work in the 1950s and 1960s at the Annunciation Priory and University of Mary complex (BL18) near Bismarck. More recently the firm of Charles Moore-Arthur Andersson designed Fargo’s Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral (CS38) in 2000. Unfortunately, a few widely publicized projects never saw built form. Michael Graves’s intriguing Postmodern cultural bridge proposal (1978) for a site spanning the Red River was one of them, and much earlier was Purcell and Elmslie’s proposed design of 1913 for the C. A. Wheelock residence in Fargo.


After two hundred years of European experience, the legacy of North Dakota’s buildings reveals a fair amount about the shared vision people have imposed on the land. Native American groups used their knowledge of local materials to shape rich and sustainable cultures. The journals Lewis and Clark kept from 1804 and 1806 reflect excitement over mineral resources like coal, with less awareness of the rich agricultural potential that was later discovered or imposed by railroad companies exploiting the land as a commodity for attracting permanent settlers. Bonanza farming tested a new approach to expansive agriculture, and demonstrated the carrying capacity of lands in the eastern part of the state. Immigrant farm families implemented their prior experiences with agriculture, and also their knowledge of the infrastructure of schools, churches, and self-governance.

Townsites established during the territorial period by land speculators and railroad agents reflect patterns of community formation based on New England ideals, much like an extension of the traditional Midwest, with closely spaced service centers and counties as an administrative unit. During the first (1878–1890) and second (1898–1915) Dakota boom periods, visions of development were linked with expansiveness and harvesting of marketable resources extracted from the land. Guided by the railroads’ investment, many immigrant communities overbuilt, based on an optimistic growth model with the implicit awareness that some would thrive and others would wither and disappear. Early buildings were often constructed with a view toward functionality, early obsolescence, or quick relocation or replacement. Much of the shared vision of place making in the twentieth century was shaped by growing awareness of the harshness of extending culture onto an unreceptive physical context.

By the second generation of settlement, around the beginning of the twentieth century, most immigrant populations began to feel that their success in establishing community on the northern Great Plains was fairly assured. Environmental collapse in the late 1920s and 1930s tested that faith. Communities, families, and individuals suffered economically as a consequence of the Great Depression of the 1930s, aggravated by drought, environmental calamity, and collapse of the productive agriculture. But the record of surviving architecture from the 1930s shows that intelligent, strategic investment in infrastructure and buildings sustained families while reinvigorating communities and landscapes.

The technocratic vision of Cold War-era functionalism is one of the bleaker episodes of the state’s architectural legacy. The power of technology irrevocably transformed landscapes. The architectural legacy of communities like Riverdale, planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the far-reaching impacts of undertakings like the Garrison Dam (ML4) diversion projects, the transformative effects of coal mining and oil extraction, and the numerous Cold War military installations (CV5) and infrastructure all reveal the way North Dakotans have seen themselves at various times in the state’s brief history.


The visions of early community founders saddled later generations with some curious contradictions. As elsewhere in the United States, communities were most often established near reliable sources of water. Many were placed at the bottom of volatile drainage basins such as those of the Red, Missouri, Souris (the Mouse), Sheyenne, James, Cannonball, and Heart rivers, subjecting their residents to recurrent and increasingly devastating floods that have regularly consumed entire communities. Physical destruction and natural disasters—fires, floods, and tornadoes—have significantly impacted North Dakota’s architecture.

There is gritty, parochial resistance to the dismissive summary judgments of geographers and demographers, as in the simplistic “Buffalo Commons” proposition, however metaphorical the vaguely defined planning proposition may have been.21 Against irrational odds, communities throughout North Dakota bypassed by growth and economic development projections continue to show tremendous local pride in their richly diverse and regionally appropriate architectural heritage. For a sparsely populated state, there is a remarkable density of state institutions, fraternal lodges, opera houses, movie theaters, and similar embodiments of cultural aspiration. However outsized the pioneering vision may seem, it is instructive to contemplate that Daniel H. Burnham’s Great White City was molded for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago at just the time the ambitious plans for North Dakota’s architectural infrastructure were concocted.

The recent loss of much of the state’s architectural legacy due to neglect and development pressures as well as the fragility and vulnerability of North Dakota’s buildings make surviving examples all the more remarkable. Rehabilitation of historic buildings in Grand Forks in the aftermath of the cataclysmic 1997 flood, followed by Valley City in 2010 and 2011 and Minot’s devastating 2011 flood, in addition to perpetual flooding of communities in the erratically fluctuating Devils Lake basin, are just the most recent instances of communities rethinking their defensibility and survival, and the perpetual costs of that kind of resilience. Many smaller communities have experienced similar damage from blizzards, fires, floods, and tornados. The buildings, landscapes, and communities we observe today are products of enduring commitment to renewal and improvement. In light of the current boom development of shale oil from the Bakken formation, one is tempted to ask if success will spoil North Dakota.22

Highlighted by preservation success stories and adaptive use projects that extend the productive life of wonderful historic buildings, North Dakota’s architecture suggests priorities and durable values for reinvestment in the built environment. The impulse for something different is part of American culture, but different is not necessarily better, and appreciation of the state’s architectural heritage suggests a trend toward making decisions about buildings and landscapes with heritage as a key aspect.

Those stewardship values are akin to former governor Art Link’s ideas for mineral resource utilization (as recorded in the documentary film When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: The Legacy of Art Link) that were predicated on cautious, orderly development, and each generation’s duty to leave the state’s infrastructure in as good or better condition than it existed previously.23 In recent years, adaptive use projects have sparked renewed pride in historic architecture from both the academic and vernacular traditions. For example, small rural churches have been the subject of a sustained grassroots initiative begun in 1990, and supported by the National Trust’s Preservation North Dakota affiliate Prairie Churches of North Dakota, that focuses on some of America’s most endangered buildings.24 From 2010 to 2014, the state’s legislature has wisely funded statewide preservation through an initiative that earmarks cultural heritage grants and the publicly visible work of the State Historical Society. On the heels of a sequence of careless development, major floods, and other natural disasters that have destroyed parts of North Dakota’s architectural heritage, the state’s citizens are increasingly coming to terms with the value of their architectural heritage.


Ghost Towns of North Dakota,

For an illustrated historical chronology, see the State Historical Society of North Dakota at

Ethel Schlasinger, ed., North Dakota: A Guide to the Northern Prairie State. Federal Writers Project for the Works Progress Administration (Fargo: Knight Printing Company, 1938).

Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 8.

See, for example, Fred Kniffen, “Folk Housing: Key to Cultural Diffusion,” in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, ed. Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986), 3–26; John Fraser Hart, The Look of the Land (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975); and Allen G. Noble, Wood, Brick and Stone: The North American Settlement Landscape (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984).

Observable patterns in the way culture spreads have been characterized by cultural geographers such as Kniffen, “Folk Housing”; Hart, The Look of the Land; and Noble, Wood, Brick and Stone, as “contagion diffusion,” which is distinct from “relocation diffusion” brought in essentially unaltered by an immigrant group. As North Dakota was one of the last-settled parts of the country, both mechanisms are evident in its buildings and landscapes.

William C. Sherman, Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota (Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1983); and William C. Sherman and Playford V. Thorson, eds., Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History (Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1988).

National Geographic, November 2003, 125.

In a September 6, 2011, newspaper interview, several contemporary architects characterized the North Dakota approach to design as conservative. See John Lamb, “Prairie Landscapes: Five Local Architects Describe Fargo-Moorhead’s Architectural Style,” In-Forum, online archive of The Forum of Fargo Moorhead (

Michael Koop, Stephen Ludwig, and Carolyn Torma have inventoried and described seven techniques employed by Germans from Russia in the Dakotas in Folk Building of the South Dakota German-Russians (Vermillion, S.Dak.: State Historic Preservation Center, 1985).

Steve C. Martens, “Federal Relief Construction in North Dakota, 1931–1943,” Multiple Property Documentation, National Register of Historic Places, U.S. Department of the Interior (Washington, D.C., October 2011).

John Carlson was one of several old-school Fargo building contractors who occasionally dropped in at architectural offices in the early 1970s to share reminiscences about how the building industry had changed during his career, and colorful quotes like this one seem too insightful to make up.

See Peter Nabokov, Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places (New York: Viking, 2006); and Paul VanDevelder, Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

This is well summarized by D. Jerome Tweton in the preface to Robinson, History of North Dakota, xvii-xviii.

Sherman, Plains Folk, 201, 204.

Thomas Hubka, referencing Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), introduced the concept of bricoleur in “Just Folks Designing,” in Common Places, ed. Upton and Vlach, 426–32.

Alvar W. Carlson, “German Russian Housing in Western North Dakota,” Material Culture: The Journal of the Pioneer America Society 13, no. 2 (September 1981): 49–60; Christopher Martin, “Skeleton of Settlement: Ukrainian Folk Building in Western North Dakota,” in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, III, ed. Thomas Carter and Bernard L. Herman (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989), 86–98; Joseph S. Height, Homesteaders on the Steppe: The Odyssey of a Pioneering People, 1804–1945 (Bismarck: North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1975); Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlements in the United States, trans. LaVern J. Rippley and Armand Bauer (Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1974); and the resources at and

Excellent documentation and analysis of these and other culturally distinct building traditions in North Dakota are readily accessible through projects documented for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS),

Nicholas C. Vrooman and Patrice A. Marvin, eds., Iron Spirits, Jane Gudmundson and Wayne Gudmundson, photos (Fargo: North Dakota Council on the Arts, 1982); and Timothy J. Kloberdanz, “Cross-Makers: German-Russian Folk Specialists” (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1986).

C. W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown, Public Buildings: Architecture under the Public Works Administration, 1933–39 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939), xii-xxii, 101, 388, 677.

Deborah E. and Frank Popper, “The Great Plains, from Dust to Dust,” Planning 53 (December 1987): 12–18; and Deborah E. and Frank J. Popper, “The Buffalo Commons as Regional Metaphor and Geographic Method,” Geographical Review 89, no. 4 (October 1999): 491–510, and

In 2005 demographers were predicting that North Dakota was destined to dwindle in population to below the six hundred thousand threshold required for statehood. In 2012, North Dakotans were scrambling to try and figure out a way to accommodate a predicted oil-boom population of more than one million for the first time.

Clay Jenkinson and David Swenson, When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: The Legacy of Art Link, DVD-film (Washburn, N.Dak.: The Dakota Institute, 2008).

See There are several videos highlighting this fascinating exhibit, including Prairie Public Television productions and YouTube video clips.


Writing Credits

Steve C. Martens and Ronald H. L. M. Ramsay

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