Settlement in Grand Forks 1945-1970: A Draft

Last week, I started to write a bit about changing patterns of urbanism and suburbanization in Grand Forks, North Dakota. This is part of a larger study of mid-century urbanism in Grand Forks that I’m working on with my wife, Susan Caraher. This summer, we’re preparing an inventory over 3,500 mid-century homes construction between 1945 and 1970. 

As part of that work, I’ve started to write some basic descriptions of the development of Grand Forks during the period. This is a pretty rough draft, but it’s starting to take some shape. Needless to say, I’ll be revising, filling in gaps, and tightening up the entire thing, but it’s a start:


Suburbanization is generally understood to be a trend that took place around the core of established cities. Spurred by improvements in transportation, the economic boost of the GI Bill and the post-war economy, and, in many cases, racial and ethnic fears, new rings of housing emerged around large and mid-sized cities across the US from the 1940s to the 1970s (Jackson 1985; Hayden 2003). The communities amplified new ideals of domesticity, intensified interwar consumer culture, refashioned longstanding religious landscapes, and shaped American political life. Modern suburbs both served as a backdrop for mid and late-20th culture and instilled values which would become distinct to characterization of the American way of life. The apartment dwelling Honeymooners (1955-1956), with Ralph Cramden’s persistent threats of domestic violence, gave way to rationalized domesticity of the Brady Brunch (1969-1974). The popular music of the ”garage band” came to challenge the urban sounds of the jazz club, urban concert hall, and Maxwell Street busker. The New Topographics (1975) challenged the views of the American frontier pioneered by Ansel Adams by replacing scenic vistas with the orderly sprawl of suburban homes and the Crabgrass Frontier of Kenneth T. Jackson (1985).

Small cities like Grand Forks experienced suburbanization as well, but in a slightly different form than more established cities with dense urban cores, and recent scholarship has sought to survey and understand the range of different responses to the proliferation of the post-war suburban ideal (McManus and Ethington 2007, 318). In many areas, the ideal post-war suburb conformed to certain elements of “Garden City” planning with access to green spaces, gently curving streets and limited access in accordance with a series of influential FHA standards published between 1936 and 1941 (Ames and McClelland 2002). In smaller cities like Grand Forks, earlier standards for urban expansion held greater sway owing as much to the limited resources on the part of developers and the community, the smaller size of subdivisions, and even the absence of topographic features that encouraged development designed to accentuate the landscapes. As a result, the plan of Grand Forks’ expansion, particularly to the south of the city showed greater affinities to the style developed by J.C. Nichols for the Country Club District in Kansas City (Ames and McClelland 2002, 37) where city blocks with occasional curving roads formed the basic unit of development. This innovation, most visible south of 15 avenue in Grand Forks, followed the arguments proposed by urban planners such as Clarence Perry in the 1920s and 1930s. Perry’s “neighborhood unit plan” with its emphasis on hierarchically organized roads and arterial routes assigned to the perimeters of neighborhoods, the central place of the school and the peripheral location of shopping and commercial spaces, and reserving space for parks and open spaces had significant influence in practice throughout the development of Grand Forks (Perry 1929). These and similar ways of reimagining the organization of the neighborhood had a profound influence on the shape of the new suburb and an emerging post-war ideal. The relationship between the physical structure and the mid-century community appears most famously William H. Whyte in his widely read, The Organization Man (1956), attempted to show how attention the arrangement of suburban developments shaped social relationships between neighbors. More recently, works like D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoire (1996) have explored the intermingling of personal narrative, economic motivations, and spiritual experiences in the space of post-war suburban landscapes. In contrast to the self-contained, expansive, and carefully planned suburban spaces considered by Whyte and Waldie, the post-war expansion of Grand Forks remains a hybrid of new suburban influences and established urban patterns. The curved streets with idyllic names remain backed by alleyways even as urban planners during the interwar period recommended against them for aesthetic, cost, and functional reasons.

More broadly, the expansion of the city from 1945-1970 largely followed the existing urban grid and extended along established arteries. Only after the 1970s did development prompt the addition of new arterial roads in the city with the 32nd Avenue and Columbia Road becoming major thoroughfares in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Development of any scale south of 32nd Avenue commences only in the early 21st century.

00 Year Built All NN

The 1940s

The earliest post-war housing was largely infilling in established residential areas.

1940s Year Built

The Riverside neighborhood expanded to the north with the Baukol’s Subdivision which saw construction as early as 1946. Several of these homes (301 Park Ave. (32GF3427) and 302 Park Ave (32GF3428) are listed as a contributing property to the Riverside Historic neighborhood as are two nearby homes on 3rd Street which is part of the Skidmore Addition (1705 (32GF3295) and 1715 (32GF1396); a modified bungalow and a plain residential home respectively). The homes of the Baukol subdivision show considerably continuity with development in this area in 1920s. The founding of Riverside Park in the early 20th century undoubted drew early residents to this neighborhood as the construction of the Riverside Pool by WPA in 1941 attracted families in the post-war period.


A similar form of development which largely followed interwar patterns of urban expansion also occurred between downtown and the University of North Dakota especially along 1st and 2nd avenue in the Decotah Place and Budge and Eshelman’s 3rd Addition subdivisions.

South of town likewise saw infilling particularly to the west of Cherry Street and south of 10th Avenue North. The growth of this area contributed to the construction of Lewis and Clarke Elementary School in 1953 and sometime in the late 1950s, Calvary Luthern Church at the intersection of Cherry and 15th avenue. One of the most significant subdivision of the 1940s in this area and Letnes Subdivision is interesting for the shape of the evocatively named “Sunset Drive” which curves to the north and divides leaving a small, leaf-shaped island of grass in the middle fo the two roads. Curiously this area of the city lacked alleyways suggesting that the neighborhood followed more progressive design standards that were not seen in Grand Forks until the 1960s.


The 1950s

Throughout the 1950s, Grand Forks continues to expand to the west and south.

1950s Year Built

To the west, housing continued to fill in the neighborhoods between the university and downtown, with the much of the neighborhoods between Washington Street and the University, south of Gateway Drive (US Route 2) being filled in by mid 1950s. This prompted the construction first, in 1949, of West Elementary and then in the mid-1950s Valley Junior High. The neighborhoods in this area, the Swangler, Westacott, Westwood, University Place, and three Kelsey Subdivisons surrounding University Park, largely follow the urban grid and lack curved roads or other features associated with suburban trends elsewhere in the city. They also maintained the presence of north-south running alley ways.


A similar tendency to follow the urban grid occurred in the earliest subdivisions established to the west of Washington Street and south of Demers. The names of several of the subdivisions in this area, however, evoke bucolic images of suburban idyl and the concept of the Garden City: Westward Acres and the Garden Home Addition. These developments extend along the developing commercial corridor of Washington Street which experienced the construction of several retail establishments, restaurants, and businesses including the towns first shopping centers. These new commercial building were set back from Washington Street and were fronted by large parking lots designed to accommodate customers who used the new arterial roads of Washington Street and Demers to move from their homes to work, shopping, school, and other activities throughout the city.

South of 15th Avenue several new subdivisions appeared which continued to follow the urban grid of Grand Forks, but incorporate curving streets continuing a trend initiated by the Letnes Subdivision in the 1940s. Chestnut Street swoops south of 15th and provides access to a group of homes set into the center of the block. The contemporary Robertson Subdivision developed throughout the mid-1950s features a gently curving road and a cul-de-sac, which emerged as perhaps the quintessential form of suburban planning. The sinuous shape of Campbell Drive that connects Cherry Street and Chestnut between the 17th and Park Avenue in the Hvidston Subdivision even allowed for three, open, fanshaped lots on the outside of a curve that served as a baseball field for nearly a decade before being filled in with homes in the mid-1960s.


To the west of Cherry, the urban grid remained largely intact and the area developed with slightly smaller homes and smaller lots through the 1950s. East of Cherry, few new homes stood south of 24th by 1959. In contrast, Belmont Avenue with its larger lots and homes was nearly all developed up until 32nd Avenue. Most of the development north of 24th avenue in the 1950s continued to feature alleys even when developers incorporated more curved roads into the suburban plan.

The 1960s

The 1960s witnessed more adventurous development.

1960s Year Built

Olson’s subdivision east of Belmont featured large lots set along curving roads that suggested the shape of the Red River. Park land near the river offered opportunities for recreation and mitigated, to some extent, the risk of flooding which after the 1997 flood required the installation of the flood wall and the removal of some homes.


To the east of Belmont the White Clover subdivision and Sunset Acres Subdivisions with curving roads that complicated the urban grid with bucolically named roads like Olive and Clover Drive. On 32nd Avenue between Cherry St. and Washington, Schroeder Junior High opened in 1961 in anticipation of Grand Forks’ southern growth and, next door, Kelly Elementary opened in 1966 to serve these communities. On the northeastern corner of the block, the new building of the local Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints opened its doors in 1966. Unlike Schroeder, designed by Wells Denbrook, this modern church followed the Adams 1 (AD 61-577) plan developed my the central Mormon Church committee which was thoroughly modern in form and could be easily expanded to accommodate a growing congregation.

1960sSubdivisions GIS DETAIL

To the west of Washington Street, the second level of development occurred south of west of 17th street and south of 11th avenue with the large Burke’s Home Addition anchored to the north by Ben Franklin Elementary which was opened in 1960 and Red River High School in 1967. The most significant mid-century addition to this area, however, was North Dakota’s first indoor shopping mall, South Forks Plaza (now Grand Cities Mall) in 1964. Designed by the firm of DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy, which also designed Ben Franklin Elementary, Holy Family Church and School (1961) just east of Washington, and Lewis and Clarke Elementary (1952/3) several blocks to the north, it included a K-Mart and a Sears store and a modular design that allowed the Kmart to open before the mall was even complete. To the west of the mall, the Valley Park subdivision, built slightly before the mall, consisted of two u-shaped roads, Willow and Dress, that were not through streets. The subdivision included walking paths connecting it to the mall and the burgeoning Washington Street commercial and retail corridor. The balance between the design which limited through traffic and the convenience of walking paths to retail shops embodied many of the key design elements of mid-century suburban design.


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