Grand Forks and the Cold War

As summer winds down and I’m starting to gear up for an uncertain fall semester, I’ve started to think about ways in which some of my little research projects this summer work together.

At the start of the summer, I spent a good bit of time working on a big “windshield survey” of mid-century housing in Grand Forks. This project had three main goals: (1) identify architecturally significant housing from between 1945-1970, (2) develop a sense for the overall character of mid-century housing including trends in housing styles, and (3) trace the expansion of residential housing and neighborhoods in Grand Forks from 1945-1975.   In compliance with our contract, we have no only surveyed around 37,000 houses and produced maps showing the development of housing over time in the city. We are also preparing about 20 more detailed reports on houses that are architecturally distinctive or are representative of particular styles of housing in town. 

At the same time that this project was underway, I started to work on a pair of chapters for my slowly progressing book that considered the impact of post-War and Cold War architecture and ideology on the American landscape. From the rise of communities centered around 20th-century monuments to consumer culture (e.g. malls and shopping centers) and reimagined forms of schools and churches, to the privileging of new high-tech, synthetic, “space age” materials, late-20th century, the Cold War’s emphasis on capitalism, the social conformity mediated by “mainstream” Protestantism and new educational ideas and practices, and the use of technology permeated everyday life in Grand Forks. 

While these trends were national in scope, Grand Forks also had a more proximate reminder of the Cold War. In 1955, the US Air Force started construction on the Grand Forks Air Force base which was initially designed to serve the Air Defense Force’s 478th Fighter Group and the 18th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. The base ultimately became a center for the Strategic Air Command’s B-52 bombers (and later B-1Bs and refueling plains), and a range of dispersed radar installations and ICBMs as well as the Sentinel Anti-Ballistic Missile system. In short, the Grand Forks Air Force Base was an important node in Cold War nuclear deterrent as well as the defense of the United States from Soviet missiles.

In some way, then, the GFAFB and the city of Grand Forks represented a complimentary pair of places that reflected the reach of Cold War ideas from the military to the civilian landscape. The growth of the University of North Dakota supported in part by the post-War GI bill and federal grants designed to accelerate the development of science and technology and the construction of Interstate 29 in the late 1950s as part of Eisenhower’s efforts to create a network of standardized roads that would allow for the rapid movement of military equipment throughout the US. 

That the first wave of post-War development in Grand Forks occurred between the early 20th century downtown and the campus of the University of North Dakota is hardly surprising. This pattern of development continued pre-War trends, but also reflected the growing significance of UND to the local economy and community. The construction of Interstate-29 emphasized the north-south development of residential and commercial areas in the city and encouraged development to the south of town. This, paradoxically, drew Grand Forks away from the Grand Forks Air Force Base west of town creating a clear geographic division between the civilian world of the city and the military world of the base. As housing in Grand Forks extended to the south so did new commercial corridors including shopping centers and shopping malls that benefited from easy access to the interstate 

 As we start to wrap up this project, we’ve also begun to think of other features that associate Grand Forks with the Cold War. For example, we wondered how many buildings in Grand Forks included bomb or fallout shelters. We know of at least one or two examples of houses with private fallout shelters in their basements and as well as a few rusting fallout shelter signs that remain visible on public buildings. We also wondered about the relationship between architects and construction companies working in Grand Forks and those on the GFAFB. We know, for example, that both schools on the GFAFB –  Carl Ben Eielson Elementary and Nathan Twining Middle School – share the mid-century modern design of contemporary Grand Forks schools. More than that, the USAF championed mid-century modern design throughout their bases. The affinity, then, between the designs of homes, schools, and commercial establishment in Grand Forks and at the base reflected reciprocal paths of influence that defined how the modern world should look architecturally, geographically, and, of course, politically.

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