Pockets of downtown Fargo remain from 125 years ago
FARGO - Few tangible remnants of the city dating back to North Dakota’s admission to statehood in 1889 survive today, the result of a devastating 1893 fire, fits of urban renewal and decay over time.
But pockets of Fargo as it was 125 years ago remain downtown, where some buildings escaped the great fire and wrecking ball.
The approximate age of the buildings can be determined from their inclusion on an 1888 map of Fargo and, in some cases, dated historic photographs in the collections of the North Dakota State University Archive.
With North Dakota celebrating its quasquicentennial anniversary in Bismarck today, here’s a look at what Fargo buildings have endured since statehood.
One of the vestiges is the stately Dakota Business College, originally the home of the city’s first Masonic Lodge, which stands as a monument to a forgotten land speculator.
Today the brick edifice survives, along with a cluster of neighboring wooden buildings, as among the first structures in existence when North Dakota became a state.
The buildings on and near the corner of Eighth Street and Main Avenue, are owned by Lee Watkins, whose grandfather established Dakota Business College and bought its namesake building a few years after it was built in 1884.
Today the buildings house art galleries, artists’ studios, a yoga studio, women’s clothing store and alteration shop – all Watkins’ tenants, and neighbors who appreciate the old buildings’ rich history and character.
Marjorie Thompson, the owner of Downtown Diva, a women’s clothing store at 1 8th St. S., likes her building’s old architecture, particularly the original tin ceiling, stamped with an ornamental pattern.
“It’s a work of art,” she said. “I love architecture. I love old buildings.” Thompson, who has owned the shop for 25 years, is the latest in a series of merchants to occupy the building that has included a grocery store, meat market, and newspaper and magazine shop.
Built in 1884, the same as Dakota Business College a few doors down the street, the building is made of wood, as are several adjoining buildings on the west side of Eighth Street South.
Evelina Shindieva, owner of Roza’s Sewing and Alterations at 5½ 8th Street, also appreciates the character of her building, also built before 1889, and being near her artsy neighbors.
“We like downtown,” she said. “It’s the oldest street, I think, in Fargo.” She has painted her original walls bright peach and cream colors, with poppy stencils and framed photographs of her native St. Petersburg, Russia.
“I like the old, vintage original,” Shindieva said. “I like the old, preserved look, with a history.”
For Rando Lathrup, an artist whose studio is in 7 8th St. S., the main appeal is affordable rent, and notes many of his neighbors, including upstairs tenants, are there for the same reason.
“I wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for Lee,” he said, referring to landlord Lee Watkins.
The building that became the home of Dakota Business College, 11 8th St. S., was built by Andrew McHenry, one of Fargo’s first settlers – and among a handful of speculators who swooped in and bought land after the railroad surveyors staked out what became the town site of Fargo.
The building’s main tenant was the Masonic Lodge, which is why the site became known as Masonic Block. But the Masons outgrew their space in a few years and moved to a new location.
The loss of the building’s main tenant, coinciding with a financial panic, resulted in bankruptcy, and the building was sold on the courthouse steps.
By 1894, F.L. Watkins had established Dakota Business College in the building, an enterprise run by three generations of the Watkins family until it closed in 1978.
Lee Watkins, a retired architect, said renting to galleries, boutiques, artists and artisans has worked well for his old downtown buildings, since the lack of parking space makes them unsuited for larger retail or office tenants.
“The arts have been very good to me, and I’ve been supportive of the arts,” Watkins said, adding that, at age 75, he is making plans to ensure the buildings’ future role can continue in the same vein.
What remains on Main
Another cluster of downtown buildings standing since at least 1889 is along the south side of the 600 and 700 blocks of Main Avenue.
Wimmer’s Diamonds, 602 Main Ave., occupies what originally was First National Bank, a brick building erected in 1878.
“They believe this is the first brick building built in Fargo, said Randy Wimmer, whose family moved their jewelry store there in 1983, from a nearby downtown location.
“We thoroughly enjoy it,” Wimmer said, referring to the building’s rich history. He has the original deed and historic photos framed and hanging on a wall of his shop.
But the store, at the southwest corner of Main and Broadway, bears little resemblance to the original because of a 1950s renovation that added a green façade, back when the building housed Shotwell Ladies Ready to Wear.
Part of one interior wall, next to some jewelry display cases, exposes the original brick, but the rest of the interior and most of the exterior has been covered by renovations.
The Wimmers considered trying to remove the front façade, but were told the original brick might have been defaced, so decided to leave it. “We’re as sad as everybody,” Wimmer said.
Next door at 604 Main, Babb’s Coffee House, owned by the Wimmers, retains its original tin ceiling and exposed brick interior walls, with restored front.
It is located on the 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Fargo, as are the other buildings identified as standing in 1889, when North Dakota entered statehood.
Next door, 604 Main Ave., is Rhombus Guys Pizza, which has some original exposed brick behind the bar.
Other Main Avenue buildings on the 1888 map that remain standing include 716 Main Ave., the home of Theatre B, which puts on four main stage productions a year in the 68-seat theater.
“We love it,” said Brad Delzer, the theater’s program coordinator. The building’s storefront was restored using old photographs as a guide. The interior has been significantly altered from renovations.
Little left after fire
Much of old Fargo north of Main Avenue was destroyed by the 1893 fire, but the building that houses Josie’s Corner Café & Bake Shop, 524 Broadway, survives.
It was originally built as a row house for railroad workers and others, said Betty Aggie, whose family owns the building, acquired by her father in the 1920s, when it was renovated.
The exterior of the wooden building was covered with bricks and the porch was removed, replaced with a storefront. For years the building housed Service Drug Store.
Sam Aggie, Betty’s father, who died in 1968, tried to preserve the old buildings he owned, an approach she and her brother have continued.
“We’re proud,” she said. “We’re very fortunate because of the wisdom of our father.”
A log cabin originally located at 27 Main Ave., called Fargo’s first house, has been moved to Bonanzaville in West Fargo. The house served a variety of purposes, serving as a school as well as hosting church services and theatrical productions.
Urban renewal, which swept much of downtown Fargo in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, still left many old buildings, many of which have been restored in recent years with help from the city’s Renaissance Zone incentives.
That’s something history buffs can celebrate as North Dakota observes the state’s 125th birthday this year.
North Dakota 125th birthday party Satuday
BISMARCK – North Dakota is throwing a party today to celebrate the state’s 125th anniversary of statehood with a bash that will include musical entertainment.
The festivities begin at 11 a.m. with an opening ceremony on the Capitol grounds, including remarks by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
South Dakota and North Dakota both became states on Nov. 2, 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison signed proclamations of admission for both.
Daugaard will bring the official pen used by Harrison to sign the proclamations, and it will be displayed at the North Dakota Heritage Center today from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Music will be provided by entertainers including The Burning Hills Singers, Tigirlily, Chuck Suchy, The Blenders, Mitch Malloy, Robby Vee, Jessie Veeder, Dakota Air, Keith Bear, Kevin Locke, Greg Hager, KittyKo, Penny and Pals, the North Dakota National Guard 188th Quintet, the Northern Lights Chorus Ensemble and Randi Perkins.