Local Knowledge: Housing and the Growth of Grand Forks 1945-1970

Over the last nine months or so, I’ve been slowly pecking away at a report for the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission that I’m writing with Susan Caraher. Susan did the fieldwork and I’m doing some of the analysis and writing on the project. 

I’ve blogged about some of this before (you can follow the links in this post here), but over the last couple of days, I’ve worked to fold in the results of Susan’s fieldwork (including a number of formally documented homes that are characteristic of the architecture of the city) and a more careful analysis based on our the GIS. Stay tuned for some maps and charts and the like (although I’ve offered drafts of them in earlier posts). 

In any event, this might be mostly of interest only to folks from town here, but I’m moderately happy with how this has turned out so far. 

Here’s the meat our analysis (a more historical and historiographic introduction will precede this section):

The defining characteristic mid-century urban change is suburbanization and the changes to Grand Forks blended together features of interwar urban growth with new expectations and forms of housing informed by national trends. Thus, suburbanization, which was generally understood as a feature of cities with dense urban cores, came to also shape the urban landscape of smaller, less densely built up cities across the US. Like conventional suburbanization, the expansion of Grand Forks was spurred by improvements in transportation especially the widespread purchase of automobiles and the post-war economy which supported new rings of housing around large and mid-sized cities across the US (Jackson 1985; Hayden 2003). The suburbs 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 century culture and instilled values which would become distinct to characterization of the American way of life. The apartment dwelling The 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). Any consideration of mid-century housing in Grand Forks requires a careful review of post-war urban change in the city and a broad reading of suburbanization forms a useful point of departure for this study.

Small cities like Grand Forks experienced suburbanization in slightly different forms from 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 15th Avenue S. 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 book, The Organization Man (1956) where he showed that attention to the arrangement of suburban developments shaped social relationships between neighbors. For example, parties that took place in Park Forest, Illinois tended to attract neighbors across the street from one another as opposed to across backyard fences; friendships were also more likely to occur between next-door neighbors whose driveways were adjacent to one another (Whyte 1956: 330-340). More recently, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (1996) demonstrated how personal narratives, economic motivations, and spiritual experiences became embedded in post-war suburban landscapes where shopping centers, churches, schools, and homes created a new social contexts for American life. 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.

Thus, the expansion of the city from 1945-1970 followed the existing urban grid and extended along established arteries, but at the same time, pushed against the limits of this plan by introducing curved streets, eliminating intrablock alleyways, and increasing lot sizes. Certain limits provide more intractable, however. The northwestern course of the Red River and the industrial areas surrounding the North Dakota Mill and Elevator contained the northern expansion of the city. To the west, the expansion of the University of North Dakota campus, the Grand Forks municipal airport, and Interstate 29 discouraged expansion in that direction. In contrast, open agricultural land south of town and the existence of arterial roads running parallel to the river which included the Belmont Road which was originally part of the Meridian Highway (later US 81) invited growth. The construction of the Demers overpass and the expansion of Washington Street and Columbia Road facilitated the flow of traffic from downtown and the university district south toward new development. That the Demers overpass and late-1960s urban renewal efforts destroyed residential districts in the Near Southside further marked a shift from the smaller lots and homes of the urban core to larger lots and automobile culture of the south side. This development ultimately prompted 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 commenced only in the early 21st century.


The earliest post-war housing was largely infilling in established residential areas and this largely followed the pattern of the mid-1920s building boom in the city (Pietsch 1935: 206-208). 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. and 302 Park Ave are listed as a contributing property to the Riverside Historic neighborhood as are two nearby homes on North 3rd Street which is part of the Skidmore Addition (1705 and 1715; a modified bungalow and a plain residential home respectively). The homes of the Baukol Subdivision show considerably continuity with development in this area in the 1920s and were predominantly plain residential in style. 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. Architectural styles are highly varied from each other though the new, modern styles are evident with single-family Ranch, hipped roof box, and Cape Cod all occupying the same street. Since this area was largely infilling lots between established neighborhoods, the lot sizes were modest (around 6500 square feet), and more or less consistent with lot sized in the Riverside neighborhood. One conspicuous feature of several homes in this area is the use of glass block as an architectural feature reminiscent of nearby West Elementary, the only extant nominated mid-century school to use this material (eg: 1715 2nd Ave N (1946); 2602 5th Ave N.(1949); 1501 6th Ave N. (1947)).

South of town likewise saw infilling particularly to the west of Cherry Street and south of 10th Avenue North. The growth of this area anticipated the construction of Lewis and Clarke Elementary School in 1953, Viking Elementary School in 1957, and Edward Sövik’s Calvary Lutheran Church (1962) at the intersection of Cherry and 15th Avenue (Buggen 2015). Letnes’ Subdivision is one of the most significant and sophisticated subdivisions of the 1940s in Grand Forks and shows evidence for creative engagement with urban planning in 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 of the two roads. The house at 812 Letnes and 711 15th Avenue S in the plain residential style is typical of the architecture of this period and subdivision (812 Letnes and 711 15th Avenue S ). Nearly 70% of existing homes from the 1940s in Grand Forks follow variations on the plain residential plan. The Letnes subdivision is distinct, however, for some of the earliest appearance of Ranch/Rambler style homes that would come to dominate Grand Forks housing from the late 1950s to 1970. These homes, the appearance of curved streets, and the absence of alleyways suggesting that the neighborhood followed more progressive design standards that were not seen elsewhere in Grand Forks until the 1960s. The houses in the Letnes Subdivision were mostly over 1100 square feet in size and this make them significant larger than the 950 square foot homes in the Baukol subdivision. The lots were correspondingly larger as well, with the curving streets making the average lot size almost 50% larger than those in Baukol. If the Baukol subdivision continued interwar housing trends in Grand Forks which was appropriate for the largely interwar Riverside neighborhood, the Letnes subdivision clearly anticipated later post-war housing that came to characterize homes on the south side.

The 1950s

Throughout the 1950s, Grand Forks continued to infill lots between the commercial core of the city and the university with the continued growth the neighborhoods between Washington Street and the University, south of Gateway Drive (US Route 2) continuing into the middle years of this decade. This growth prompted the construction of West Elementary, in 1948, and then Valley Junior High School in the mid-1950s. 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. Correspondingly, the houses are as likely to be hipped roof box style or plain residential as more contemporary ranch/ramblers with various housing styles sometimes alternating on the same street and dating to the same year. This, along with the small lot sizes characteristic of the urban grid (generally under 6500 square feet) correspondingly smaller homes (which continue to be average around 1050 square feet), ensured that these neighborhoods maintained their interwar form even as more mid-century modern architecture appeared in their midst.

There were some exceptions, however, such as Columbia Court, a u-shaped road that abuts the northwest corner of West Elementary grounds. This small u-shaped street is the width of one residential block. A Neighborhood Watch sign is prominently displayed as one enters the quiet street that gives a sense of a group of residents who are familiar with one another. It featured a more consistent lineup of ranch/ramblers including a one built in 1957 with low pitched roof, overhanging eaves and a recessed entrance that invoked mid-century modern styling cues (157 Columbia Court). The neighborhood also maintained the presence of north-south running alley ways, but the lots here were generally larger than elsewhere in Swangler’s Subdivision average over 7300 square feet in size and with larger homes of over 1100 square feet.

A more common approach to the limitations of the urban grid occurred in the earliest subdivisions established to the west of Washington Street and south of Demers. Despite the neatly organized grid of homes, the names of at least one subdivisions in this area evoked bucolic images of suburban idyl and the concept of the Garden City: Garden Home Addition. The mid-1950s saw the development of the area south of Demers and west of the emerging commercial corridor of Washington Street which provided these homes convenient access to retail establishments, restaurants, and businesses including the town’s first shopping centers. These new commercial buildings 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. These neighborhoods would continue to see new construction from the mid-1950s and through the 1960s and remain one of the best-preserved area of mid-century modern housing in Grand Forks.

East of Washington and south of 15th Avenue several new subdivisions appeared which engaged the urban grid of Grand Forks in more create ways by incorporating the curving streets anticipated 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 (of which only a few survive from the 1997 flood). The home at 1521 Chestnut St is among the earliest to Grand Forks to adopt the fashionable “prairie contemporary” style and stands on a large (18,000 square foot) lot. Immediately to the west of this stretch of Chestnut is the contemporary Robertson Subdivision which combined a gently curving road and a cul-de-sac, which is the quintessential form of suburban planning and allowed for larger lots. The sinuous shape of Campbell Drive that connects Cherry Street and Chestnut between the 17th and Park Avenue in the Hvidston Subdivision likewise allowed for three, open, fan-shaped lots on the outside of a curve. It may be that these large lots were harder to develop and they served as a baseball field for nearly a decade before being filled in with homes in the mid-1960s. The Hvidston subdivision featured the largest concentration of prairie contemporary houses in the city clustered along Campbell Drive and along Chestnut (e.g. 501 17th Avenue South, but was otherwise dominated by Ranch/Ramblers which by the mid-1950s had become the most common form of domestic architecture (e.g. 501 17th Avenue South). As significantly, this neighborhood featured more attached garages than elsewhere in town. Accessed by driveways extending from the front of the houses, the front facing, attached garage made the alley way that continued to run behind the house redundant. It also emphasized a design focused on the modern amenities and convenience of burgeoning car culture. Unsurprisingly houses in plain residential and Cape Cod style popular in the interwar years are largely absent in these fashionable mid-century neighborhoods. Simpler homes tended used the hipped roof box which became more frequently throughout Grand Forks during this decade (e.g. 17th Ave. South, 1015 Letnes).

Between Cherry Street and Washington, the urban grid remained largely intact and the area developed with slightly smaller homes and smaller lots through the 1950s. Most homes were in ranch/rambler styles. A number of prairie contemporary houses appear in these neighborhoods as well almost always with attached garages (e.g. 1502 10th St. South). The appearance of multifamily homes in these neighborhoods in the 1950s deserves more attention, but suggests that these areas offered more affordable housing.

The 1960s

The 1960s witnessed both more adventurous development of the urban grid and, perhaps ironically, more consistent architectural styles. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the development of Olson’s addition east of Belmont Avenue which featured large lots which averaged over 16,000 square feet 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 Avenue the White Clover and Sunset Acres Subdivisions with curving roads complicated the urban grid with bucolically named streets like Olive and Clover Drive. On 32nd Avenue between Cherry St. and Washington, Schroeder Junior High opened in 1961 in anticipation of Grand Forks’s 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 (Jackson 2003, 270). The lots in this area were large (averaging 10,500 square feet) and the homes were over 1200 square feet marking a significant increase in size from the 1000 square foot homes of the immediate post-war decade.

To the west of Washington Street, the second level of development occurred south 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 K-Mart 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 streets, Willow and Drees, that were not through roads. The lots here while smaller than east of Washington Street featured homes of 1100 square feet in contemporary, albeit ubiquitous, ranch/rambler styles. 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. The u-shape of these streets contributed to a sense of close community and neighborliness with homes oriented toward each other and traffic tends to be more local.

The architecture of neighborhoods from the 1960s was almost entirely ranch/ramblers of various designs. By the mid-1960s all other forms of domestic architecture had effectively disappeared including prairie contemporary that had enjoyed some popularity in more affluent neighborhoods in the 1950s and early 1960s. By the 1960s, the overwhelming number of homes in Grand Forks had attached garages signaling the full arrival of automobile culture. Lots were larger and the square footage of homes also continued its steady increase with the average home exceeding 1200 square feet. As alleys began to disappear, driveways from the street front become a dominant feature of streetscapes. Many Additions in Grand Forks reflect the characteristics of nationally documented developments described in Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs 1945-1965 (2015) and D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land (ref) with repetitive linear arrangements of lawn, driveway, and walkway and so on for the length of each residential block. Such a characteristic mid-century streetscape appears on Walnut Street between 28th Avenue S. and 32nd Avenue S (Fig. xx). A planted tree stands on the berm in front of each house, and those houses tend to be situated the same distance from the sidewalk as their neighbor. As homes were built closer to the sidewalk and alleys no longer bisected the block, backyards increase in size. As xxxx notes in his reflection of his childhood home, building houses closer to the street had a practical and fiscal benefit for a developer with the shortening of distance for utilities and construction such as driveways. Neighborhoods around the country were being built at a fast pace, so cost- and time-saving measures were adopted by developers.

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