'Historically significant' house could face demolition for flood levee

Fargo City Commission decides to start negotiations, but final decision on home's fate lies ahead
Windows wrap the entire side of the John and Sherri Stern home that faces the Red River. It reflects Frank Lloyd Wright's idea of letting the outside in and the inside out.
Dave Wallis / The Forum
Windows wrap the entire side of the John and Sherri Stern home that faces the Red River. It reflects Frank Lloyd Wright's idea of letting the outside in and the inside out. Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO — City Commissioners gave the go-ahead for city staff to start negotiating buyouts of four properties in the Belmont neighborhood despite reservations that it ultimately might force the demolition of a historically significant house.

The commission’s unanimous decision Monday, March 11, came after a discussion in which Commissioner John Strand vowed to oppose the destruction of any historically significant building if a solution that is technically and financially feasible can be found.

“Somebody needs to stand up for these structures that don’t have a voice,” Strand said.

The home at 1458 S. River Road belongs to John and Sherri Stern and was designed by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, the granddaughter of noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The home, built in 1958, represents a rare example of mid-century modern architecture and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

City engineers have proposed buying the homes to make room for an earthen levee — a section of flood defenses that will protect the city’s water treatment plant, which the city considers critical infrastructure, as well as other homes and buildings in the area, north of Lindenwood Park, from Red River flooding.

“Because of the weight of an earthen levee, it has to be built farther from the river bank. City officials have said that a floodwall, which is lighter, would be too expensive.

Because of unstable soils in the area, and because heavy equipment to build the levee would be forced to operate so close to the home, contractors don’t want to build there, city engineers said.

“Ultimately, it’s a risky, costly endeavor,” even if the goal is to save the house, City Commissioner Tony Gehrig said. The city could “break” the house trying to save it, he said.

John Stern, who attended the meeting, said he had no objection to getting the home appraised and starting negotiations — but he believes the house can and should be saved.

“It’s an architecturally significant home,” he said. It would be technically possible to save the house, though he added it would be difficult and might be too costly. Stern said he would not “stand in the way” if the cost came in at $2 million, which he said he doubts.

Strand said that if it proves impossible or unaffordable to save the house, “I’m there with Mr. Stern.”

Commissioner Tony Grindberg said he wants to see more detailed information, including additional engineering analysis, before he votes on whether to buy the house for demolition.

Mayor Tim Mahoney said there have been months of engineering studies, but the stubborn problem is the unstable soils in the area.

“I don’t think you’re going to find an engineering solution to go behind the house,” he said.

City commissioners also were briefed on preparations for the spring flood.

In the National Weather Service’s latest flood outlook, issued last week, the Red River has a 95 percent chance of reaching 31.1 feet, a 10 percent chance of reaching 38.2 feet and a 5 percent chance of reaching 39.1 feet.

Major flooding starts at 30 feet. The record 2009 flood crested at 40.84 feet.

City staff are drawing up plans, preparing for a tabletop planning exercise, and taking inventory of the materials and equipment that will be needed for the flood fight.