Mid Century Housing in Grand Forks

This month, I’m working to write up a very basic analysis of the expansion of housing in Grand Forks between 1945 and 1970. During this period the population of Grand Forks nearly doubled from around 20,000 residents in 1940 to almost 40,000 in 1970.

The reasons for this growth, in general, involve the movement of people from smaller rural towns to bigger population centers after the World War II which in many ways followed a pattern that had emerged in the interwar years. It accelerated in the post-war decades owing to the expansion of the University of North Dakota, the opening of Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1957, and the expansion of the regional medical center. The late 1950s saw the opening of Interstate 29 (originally Interstate 31 and before US Route 81) which ultimately connected Winnipeg to Fargo and then Kansas City, and this amplified the significance of Grand Forks as a regional transportation hub at the intersection of US Route 2 and the Meridian Highway (US Route 81) and both the Great Northern Railroads and a trunk of the Northern Pacific Railway. The confluence of these trends spurred a consolidation of schools, businesses, and government services in the city which led to a boom in new housing construction, building of new schools and churches, and, of course, the opening of new commercial establishments and the consolidation of 20th century consumer culture in Grand Forks.

The present study focuses on mid-century housing in Grand Forks, but it draws significantly upon a recently completed study of six mid-century modern schools by Susan Caraher, the Coordinator of the Grand Forks Historical Preservation Commission.  

This study will also produce a preliminary inventory of mid-century housing in Grand Forks constructed between 1945-1970. Following the “50 year rule” these houses are potentially eligible, by dint of their age, for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that any single home from this period would receive individual nomination to the Register. At the same time, preparing a preliminary inventory of these homes allows for a more sophisticated approach to managing and understanding the cultural resources in our community. 

At present, there remain over 4000 houses that built during those years. “Named architects” designed relatively few of these homes with the local firm of Wells and Denbrook being the most prominent among them. It seems reasonable to assume that DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy also designed homes for local residents.  

Most of the homes, however, followed a fairly limited number of plans and were single-storey ranch style homes (called “ramblers” in Grand Forks as many places in the Western US), split-level, or two-storey homes with pitched roofs.  Interspersed among these houses are a few “Desert Modern” houses with flat roofs, recessed entrances, large overhanging eaves, and open floor plans. Attention to natural light, through the use of horizontal banks of windows and corner windows characterized many of these plans as did prominent vertical, brick chimneys which served to balance the strong horizontal character of the roofline. While only a few homes in Grand Forks reflect “Desert Modernism” in anything approaching a pure form, many incorporate some designs elements into their plans and complement the architecture of the contemporary mid-century modern school buildings and contemporary church buildings which stand in the same neighborhoods.

While the ubiquitous character of mid-century modern design elements in Grand Forks stands as part of wider national trends, it also has strong regional roots. Over the course of the mid-20th century Minneapolis became an important center for mid-century modern design and Minnesota architects not only contributed to the architecture of Fargo and Grand Forks, such as Edward Sovik’s Calvary Lutheran Church, but also influenced the work of local architects and consumers who looked to Minneapolis as an inspiration for suburban life.

Like other examples of mid-century architecture in the US, mid-century homes in Grand Forks took advantage of new materials and techniques. For example, the use of asbestos siding shingles in a wide range of colors became an almost defining characteristic of the post-war suburb prior to asbestos being identified as a cause of cancer in the 1970s. Manufacturing techniques and capacities developed through wartime aircraft production led to the widespread adoption of aluminum windows which by the later 20th century became less popular do to maintenance challenges and poor insulation factors. The use of synthetic material such as formica and vinyl in counters and flooring gave homes a distinctly modern touch. From the mid-1950s, wall-to-wall carpeting in synthetic fibers allowed aspiring new homeowners a chance to enjoy carpeted floors which have before mid-century been the reserve of more affluent residents. The growing use of refabricated architectural elements in both housing and commercial construction brought assembly-line industrial production to home building and accelerated the rate at which homes could be built and sold. The introduction of new materials and design influences transformed the character of communities such as Grand Forks on a large scale. At the same time, as Steven Martens has shown in his context study of the Wells Denbrook firm, many of the innovative materials that gave mid-century homes a feeling of futuristic luxury presented significant maintenance challenges. Moreover, the material and designs associated with mid-century modern architecture became associated with the use of technology to replace craft, dehumanizing aspects of ready-made institutional practices, the dangers of industrial manufacturing, and disposable amenities. As a result and, to some extent, by design, institutions often deigned mid-century modern architecture as obsolete as it was unappealing. By Martens’ estimate fewer than 50 examples of architecture “that can be shown to meaningfully reflect and closely follow the design principles of twentieth century Modernism with distinction.” This has not only impoverished the architectural record of the state, but also undermined the architecture and historical context for mid-century housing.

Grand Forks, however, remains distinct in that many examples of mid-century modern architecture continue to stand amid mid-century neighborhoods preserving an impression of 1960s life in town. 

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