Recent Research on Mid Century Grand Forks

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll have encountered some of my recent work on the mid-century architecture and landscape of Grand Forks, North Dakota. That said, I’m giving a paper today at the North Dakota CLG conference which presents the work that I’ve done with my wife, Susan Caraher, on mid-century Grand Forks alongside some significant recent work done by the folks in Bismarck.  

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’re probably pretty familiar with what I’m going to say in this paper, but I’ve added some snazzy powerpoint slides and I think the perspective offered in this paper is rather more polished than in other iterations.

If you’re interested in hearing me give this paper in the flesh, the conference is open to the public and registration is free. You can register for today’s session here.

Or you can read the paper that I’ll deliver here: Recent Research on Mid-Century Grand Forks.

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.

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.

What are things like at the University of North Dakota?

It now seems there are a few new questions in nearly every conversation: Are you online or face-to-face? How are [COVID related] things there [on your campus]? How is your institution handling things? Will you come back after Thanksgiving? What is your institution’s plan for the spring? How many cases?

Since this seems to be a topic of significant interest, I thought that I’d give a little review of what’s happening at UND.

First, our COVID numbers are really good. This morning, the UND COVID dashboard tells me that we have about 44 self-reported cases (39 are students) in the campus community. This is down from over 400 in late August. We seem to be averaging around (and, yeah, I’m too lazy to run the numbers) 5 new cases a day over the last few weeks and at present have 52 people in quarantine or isolation at local hotels. 

We also test about 3 days a week and judging by the numbers, these tests are attended and convenient.   

Second, it would appear that UND’s numbers are not major factor in the number of cases in Grand Forks County. In other words, the influx of college students do not seem to be aa major influence on number of COVID cases in town. I suspect that UND’s aggressive testing, mask policies, contact tracing, and capacity to quarantine and isolate both infected and exposed students has helped stem the kind of rapidly spreading outbreak that many folks feared. UND has averaged 5.3 new cases per day over the last 7 days while Grand Forks has averaged close to 25 new cases per day.

These numbers are less comparable if they’re not normalized per, say, 100,000 or whatever. Unfortunately, I don’t know the total size of the the UND population (students, faculty, and staff) to normalize that number. More than that the Grand Forks dashboard seems to offer average number of cases per 100,000 which is not something that I can easily compare to data from UND’s dashboard which shows NEW cases per day because it’s not clear how many individuals have recovered. In any event, this kind of fuzziness is understandable because the two dashboard have different goals. The county’s dashboard is trying to understand the number of active COVID cases to get a sense for the potential spread of COVID whereas the UND dashboard is concerned about the rate of its spread.

Third, I continue to teach face-to-face and have a new appreciation for being in the classroom. My classes however, have been impacted by COVIDs. Not only have some of my students been isolated or quarantined for various lengths of time, but my larger class (45 students) is being taught as a hybrid course. I meet once a week for about 40 minutes with 3 groups of 15 students. The rest of the class takes place online.

In my experience students have been incredibly conscientious about mask wearing and social distancing. I’ve felt no need to police university COVID policies in my classes and students seem respectful of both their own personal space and that of their fellow students.

That being said, I think some discontinuities in the digital environment have made seamless communication between students and faculty a bit more challenging than I expected. Students tend to prefer Snapchat and group texts to communicate, whereas my official correspondence remains confined to Blackboard and email (and frankly, I don’t want to be on a student Snapchat or group text chain!).

That being said, I’m excited to participate in a program funded, I suspect, by CARES money, designed to help us develop more effective hybrid classes moving forward.

I’ve also discovered that with all the uncertainty students (and I suspect colleagues as well!) constantly waver back and forth between the desire for structure – due dates, regular class meetings, clear expectations – and flexibility. Trying to strike that balance will continue to be a challenge for me especially since I tend toward a very flexible approach to teaching and expectations.

Finally, our community has not enforced a mask mandate and has generally done little officially to manage the spread of COVID. That being said (and I know there are those who will disagree with me), most of the people I see out and about wear masks and social distance. I suspect more people stay home than feel a need to go out to socialize. And I think that there is a strong sense that we’re all in this together that connects town and gown. 

The numbers in North Dakota have received national attention for their continued rise even as other states have made serious strides in controlling the spread of COVID. In our community, I remain guardedly optimistic that the combination of thoughtful policies by UND and a strong sense of cohesion among residents in Grand Forks county will prevent major spikes. If we can make it into the cooler months of the winter when socialize naturally slows down and isolation becomes a normal state for much of the community, we might be spared the worst of the COVID surge. Only time will tell. 

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.

Trends in Grand Forks Housing 1945-1970

One of the things that I’ve been gently working on over the last few weeks has been the analysis of some of the data that we’ve collected from Grand Forks on mid-century housing. We’re still at the early stage of trying to understand patterns and it goes without saying that what we’ve documented are the houses that still exist, rather than those that were built or lived in.As a result, our data will be skewed by preservation.

That being said, when we look at the location and date that the houses were built, they appear to follow larger trends in the development of the city. While a few outliers exist — that is houses that are much earlier or later than the houses around them — most of the houses in Grand Forks are consistent with their neighbors. Of course, certain neighborhoods were lost entirely, but Lincoln Park and parts of Riverside appear mostly to have been pre-war meaning that they might not skew our data on post war housing, by too much. 

For example, the chart below shows the main types of housing present in Grand Forks.


The most common type from the mid-1950s on were the 1-storey ranch or rambler. Prior to that period, though, there was considerable variety in housing with Cape Cods, Hip-roofed boxes, and various plain residential styles side-by-side in neighborhoods. In the mid-1950s, Grand Forks saw the construction of a number of houses in the “Prairie” or “Desert” contemporary style. It’s tempting to connect these with the construction of the iconic Wells-Denbrook studio building on Cherry Street which was built in 1954 in the Desert Contemporary style, but it’s more likely that their studio was part of a larger trend.

Another little query that we could run simply was the rise of the attached garage. This was the manifestation of two trends. First, most detached garages faced alleys and by the late-1950s, most homes in Grand Forks no longer had alley access.  


By the early 1960s, the convenience of an attached garage which mostly opened onto the front of the house was a desirable, if not mandatory feature, for new construction. The role of the front facing garage (sometimes puckishly called “garage with attached home”) in defining late-20th century domestic architecture (and a scourge of 21st century architecture) emerged as part of the changing relationship between the house and the alleyway and the rise of automobile culture. 

It’s nice when the data we’ve collected reveals these trends so clearly.

Houses also got bigger in Grand Forks between 1945 and 1970. Again, this shows their square footage TODAY rather than when they were built, but I would guess that the basic trend toward larger homes is consistent. 


In 1945 and 1946, the average home was under 1000 square feet; by the late-1940s, home had gotten larger and the trend continues through the 1960s. The year 1960 remains a strange anomaly in our data with only 50 homes built and they tend to be a bit larger than pervious or subsequent years. We need to try to figure out what’s going on then (and whether it’s a data problem or something “real”). By the early 1960s, the average home was over 1200 square feet where it remained for the rest of our study period.

An Inventory of Midcentury Housing in Grand Forks, North Dakota

This summer, I’ve been working with the local Historic Preservation Commission here in Grand Forks to prepare an inventory of mid-century housing in community. For my part, I’ve mostly been doing the data and GIS side of the project, while Susan Caraher has been handling the field work side of things.

I know that I’ve blogged on this post before (here and here) and posted the following images as well, but since we’re directing some members of the Historic Preservation Commission who were not about to do video or attend last night’s meeting, we thought it would be useful to post them again.

Our work had three goals: (1) to identify any notable houses associated with prominent local or regional architects, (2) to inventory existing housing from this period, and (3) to make a contribution to the history of the growth of Grand Forks in the post-war period.

The first three images below show the expansion of Grand housing from 1945 to 1970. The first image shows 1940s housing in green and the empty squares represent pre-war housing as it currently exists in town. 

HPCM 1940s June6

As I noted last night, in Riverside, the Baukol Subdivision, at the very top of the map, represents one of the earliest and best preserved post-war subdivisions and it would make sense, in the future, to add this to the Riverside neighborhood historic district. At the southern most part of the 1940s development is the innovative Lentes’ Subdivision with its curved street which is another well preserved development of the immediate post-war period. The final area of growth is infill between the downtown and campus. 

The 1950s saw the area between downtown and campus to continue to infill and expand to the north following the street grid established at the turn of the century. The most vigorous area, of growth, of course was south of town (i.e. the “Mid Southside”) on both sides of Washington Street.

HPCM 1950s June6

Note the appearance of curving streets suggesting new ideas of urbanism influenced by suburban developments elsewhere in the US, but also the persistence of alley ways which were fundamental feature of Grand Forks from its earliest development.

The 1960s saw both infilling to the west of Washington Street (the Burke’s addition) which continued to feature alleyways between blocks. South of town (between 24th Avenue S and 32nd Avenue S) continued the trend toward curved “suburban streets” with developments that embraced many of the modern trends in planning.

HPCM 1960s June6

Over the last three weeks, we’ve also worked to identify the types of houses present in Grand Forks between 1945 and 1970. To do this we used established typologies common the region.


It will hardly surprise anyone that that ubiquitous North Dakota “Rambler” is the most common type of house in the post-war era. It is, however, worth noting that areas developed in the 1940s and early 1950s were characterized by pre-war housing types including Cape Cods, Hip-Roofed Boxes, and the Plain Residential styles. Desert Contemporary style homes with their flat roofs, deep eaves, and recessed entrances were clustered in areas developed in the mid-1950s and in more affluent areas of town such as Belmont Drive and Chestnut Street. It is interesting that houses in the Plain Residential style make a return to popularity in the later 1960s.

We identified a number of houses that are worth follow up documentation owing to their distinctive styles or their representative types from various periods. The red blobs on the map below show houses identified for further documentation.


As we noted at the onset of this project, this is just one step in our effort to understand, document, and hopefully preserve the mid-century landscape of Grand Forks. 

Update on the Grand Forks Project 1920 Project

Every project worth doing needs a catchy name. With that in mind, I’m christening my strange effort to reconcile the 1920 census with the 1920 street map of Grand Forks, the Grand Forks 1920 Project. Sadly, this does not have a catchy acronym, but hopefully some of the content will be intriguing enough to make up for it.

Over the past week, I finished assigning any available 2020 addresses to the addresses in the 1920 census. This is a challenge in some areas because our urban landscape has changed considerably over the last 100 years with entire neighborhoods being removed, large buildings with a single address replacing smaller residences each with their own address, and a change in street names and address numbers on some streets.

My main approach to reconciling the 1920 and 2020 street grid was using the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from 1916 which were a close enough approximation to 1920 urban grid to allow for a mostly convincing overlay. This allowed me to reconcile approximately 2000 of the 2800 distinct street addresses presented in the 1920 census.

Unfortunately, the Sanborn Maps do not cover the entire urban area of Grand Forks. The burgeoning Lincoln Park neighborhood, for example, was not on the Sanborn Map and is also not present on the contemporary parcel map for the city, having been removed after the flood in 1997. As a result, this neighborhood can only be recovered through a combination of 1960s aerial photos and a 1934 USGS map. So far this effort at recovery remains a work in progress.

One of the strange things is that the looping route of Boulevard Avenue caused the house numbers go up in number as they move toward the river unlike nearly all the addresses in Grand Forks with increase in number as they move west away from the river. Boulevard Avenue is preserved today as “Lincoln Drive” which runs through Lincoln Park.

I was far more successful in my effort to reconstruct the neighborhood immediately south of the Great Northern Railway line into town. This neighborhood was lost to urban renewal in the 1970s and stood approximately where the current Grand Forks Housing Authority apartments now stand. In 1920, this was a Jewish neighborhood centered on a Synagogue and a Hebrew school. 

The neighborhood is visible in the 1916 Sanborn Maps.

NWSouthSide Sanborn

This 1960 aerial photos.

NWSouthSide 1960s

And I was able to reconstruct the neighborhood here in GIS in light blue. These GIS units will allow me to place the census data on the map. 

NWSouthSide Recon

While I haven’t gotten down to the hard work of coding and then analyzing the 1920 census data, it’s hard to resist writing a tiny bit about some of the small things that have already come out of this work.

One thing that popped out to me was a small apartment building which stands on 624 5th Avenue N in what we call the Near Northside of Grand Forks. I’ve long worried that the Near Northside should be a designated historic neighborhood but for various reasons is not. This building today is called the Hampton Apartments, but when it was built between 1892 and 1897 it was known as the DeRoche Block.


It’s interesting in the 21st century because it’s the only standing turn of the century apartment block in town that is not either part of a historic district or individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For a listing of the turn of the century apartment blocks, check out the National Register nomination of the Skarbro Apartments. Moreover, it’s probably among the earliest standing apartment blocks in Grand Forks, predating the better-known Dinnie Apartments (with the nomination here) on S 6th Street and Gertrude/Belmont by about a decade.

With the 1920s census data we can say something about the folks who lived in the DeRoche Block. Of the 7 apartments, 4 were occupied by immigrants from Mexico, Norway, and Russia (two groups of Germans from Russia). The families tended to include adult children and seem to also include other adult relatives with different last names (whether through remarriage or as adult siblings). The apartments average 5 residents each. The residents worked across a range of jobs including for the railroad, as a blacksmith, at a candy company, grocery, and a bakery. One resident, an immigrant from Mexico, was a chef at a restaurant; a Norwegian immigrant was a retired farmer; another was a washer woman whose adult daughter was a housekeeper. 

We can compare, just for kicks, the residents of the DeRoche Block with those in the Dinnie Block built approximately 10 years later. Like at Deroche, half of the apartments had immigrant families. The Panovitz family were Russian (Lithuanian?) Jews, the Brynjilfams are listed as Irish, although I suspect they were Icelandic, Mary Maloney was a German from Luxembourg, and Maude Hinze was from Canada. The average number of residents in the 8 apartments was 3 and the residents tended to work in more affluent or at least respected professions including in real estate, as a conductor on the railroad, as a clergyman, a furniture merchant, and in commercial trades. It is notable that some of the families are multigenerational with grandparents and adult children living together. Mary Maloney’s granddaughter was a school teacher, for example, and Richard and Grace Mills and their daughter lived with Bjoinstefan and Mary Brynjilfam. 

This is just a start to this project, of course. Once I reconcile the addresses and reconstruct the street grid for some of the more disturbed areas of the of the city, I’ll need to return to the census and assign to each individual the proper address. This will take some time, but hopefully will provide a foundation for talking about the Grand Forks of 1920 in a more historically nuanced and detailed way. 

Stay tuned. 

The Mystery of the Missing Building

If you follow me on The Twitters, you probably know that I’ve been fascinated lately by a building included on several 20th century Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Grand Forks, ND.

The building is always shown on a separate sheet and labeled as Aaker’s Business College. According to the maps, it stood on Belmont Road somewhere north of the intersection with 13th Avenue South and Lincoln Drive (formerly Boulevard). This is pretty close to my house and on my regular walking and running route.

SB 1912 27

SB 1912 01

A bit of research made it clear that this was not a casual building. I was an impressive three-storey structure an elegant, Second Empire-inspired mansard roof built in 1892 to house Grand Forks College which was a Lutheran “Classical College” and “preparatory school.” Grand Forks College closed in 1911 and soon thereafter the building and its 6-acre campus was acquired by Hans H. Aakers as at the Grand Forks campus of his Aaker’s Business College. 

Aakers012  1


Aaker’s was a business college founded in Fargo, ND by Hans H. Aaker, the second president of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He stepped down from that position in 1902 to found a business college in Fargo which opened a branch in Grand Forks several years later. There’s some confusion on whether this is in 1905 or in 1912 when the Fargo campus was closed. The latter date appears to coincide better with the purchasing of the Grand Forks College building.

The building remained Aaker’s Business College until 1918 when Aaker traded it for the smaller building of the Lutheran Bible School. This building then became home to the Lutheran Bible School, a Lutheran Brethren preparatory school that would eventually become the Hillcrest Academy in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. It would seem that Aaker’s Lutheran connections served him well as Aaker’s Business College continued on into the 21st century until it merged with the for-profit Rasmussen College. The Lutheran Bible College likely sold off some of the land from the original 6-acre campus which was then developed along Chestnut Street. They stayed in the building until 1933 when the upkeep of the large and aging building become prohibitive. At some point soon thereafter, the building must have been razed. The 1934 USGS map still shows the building (to the east of the larger and labeled “Junior High Sch.”), but the data for that map is probably from earlier in the decade.

Bill Caraher on Twitter  The missing link came in a 1934 USGS map It shows the school as a little block with a flag This sug 2020 05 28 07 45 44

Today, this stretch of Belmont, however, appears to be just typical pre-war Grand Forks houses. There’s no obvious sign of a large building here, but there are a few subtle hints preserve the history of this property. First and most obviously, 12th Avenue S is a very strange street. It is part alley and part road that sort of lurches its way between Belmont, Chestnut, Walnut, and Cottonwood.

12th Ave S  Google Maps 2020 05 28 07 48 36

Secondly, the alleyway that runs between Belmont Road and Chestnut Street does not continue all they way through to 13th Avenue S. While this isn’t entirely unprecedented in Grand Forks (see, for example, Independence Avenue between Belmont and Reeves; see below), it’s a bit odd and usually suggests some kind of zoning or platting irregularity. The houses on 

SB 1916 01

Third, a keen observer might notice that the houses on the lower end of the 1200 block are different from the homes on the upper end of Belmont. Closer to 13th Avenue, you’ll recognize an American Four-Square (1216) and a pair of Gable Front style homes (1220 and 1224) which were common to the first decades of the 20th century. Closer to 12th Avenue S, there are a series of homes showing some influence of the “Cape Cod” style (usually called “Plain Residential” in local architectural history-speak) which are pretty rare in Grand Forks prior to the 1930s. Indeed, the houses at 1202, 1206, 1210, and 1212 date to 1937-1939. The last three houses on the block date to the 1917 and 1907. Oddly, the conventional American Four-Square at 1216 Belmont does not appear in the 2004 National Register Nomination for the Near South Side Neighborhood. The four-square is listed as having been built in 1913, but oddly enough it doesn’t appear on the 1916 Sanborn Map that shows Aaker’s Business College. 


And, finally, looking at a map of subdivisions in the city, I noticed that the a 227,500 square foot area (or about 5 acres) labeled as Lutheran Bible School Addition. Today this addition consists of 26 houses built between 1913 (that’s the mysterious house 1216), 1918 (this is 1124 (probably 1328 in the original numbering of the streets; oddly this house does not appear in the 1920 census) Belmont and the rest build after 1928 when I suspect the Lutherans sold off part of the property for development. 

So, there you go. The mystery of the missing building is solved as yet another chapter is “why Bill doesn’t get more work done each day.”

Mediocre Map Monday: Census Data, Sanborn Maps, and Modern Grand Forks

This weekend, I started to play around with the 1920 census data from Grand Forks. My project started with a pretty simply question.

Where did the immigrants live in our city one hundred years ago? This question was prompted by David Pettegrew’s and Kostis Kourelis’s work on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster respectively. I got curious about the 16 or so Greeks in Grand Forks in the early 20th century and this led me down the rabbit hole of the 1920s census.

The first step was to assemble the transcribed census data for Grand Forks into a spread sheet, which turned out to be not very hard (via, but a bit tedious. The census was conducted according to the 7 wards of the city each of which had particular geographic boundaries. 

The fun began when I started to try to associate the census data with particular addresses. Fortunately the Library of Congress has digitized Sanborn Maps for the city of Grand Forks from 1916. These are close enough to the city plan of 1920 to be very useful. I also have the contemporary address and parcel data from the city of Grand Forks to use as a kind of base map. This approach produced three exciting challenges.

First, in 1921, Grand Forks shifted its street addresses to better align with a change in street names that occurred in the early 20th century. As a result, contemporary addresses do not correspond to the addresses from the 1920 census. For the nearly 13,000 census records, I have around 2800 addresses. 

Second, the names of streets have changed since 1920. The renaming of Grand Forks streets was an ongoing project and some street names from 1920 no longer appear in 2020 maps. This is further compounded by the sloppy handwriting of the census takers which made it difficult to determine the street name recorded on the form. There were also some small shifts in addresses between the 1916 Sanborn Maps and the 1920 census which required a certain amount of “best fit” fiddling.

Finally, as residents of Grand Forks know, several neighborhoods and parts of downtown close to the Red River were lost in the 1997 flood. As a result, these no longer exist on the 2020 parcel maps. Less well known is that another neighborhood between 4th Avenue and the railroad tracks that was apparently removed in the 1970s in the name of urban renewal. This neighborhood was home to a large community of Jewish immigrants from Russia who lived around the Congregation of the Children of Israel Synagogue at 2nd and Girard and the Hebrew School on the next block to the west. 

Going through the data in this way has prompted a series of research questions that, if I were more motivated and better trained in US history I’d turn into a series of public blog posts or newspaper columns. 

First, from the perspective of heritage management, mapping the 1920s residential addresses against existing addresses allows us to get a sense for the state of preservation of residential districts in the city over the last 100 years. The 1920 census indicated not only whether the individuals were renters or owners, foreign or US born, but also their occupations. Combined this gives us a sense of the economic status of these individuals and allows us to consider what parts of the city are preserved and how this speaks to contemporary views toward preservation and heritage.

It’s hardly a stretch to hypothesize that neighborhood with more renters, more foreign born residents, and more wage laborers (as opposed to salaried employees) worked are less well preserved. This shapes how current residents of Grand Forks imagine their past and their present. 

Second, by mapping Grand Forks neighborhoods we can more easily visualize the  dynamic and diverse character of the city in 1920. More than 20% of the city was either aliens or naturalized citizens and while the group consisted of the predictable number of “Scandewegian” immigrants, it also featured Jews from Russia, Greeks, various British folks (Irish, Scots, Welsh), Japanese, Austrians, Belgians, Canadians, Hungarians, Poles, and even a few Luxemburgians!  For some perspective, in 2015 about 3.5% of Grand Forks were immigrants, but I’m not entirely sure how many of them are aliens versus naturalized citizens.

Third, the 1920 census listed individuals by profession allowing us to map the influence of various economic drivers in the community. Identifying, for example, where individuals associated with the railroad, the university, or other major occupations lived in town will give us a sense for the social landscape of the community. Of course, the census data is messy with the fields of “Industry” and “Occupation” not being rigorously separated. As a result, the over 3000 combinations of the two must be condensed into more rational categories, but this is a doable kind of sorting that would ideally produce some interesting results.

Finally, the fiddling that I’ll likely do with the census data and the 1916 Sanborn Maps is just a start. Once I get some basic “data cleaning” done, I’ll make the datasets available for anyone. It’s easy enough to output georeferenced maps to Google Earth files to allow anyone to check out how Grand Forks of the 1920s differed from Grand Forks of today.