Settlement in Grand Forks 1945-1970: A Draft

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

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


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

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

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

00 Year Built All NN

The 1940s

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

1940s Year Built

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


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

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


The 1950s

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

1950s Year Built

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


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

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


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

The 1960s

The 1960s witnessed more adventurous development.

1960s Year Built

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


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

1960sSubdivisions GIS DETAIL

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


Mid Century Housing in Grand Forks

This month, I’m working to write up a very basic analysis of the expansion of housing in Grand Forks between 1945 and 1970. During this period the population of Grand Forks nearly doubled from around 20,000 residents in 1940 to almost 40,000 in 1970.

The reasons for this growth, in general, involve the movement of people from smaller rural towns to bigger population centers after the World War II which in many ways followed a pattern that had emerged in the interwar years. It accelerated in the post-war decades owing to the expansion of the University of North Dakota, the opening of Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1957, and the expansion of the regional medical center. The late 1950s saw the opening of Interstate 29 (originally Interstate 31 and before US Route 81) which ultimately connected Winnipeg to Fargo and then Kansas City, and this amplified the significance of Grand Forks as a regional transportation hub at the intersection of US Route 2 and the Meridian Highway (US Route 81) and both the Great Northern Railroads and a trunk of the Northern Pacific Railway. The confluence of these trends spurred a consolidation of schools, businesses, and government services in the city which led to a boom in new housing construction, building of new schools and churches, and, of course, the opening of new commercial establishments and the consolidation of 20th century consumer culture in Grand Forks.

The present study focuses on mid-century housing in Grand Forks, but it draws significantly upon a recently completed study of six mid-century modern schools by Susan Caraher, the Coordinator of the Grand Forks Historical Preservation Commission.  

This study will also produce a preliminary inventory of mid-century housing in Grand Forks constructed between 1945-1970. Following the “50 year rule” these houses are potentially eligible, by dint of their age, for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that any single home from this period would receive individual nomination to the Register. At the same time, preparing a preliminary inventory of these homes allows for a more sophisticated approach to managing and understanding the cultural resources in our community. 

At present, there remain over 4000 houses that built during those years. “Named architects” designed relatively few of these homes with the local firm of Wells and Denbrook being the most prominent among them. It seems reasonable to assume that DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy also designed homes for local residents.  

Most of the homes, however, followed a fairly limited number of plans and were single-storey ranch style homes (called “ramblers” in Grand Forks as many places in the Western US), split-level, or two-storey homes with pitched roofs.  Interspersed among these houses are a few “Desert Modern” houses with flat roofs, recessed entrances, large overhanging eaves, and open floor plans. Attention to natural light, through the use of horizontal banks of windows and corner windows characterized many of these plans as did prominent vertical, brick chimneys which served to balance the strong horizontal character of the roofline. While only a few homes in Grand Forks reflect “Desert Modernism” in anything approaching a pure form, many incorporate some designs elements into their plans and complement the architecture of the contemporary mid-century modern school buildings and contemporary church buildings which stand in the same neighborhoods.

While the ubiquitous character of mid-century modern design elements in Grand Forks stands as part of wider national trends, it also has strong regional roots. Over the course of the mid-20th century Minneapolis became an important center for mid-century modern design and Minnesota architects not only contributed to the architecture of Fargo and Grand Forks, such as Edward Sovik’s Calvary Lutheran Church, but also influenced the work of local architects and consumers who looked to Minneapolis as an inspiration for suburban life.

Like other examples of mid-century architecture in the US, mid-century homes in Grand Forks took advantage of new materials and techniques. For example, the use of asbestos siding shingles in a wide range of colors became an almost defining characteristic of the post-war suburb prior to asbestos being identified as a cause of cancer in the 1970s. Manufacturing techniques and capacities developed through wartime aircraft production led to the widespread adoption of aluminum windows which by the later 20th century became less popular do to maintenance challenges and poor insulation factors. The use of synthetic material such as formica and vinyl in counters and flooring gave homes a distinctly modern touch. From the mid-1950s, wall-to-wall carpeting in synthetic fibers allowed aspiring new homeowners a chance to enjoy carpeted floors which have before mid-century been the reserve of more affluent residents. The growing use of refabricated architectural elements in both housing and commercial construction brought assembly-line industrial production to home building and accelerated the rate at which homes could be built and sold. The introduction of new materials and design influences transformed the character of communities such as Grand Forks on a large scale. At the same time, as Steven Martens has shown in his context study of the Wells Denbrook firm, many of the innovative materials that gave mid-century homes a feeling of futuristic luxury presented significant maintenance challenges. Moreover, the material and designs associated with mid-century modern architecture became associated with the use of technology to replace craft, dehumanizing aspects of ready-made institutional practices, the dangers of industrial manufacturing, and disposable amenities. As a result and, to some extent, by design, institutions often deigned mid-century modern architecture as obsolete as it was unappealing. By Martens’ estimate fewer than 50 examples of architecture “that can be shown to meaningfully reflect and closely follow the design principles of twentieth century Modernism with distinction.” This has not only impoverished the architectural record of the state, but also undermined the architecture and historical context for mid-century housing.

Grand Forks, however, remains distinct in that many examples of mid-century modern architecture continue to stand amid mid-century neighborhoods preserving an impression of 1960s life in town. 

The Shores of Lake Agassiz

Each spring a version of Lake Agassiz re-appears on the Northern Plains. Lake Agassiz was a large glacial lake that once occupied most of the Red River valley and extended north of Lake Winnipeg. Some have associated the discharge of water from Lake Agassiz around 13,000 years ago with the rapid cooling of the Younger Dryas. Another substantial discharge around 8000 years ago likely resulted in a measurable change in global sea levels and has been associated with the 8.2 kiloyear climate event. This event occurred with the infusion of fresh water into the Arctic which disrupted the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean leading to climate change in Europe. This change, around 6400 BCE may have contributed to the end of the Neolithic in the Near East and Southeastern Europe. Some have linked the change in climate during this period to the Biblical floods. 


In short, Lake Agassiz was kind of a big deal. 

Today, the Red River of the North follows the border between North Dakota and Minnesota and separates the cities of Fargo, North Dakota from Moorhead, Minnesota ad the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota from East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The Red River caused the flood of 1897 and the more famous flood of 1997. While our town is now protected by imposing flood walls, it remains a dramatic event when the river floods.

As the waters retreat from the swollen Red River, I like to walk along the shores of the temporary lake and look at the things the current has left behind. The “wrack” lines created by the retreating waters create interesting patterns across the landscape.

IMG 4944

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Last year, I became interested in the trash carried by the river and left behind by its retreating waters. I did a little informal survey of the trash that I found in the wrack zone. It yielded dog poop bags, golf course pencils, sections of PVC pipes, aluminum cans, and the ubiquitous extruded polystyrene. I reported it here. This work not only got me thinking of Matthew Edgeworth’s work on rivers (here, here, here, here), but also Þóra Pétursdóttir 2017 article in Archaeological Dialogues, “Climate change? Archaeology and Anthropocene” (24, 175-205) and the recent volume, Rivers of the Anthropocene, edited by Jason M. Kelly, Philip Scarpino, Helen Berry, James Syvitski, Michel Meybeck.

If I had all the time and energy in the world, I’d organize a little research project that walks the wrack zone of the retreating Red River in our local park and documents the trash present there. The challenge with this kind of research is that it involves not only trash, which is kind of gross, but also the vagaries of the Red River floods (as well as access to the retreating waters which is not practically problematic, but often involves a kind of legal grey area because many of the parks are closed during the floods and their aftermaths). These are not insurmountable problems, of course, and maybe even now as the flood of 2020 is receding, I could do another informal survey (complementing the one that I conducted last year). 

Remembering Joel Jonientz

This time of year my thoughts always turn to my late friend Joel Jonientz and his family. He passed away 6 years ago this week. This is the fifth installment (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, I seem to have missed 2019).

On a long walk with the dogs, I thought back to our time together at UND and felt a sense of deep nostalgia. If we’ve learned anything from our current politics, it’s that nostalgia can be pretty toxic. It erodes a faith in progress and often leaves us longing for a past that often exists without consequences. 

At the same time, as a historian, I often find that nostalgia guides me toward formative times in my own life. While I try not to dwell too much on my own experiences, following my sense of nostalgia pushes me to think more critically about how my own memories transform, occlude, or emphasize the larger experience of the community. My recent interest in the archaeology of the suburbs, digital technology, and early 21st century material culture has roots in my own past. I try to remind myself that this past has and had consequences both for myself and for the wider world.

Reflecting with nostalgia on Joel’s time at UND evoke warm memories: sitting in Paul Worley’s backyard smoking some kind of meets, watching Seahawks games with Joel’s family in his crowded TV room, scheming with Tim Pasch, Crystal Alberts, Paul, and Joel to showcase our digital work at public events, and organizing the punk archaeology conference with Mike Wittgraf, Aaron Barth, and Tim. These were good times personally and professionally. They not only gave me a taste of the heady intellectual freedom of tenure, but also introduced me to the potential of small, college town collegiality. 

These memories have nudged me to think about the history of the institution in the 21st century. To be clear, I don’t mean to reduce Joel’s identity, somehow, to just his institutional affiliation or his work at UND. He was a family man, a good friend, and had hobbies, interests, hopes, and dreams that went well beyond his job. 

At the same time, our shared experiences at UND entangle my nostalgic recollections. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the early 21st century at UND was a special time at the institution. This is not to suggest that it wasn’t as fraught with politics, challenges, and disappointments as any other time. Instead, what I remember is that the period from 2004-2015 or so, was that campus had the feeling of hope. This has since been lost.

When I think about UND in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, I think about the paradox that during the “Great Recession,” my corner of UND — the arts and the humanities — continued to experience growth. There was a saying that North Dakota was “insulated and not isolated” for the economic issues facing most of the country. More than that: the Bakken oil boom gave the state a sense a hope and even the idea that there might a future. 

As someone in the humanities, I remember musing about how the Gulf States recognized that their oil wealth could be invested in higher education and cultural institutions despite the conservative character of their political culture, the austerity of their environment, and the history of colonialism and marginalization. Maybe North Dakota would follow suit?

After all, the university supported our Working Group in Digital and New Media (from the archive: report 1, report 2, and report 4), a new “Arts and Culture” conference that was a fall pendant to the thriving UND Writers Conference, had expanded the reach of UND Arts Collections, encouraged the development of the IPPL, and supported new hires in History, English, and the Arts. This support was paying dividends too with UND faculty and students pushing to collaborate, produce new art, and develop new long term projects. It’s hardly surprising that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota emerged from this period. It was the product of this optimism. 

Of course, I realize that not everything was rosy. My colleagues in the communications program at UND who contributed so much to the creativity and vitality of UND in the 21st century watched their department disappear and had to find new homes at UND, create a new program, and navigate a complicated political landscape. Other programs, of course, showed signs of strain as well as ambitious new faculty members clashed with long-serving colleagues. New faculty, especially those hired during the Great Recession, often brought with them different expectations cultivated in top tier graduate programs than an older generation of faculty leaders. The shuffle to accommodate a wider range of outlooks in campus culture invariably left damaged feelings on both sides.

The steady hemorrhaging of talented early-career faculty was the most obvious manifestation of the tensions on campus. At the same time, it served as a kind of endorsement for the culture UND produced. That early-career faculty could come to UND and continue to be productive, creative, and ambitious suggests that something positive was happening on our campus, even if the outcome, in the end, was for these folks to leave.

At the level of upper administration, the long-standing controversy over UND’s Fighting Sioux logo came to a head with the NCAA and while it was eventually resolved, the financial, political, and emotional costs were steep. At the same time, UND athletics transitioned to Division I suggesting that despite the rifts caused by the logo controversy, there was optimism. 

The revolving door of deans, provosts, and even presidents, likewise offers a two-edged sword. The lack of stability in the administration made it challenging to plan things that required substantial administrative support. In fact, we attempted on several occasions to develop a digital humanities program, but these all foundered at the administrative level. At the same time, the lack of strong positive direction created space for faculty to maneuver and develop their own ways of collaborating, setting goals, and advancing agendas. While this may have left the university a mishmash of irregular and often incompatible curricula, research projects, and programs, the semi-benign neglect of the early 21st century also has created a strong spirit of independence among faculty. 

On a “Zoom call” last night with a group of UND faculty and members of the post-Jonientz diaspora, we joked about an oral history of UND in the 21st century. This is certainly a tempting project. Whether our reflections on this period would end up being idle nostalgia or something more substantive and revealing, is hard to know.

Three Things Thursday: The Suburbs Are

This February, I’ve been thinking a good bit about suburbs. This is in part because next month (which might be May or March or some month where is snows less and is warmer), I’ll start working with my wife, Susan Caraher, who is the historic preservation officer for our town on a project to document mid-century housing in Grand Forks. It’s also because I’ve been walking the streets of Grand Forks every afternoon to give the two dogs some exercise and to try to memorize various local streetscapes. 

These walks and my interest in the suburbs give some context to todays three things Thursday.

Thing the First

The Mid-Southside: One of my pet projects over the last few years is to get an area of mid-century architecture in Grand Forks declared a Historic District. The “mid-southside” as I’m calling it, features mid-century housing and mid-century modern schools, churches, and commercial architecture. 

One of the great guides to the development of this area is the 1960-ish aerial photograph which is available from the state of North Dakota here. The more mature tree cover visible in the photo shows the extent of the pre-war neighborhoods with the almost treeless streets showing the areas developed in the later 1950s and 1960s.

For local folks, the street at the bottom of the photograph is 32nd Avenue which is now a major commercial thoroughfare in town. My fantasy of a historic district would stretch from 15th Avenue to either 24th or 32nd Avenue with Belmont Road (which was the old Meridian Highway) forming the eastern boundary and Washington Street forming the western boundary.

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 16 07 15 02

An aerial photograph from 2018 shows how the city has expanded and infilled. 

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 16 07 19 06

Thing the Second

Suburbs as Heritage. One of the coolest things about working on mid-century suburbs is that a key studies for documenting the suburbs comes from my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware: Rebecca J. Siders, Susan M. Chase, and David L. Ames, Suburbanization In the Vicinity of Wilmington, Delaware, 1880-1950+/-: A Historic Context from 1992. A few years ago I wrote a few little posts on my neighborhood which was built just a bit after this survey was done. You can read them here. The neighboring neighborhoods of Westwood Manor and Windybush, however, were part of the context study.

The work of this context study ultimately informed a more general statement for nominating historic residential suburbs to the National Register of Historic Places authored by Ames and Linda McClelland and published in 2002. You can read it here

The challenge is for Grand Forks is that these aren’t quite suburbs as Grand Forks doesn’t quite have the well-defined urban core present in higher density cities. That being said, the growth of Grand Forks is contemporary with the expansion of postwar suburbs elsewhere in the US and many of the same architectural styles and feature appear. 

Grand Forks also shares with these more established and urbanized cities the challenge of dealing with the rapid expansion of properties, buildings, and neighborhoods nominally eligible for the National Register (that is over 50 years old), but of widely varying quality, character, and significance. The challenge, then, is to recognize both exceptional and typical features of these districts. My long walks through these neighborhoods have slowly helped me bring this into focus.

Thing the Third

The other things that my walks have made me consider is buildings that have disappeared. I’ve been particularly interested in the Aaker’s College of Business which originally stood on the west side of Belmont Road between 13th Avenue and 12th Avenue.

It was an impressive building constructed, I think, in the early 20th century:


The building is gone now. Entirely vanished. 


What’s remarkable to me is that there’s almost no evidence for this building. The block is just a normal residential block in Grand Forks. The houses there appear to date either to the early 20th century, that is contemporary with the building, or to the 1930s. This hints that maybe this building did not stand for very long — maybe only 20 years? Otherwise, there is simply no evidence that a building of this size and design stood in this area.

This mystery reminds me that despite the impressive size of the building and its prominent location in the urban grid, these structures can disappear leaving no trace of their existence on the surface.  

Documenting Mid-Century Grand Forks

For the last year or so, I’ve served on our town’s historic preservation commission. The main mission of the group, from what I understand, is to identify and inventory historical monuments in town while also serving as consulting body for any decisions having to do with heritage in our community. 

The commission is funded annually through a grant from the state and each year we identify properties, buildings, projects, or groups of properties that we’d like to study or inventory more carefully. In some cases, we request funds to nominate buildings for the National Register of Historic Places, but as often, we request funds to develop a more thorough understanding of the heritage present in our community.

This year, I proposed a study of three classes of mid-century buildings in Grand Forks. Sadly (for me!), the committee did not recommend that any of them be funded, but since I compiled the lists, it made sense to share it.

In the past year, we have nominated six, mid-century modern schools for inclusion on the National Register. That research revealed, unsurprisingly, that these schools stood at the center of mid-century neighborhoods. The historic preservation commission is currently doing an inventory of these neighborhood looking for exceptional mid-century modern domestic architecture.  

In keeping with these initiatives, I proposed a three additional studies aimed at documenting mid-century Grand Forks. In some cases, such as mid-century churches, there is enough information for us to perhaps proceed with a formal multi-property nomination (probably under criteria (a) and (c). I feel like they will also satisfy the exception: “A religious property deriving primary significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance” because this multi-property nomination will emphasize these buildings as ” integral parts of districts that do meet the criteria.”  

1. Multi-property nomination for the mid-century churches of Grand Forks.

There are 18 churches (at least) that I would suggest that we bring under study for a multi-property nomination. Some of these buildings will be undoubtedly eliminated as having been modified too significantly to qualify or as standing outside of a clearly discernible mid-century modern district.

The buildings are distinct in that most of them are modern in design and consistent with the popularity of mid-century modern-style architecture in the region and in their surrounding neighborhoods (including the recently nominated schools). My guess is that quite a few of the buildings involved “named” architects and a few show signs of Deremer and co. and Wells Denbrook.

Pre-Mid Century Modern 20th-century Buildings

St. Michael’s (1908-1909)
St. Mary’s (1918; School 1929)
New Life Foursquare Church (321 Cottonwood) – I’m guessing 1920s.
United Lutheran (1931-32) – Individually Listed
B’nai Israel Synagogue (1937) Listed with the Montefiore Cemetery

Mid-Century Modern

St. Paul’s Episcopal (1948)
University Lutheran (1951)
Calvary Community Church of God (1957)
St. Mark’s Lutheran (1958)
Immanuel Lutheran (1958)
Bethel Lutheran (1960)
Faith Baptist Church (1960) Community?
Holy Family (1961)
Grace Baptist (1962)
Zion United Methodist (1962)
Wittenberg Lutheran Chapel (1964)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (1966)
Trinity Free Lutheran (1967)
Calvary Lutheran (1969)
Augustana Lutheran (1950s?)
Wesley United Methodist (1950s?)
Christus Rex (1950s?)
Redeemer Lutheran (1950s)
Sharon Lutheran (1966?)


Salvation Army (1956) not originally built as a church.
Islamic Center (1974)
Seventh Day Adventists (1975)
Assembly of God Church/Valley Christian Center (1978)

2. Commercial Grand Forks

In conjunction with a sustained emphasis on mid-century architecture in Grand Forks, I would recommend a wind-shield survey of mid-century commercial architecture particularly along the S Washington Street corridor. The development of this corridor is less about distinct architecture and more about tracing the growth of the city south and considering how this development changed the character of other historical districts, including the downtown. Some buildings (e.g. the current Atlas Auto building (built as a service station in 1957), Eide Hyundai (1958), or the Ambassador Hotel (1959) will likely fit the survey of transportation related sites planned for 2020.

Two things are worthy of particular note. First, it’s difficult to figure out how to identify these buildings. My very brief survey below is less than ideal.

More importantly, though, we might consider – if we’re ambitious – nominating Grand Cities Mall as a single property nomination. It’s eligible (1964) and it’s a work of DeRemer, Harrie & Kennedy. It’s also the first mall in North Dakota and one of 6 malls that are currently in operation (Fargo-West Acres – 1972), Grand Forks (Columbia Mall – 1977), Bismarck (Kirkwood (1970) and Gateway (1979), and Minot (Dakota Square – 1980)). Considering that there will be no new malls built in ND (and haven’t been since 1980) and that at least one or two of these will likely disappear in the next decade, there is a real reason to document this building more carefully.  

Here is a sample of buildings, not all likely to be contributing, along the S Washington Street corridor with dates (note that Denny’s Lounge at 1100 S Washington appears to be earlier than most surrounding commercial building):

715 S Washington ST (1953)
First National Pawn/Halal Meets (1440 S Washington – 1962)
Hugos/Collins/Papa John’s et c. (1958/1962/1964)
Town and Country Shopping Center 1711 S WASHINGTON ST (1958)
Treat, Play, Love building (1900 S Washington – Inn Expensive Inn owners – 1956)
Rite Spot Liquor (1963)
Josef’s School of Hair Design (2011 S Washington – 1959)
2301 S Washington (1969)
Burris Carpet (2307 S Washington – 1960)
First National Pawn (2495 S Washington – 1965)
Blue Star Investment (2506 S Washington – 1967)

**Grand Cities Mall (1964)

3. Bars

The landscape of bars, lounges, and taverns is changing in Grand Forks. There is a core of mid-century modern bars that continue to operate in their original locations. Bars, churches, and schools represent the key complements to the mid-century residential expansion and regularly outpaced commercial development along key corridors. Doing a windshield survey of these buildings and preparing a more comprehensive inventory of the buildings, their history, and their condition offers a nice way to track urban history in Grand Forks. It seems unlikely that any of the are suitable for individual nomination, but it feels like a multi-property nomination (and bar crawl) would be possible. (Note that Kelly’s is a pre-1950 service station).

The Hub (1899 – building only)
Charlie Brown’s (1947)
Broken Drum (1950)
Judy’s Tavern (1950)
Denny’s Tavern (1950)
McMenamy’s Tavern (1950)
The Bun (pre-1962)
El Roco (pre-1965)
Highlander (1962)
Southgate (1969)
Johnny’s Lounge (1969)
Kelly’s (1969) Pre-1969 was a service station of pre-1947 date.
Diamond Lounge (1971)
Wild Bill’s (1971)


As I said, sadly, these recommendations were not sent forward to the state for funding, this year, but that gives me a year to do additional research and to prepare more thoughtful recommendation for the 2021 grant cycle. I already have a team of people interested in the mid-century bars!  

Small Memorials

I’ve started walking again in Grand Forks. I got out of the habit of walking in my neighborhood for any number of reasons. Some of it had to do with my effort to jog more. Some of it had to do with my dogs’ preference for the wildlife viewing on the local Greenway that roughly traces the route of the Red River Valley.

This week, I walked onto campus a couple of times and on my second walk through the intersection of Demers and Washington (which I believe is one of the busiest intersections in the state), I noticed this small memorial taped to a light post.

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I have no context for this memorial, but I found it very touching and part of a very subtle and entirely informal memorial landscape around town. This landscape also includes a small area on the Greenway where flowers marked a place where a body was found a few years.

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Last year, this place further marked by a bench with a small plaque commemorating the deceased. This summer though, someone stole the plaque from the bench. I wonder why that happened and to what end?

First Snow

Like last year, this year’s first snow is in the evening which makes a bit hard to photograph, but we’ve been promised more tomorrow. I’ll update the blog then.

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I’ve posted a photo of the first snow (or what I considered the first snow…) pretty regularly since 2007. Here they are: 2018 (October 4)2017 (October 26), 2016 (November 22), 2015 (Nov. 5), 2014 (Nov. 8), 2013 (Oct. 20), 2012 (Oct. 4), 2011 (Nov. 10), 2010 (Nov. 21), 2008 (Oct. 28), and in 2007 (Sept. 11).

The Stop Signs of Grand Forks

I am a member of a Facebook group for my little neighborhood in Grand Forks, North Dakota: the Near South Side. Recently the conversation has turned to traffic flow through our neighborhood largely in response to a study of traffic flow across the town and a more specific study of traffic flow in the Near South Side. I’ll probably blog on this at some point (and it’s a bit more interesting than it sounds!), but the conversation got me thinking a bit about stop signs.

For whatever reason, I’ve always been a bit interested in stop signs. I have long kept a little tally in my head of my favorite stop signs in town and find their assertiveness and confidence a reassuring reminder that authority still exists even in such a completely impersonal form. Beyond their brash confidence, stop signs also tell specific individual stories. Some remind us that there are other people in the world who have places to go that are every bit as urgent – and maybe more so – than you. The most iconic signs control the flow of traffic across busy intersections. Others simply remind you to slow down, take it easy, and to enjoy your journey. These are traffic calming stop signs. Some stop signs are aspirational. They stand at isolated intersections and tell us that while it might not look like much now, in a few years, this intersection will be bustling. Some are historical reminders that an intersection used to be something more than it is now, and these signs stand out of time and place in the changing landscape and traffic flow. In short, stop signs tell stories and the relationship between the traveler, the sign, the space, the community, and the planner who suggested that a stop sign should stand at a particular intersection is part of how we produce a sense of place in our world. A whole essay could be written on how this sense of place – on the corner or at the crossroads – can become menacing, welcoming, confusing, relaxing, or ultimately lead you to sell your soul to the devil.   

In any event, over the past decade or so in Grand Forks, I’ve created a little list of my five favorite stop signs. The list has a changed a bit over time as my routines and routes have changed, but as it stands now, I think it reflects my sense of place in town.

1. 8th and Reeves. This is the stop sign nearest my house and I’ve spent many a long summer evening watching cars approach this unusual intersection from the south on Reeves. These northbound cars come to a complete stop only to realize that they aren’t sure entirely how traffic flows through this intersection as the cars heading south on Reeves also have a stop sign, despite the fact that the two roads do meet in the middle of the intersection. Other drivers confidently roll through the intersection craning their necks to the west to make sure that traffic isn’t heading east toward them on 8th. Some stop and then inch forward looking all the while to the the west, and others – especially approaching the intersection from the north – barely glance to the east, before cutting the corner and turning south on Reeves to continue their journey. Many of the drivers are merely passing through this intersection on their way south or north to or from the Point Bridge that crosses the Red River and links our town to East Grand Forks, in Minnesota. The intersection also marks a change on Reeves drive where the more modest turn of the century homes give way to the houses of the local elite that line the most prestigious stretch of road in town. 

2. 3rd Street and 1st Avenue. This intersection is in the heart of downtown Grand Forks. Third Street is the home to restaurants and bars as well as condos and apartments that embody the idea of a walkable downtown. In the summers there are planters along the street and some of the bars and restaurants install temporary decks to allow folks to enjoy outdoor seating. In the winter, there are lights stretched above the street which glitter off the snow and give the district the feeling of the winter holidays. There’s a stop sign on 3rd Street that I suspect is designed to slow the flow of traffic down 3rd street and make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street. 1st street isn’t really a busy road largely because it ends one block later in a parking lot and the flood wall. 

There are just so many distractions along this road, and the stop sign is pretty far from my line of sight. As a result, I end up running this stop sign maybe once a month (or at a rate of one time for ever 15 drives down this road). Because this part of downtown is busy, I’m usually driving slow so it’s not that I’m in hurry to go somewhere else. In fact, I usually realize that I’ve run the sign and stop in the middle of the intersection, which probably serves the spirit of the stop sign even if I don’t embrace its legal insistence that I stop on a particular line. Whenever I stop or run this sign, it gives me a little smile.

3. 13th Avenue and 14th Street. This stop sign transports me to a different time and place. 13th avenue is a “major collector” road in the formal terminology of traffic planning, and we often use it to get across town. Despite that, the intersection of 13 avenue and 14th street is an unusual one for me. It occurs one block to the west of 13th Avenue crossing a major, four lane road, Washington Street, and, as a result, 14th street feels something like a service road running along the back of a strip mall and a car dealership. The businesses at this intersection feature a couple of auto repair establishments and a laundromat. A rather rough looking mobile home park stretches along the west side of 14th street to the north. The vibe is distinctly small town and rural, despite being just a block from a suburban stretch of Washington Street with a McDonalds, a strip mall, a DQ, and until recently a Starbucks. In fact, this intersection reminds me of the small towns in the Western North Dakota where people are getting by just fine, living their lives, working in small businesses, and on a sunny afternoon might be more than happy to stop and have a chat while their laundry finishes at The Bubble Laundry Co. or they get their brakes done on their 2003 Ford F-150. 

These moments of reverie and displacement have predictable results. Once ever ten trips through this intersection result in me slamming on the brakes at the four-way stop (or even running the stop sign entirely). The change from the bustling but predictable flow of Washington and the near-suburban feeling of 13th on the east side of Washington to the small town intersection feeling at 14th and 13th never fails to disrupt my mindless drive across town.

4. Reeves and 9th Avenue. This intersection was basically terra incognito to me despite being just a block from my house. I walk south on Reeves periodically and sometimes even jog, but I never think about this intersection at all and probably mindless cross 9th avenue without even a deliberate check to see if there’s traffic. This makes a certain kind of sense, though, because there isn’t much traffic on 9th Avenue which ends at the flood wall just a block to the east of this intersection. There is traffic on Reeves of course, as I explained above. Many commuters use Reeves to avoid the busier routes of Belmont (a minor arterial road) or Washington Street several blocks to the west (which is a principal arterial to use the pleasantly biological terminology of traffic analysis). I almost never use 9th because it is laced with stop signs between Reeves and Washington, although I will admit to sometimes driving west on 9th just to enjoy the unusual “yield” sign at 9th and Oak

This is clearly one of those stop signs installed to slow the flow of traffic along Reeves because if this intersection needed a stop sign to control traffic, it would make more sense to have it on 9th which is already a stop sign aficionados paradise. In fact, because I rarely drive south on Reeves, I almost never think about this stop sign while in my car. I think I’ve likely run it a few times because it is so unexpected and the road is close to home and I’m usually turning west on 9th before entering the alley between Reeves and Belmont. I started to notice this stop sign, however, when I started to ride my bike more regularly in the summer and fall. I generally proceed down 9th to Almonte and then to the Greenway bike paths. For quite some time it struck me as oddly courteous that folks would stop for me as I crossed Reeves on 9th. I now know it’s because there’s a stop sign there. Maybe the best stop signs are ones that you don’t notice?

5. 20th Street and 36th Avenue. For me, this stop sign is always being its best stop sign. It simply works. I usually proceed through this intersection on 20th Street heading south toward the dogs’ club on south Washington after running errands on the bustling principal arterial that is 32nd Avenue. Usually I turn south out of Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop at around 5 pm on my way to get the dogs and head home for the day. It’s not the first intersection south of Happy Harry’s, but it’s the first notable intersection. More than that, it feel like this intersection is a gateway to the new, more suburban and sprawling Grand Forks that I call, in my head, the Far South Side. There are apartments here sprouting from agricultural fields and massive athletic complexes, new schools, new health care centers, and new versions of venerable Grand Fork’s businesses arrayed in strip malls along Washington Street.

This stop sign embodies some of these changes in town. It’s a four way stop that often has a few cars waiting for their time to proceed. There is great visibility because the intersection sits amid new construction that is politely set back from the road and which frame the open spaces to keep your attention on the palpable bustle of this new suburbia. It’s an aspirational intersection, in some ways, which welcomes the driver heading south to new things (even if these new things are, the same old suburbs). It gives you a reason to stop and take stock. Maybe someday, there will be a stop light here, but for now, the stop sign seems to tell me that there is more to come.

Honorable mention:

Confusion Corner: There is nothing more interesting than both stop signs and yield signs.

6th Avenue and 15th St. (and Washington): Something about stop signs on frontage roads that just gets me right in the feels. 

Belmont and 62nd Ave.: This stop sign is both useful and aspirational. 


About this post: 

Over the last few months, I’ve been writing some short essays on small town life for theNorth Dakota Quarterly blog. I like to try them out here first, but here are the others: The Dog Park at the End of the Universe, In Praise of TrucksAlone Together in a Small Town, Bump outs, Logistics, and Citizenship in a Small Town. I pretend that they’re chapters in a fictional book of essays on life in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Lyon’s Garage and the End of Past Futures

Grand Forks is a pretty interesting little town if you pay attention to what’s going on. This past week, the long simmering news became pubic that Lyon’s Garage, a Tudor Revival style building built in 1929. It will be replaced by a predictably bland, brick-clad, steel and glass “mixed use” building with commercial or retail space on the ground floor and modern apartments above.

1280px Lyons Garage 214 218 North 4th Street Grand Forks ND

What has drawn my to the story of Lyon’s Garage is that it is the last operating business from the old automobile district in downtown Grand Forks. According the National Register nomination and a quick scan of the Sanborn Maps showed that as early as 1916, the northern part of downtown Grand Forks had become home to a number of garages and auto repair businesses. Their location at the edge of the commercial district downtown was convenient because it provided access to travelers on the Meridean Highway and the U.S. Route 2. Travelers stopping in Grand Forks could get their vehicles serviced or park their cars over in one of the several garages in the area. Grand Forks residents could purchase their vehicles in this neighborhood as well, and Lyon’s Garage sold some rather more obscure brands – including the humorously named Hupmobile – across the street from the Oldsmobile dealer. To the northeast of Lyon’s stood the Norther Pacific passenger depot and to the southwest was the Great Northern railway siding in town. In other words, Lyon’s Garage stood amid a network of roads and rail connection linking Grand Forks to the rest of the nation.

The decision to tear down Lyon’s Garage speaks a bit to how we current view the history of Grand Forks. There is no doubt that a light industrial outfit like Lyon’s fits awkwardly within the developing plans for the city. The emphasis on making downtown Grand Forks a walkable city with street level shopping and higher density residential space makes the rather single-story buildings with generous set backs rather less efficient uses of space. In fact, most efforts to promote new urbanism frown on the inefficient use of space associated with downtown car dealerships, even though they were a regular feature in mid-20th century communities (See for example, the efforts to move Select Ford from downtown Williston, North Dakota.) The effort to reimagine downtowns remain steadfastly nostalgic, however, even as they overwrite part of the urban past in the name of new urbanism. The loss of Lyon’s Garage – and the closing of Odin’s Service Station on Belmont – mark two of the older, and continuously functioning, monuments to Grand Forks automotive past. The automobile and Grand Forks developed more or less simultaneously and even today single family homes and tidy neighborhoods extend north and south along the thoroughfares that follow the line of the old Meridian highway. In effect, Grand Forks was designed for sprawl and suburbanization. The disappearance of Lyon’s Garage (and possibly Odin’s!) erases some of the historical monuments that defined the early-20th century character of Grand Forks. 

It’s interesting to think of places like Lyon’s Garage as an expression of the tension between Grand Forks as a “logistics city” that supported the regional and national flow of material through its borders and Grand Forks as a central place that privileges residents over participation in the global supply chain. The auto district of Grand Forks, served the movement of people and goods through our community (as well as residents).

More than that, it embedded the mechanics of Grand Forks as a logistics city in its urban fabric. The rail lines, auto district, warehouses, and boarding houses that characterized the northern and western parts of downtown created opportunities for genuine mixed use development. Over the past decade, however, many of the older light industrial sites in Grand Forks have moved further outside the city, in part to take advantage more, cheaper space and better connections to rail and the interstate. This shift to industrial activity outside the city itself, however, impacts downtown as it transforms the diverse environment supported by genuine mixed use urbanism into a more homogenized space of commercial, retail, and residential. In fact, the absence of light industrial activities in the urban core may well mitigate against a certain amount of economic diversity as these installations likely syncopated the spread of higher rent and high cost development that would ensure both space for less well-heeled operations and moderated the expense of downtown living. The risk of a downtown built on higher cost residential, white collar commercial, and retail and service is that the folks who work in those street level retail outlets and in the service industry can’t live downtown. As a result, they have to drive to work in the walkable urban core.  

As a brief coda to an admitted rambling post, I was struck by the rise of new businesses in town that have adopted the formal character of the garage. Sickie’s Garage for example, is a burger place that initial built a garage-like building well outside of downtown before moving into a restaurant space in East Grand Forks that they have decorated to look a bit like a garage. Vinyl Taco, another new eatery – uses garage doors to open their restaurant to the outdoors during the three or four weeks a year which this is desirable. While, I’d be loath to suggest that a place like Lyon’s Garage or Odins become local “bar ’n’ grills,” but they stand as nice example of our nostalgia for these kinds of light industrial landscapes. The visible presence of brewing equipment in both of the downtown breweries similarly evokes and tempers urban industrial landscapes making them safe for upscale retail and service. All this both reminds us of a more dynamic urban past while keeping the smells, working class people, and noise of real industrial work at a distance. It’s a local version of the famed Meat-Packing and Garment districts of New York City.

All this is to say that it will be a bit sad to see Lyon’s Garage disappear. It’s not that it was such a remarkable building or that I even patronized the business (I did, however, got to Odin’s regularly), but I do appreciate what that kind of business stood for in a town like Grand Forks and wonder whether our walkable future would do a bit better to preserve the working class landscape of our city’s automobile past.