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Something old, something new: Local leaders explore ways to keep Grand Forks' architectural history alive

Rhombus Guys is located in the historic Opera House on South Third Street in Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 5
Jeffrey Wencl, historic preservation coordinator with the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission, shows the "Historic GF" app aimed at engaging youth in the town's history. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald2 / 5
Babcock Hall at UND is the oldest academic building on campus and is scheduled for renovation. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 5
The Urban Stampede is located in the historic Odd Fellows building at Kittson Avenue and South Fourth Street in Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald4 / 5
Jeffrey Wencl, historic preservation coordinator with the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission, looks at the "Historic GF" app on his phone. The commission aims to entice tourists to engage in the city's history. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald5 / 5

Eastern North Dakota might not have quite as prominent a place in U.S. history as colonial-era communities on the East Coast, but don't let that mislead you: There's still plenty to explore in Grand Forks.

The city boasts more than 1,000 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, said Jeffrey Wencl, historic preservation coordinator with the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission.

"They all contribute to the character and architecture of Grand Forks," Wencl said of the city's nationally significant historic spots. "They're all on the list because there's something unique and special about them."

The sites include buildings and structures from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as several structures that weathered the 1997 flood.

Sites are either individually listed on the National Register, or they're listed as "contributing" to a historic district. There are a variety of buildings in Grand Forks' downtown that are individually listed, Wencl said.

Getting young folks on board

And when it comes to finding ways to share the city's robust history with the next generation, the commission is tapping into new technology. In Summer 2018, the commission soft-launched the "Historic GF" app, which offers walking tours of various historic sites in downtown Grand Forks.

To develop the app, the commission partnered with two Grand Forks-based firms: AdMonkeys and Greenwood Online Services and Consulting. While several cities in the United States have launched various historic walking tour apps, Grand Forks is the first North Dakota city to do so, Wencl said.

"The app came to be as a conduit for the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission to bring many of our historic district brochures and walking tours into the 21st century," he said.

Future iterations of the app will include walking tour brochures from the Near Southside Historic District, the Riverside Historic District and the UND Historic District. The commission is "particularly excited" for the UND district walking tour, which could be used by students as they walk to and from class, Wencl said.

In addition to walking tours, the Historic GF app provides descriptions of various architectural styles in Grand Forks' downtown. Those include Richardsonian Romanesque-style buildings, such as the Metropolitan Opera House or the St. John's Block Commercial Exchange.

You can spot this style of architecture on buildings with arched windows and "elaborate cornices," according to the app.

For local history buff Marsha Gunderson, one of the challenges for historic preservation in the Grand Forks region is getting younger people interested — and involved.

Gunderson served as a member of the city's historical preservation commission since its onset three decades ago, but stepped down in 2016. She also served as the commission's chair for much of her tenure.

"I stepped away from the commission to get some younger people involved," Gunderson said. "But they have to have a genuine interest in history."

In her mind, Grand Forks' architecture "tells you the story of the city — how it got to be where it is today."

A storied history

Gunderson pointed to another building in downtown Grand Forks as an example: the Odd Fellows Building on Kittson Avenue, now home to the Urban Stampede coffee shop.

"The building that has the most un-fun history but the most history would be the Odd Fellows Building," Gunderson said. "It's a building that has a very storied history."

Like the Metropolitan Opera House on South Third Street, the Odd Fellows Block on Kittson Avenue has had multiple uses throughout its history, having served as a post office, a city library and a meeting site for various lodges, such as the Knights of the Maccabees.

But finding new uses for old buildings isn't always easy, according to Peg O'Leary, former coordinator of the Grand Forks Historical Preservation Commission.

"We spent a lot of time working our way through historic buildings so we could save them and make them useful again," O'Leary said. "If there's no practical use for it, the sentiment is not strong for saving it."

On the UND campus, that's been a perennial problem for historic preservation.

"Higher ed traditionally has low utilization of buildings," said Mike Pieper, UND's associate vice president for facilities. "Post recession, the private sector reduced their square footage by about 30 percent and didn't see an impact on productivity."

As a result, there was a push nationally to remove buildings on campuses to cut costs, Pieper said. Over the summer, the university finished demolishing Corwin-Larimore and Robertson-Sayre halls, the remaining vestiges of Wesley College, a Methodist institution previously affiliated with UND.

To preserve other historical spots on campus, the State Board of Higher Education in September approved fundraising plans for Babcock, Gustafson and Carnegie halls.

And at the J. Lloyd Stone House, UND is in the midst of a nearly $4 million "historically accurate" renovation project, said Les Bjore, director of planning, design and construction. The project includes a new roof, reconstruction of the dormers and refurbishing floors.

"It's a really top-to-bottom, no-stone-left-unturned kind of restoration," Bjore said. "It's going to be beautiful inside when it's done."

Another challenge for historic preservation for Grand Forks at large: getting property owners and the city on the same page.

Building owners are responsible for maintaining historic buildings, even if they're on the National Register.

"There are funding options and tax credit options available—usually at a federal level and sometimes at a local level," Wencl said. "But the funding almost exclusively comes from the businesses and property owners themselves, and that's the tough part."

A sampling of historic spots

Odd Fellows Block

Year built: 1888

Style: Richardsonian Romanesque

Historical significance: The building previously served as a post office, city library and meeting site for various lodges.

Today: Urban Stampede coffeeshop

Metropolitan Opera House

Year built: 1890

Style: Richardsonian Romanesque

Historical significance: At one time, the building was hailed as "the finest theater between Minneapolis and Seattle," according to the Grand Forks Historical Preservation Commission's website. Through the years, though, the building has played host to everything from a bowling alley to a cafe.

Today: First level, Rhombus Guys Brewing Co.; upper levels, Opera House Lofts

Babcock Hall

Year built: 1908

Style: Jacobethan

Historical significance: Designed by architect Joseph Bell DeRemer, the hall is named after Earle J. Babcock, who pioneered the investigation of lignite and clay deposits, according to UND.

Today: Being renovated to house UND's electrical engineering and computer science department

Riverside Manor

Year built: 1907

Style: Classical revival

Historical significance: The building came close to being demolished to make way for new dikes after the 1997 flood, according to Herald archives. "We fought really hard to save that building," said Peg O'Leary, former commissioner of the Grand Forks Historical Preservation Commission.

Today: Affordable housing for low-income residents

Grand Forks County Fairgrounds Grandstand

Year built: 1937

Historical significance: President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the structure's dedication in 1937. The grandstand was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Today: Still in need of repairs for the next racing season

Dan Niepow

Niepow covers social and community issues for the Grand Forks Herald. Before joining the paper, he worked as a magazine writer and editor. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he currently resides over the river in East Grand Forks, Minn. To reach Niepow with story ideas, send him an email at dniepow@gfherald.com or call him at (701) 780-1110. Follow him on Twitter @dniep.

(701) 780-1110
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