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In wake of 1997 flood, commission worked to keep Grand Forks' history

After the 1997 flood, homeowners faced questions of what to keep and what to throw on the trash heap, what to restore and what to tear down and replace.

Grand Forks Flood Rainbow
The destruction of part of the Grand Forks' historic core helped shape the Historic Preservation Commission after the flood, though some members say more historic properties could have been saved. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

After the 1997 flood, homeowners faced questions of what to keep and what to throw on the trash heap, what to restore and what to tear down and replace.

The same questions hovered over the city's historic properties, and at times they were resolved after many hours of work and debate.

"The first five years were amazing. It was just constant in the first five years," said Marsha Gunderson, chairwoman of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission.

The commission's fight began the day Gunderson, along with a representative of the state Historic Preservation Office and the National Register of Historic Places, toured the destruction in downtown Grand Forks while it was still closed off from residents.

"Losing 11 National Register properties is major, major loss," she said. "We have a history of Grand Forks, and to see it lost by the flood was painful."


Making history a priority

The ruin of so much of the historic core gave the preservation of what was left greater urgency. But there also was an urgent need to clean up the city and return life to normal, and historic preservation was not a unanimous priority.

"Preservation was on the back burner," said Peg O'Leary, coordinator for the commission. "There was a lot more concern about getting the town cleaned up and healthy."

In the years following the flood, the commission saw both wins and losses. It fought for and helped save the Metropolitan Opera House on South Third Street and Riverside Manor just south of Gateway Drive. It pushed for moving the property known as the Boom Town building from the east side of South Third Street to the west side, out of the way of the dike. It also supported the preservation of Lyons Auto on North Fourth Street.

The Opera House, built in 1890 as a jewel of a burgeoning city, was an early fight over a neglected property.

"It wasn't a hugely popular building. It had got run down and it didn't look so great," O'Leary said. It was refurbished as an apartment building, though is still in need of a commercial tenant.

One loss that members regret is the removal of the pedestrian bridge across the Red River downtown.

"It meant so much for the history of Grand Forks because we were a river city. We were founded on riverboats," said Commission member and UND history professor Gordon Iseminger.


He said the city government was in a rush to rebuild -- similar to the way families threw out flooded items from their homes, his own included.

"My daughters threw out stuff they never, ever should have thrown out, and the city did, too," he said.

"We were just too quick to tear down and throw away," he said, pointing to demolitions on South Third Street, the area around the County Office Building and spaces cleared for the downtown Corporate Center.

Gunderson recalled historic properties lost to dike construction and the destruction of the Lincoln Drive neighborhood as sacrifices made in restoring the city and building flood protection.

"That we saved as much as we did was in large part due to the Preservation Commission," Iseminger said.

The commission's efforts were not embraced by everyone, and it had to fight the perception that "we were standing in the way of Grand Forks getting back on its feet," Iseminger said. "We had to get over that hurdle, and I think we did."

Shaped by the flood

The aftermath of the flood and negotiations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the years that followed shaped the Preservation Commission into an entity that would have a strong influence in city decisions.


"The flood really gave us a purpose," Iseminger said. "We are now, hands down, the most active preservation commission in the state."

The commission's work in the years after the flood also led to the creation of the Office of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission as part of the city's budget, along with the position of a coordinator.

Looking back at the years since the flood, Gunderson gives the commission high marks for its efforts, but a "B" grade for its outcomes.

"We weren't as successful as we would have liked to have been, but is anything perfect?" she said. Still, the commission helped preserve many of the pieces of history that give Grand Forks its character.

"The biggest thing is to give us a sense of place," she said. "If it's all sitting out at the dump, what's your sense of place?"

Reach Bjorke at (701) 780-1117; (800) 477-6572, ext. 117; or send e-mail to cbjorke@gfherald.com .


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