This year, North Dakota celebrates its 125th year of statehood, and much of its rich history has been preserved in historic landmarks across the state. However, another important piece of North Dakota’s history remains nestled in many communities that have made a concerted effort to preserve historic homes.
According to Lorna Meidinger, architectural historian and National Register coordinator with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, historic homes provide tangible evidence of the past. “If you just stop and think how life was lived even 50 years ago, it was very different,” she says. “With houses you can actually go in and see and feel how that was, instead of just being told about it.”
Meidinger says the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, signed into law to preserve historical and archeological sites across the United States, was the starting block for many of the efforts to preserve the state’s historic homes. The law created the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks and State Historic Preservation Offices and, today, remains one of the country’s most far reaching pieces of preservation legislation.
North Dakota has 1,226 single family homes listed as a part of designated Historic Districts, as well as 72 individual homes on the National Register of Historic Places. To be considered for historic designation, a home must be at least 50 years old and an application process must be completed and approved by the state preservation board as well as the Keeper of the National Historic Register.
Many of North Dakota’s designated historic homes are from the early part of the 20th century, says Meidinger. “Most people are more accepting of structures as historic if they are built before World War II,” she notes. “We tend to also recognize the high-style house compared to the plain or worker’s house.”
“What we look at is the integrity of the house,” Meidinger continues. “How much does it look like it did when it was built and are there different nuances that point to a certain design or the perfect example of a certain type of architecture? Other houses are listed because of who lived there or something that happened there. In that case, it needs to look like it did at the time of the historical figures or events.”
She points to the Former Governors’ Mansion, a state historic site in Bismarck; the Carl Ben Eielson house in Hatton, a 1900 Queen Anne-style home that was the childhood home of the famous pilot and current home to the Hatton-Eielson Museum; and the James Holes House in Fargo, an 1870s Italianate-style house which remains one of the longest-running residential houses in the state, as strong examples of meeting the designation criteria. “People often recognize these types of homes if they are in their neighborhood or if it has been turned into a museum,” Meidinger notes.
Features of Historic Homes
North Dakota’s historic homes have distinct features, which Meidinger attributes to the state’s “young” age in comparison with other parts of the nation. “North Dakota’s architecture is around a decade later when certain styles of historic homes were being built. Other parts of the country were settled earlier and had schools, architects and the trends from Europe,” she says. “North Dakota’s style is also smaller and plainer because people moving to the state were not as wealthy.”
“Homes in every conceivable historic style can be found in communities throughout North Dakota,” says Steve C. Martens, architect and North Dakota State University associate professor and architectural historian. “In historic neighborhoods, styles range from Victorian, Classical Revival, Italianate, Tudor Revival, Colonial, International Style to mid-century Modern.”
The style of historic homes reflects the popular taste of the time period, he notes. “This is expressed in ornamentation and details, like roof brackets and window patterns and the way exterior materials are combined. Many North Dakota homes are distinctive because they combine features of more than one style or period.”
Martens has researched and written National Register nominations for historic districts in Fargo and Grand Forks, as well as for individual homes. “It is surprising how many homeowners already know interesting things about historic homes that have been passed through generations,” he notes.
Martens says most historic homes are still used much as they were when they were designed. “They are single-family residences meticulously maintained and appreciated by families for the care and craft in the way they were originally built. A few historic homes are opened to visitors as house museums or bed and breakfast inns,” he says. “With thoughtful planning, care and workmanship, historic homes can be given new life that appreciates their beauty and displays it for future generations.”
The Road to Historic Designation
Sherwood and Patsy Gibbs, owners of the Freborg Homestead near Underwood, are currently in the process of applying for the National Register of Historic Places. Following their retirement, they left their residence in Florida and found their way to North Dakota after a year-long motor home tour in search of a homestead to purchase on the Great Plains. After a chance encounter while wintering in Arizona, they learned of the Freborg Homestead. “We fell in love with the place at first sight,” says Sherwood of their first visit in 2007. “When we walked in the door, the house was the same as it was in 1906 with original floors, no altered walls, original molding, wainscoting, and cast-iron cook stove.”
The living room also included the original carved front door, stained glass window and crank telephone. Original outbuildings, including a 60-by-45-foot barn, metal grain bin and a three-room wooden grain shed, which was melded with the property’s original upright log cabin, also adorned the property. “We knew the house, barn and other structures had very little modifications over the last 100 years,” says Sherwood.
In 2008, the Gibbs began the application process for the National Register of Historic Places, gathering information from the State Historical Society, the McLean County Historical Museum and the descendants of the homestead’s original owner, John Freborg. They sent four drafts of the application to the state, which were returned needing additional information and clarification. In late 2013, they submitted their final 18-page application that went before the State Historic Preservation Board in late April.
“The application passed and our property was described as having the highest level of integrity of a recorded homestead in North Dakota,” says Sherwood. “It could be considered one of the best nominations depicting the establishment of an early farm in all of North Dakota.”
The application was then reviewed and approved by the head of the State Historic Preservation Office, and now will be sent to the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C. The National Register has 45 days to approve it and will notify the state of its decision around 60 days. “It took us five years to get this far, we are very hopeful that it will be returned favorable,” says Sherwood.
Although they still have a lot to learn about their property and its preservation, the Gibbs believe their efforts are important. “If no one took the time to preserve, in our case, an early North Dakota farm in its original location with all its original buildings, all we would have in the future is photographs.”
“People are sometimes surprised to learn there are literally hundreds of such distinctive and wonderful homes in all parts of the state, ranging from affordable small homes to grandiose homes of the rich and famous,” says Martens. “Some were designed by architects while others are pattern book houses carefully crafted by builders.”
Many of North Dakota’s historic homes are showcased in historic districts, neighborhoods approved by the National Register that often adopt local preservation ordinances and create local preservation commissions.
The Cathedral Area Historic District in Bismarck was first approved in 1979 and expanded in 1997 and 2010. “Places like the Cathedral Area Historic District help us understand our identity as residents of the community and state,” says Erik Sakariassen, an active resident in the district’s preservation. “These places tell a story of how we lived, where we came from.”
Many of the district’s homes were built in the first half of the 20th century when eclectic architectural styles became popular in the United States. “There are excellent examples of Colonial Revival, Tudor, Prairie School, Arts and Crafts, Storybook, Spanish Colonial, American Foursquare, and Craftsman Bungalow,” says Sakariassen.
The neighborhood was also home to many notable North Dakotans including John Burke, the state’s first Democrat governor; Bill Langer, former governor and U.S. Senator; George and Stella Mann, owners and publishers of the Bismarck Tribune; and George Will, son of Pioneer Seed company owner Oscar Will. Sakariassen helped create a self-guided tour of the Cathedral Area Historic District, which highlights the former homes of many prominent residents.
The neighborhood’s homeowners have played an instrumental role in the preservation of the district, he says. “They have worked with the State Historical Society in restoration and preservation work, and a few have been recipients of small National Park Service grants through the North Dakota Historic Preservation Office.”
Sakariassen and his family have lived in a 1937 Cape-Cod style house for the past 25 years, and he says owning a historic home is a learning experience. “Owning a historic home is a labor of love. There are always challenges and it takes special care to preserve a historic home’s character. The house should tell its owners how to live rather than the owner trying to force a modern lifestyle.”
Grand Forks is home to four historic districts, two of which are residential. The Near Southside Historic District, listed on January 6, 2005, has 414 contributing houses and five individually listed homes, and the Riverside Historic District, listed November 15, 2007, has 126 contributing homes. The University of North Dakota Historic District is also home to the former President’s House, the Oxford House, which was listed in 1973 as the first home in the city to be built with electricity installed.
“The best known houses are individually listed,” says Peg O’Leary, coordinator of the Grand Forks Preservation Commission. This includes the Oxford House as well as the Wheeler House, distinctive in its Italianate style with Gothic detailing. The home was built in 1885 by Dr. Henry M. Wheeler, a founder of an early hospital, the city’s mayor from 1917-1918, and the first owner of an automobile in Grand Forks.
“Older homes are beautiful and they tend to be more serene, situated on tree-lined streets that remind us of horse-and-buggy days,” says O’Leary. “These homes also remind us that our founders came to stay. They built substantial homes to prove their investment in Grand Forks.”
She notes the city went the extra mile to save historic homes following the 1997 flood. “Many homes that contributed to the Near Southside and Riverside Historic Districts were moved from the wet side of the proposed dike line. All had been flooded but were salvageable, and were moved to lots where previous homes had been destroyed.”
Fargo has six National Register Historic Districts as well as four Historic Overlay Districts, which Dawn Mayo, assistant planner for the City of Fargo, says are an extra local effort to preserve the historic integrity of designated neighborhoods. “A Historic Overlay District, with its local regulations, is a type of extra zoning that governs projects that need an exterior building permit,” she notes.
She says historic districts have minimal regulations on changes to the home or property. “Historic Overlay Districts are beneficial to cities because they help preserve historic properties and raise awareness of the value of historic properties.”
There are 635 houses in Fargo’s Historic Overlay Districts and 372 homes listed in the city’s National Register Districts. Three homes are also individually listed on the National Register and include the Dibley House, a 1906 Classical Revival; the James Holes House; and the Lewis House, an 1899 Classical Revival.
“Most of the really notable historic homes are located in the Hawthorne Neighborhood, and the Roberts Mansion is probably the grandest example, a large, yellow brick Victorian Gothic style house with elaborately detailed porches.” “These homes are an irreplaceable part of our heritage, our history and help to create an identity and sense of place for the community where they are located,” says Mayo.
Historic Homes in Modern Times
Meidinger says there are no laws protecting historic homes in the state, but conditions for preservation and making changes come into play if a homeowner accepts federal funding that is available for homes and businesses on the National Register. “These grants are available when there is federal funding available, and can be used to keep the structure sound through projects like a new roof or brick work.”
“In my experience, people are usually interested in taking their home’s rich character into consideration,” says Martens, adding it is important people take the time to build something well, take care of it and make it last. “Popular tastes change as quickly as fads and fashion, so it’s especially gratifying to see people make the sensible investment to restore things like historic woodwork and hardwood floors.”
He notes there are also building contractors across the state who understand historic homes, taking appropriate care in working on them. Along with the preservation of historic homes, Meidinger says many historic features are making their way back into modern day buildings. “One of the things we are seeing lately is more styles of siding under gables, like in Victorian homes.”
In addition, she says horizontal delineations between floors and projected gables are also historic characteristics that are popular in modern homes. “We don’t have the same craftsmanship and woodwork today, but now they are using different colors to draw attention to details.”
Martens says when historic homeowners invest in preservation, it shows in the longevity of the home. “It does require a special kind of love for the beauty and care with which those homes were built. When homeowners invest the time to maintain a home with thoughtfulness, patience and quality materials, that investment can last at least a hundred years, a fact that is clearly demonstrated by wonderful historic homes.”
Preservation a Priority in Prairie Style
“We are the caretakers of this house,” says Richard Gross of the 1912 Prairie Style home in Bismarck’s Cathedral Area Historic District that he and his wife, Elizabeth, have lived in since the late 1970s. “Two generations of one family cared for it before we purchased it, and we hope another family, who comes after us, fully appreciates its beauty and significance and will preserve it as we have tried to do.”
The Gross’s bought the house as a young family themselves, from Betty Byrne, the daughter-in-law of its original owner, Pat Byrne. “We consider it a privilege to be in a house like this and we want to preserve it with love,” says Elizabeth.
They have kept much of the home original, including the oak woodwork, art deco light fixtures and stucco, and have strived to also include period pieces through their choice of furniture and decorations. “We have always been drawn to older homes,” says Elizabeth. “When we had the opportunity to buy this house, we didn’t understand the significance of the Prairie Style architecture. It took years for us to understand what this home needed to be its very best.”
“We didn’t want a cold, sterile, modern home,” adds Richard. “We wanted a warm home where people felt comfortable.”
The home was commissioned in 1909 by Pat Byrne, a bank teller in Bismarck, after he met architect William Gray Purcell. He and his business partner, George Elmslie, of Minneapolis/St. Paul were associates of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and built three houses in Bismarck at this time. The Byrne house was the most expensive, taking three years to complete and totaling $5,000 by the time it was finished in 1912.
The home’s Prairie Style of architecture focuses on horizontal lines and the use of natural materials. Richard notes the style is based on a unified vision, which creates a blending of the structure and its surroundings. The hearth, located in the home’s large living room, is built up and prominently placed in the center of the home. Considered the heart of the home, it was constructed with a brick arch above a mantle faced with terracotta tiles.
The living room also houses a large built-in bookcase next to the hearth and a built-in bench, also characteristic of the Prairie Style. The rooms flow from the hearth into each other, and from the living room, one walks through a large entry foyer and into the formal dining room, anchored by a large built-in buffet. An intricate letter B is carved into the buffet’s center door, a symbol of the house’s original owners.
These distinct features make the home inviting, notes Richard. “Everyone who comes in feels welcomed,” he says. “It’s really grand, but very simple.”
The home has been a stop for architects and students of the field, as well as historic societies and tour groups. “People have pointed out things about the architecture that we didn’t know,” says Richard.
The Gross’s believe the preservation of their home is important to preserving a piece of the state’s history. “These historical homes are treasures and their history is living,” says Richard. “What little we have left of this history in North Dakota, we ought to do everything we can to keep it and share it with future generations.”
As part of the Cathedral Area Historic District, the home is included on the National Register of Historic Places and the State Historic Sites Registry, and is on the Self-Guided Tour of the Cathedral Area.