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Six Grand Forks public schools may earn national recognition for historical significance

Built in 1955, Wilder Elementary School at 1009 N. 3rd Street is among the six schools that will be nominated for national recognition. (Dan Niepow/Grand Forks Herald)

The Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission is submitting a nomination to add six Grand Forks public schools to the National Register of Historic Places.

The schools — five elementary and one middle — are being entered under a single nomination in recognition of their mid-century modern architectural style, according to Jeff Wencl, preservation coordinator with the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission.

The six schools to be nominated are West Elementary, Lewis and Clark Elementary, Viking Elementary, Wilder Elementary, Ben Franklin Elementary and Valley Middle School.

Mid-century modern architecture, often characterized by minimalist designs, differs significantly from ornate Victorian style buildings of the past, Wencl said.

"Mid-century modern style is easy to overlook because it was built for utilitarian purposes," Wencl said. "It was not meant to be flashy."

The schools will be the first mid-century modern buildings in Grand Forks to be submitted to the registry, Wencl said. The submission also is the first to encompass multiple buildings.

To appear on the National Register of Historic Places, a building needs to be at least 50 years old. The six schools to be nominated were built between 1949 and 1965, according to Wencl.

The preservation commission has contracted with Grand Forks resident Susan Caraher to draft and submit the proposal.

The schools tell the story of Grand Forks' booming population after World War II, Caraher said.

In 1955, there were just over 10,000 students in the Grand Forks School District. Ten years later, the number approached 16,000, according to Wencl.

The single-story schools also "speak to the change in education values and educational practices" at the time, she said.

"These new schools had to accommodate different facilities," Caraher said. "They now had nutrition, dieticians, cafeterias, health services and gymnasiums — things that really started to inform a different kind of educational principal that was evolving at the same time. It's really a dynamic period nationally, and Grand Forks reflects that very, very clearly."

The schools were designed to "be part of the neighborhood fabric" and grow as more people moved in, Caraher said.

"They really became a second home for a lot of the kids that went there," she added.

Caraher aims to complete the submission by September. Before sending it to the national register, she'll first send a draft to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in Bismarck for reviews and revisions.

Caraher also said she plans to present the submission to the local historic preservation board in July.

Whether the schools will be added to the national register ultimately rests with the federal government, Wencl said. But the local historic preservation commission is "pretty confident they'll make the cut," he said.

"We're very riguous about our preparation, and we're very thorough," Wencl said.

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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