Midcentury Landscapes of Grand Forks, North Dakota

Next week, I’m giving my first paper as a historic archaeologist. It’ll be on the midcentury landscape of Grand Forks, North Dakota and summarize a series of projects that my wife and I have been working on under the auspices of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. Here’s the information about my paper and a sign up link and the like.  The main reason that I’m delivering the paper is that Susie is running the conference, but her work is absolutely central to what I’ll have to say (and it’s a comfort to know that she’ll be in attendance, if someone asks me a hard question!). You can read more about our work here

My current plan it to keep my paper to between 15 and 20 minutes and divide it into three parts. Here’s a bit of a draft. 

Part the First

I probably don’t need to explain the challenge facing historical preservation and heritage officials in the 21st century as the massive number of buildings and sites constructed during the post war decades become eligible for National Register nomination. We’ve casually estimated that in Grand Forks alone over 5000 buildings will become potentially eligible for nomination on the basis of the 50 year rule alone (which isn’t to say that these buildings will be good candidates!). Over the last few years, the Historic Preservation Commission has embarked upon a concerted effort to develop a critical inventory of our mid-century buildings which will hopefully guide our efforts to preserve, document, and interpret the post-war landscape of our community. My brief remarks today will sketch out our work and look a bit to future projects.  

As an aside, I have a bit of sentimental attachment to this problem in past because one of the earliest efforts to frame this situation was Rebecca Siders, Susan Chase, and David Ames 1992 historical context for suburbanization in New Castle County, Delaware which, in turn, inspired Ames’s and McClelland’s National Register guidelines for evaluating and documenting residential suburbs. I grew up amid the suburbs studies by Siders, Chase, and Ames and so the work with the Grand Forks Historical Preservation Commission gave me a chance to think about both my new and my old homes.

To return to Grand Forks, we are very fortunate to have a solid foundation for the study of the post-war development of the town. Steve Martens context study of the important local architecture firm, Well-Denbrook (led by Theodore Wells and, from 1949, Myron Denbrook) traced a major influence in the introduction and development of mid-century architecture in the region. To take just one example, their studio at 1701 Cherry Street sits amid a thriving mid-century neighborhood and from its construction in 1959 advertised the aesthetic and practical merits of the Desert Modern style with its explicit and exposed use of modern materials, low-slung style with long horizontal windows, and deep overhanging eaves. It is at present the only individually listed mid-century building in Grand Forks.

Two years ago, the Wells-Denbrook studio was happily joined by a six-pack of mid-century schools which formed a multi-property nomination. These schools shared many of the key architectural features of the Denbrook designed studio including sprawling low-set design, the use of visible, modern structural elements, recessed entrances, and overhanging eaves. Situated adjacent to parks and green spaces in newly developed neighborhoods, these schools responded to a population inflated by the post-war baby boom and the movement of people into Grand Forks from surrounding rural communities. Grand Forks’ population further benefited from the growth of the University, the opening of the Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1957, and ongoing development of post-war transportation links that connected the city to the region and the world. Here we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the Grand Forks Municipal Airport terminal built in modern “WPA” style opened in 1941 and represented a harbinger of things in the city. This building was approved for the National Register in 2020.

Part the Second

In 2020, amid the COVID pandemic which grounded most of my fieldwork plans, the Grand Forks commission undertook a systematic “windshield” survey of mid-century housing. We had four goals for this survey. First, we aimed to produce a basic inventory of the nearly 4000 homes built between 1945 and 1970. We also sought to identify any particularly notable examples that might have ties to a “named architect. On a more mundane level, we wanted to establish a local typology of housing architecture and finally determine where and whether particularly well-preserved neighborhoods or streetscapes existed around town.

We did this by merging data from city records with autopsy which allowed us to create GIS maps of the city that not only tracked its growth, but also to identify key trends in the development of mid-century housing. For housing types, we followed NDCRS Architectural Site Form Manual and identified each according to six well-established types Plain Residential, Cape Cod, Ranch/Rambler, New Traditional, Hip Roof Box, or Prairie (or Desert) Contemporary. 

This work allowed us to understand some basic trends in the development of mid-century housing in Grand Forks. The earliest post-war trends in housing saw both the infilling of pre-war neighborhood along the existing urban grid and the establishment of new subdivisions with new characteristics. On the one hand, houses built on infilled lots prior to 1950 tended to rather varied in style with pre-war housing forms – namely plain residential – sharing the street with more contemporary Cape Cod (revival), hip roof box, and ranch style homes.  On the other hand,  there were signs of new standards in neighborhood design emerging. For example, the Letnes subdivision featured 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 lots in this subdivision were larger than pre-war lots and the neighborhood also included some of the earliest “ranch/rambler” style architecture. 

The 1950s saw the appearance of Prairie or Desert modern style homes, particularly in more affluent subdivisions that extended south of Grand Forks traditional downtown. These rubbed shoulders with increasingly common ranch or rambler style homes in neighborhoods set along curving tree lined streets and arranged close to newly constructed mid-century schools and churches. The unpaved alleyways of common the pre-war street grid make way for larger backyards and front facing garages. These features both mark the arrival of automobile culture to Grand Forks and new expectations of privacy where larger lots and back yards before a focus of family life. By the end of the decade, Grand Forks’ mid-century neighborhoods enjoyed tree-lined streetscapes defined by the regular rhythm of lawn, sidewalk, driveway which were common across the United States. 

By the 1960s, curving streets and ranch style homes stretched ever further south from the traditional downtown and complemented with the growth of South Washington Street as a major commercial corridor featuring shopping centers fronted by parking lots and by 1964, the state’s first indoor mall, the South Forks Plaza designed by DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy. This firm, the descendant of Joseph and Samual Bell DeRemer’s important interwar practice, also designed churches, such as Holy Family Catholic Church (1961) and schools, such as Lewis and Clark Elementary (1952/3) and contributed alongside Wells-Denbrook to produce an emerging mid-century architectural koine. It is worth noting that Grand Forks also saw the occasional building by more national architects such as Edward Sovik’s Calvary Lutheran Church (1962) and the 1966 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which followed the nationally syndicated “Adams 1” plan. 

Part the Third

As this brief summary of our work to inventory post-war housing has shown, mid-century Grand Forks represents not only a significant expansion of the city’s single family housing stock, but also the emergence of an urban landscape influenced by national trends in architecture and planning. To develop a comprehensive image of how Grand Forks developed during the post-war period and to understand the challenges associating with preserving representative aspects of the mid-century urban landscape, we need to consider the interplay not only between pre-war and post-war development in Grand Forks, but also the relationship between mid-century housing, schools, churches, commercial buildings, and green spaces in town. At present, we have studies of schools and an inventory of mid-century homes and we feel like this is a good start. 

Our next steps, which will begin in 2021, involve the nomination of one of the earliest post-war subdivisions, the Baukol subdivision, for the National Register. Standing immediately adjacent to the National Register listed Riverside Neighborhood with its 1941 WPA pool pavilion and typical pre-war housing, the Baukol subdivision was largely constructed in 1946 and is a remarkably well-preserved neighborhood. The plain residential style homes reflect considerable continuity with the Riverside Neighborhood, but also show the signs of new trends in housing including the use of new materials and their consistency in style. 

We also plan to assess the remains of the 1950s flood wall established to mitigate the dangers of the Red Rivers springtime floods. The immediate predecessor to the more massive and intrusive post-1997 flood wall, the 1950s flood wall represented the post-war effort to protect the growing suburban sprawl of the city from the vicissitudes of the river and played a significant role in the reimagining of Grand Forks as a mid-century community. 

We also are looking ahead to future projects which involve inventorying mid-century church architecture and commercial buildings which play such a key role in establishing the distinctive mid-century character to Grand Forks southern neighborhoods. At present we have only inventoried single family homes, but we recognize Grand Forks has a remarkable assemblage of post-war apartment complexes that, consistent with national trends, were integral to mid-century suburban planning. They not only allowed families to remain within the same subdivision even as their housing needs and expectations changed, but also offered flexible housing for an increasingly mobile post-war population.  

We can also imagine initiatives designed to document the impact of urban renewal efforts and the construction of new roads, bridges, and community infrastructure such as the library and police station. The new features often tell the story of Grand Forks’ ongoing negotiation of priorities between the traditional urban core and new neighborhoods (which embodied new attitudes, expectations, and needs) to the south and west of town. 

Finally, there is a sense of urgency motivating this work. As the city of Grand Forks continues to expand and change, mid-century buildings are increasingly at risk. Just last week, the Grand Forks School District announced that it would close several of the mid-century schools and consolidate their functions. As a result, the fate of these mid-century buildings is unclear as is the distinctly mid-century character of their surrounding neighborhoods. The historically significant South Forks Plaza (now Grand Cities Mall) and other commercial structures along the South Washington Street corridor continue to undergo modification which is both consistent with the adaptability of their mid-century design, but also risks compromising the legibility of their relationship spatially and architecturally with their surrounding neighborhoods. As a recent example, the closure of the Highlander bar (1962) and the very recent removal of its iconic sign has made mid-century streetscape of Grand Forks less visible on this busy thoroughfare and risks obscuring the key role of neighborhood watering holes in maintaining continuity with earlier, pre-automobile, defined social habits.

It goes without saying that the human memories so vital to making the history of mid-century Grand Forks legible and vibrant also continue to diminish with time. We hope that our efforts so far and in the future will preserve both the monuments and the memories of our mid-century community.

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