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Fargo history comes to life in downtown home restoration

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North Dakota State University architectural history professor Ron Ramsay and carpenter Chris Nelson stand by the Milton Beebe building that is being restored in the midst of a downtown neighborhood. The dramatic looking small structure was in danger of being torn down before a building permint and renovation plan was approved by the city. Barry Amundson / The Forum
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FARGO — The office structure of one of Fargo's earliest and most prominent architects built in 1906 is slowly but surely coming to life again.

Milton Earle Beebe, who settled in Fargo around the turn of the last century and designed numerous homes and buildings across the state, will have his office in downtown Fargo restored to its former glory. Since he retired to California in 1910, it was mostly used as a residential home.

In more recent years, the historic structure that is one of the last wood-framed homes remaining from the city's early days fell into disrepair and was only used as a "he shed" or, in other words, for storage.

The "he" in that shed and the leader of the restoration effort is Ron Ramsay, a 75-year-old architectural history professor who has been teaching at North Dakota State University for 50 years.

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Here's a look at the grand entrance and the porch featuring massive columns on the Milton Beebe home before a painting project was started last month. Submitted photo

Ramsay once lived in the building featuring impressive columns on the front porch, Greek Revival architecture, 12-foot-high ceilings and massive windows that almost reach the floor.

He was in danger of losing the structure when it was on the city's list of dilapidated homes facing demolition.

However, Ramsay figured out a financing method and, with volunteer assistance from Kilbourne Group's Heather McCord, was able to get the restoration effort on track.

It's been a complicated project. Overhead utility lines prevented possible relocation of the structure, and part of the building needed to be torn down.

With utility lines buried and the back of the home removed, the next major steps involve digging a new foundation and moving the structure that faces south — almost abutting other historic homes in the neighborhood — to facing east on an alleyway that will provide better access.

The rear of the home will also be added back on using some of the lumber from the structure that was torn down.

Carpenter Chris Nelson is working on fixing the porch and helping with general structural work as they get the historic home up to city regulations.

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In October, members of the F5 Project, a group that helps felons regain their livelihoods, scraped and put primer on the entire structure.

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Volunteers lend a hand as they scrape paint and remove brush at the historic Milton Beebe house in north Fargo on Saturday, Oct. 17. The local F5 group put out the call for help with the project and is also a resource for ex-felons to make their way back to society and contribute to the community. David Samson / The Forum

The 114-year-old home has always been eye-catching for those who can spot it.

It sits partially hidden in the block across from Sanctuary Events Center and will soon be near the new Milton Earle affordable senior living complex slated to be built on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Seventh Street.

In the long term, Ramsay hopes to finish forming a nonprofit foundation called Plains Architecture that could work with him to make the building into an architectural history library. He would like to open the structure to tours for curiosity seekers and add a courtyard connecting to his next door historic home, also designed by Beebe.

"The goal is to make the building look like it did in 1906," said McCord, a project manager for Kilbourne.

She had nothing but praise for Ramsay, who is still teaching full time and managing the restoration.

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"It's a labor of love," McCord said of Ramsay's work.

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Here's a view from this summer of the Milton Beebe building before interior work got underway on the structure. Submitted photo

Ramsay enjoys the historical aspect of the project and researched Beebe's life by writing letters and corresponding with those who had connections to him.

Beebe's story is definitely an interesting one.

Through his research, Ramsay found that Beebe lived in Fredonia, N.Y., near Buffalo, in a house that looks similar to the office he built in Fargo.

In the late 1800s, he ran an architectural firm in Buffalo and later lost face when a new high school was unfortunately built on quicksand, Ramsay said.

On top of that, Beebe was defeated in a race for Buffalo mayor by a man who would later become president of the United States, Grover Cleveland. Beebe was also having marital problems, according to Ramsay's research.

He then disappeared, according to articles in the Buffalo newspaper, only to surface in Fargo with a new woman companion.

Once in Fargo, even though he was in his 60s, Beebe was a "prolific and important" architect from 1899 to 1910, designing numerous homes and such buildings as Old Main at Concordia College, the renovated Engineering South building at NDSU and the Senate wing of the former state Capitol in Bismarck.

Beebe also designed school buildings in rural North Dakota, a Masonic Temple in Fargo that has since been torn down and the Neoclassical former courthouse in Park Rapids, Minn., that now houses the county historical museum.

In 1910, he retired to San Diego where he passed away in 1924.

Almost 100 years later, his legacy will live on in a small corner of downtown Fargo.

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Here's a look at the ceiling that has been removed as part of the interior renovation underway on the Milton Beebee structure in downtown Fargo. The ceiling has been removed to reveal wooden rafters in a room that has a 12-foot high height. Submitted photo

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