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

IMG 4947

IMG 4942

IMG 4951

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). 

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.  

Three Thing Thursday: Greeks, Roads, and Oil

For whatever reason, I’m having trouble getting myself into gear over spring break and have been jumping from one thing to the next all week. It’s predictable, then, that today blog post will be a dreaded “three things” rather than a more sustained consideration of one issue, topic, question, or publication. What’s the biggest bummer is that I wanted to write more about each of these three things. Maybe I can next week, but for now, here’s a sampling of what I’ve been up to.

Thing The First

If I had all the time and energy into the world, I’d publish a little volume featuring the work of Byzantine and Late Antique archaeologist outside of the Mediterranean basin. David Pettegrew and Kostis Kourelis would appear in it, of course. This week, I was really happy to receive a copy of Pennsylvania History 87.1 (2020) which is co-edited by Pettegrew and includes an article by Kourelis and Pettegrew on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. 

The article draws primarily from census data to paint a picture of the changing Greek communities in those towns and their divergent trajectories. The broader argument is that the tendency to emphasize Greek communities in major urban areas (Chicago, New York, et c.) obscures the fact that most Greek communities were small. More than that, these small Greek communities developed according the vagaries of these locales. The city of Harrisburg with its higher rents and involvement in the City Beautiful movement saw a very different kind of Greek community than the city of Lancaster. The Greek community in Harrisburg was more male-dominated and slower to include families although perhaps slightly more affluent, and these features most likely delayed the organization of a Greek church in the city which further slowed the development of this community.

Pettegrew and Kourelis construct their images of these two communities from the scrappy evidence provided by the census and their broad understanding of trends in these two cities. Their ability to paint vivid pictures from fragmentary evidence almost certainly derives from their years of patient work with the fragments of the Late Roman and Byzantine periods in Greece. 

(I couldn’t find the article online yet, but a few of the articles from the special issue are available here for free!).

Thing the Second

A good bit of our work on the Western Argolid Regional Project has focused on roads through our region. As a result, I’ve been trying to digest anything that drifts across my desk about roads in the Eastern Mediterranean. A couple of weeks ago, I spied Peri Johnson and Ömür Harmanşah’s “The Political Ecology of Roads And Movement: The Yalburt Yaylası Archaeological Landscape Research Project 2018 Season” from The Archaeology of Anatolia, Volume III (2019). Ömür Harmanşah has quietly established himself as one of the most insightful readers of the Mediterranean landscape and this article with Peri Johnson reflects his careful sophistication.

Johnson and Harmanşah consider the roads through their survey area in Central Anatolia from both a diachronic and decentralized perspective. In other words, they were not as concerned with the well-known roads through their area in particularly well documented periods and more interested in the ways in which local communities in their area interacted with one another and the wide region. By decentering their research and engaging with local communities, they were not only able to discover neglected roads and routes, but also associated sites. 

Their work and the situation in their survey area has close parallels with ours in the Western Argolid where in the Inachos valley formed the major route through our area throughout the ancient and into the modern period. At the same time, it has become clear that a number of significant routes linked sites in our survey area in ways that did not follow the dominant interregional road along the valley bottom. 

Thing the Third

I read John Sayles’ new book Yellow Earth this weekend. I really want to write a more substantive review of it, in part, because I really wanted to like it more than I did. Here are a few quick observations.

First, a colleague of mine mentioned once that most novels these days are really just short stories cobbled together. This book is that with plots and characters that come and go, intersect obliquely, and sometimes just fade away.

Second, Sayles does some interesting things with time. The book begins in the early days of the Bakken boom and ends just as the bust begins. For the characters, however, time passes at different rates. For two of the characters, their final year in high school traces the trajectory of the boom. For another, it occurs over the course of her pregnancy. For another still, it follow the construction of a house, the life span of a strip club, or the travels of a Mexican migrant from the border to North Dakota. The varying times at play during a boom is fascinating.

Third, the book navigates a difficult space in that one of the main characters is modeled after Tex Hall, the well-known and controversial former chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. This means Sayles spends much of the novel writing a number of Native American characters. While I don’t necessarily want to imply that his depiction of these characters was somehow inappropriate, instead, I’d like to acknowledge the ethical complications associated with this move and with depicting and understanding the complex attitudes among the Native American community to the oil boom.

Fourth and finally, for now, I still rankle at the depiction of the Bakken as the Wild West. I understand and appreciate the drama and the moral ambiguity latent in the concept of the Wild West, but I worry that this depiction somehow naturalizes the situation in the Bakken and undermines a reading that recognizes a series of very deliberate choices that allowed corrupt practices to prevail. 

Bakken, the Anthropocene, and Climate Change: An Abstract

A few months ago, an old friend Ömür Harmanşah nudged me to submit an abstract to a workshop panel he was organizing at next year’s annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East”. I wrote up a little speculative blog post on it a few weeks ago. 

Now, after some conversations with my colleague Bret Weber and a draft abstract, I concocted something. The title is not very good, but I have until the end of the week to get that straight. More than that, this is for a workshop session so the paper will be very brief and mostly serve as a an initial point of departure for a larger conversation.

The Bakken, the Contemporary, and the Global. 

Many scholars have argued that the “oil crises” of the 1970s initiated a new period in global capitalism. Deregulation, privatization, and a deepening faith in the market as the arbiter of meaningful policy produced an environment in which goods, people, and capital flowed and pooled at a global scale. While today it remains possible to talk about nation states, the “Global” North and South, the Middle East and the “West,” and various other regional, ideological, political, and economic identifiers, these often terms reveal as much about global systems as they do local situations. Indeed, the interplay between the local and global anticipates an archaeology of the anthropocene, climate change, and the 21st century.

From 2013-2018, the North Dakota Man Camp project has studied temporary workforce housing and the industrial landscape of the Bakken Oil Patch in Western North Dakota. Our research in the Bakken traced the flow of capital, technology, oil, and most importantly people through the landscape of Western North Dakota. This paper makes a speculative comparison between the Bakken and the archaeology of the contemporary Middle East as a way to reconsider the spatial and temporal scales necessary to understand global capitalism, an archaeology of the contemporary, and the anthropocene.

Three Things Thursday

Thursday mornings have become exceedingly hectic with me teaching a class in old Montgomery Hall at 8 am and it also being the customary day for NDQ to post its weekly blog.

That being said, I always can find time for a few things on a Thursday morning.

Thing One

One of the coolest things about Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is its impressive vaulted plaster and wood framed ceiling. The vaulted ceiling stood two storeys about the dining room in the original configuration of Montgomery Hall and when this room became the main reading room on campus, it conveyed a certain monumentality to the space.

Final edits 01 13 2020 UND HABS Narrative Outline pdf  page 22 of 25 2020 02 06 11 14 39

Final edits 01 13 2020 UND HABS Narrative Outline pdf  page 22 of 25 2020 02 06 11 16 14

Today, the acoustic tiles obscure the ceiling and a floor level divides the open expanse of the reading room and the dining hall. It nevertheless peaks through in places.

IMG 4642

IMG 4644

Thing Two

For the first time in my teaching career, I’m assigning something that I wrote for a class. Needless to say, I’m nervous. When I first got to UND, the university was preparing to celebrate its 125thaversary (which they oddly called something like there quinquasexatecentennial or some such pretentious nonsense). At this time, a decree went out from the President of the university that all the world … or every department should update their history. I offered to write the history of our department and now, after years of sort of hiding from it, I’m asking students to download and read two chapters to understand the early history of our program.

You can read it here, if you’d like, and I think that the early history of history at UND is pretty interesting. It speaks not only to the emergence of history as a professional discipline outside of the major universities (Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ivy League) as well as the first efforts to study the history of the state of North Dakota in the early 20th century and the organization of archives and seminars on the history of the state. It also gives an idea of how professors negotiated their place among the small town bourgeois of Grand Forks.

Thing Three

I really want to talk about some projects and make some updates concerning The Digital Press, but nothing is quite ready to announce. For example, Kyle Conway’s edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018 is in page proofs.
Sebastian Heath’s DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean is almost through layout. Derek Counts, Erin Averett, and Kevin Gartski’s Visualizing Votive Practice: Exploring Limestone and Terracotta Sculpture from Athienou-Malloura through 3D Models is in final pre-production review and will go to the copy editor this spring. Rebecca Seifried and Deb Brown’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is back from positive peer reviews and out to authors for revisions.

I’d love to announce a new collaboration with North Dakota Quarterly that involves two translated books which will appear under a new imprint (possibly something like the North Dakota Quarterly Press).

I’m also dying to talk about Sun Ra.

But nothing is ready to announce yet, but stay tuned. Stuff is in the works and I hope people will like it.

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!  

Ghosts Signs

I serve on our small town’s historic preservation commission. Mostly, this commission advises of the historic impact of projects funded through various federal programs. We also request funds and supervise work under a state block grant that usually supports documenting some part of the community’s historical heritage. In a few cases, we’re asked to weigh in on a preservation issue. Recently, the topic of Grand Forks’ small assemblage of ghosts signs has appeared on the agenda.

Ghost signs are signs painted on buildings that have over the years faded. In some cases, they’re on sides of buildings that are no longer visible because of more recent construction. In others, they face roads that no longer serve as major thoroughfares because of the traffic pattern changes. In many cases they are no longer relevant to the businesses that occupy the buildings or advertise for a specific business or even industry that is no longer present in a community.

The issue that came up in our committee was whether we should do anything to preserve these signs. Should we explore ways to stabilize their deterioration? Should we consider repainting some of them to bring them back to life? Should we find other strategies, like the creative use of high powered projectors in Winnipeg, that brings these signs back to life, even just for a few hours?  

Thinking about what we should do – if anything – with these ghosts signs preoccupied me on a few frigid walks around town lately. I also started to wonder whether these signs have particular or distinctive value for how the community. Not everything that is old is heritage.

I came to three tentative conclusions (happily and loosely inspired by Cailin Desilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (2017)).

First, ghost signs offer material evidence for the passage of time. Their faded and distressed appearance as well as the walls on which they appear embody the past in ways that our tendency toward a kind of sanitized heritage does not. Like the past itself, they are not neat, tidy, or clear. They often physically resist interpretation as multiple layers of paint and sometimes multiple signs confuse their legibility. In other words, they make the buildings on which they appear look old, but not in a simple way. They remind us that time wears on the fabric of buildings, that people intervene in the process of aging, and that the past is never simple. The stratigraphy of these signs communicates the past not as a single place, but as the overlapping sequence of events that often cut into, overwrite, and efface earlier interventions. Their variable preservation also makes us recognize how their location, exposure to light, and easy of access shaped their current state. The better preservation of certain colors, almost certainly because of their lead-based paint, presents a materiality at the chemical level. 

Second, to understand a ghost sign requires attention. Unlike modern media which so often blare its message in colors, sounds, and light, their age has mellowed ghosts signs. They often slip into the shadows, hide around corners, and whisper their message in alleyways or back streets. They also require us to get out of our cars and look up beyond the busy urban facades framed by our car windows. Our attention is more than just looking carefully, but also moving in different ways. Only by walking on foot, craning our necks, and slowing our pace, are we able to see what ghost signs are trying to say. In contrast to the relentlessness of mechanized movement, ghost signs are slower, calmer, and far less insistent in their message. To read them, we have to pay attention.

Finally, ghost signs are uncanny. They are disconcerting because they both require our attention and defy our ability to understand them clearly. In an era where it has become almost cliche to demand “the facts” and “the truth,” a ghost sign refuses to give either of those up easily (if at all). There is no factuality in a fading and pealing ghost sign. The coats of paint, signs of age, indeterminate message, and obscure location reminds us that most of the past is not arrange in neat categories of facts and truth. Instead, signs of the past remind us that a real past existed with vivid colors, sharp letters, and a clear messages, but today, what is left is much more difficult to discern. 

UND has a new President: Writing the History of the Recent Past

Yesterday, the state board of higher education announced a new president for the University of North Dakota. After a session of deliberation, a few white puffs of smoke ascended from the Chancellor’s inner chamber and a herald of the board solemnly announced “Habemus Presidentum.” Andrew Armacost will become UND’s 13th president and the chant of “Armacost virumque cano” was heard across campus.

I sometimes imagine that the new president would come to me and ask my sage advice about how to thrive on our campus. Needless to say, this will not happen, in part, because few people on campus know or care what I think and, in part, because I’m an idiot. That being said, I still found it intriguing to speculate on what the president should know about UND’s campus before his term formally begins in June.

I would undoubtedly urge him to become familiar with the history of the state and the university. Read Elwyn Robinson’s magisterial history of the state of North Dakota, and Kim Porter’s recent update. Read Louis Geiger’s institutional history of the University of North Dakota published in 1958. Read (if I may be so bold) my series of blog posts on the clash between Orin G. Libby and Thomas Kane, the 5th president of UND. Read Robinson’s article on UND’s 7th president, George Starcher and Starcher’s musings on the future of the university from North Dakota Quarterly in 1956. Read Dan Rice’s history of the Clifford Years at UND. Read David Haeselin’s edited volume on 1997 Red River flood and its impact on the community.

These books will give our new president a basic understanding of the history of the university and the state which will put him at an advantage of over many less informed members of the faculty and the community who will nevertheless dredge up some half-remembered historical precedent to justify their feeling of outrage and entitlement. At the same time, these works will give Armacost a good sense for the community’s historical imaginary. Robinson’s memorable “Themes of North Dakota History” continue to be evoked in the public media and used to justify all kinds of political and institutional positions. The high esteem that many hold for Tom Clifford not only explains why he is the only UND president to have a book length treatment of his term, but also why funding has been set aside for a monumental chryselephantine statue in his honor that always rotates to face the sun.

The most challenging aspect of understanding the history of the university is that so far, no one has taken on the challenge of writing a history of the “Three K Era: Kupchella, Kelley, and Kennedy” on our campus. I have to admit that I’m pretty tempted. 

It’s interesting to trace a trajectory from Starcher, who I see as responsible for creating the institutional structure, expectations, and character of the University of North Dakota throughout the late-20th century and Kelley and, to a lesser extent, Kennedy who worked to transform the institution into its 21st century form. I could imagine a little volume that focuses on a series of significant events and structural changes.

1. High Water Mark for the University. There’s little doubt that UND experienced its high water mark in terms of enrollments during Robert Kelley’s presidency and tuition dollars and stable state appropriations allowed the university to grow and start to anticipate changes to higher education taking place around the U.S. The relatively insulation of North Dakota and UND from the “Great Recession” may have created a false sense of calm on campus and the Bakken Oil boom encouraged faculty and administrators to think big.

2. Research. While Starcher should perhaps be credited with imagining UND as a research university, under Kelley and against the backdrop of Bakken boom, it seems like UND started to believe that it could achieve a R1 Carnegie classification. While the rhetoric of this being an aspirational goal for campus certainly accelerated under Kennedy’s presidency, the investment in the Medical School (including its new building) and in STEM fields crucial to generating the kind of grant funded research necessary advance UND through the Carnegie ranks.

3. The Kupchella Faculty. When I first arrived on campus, faculty hired under Tom Clifford and Kendall Baker held many of the informal leadership positions on campus. In many ways, they represented institutional memory and set the expectations for both faculty and campus life more broadly. They also set the terms of campus debates. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the Kupchella faculty will emerge as senior figures on campus. This is all the more significant because of the declining number of tenure track hires in the later years of Kelley’s and Kennedy’s presidency. In other words, the Kupchella faculty may well represent the last group of tenured faculty on campus.

4. The Arrival of Austerity. Part of the challenge of writing about Kelley, in particular, is that the last years of his presidency were overshadowed by a series of serious budget cuts which began in 2016. While much of the hard, bloody work of cutting the budget took place during Ed Schafer’s term as acting president in 2016 and under Mark Kennedy, the cuts themselves served as a referendum on Kelley’s vision of the university. Efforts in 2014 to implement a prioritization program and a strategic planning initiative that would create a sense of a direction for the campus gave way to across the board cuts to both academic and support divisions. The emergence of an incentive based model for funding seemingly indicated the planning and prioritization might best be left to “a market” defined by student enrollments, faculty research, and a certain amount of administrative vision. It goes without saying that the confusing set of statements made both through policy and decisions particularly under Kennedy’s presidency shook the campus to its core. Some of this must reflect on the indecisiveness of Kelley’s final years at UND as well as the hamfisted nature of Kennedy’s public statements.

5. Logos, Marketing, and Sports. For many alumni and community members, the most significant event in the institution’s history was the retirement of the Fighting Sioux mascot in 2012 and the rebranding of UND Athletics as the Fighting Hawks in 2015 both alienated a certain number of UND supporters and inspired a new wave of campus marketing looking to take the introduction of the new logo as a chance to begin a comprehensive rebrand of the tired campus graphic identity. 

The new logo was probably less important, historically, then the move in 2008 to Division 1 in all sports. This led to both upgrades to UND facilities (including the opening of the Betty Engelstad Center in 2008) and the UND Athletics High Performance center in 2017. The canceling of baseball, swimming, and, more controversially, women’s hockey in 2016 revealed that the move the Division 1 athletics was not without casualties.     

6. Campus Construction. The presidencies of the 3 Ks has certainly shaped UND’s campus in fundamental ways. The opening of the Ralph Engelstad arena in 2001, Clifford Hall and various structures on the western edge of campus, and major upgrades to the Law School, the College of Education, the Medical School and the College of Engineering and Mines reshaped many parts of campus. The new building for the UND Alumni Association and Foundation and new dormitories have likewise suggested a new, more contemporary design language on campus. Today, major expansions to the College of Business and Public Affairs, a new Student Union buildings, and a renovated library continue the work to bring campus up to standards. This is all driven by a new campus plan and, sadly, the removal of several of the early 20th century buildings on campus. 

7. Student Life. This is an area where my understanding of what goes on across campus falls the most short. I recognize that important social events – like riotous Springfest – have been suppressed by the city and the UND administration. I also know that there have been efforts to cultivate a greater sense of school spirit over the last five years, but I’m not sure how successful this work has been. The influence of Greek life, the changing landscape of student housing, and the smaller, but generally better prepared student body would form key parts to any narrative on the last 20 years of UND history.

8. Digital Futures. Finally, over the last 15 years, the prospects of a more digitally savvy, more online, and more innovative campus have lingered in the air and taken various administrative forms. This represents both an effort of UND to develop new revenue streams (with new, often private partners) and to reach students raised as “digital natives.” I suspect that this will have a major impact on the university of the future. 

In any event, I’m unlikely to find the time, funding, or energy to write this volume, but it is fun to imagine and it seems like naming of a new president offers an opportune time to reflect in a historically informed way. At the same time, there seems to be a bit of a renaissance in scholarship on higher education and this would form a useful backdrop to any recent history of an institution. I might even imagine a book like this generating a little buzz on campus and in the community particularly if I started it with a series of public fora and conversations designed to understand what the larger community saw as key moments over the last 30 years. More than that, this would be fun.