Many American towns owe their existence to the railroads. The railroad was so important to Fargo that the town was named for William G. Fargo, a director of the Northern Pacific Railroad. At first it wasn’t much of a town, back in 1871 when the first city pioneers staked homestead claims at the point where the Northern Pacific planned to cross the Red River. At that time Midwestern settlers knew the place as Centralia where steamboats would stop on the river.
Fargo’s drive to become North Dakota’s premier city began with the formal arrival of the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads. In 1890 the city was selected as the Flickertail State’s federally funded land grant college, the North Dakota Agricultural College which evolved into North Dakota State University in the 1960s. Fargo became the “Gateway to the West” approaching the 20th century.
Progress was slowed on a late spring day in 1893 when fire broke out on Front Street (Main Avenue today) and was quickly carried by winds across much of the town, studded with wooden buildings. More than thirty blocks of downtown Fargo were destroyed but optimism among the 8,000 inhabitants in the heart of the Red River Valley was scarcely diminished. By the next summer the Fargo streetscape was lined with 246 new buildings, mostly constructed of brick and stone.
We will see many of those post-conflagration buildings that still reside in the heart of Fargo on our walking tour. And we will start with one from the progenitor of the city itself...
Great Northern Depot
James Jerome Hill was a Canadian who came to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1856 at the age of 18 and found work as a bookkeeper with a steamboat company. For the next twenty years he learned the shipping business inside and out, applying his motto for success: “work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work.” Hill would establish a monopoly of the steamboat business in the Upper Midwest and then slide into railroading in the 1880s. He came to be known as the “Empire Builder” as his railroad expanded across the West. In time his Great Northern Railway would extend from St. Paul to Seattle - the first transcontinental railroad built without public money. His friend Samuel Bartlett designed many of the passenger stations for the Great Northern and he drew the plans for the Fargo depot in 1906; it features dark red brick laid atop a rusticated sandstone foundation in a Romanesque style. The Fargo passenger business was taken over by AMTRAK in 1971 and in 1986 the government constructed a smaller depot to use. The deserted station was rescued in 1995 and turned into a microbrewery. That business evaporated but the historic depot has trundled on.
WALK WEST ON 5TH AVENUE (THE RAILROAD TRACKS ARE ON YOUR RIGHT). ACROSS THE TRACKS ON THE RIGHT IS...
Ford Assembly Plant
505 Broadway at northeast corner of Broadway
In 1910 Henry Ford built his first assembly plant outside of Detroit in Kansas City. While only three or four Model T cars could ship inside a standard boxcar but a dozen cars could be built from a boxcar of parts shipped to a distant site. The model proved successful and a second assembly plant was constructed in Fargo in 1914. Working from a design by John Graham the Ford building sported showrooms and a garage on the first floor, offices on the second floor and the assembly line on the third. Completed cars were loaded directly onto Great Northern freight cars. The Ford Motor Company closed the plant in 1956 and a printer and appliance dealer moved into the facility. A renovation in the early 2000s yielded retail and office space on the first two floors and condominiums on the top floor where Ford automobiles once rolled off the line.
TURN LEFT ON BROADWAY.
Viking Hotel/Bison Hotel
413 Broadway at southeast corner of 5th Avenue North
This three-story railroad hotel was constructed in 1905 by Ole C. Lindvig and Christ A. Losness. Seven bays wide and 13 bays deep, the appropriately named Viking Hotel was a popular gathering point for Scandinavian immigrants. The original design was enhanced by a classical-style cornice and balcony over the Broadway entrance. Lindvig and Losness sold their hotel in 1940 and new owners Gomer D. Anderson and Sparkey Davey gave the guest house a makeover and a new name - the Bison Hotel. The last guests checked out in the early 1970s. A theater operated here for a short time and a succession of businesses has occupied the space ever since.
Leeby’s Food Market
For decades Fargo’s go-to downtown food market was Leeby’s. The two-story commercial building is of 1929 vintage and features a multi-colored brick facade enlivened with concrete diamond-shaped blocks. Leeby’s shuttered in 1990 and most recently the building has done duty as the home of the upscale Zandbroz Variety which was started by Jeff and Greg Danz as an eclectic bookstore in 1989.
W.S. Lowman was the money man for this three-story, red brick commercial building in 1914. The architects were R.J. Haxby and William D. Gillespie who outfitted their creation with stone trim, stone lintels and a stone name block. Like most commercial blocks of the day the ground floor consisted of storefronts and the upper floors were for residences.
400 Broadway at northwest corner of 4th Avenue
Thomas F. Powers was a bricklayer in St. Paul when he heard word of the devastating fire that destroyed downtown Fargo. His father had emigrated to Minnesota from County Tipperary, Ireland in 1857 and worked as a mason for the capital city. Upon reaching North Dakota Powers founded the T.F. Powers Construction Company and he would oversee construction of many turn-of-the-century Fargo buildings. Powers not only constructed “Fargo’s Only Modern Fireproof Hotel” in 1914 but owned the property as well. Aimed at passengers stepping off the Great Northern Railroad in search of luxury accommodations, business was good enough for architect William F. Kurke to tack on two additional classically-influenced floors in 1919. Look up to see the placing of the original stone nameplate in the middle of the facade. The Powers family went on to own several other Fargo hotels and the Powers Hotel stayed in the family until its close in 1981. The hotel coffee shop is remembered as the place where Wimbledon High School graduate Norma Deloris Egstrom sang for food before joining Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1941 and becoming famous as songbird Peggy Lee.
This standout American downtown theater has quite an architectural pedigree. The original classical design came from the firm of Charles W. Buechner, who was born in Germany in 1859, and Henry William Orth who was born on a ship sailing from Oslo, Norway in 1866. Buechner & Orth were leading cheerleaders for the ornate Beaux Arts style and designed more than a dozen courthouses across the upper Midwest. For the Fargo Theatre in 1926 they decorated the facade with stone gargoyles, palmettes, and egg and dart details. The current appearance dates to a 1937 makeover by the architectural firm of Liebenburg & Kaplan. Jacob Liebenberg was born in Milwaukee in 1893 to German immigrant parents and was a member of the first graduating class of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture in 1916. After a stint in the Air Force Liebenberg returned to teach at the university and formed a partnership with a student, Seeman Kaplan. Kaplan handled the engineering details and Liebenberg provided the design talents. Liebenberg and Kaplan designed over 200 elaborate theaters in the Midwest.
Derecci Block/Fargoan Hotel
This is more handiwork from the T.F. Powers Construction Company, completed in 1913 as a rooming house for the Y.W.C.A. The Powers family, which included the Derecci of the name block, gussied up the classically-flavored building in 1930 and re-opened the three-story structure as the Fargoan Hotel. The outside retained the original red Hebron brick and stone trim appearance while the lobby was updated with an Art Deco style featuring black marble and murals by 66-year old Swedish artist Carl Olson. The Powers family sold off the hotel in the 1970s and the property was reborn as condominiums and retail storefronts.
Sons of Norway Lodge
The Sons of Norway organized in Minneapolis with 18 European immigrants in 1895 to promote and preserve the heritage and culture of Norway. As a sideline the fraternal organization provided insurance and financial products to its members. The spirit of the lodge spread quickly and in 1905 this handsome Classical Revival clubhouse was raised in downtown Fargo. The composition is highlighted by a carved stone French Renaissance cartouche in the center of the roofline parapet.
Dixon Block/Moose Lodge
The street level of this 1905 commercial building has been compromised but you can look up to the second floor to see Romanesque-styled windows underneath a classical dentilled cornice fashioned from metal. The design was provided by architect brothers George and Walter Hancock. When the Hancocks arrived in Fargo in 1882 George was 33 years old and Walter 17. After the Great Fire of 1893 the brothers were responsible for designing half the new construction in the town. In 1917 George Hancock lobbied for the professionalism of architecture in North Dakota and he and Walter became the first licensed architects in the state. The client here was J.E. Dixon who picked up the $22,000 tab. Dixon ran a laundry on the ground floor and a small hotel upstairs. The hotel operated into the 1970s despite having only one bathroom facility shared by both men and women. The Moose Lodge acquired the property in 1964.
This two-story mid-block commercial structure was raised in 1900 for John E. Johnson who ran a popular bicycle shop in the days before the horseless carriage. The Johnson Brothers cyclery began life in Moorhead in 1887 and was in Fargo two years later. Architect Jacob Friedlander provided the fancy corbelled brick cornice. The upstairs rooms were used as apartments. The total construction bill was $11,000.
Peter Elliott spent his early working days on a steamboat on the Red River and surveying Northwest lands for the United States government. Once he settled in Fargo he opened a successful restaurant and eventually financed the construction of this substantial commercial block crafted of cream-colored brick in 1909. Elliott named his new property, which was constructed in stages, after his youngest daughter, Loretta. The next year Elliott began a stint as mayor of Fargo.
Merchants National Bank Building
122 Broadway at southwest corner
The Merchants National Bank and Trust Company of Fargo took its first deposits on July 1, 1890. The bank moved into this new headquarters in 1921. The Hancock Brothers tapped the classical Jacobean style for the two-story vault, using cream-colored glazed tile trim to decorate the red brick exterior. Since its days as a bank have vanished the ground floor has been given an unfortunate commercial treatment.
Fargo’s Art Deco jewel was built with George Black’s money in 1930. In 1912 Black, who was working in his Irish immigrant father’s store in Little Falls, Minnesota began touring western Minnesota to investigate towns for a new store. Fargo was not on the list - the Blacks heard it was too darn cold - but during a layover between trains Black looked around downtown Fargo and saw it bustling with shoppers. On June 12, 1912 George Black sold his first goods on this block. In 1929 Black sold his thriving business to Sears Roebuck and used his profits to construct the tallest building North Dakota had ever seen. Architects Oscar T. Lang, Arnold I. Raugland, and Carroll E. Lewis of Minneapolis drew up the plans using gleaming Indiana limestone, a circumstance Ripley’s Believe It or Not found so amusing the newspaper feature called America’s attention to the fact that the Black Building was actually white. Sears operated on the basement and first two floors but after a few years George Black grew disenchanted with the business arrangement and decided to start a new store. He had sold the rights to the Black name in the original deal so he called his new business on First Avenue the Store Without a Name.
All of the commercial structures on the east side of this block have received similar ground level window treatments but still retain their century-old facades above. This two-story classically-influenced building is another of the Hancock Brothers creations from 1903. Today Moxie Java is the longest operating coffee shop in downtown Fargo.
Prolific architects George and Walter Hancock not only designed this stylish commercial block but they owned it. The 1903 effort used red brick, sandstone trim and stamped metal spandrels.
101 Broadway at northeast corner of 1st Avenue
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was birthed in 18th century England for tradesmen who did not fit comfortably into easily defined guilds like stonemasons and carpenters. The Fargo chapter constructed this attractive Renaissance Revival building in 1906 on plans drawn by Minneapolis architects Fremont D. Orff and Edgar E. Joralemon. The duo had more than one dozen courthouses on their resume. The Odd Fellows convened upstairs and rented out the first floor to businesses such as the Fargo Forum and the Singer Sewing Machine Company. In 1915 a third floor was added and occupied by Horace Davidson as a hotel. In the process the Odd Fellows’ grand facade and Romanesque windows were altered into the less decorative openings seen today.
TURN LEFT ON 1ST AVENUE NORTH
101 5th Street North at northeast corner of 1st Avenue North
The first issue of the Fargo Forum hit the streets on November 17, 1891. The publishers were Alanson William Edwards and Horatio Clark Plumley. The Ohio-born Edwards joined the Union Army in 1861 as a private and by war’s end his decorated service made him a major. He operated his first newspaper after the Civil War in Bunker Hill, Illinois and came to Fargo in 1878 to edit the town’s Republican mouthpiece, the Daily Argus. The Forum moved into these quarters in 1927; there was enough space that the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company used the third floor as its North Dakota headquarters. Meinecke-Johnson, started by Casper Johnson in the 1890s and now in its fifth generation as a family-run construction business, was responsible for raising this building.
TURN RIGHT ON 5TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON NP AVENUE AND CONTINUE BACK TO BROADWAY.
Fargo National Bank
52 Broadway at northwest corner of Northern Pacific Avenue
Martin Hector rode into Moorhead in 1872 when he was 19 years old. He worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad running a lathe and got into the liquor business by accident. By 1897 Hector had made enough money supplying spirits to start up the Fargo National Bank with O.J. deLendrecies and W.C. McFadden. Hector served as bank president for 41 years. When he wasn’t tending to bank business he was ramrodding the construction of a bridge at the north end of Broadway over the Red River to Moorhead and donating the land for Fargo’s airport, which carries his name today. The Fargo Bank moved into this Classical Revival vault in 1911.
TURN LEFT ON BROADWAY
First National Bank Building
Louis Benjamin Hanna hailed from western Pennsylvania and came to the Dakota Territory when he was twenty years old in 1881. He took up lumbering and grain shipping and when his business ambitions required banking services he started his own private bank in his community of Page. In the 1890s Hanna caught the political bug and served in the North Dakota House of Representatives. While he was climbing the political ladder Hanna moved to Fargo with the First National Bank. Hanna won election to two terms in the United States House of Representatives and then became the Flickertail State’s eleventh governor. The bank moved into this six-story office building in 1926, an architectural blend of the classical and the-emerging Art Deco style that emphasized the verticality of the structure.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN AVENUE.
600 Block of Main Avenue
This block is Fargo’s best look at the 19th century when Italianate was the dominant style of commercial architecture across American downtowns. Look for narrow windows, arched window headings and decoartive metal cornices. The upstairs would typiclaly contain residential space for the shopkeepers at street level.
620 Main Avenue at southeast corner of 7th Street South
Onesine Joassin deLendrecie pulled into Fargo in 1879 and within a few weeks was ringing up sales on this location in a store he called the Chicago Dry Goods House. Two months later his brother Eugene was alternating shifts behind the cash register. In 1894 when the deLendrecies bought up additional lots on the block and constructed a grand two-story emporium they called it the “Mammoth Department Store.” The architects were from Duluth, Charles M. McMillen and his young partner, German immigrant Gerhard A. Tenbusch. Three more stories were added by local architect Andrew O’Shea in 1909 as the business across from the Northern Pacific Depot thrived. The pattern of Romanesque windows was repeated under a classical-style cornice. Onesine traded the Fargo winters for California in 1914 and Eugene stayed on as president until his death in 1940. Finally in 1955 the business was sold out of the family but the name continued to resonate withe Fargo shoppers until 1998, 26 years after the store moved out to West Acres mall, when the company was purchased by the Dillard’s department store chain.
Northern Pacific Railroad Depot
701 Main Avenue
Cass Gilbert resides in the pantheon of American architects with iconic skyscrapers like New York City’s Woolworth Building, three state capitols and the United States Supreme Court building on his resume. Beginning his career in Minnesota, Gilbert won the commissions to design a number of railroad stations including this one for the Northern Pacific in 1898. His eclectic design here was inspired by the Italian Renaissance and features a deep and shallow hipped roof sheathed in red tile with heavy brackets supporting the deep overhangs. Dark-colored pressed brick trimmed with red sandstone quarried on Lake Superior were used to complete the composition. In 1970 the Northern Pacific was absorbed by the Burlington Northern which designated the tracks for freight service and the passenger depot closed. The Fargo Park District now operates from the historic Cass Gilbert legacy building.
Luger Furniture Store
716 Main Avenue
Austrian-born Ferdinand Luger arrived in Wabasha, Minnesota in his early thirties to apply his cabinet-making skills in a furniture factory with his brother. Ferdinand eventually hit the road as a salesman for the Lugers’ chests and tables and coffins. He started a store in Fargo on the corner of Broadway and NP Avenue in 1877 and built this intricately detailed High Victorian Gothic commercial building in 1883.
TURN LEFT ON 8TH STREET.
Masonic Block/Dakota Business College
9 8th Street South
Another outstanding example of the ornate High Victorian Gothic commercial style was added to the Fargo streetscape in 1884 by architect Charles N. Daniels. The client was former surveyor Andrew McHench who was the second man to stake a land claim in what would become Fargo in 1871. His intention was to create a home for the Masonic Shiloh Lodge No. 8. The Masons were gone by 1889 by which time Fargo College was operating here. In 1890 Mathias F. Knox founded the Northwest College of Commerce in the building which evolved into the Dakota Business College. More than 30,000 students attended class in this L-shaped building until the school shuttered in 1978.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO MAIN AVENUE. CROSS AND CONTINUE HEADING NORTH.
Burlington Northern Headquarters
801 Main Avenue
The Northern Pacific Railroad was the first to run a main line through Fargo; the Great Northern Railroad had only built a spur to the town. Both lines were absorbed by the Burlington Northern in the 1970s; the Great Northern got the passenger service and the Northern Pacific the freight routes. The Burlington Northern ran its Fargo operations from this sparsely decorated Colonial Revival brick building constructed in 1925.
Robb Lawrence Building/Renaissance Hall
650 NP Avenue at southeast corner of 8th Street
This four-story warehouse is emblematic of Fargo’s role as a major distribution center in the early 1900s. The building dodged the wrecking ball by mere hours in the 1990s and was rescued with a $10 million makeover for North Dakota State University, earning it the obvious name of Renaissance Hall. Local architect William Colstrand Albrant provided the Romanesque-inspired plans for the red brick building in 1903.
TURN LEFT ON NP AVENUE. TURN RIGHT ON 7TH STREET.
International Harvester Building/Plains art Museum
704 1st Avenue North
International Harvester made its first appearance in the Red River Valley in 1879. This three-story utilitarian building was built in 1904 to handle the company’s reapers, mowers and corn huskers. The Plains Art Museum took over the space in 1994 and adapted the heavy timber construction to accommodate 56,000 square feet of repurposed exhibition space in 1997.
TURN RIGHT ON 1ST AVENUE.
Federal Courthouse Building
655 1st Avenue N at northwest corner of Roberts Street
Fargoans first picked up their mail in a grocery store - after previously having to go to the “crossing of the Northern Pacific at the Red River in Pembina County” to retrieve it. The Hancock Brothers erected a Victorian post office on this site in the 1890s. The current grand Neoclassical federal building arrived in its stead in 1929 at the cost of $600,000 to serve as both post office and courthouse. The postal service moved on in 1969 but the federal government stayed and expanded its presence with the Quentin Burdick Federal courthouse to the west in 1996.
16 Roberts Street at southwest corner of 1st Avenue
In the first half of the 20th century the Gardner Hotel was the type of place where Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin and heavyweight champion of the world Jack Dempsey signed the guest register. Frank C. Gardner led a group of local investors to raise $150,000 and bring Fargo a first class hotel in 1909. The Hancock Brothers delivered the Classical Revival design. Of its 150 rooms, more than half were outfitted with running water and baths, considered the height of luxury at the time. Gardner, a fancier of spaniels, next led his investor group in developing citrus groves with the Florida Fruitlands Company in the Sunshine State. The glory days for the Gardner were over by mid-century and in the 1970s the property was taken over by the Daystar Ministries. A decade later came a conversion into an apartment complex.
Pioneer Life Building
625 1st Avenue North at northeast corner of Roberts Street
On his way to becoming North Dakota governor in 1913 Louis B. Hanna set up the Pioneer Life Insurance Company which wrote its first policies in 1907. This four-story brick building came on board in 1910 with retail shops on the first floor.
Turn left on ROBERTS STREET.
Grand Lodge of the AOUW
112 Roberts Street
Organized after the Civil War, the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW) was the first fraternal benefit society to offer its members insurance protection for sickness, accidents and burials. The lodge building from 1915 was one of the organization’s finest. Prominent Fargo architects R.J. Haxby and William D. Gillespie provided the Classical Revival design that is highlighted by a parade of Palladian windows.
Equity Building/Graver Hotel
113 Roberts Street at southeast corner of 2nd Avenue
Builder Thomas F. Powers and architect William F. Kurke teamed up to design this five-story commercial property in 1918. The commission was one of the 28-year old Kurke’s first buildings in North Dakota. He went on to build an acclaimed body of residential, commercial and public works.
TURN LEFT ON 2ND AVENUE.
First Presbyterian Church
650 2nd Avenue North
The first Presbyterian services were held under the direction of Oscar Elmer who arrived on mission work in 1871. Nine worshippers out of a settlement population of 700 showed up. The First Presbyterian Church was organized in 1877 and a small wood frame church was erected that handled the congregation until 1906 when it was replaced by a brick house of worship. The present downtown church dates to 1929; its Gothic Revival design came from the offices of Minneapolis architect Oscar T. Lang, Arnold I. Raugland, and Carroll E. Lewis. William F. Kurke served as on-site supervising architect. The church is fashioned from Faribault limestone hauled from Minnesota quarries.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ACROSS ROBERTS STREET TO BROADWAY AND TURN LEFT TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT THREE BLOCKS TO THE NORTH.