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