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Fargo eyes 5 options for fate of 'architectural masterpiece' in the way of flood levee construction

In 2016, the city of Fargo placed the property on a list of homes to be bought out to make room for a flood-protection levee. However, the home's owner, John Stern, wasn't willing to sell and the home was taken off the buyout list in 2017.

This home seen Tuesday, July 18, 2017, at 1458 S. River Road, Fargo, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter and another Wright apprentice. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
This house, seen July 18, 2017, at 1458 S. River Road in Fargo, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter and another Wright apprentice. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — City leaders and a north Fargo family are mulling potential options for the future of a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's granddaughter.

The house at 1458 S. River Road was designed and built by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham and her husband, Gordon Ingraham. Both studied under Wright, an iconic American architect.

In 2016, the city placed the house, which is owned by the John Stern family, on a list of homes to be bought out to make room for a flood-protection levee along the Red River.

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How a Superior woman almost built a Frank Lloyd Wright house
Edith Carlson was a librarian who had a two-year campaign to build a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Superior. Had it succeeded, the design that Wright dubbed “Below Zero” would have been nestled in Superior’s Central Park neighborhood, near Lenroot’s Funeral Home and across from Gouge Park. The connection between the world famous architect and Carlson has captured the imagination of writers on two continents.

Local historian and retired librarian Teddie Meronek has written about Carlson. In this month’s episode of Archive Dive, Meronek discusses her journey in researching Carlson and how an email from writer Philippa Lewis of England led to learning more. Carlson has quite a story, and in her, Meronek found a kindred spirit, even though she had passed away before their paths could cross.

“When I finally tracked down what she did at the library, going through annual reports and things, I found that she was first hired as a general assistant, but then she became the station’s librarian, which made me feel good because that is what I was hired to do when I first went to work for the Superior Public Library,” said Meronek. In those annual reports, Meronek could see that Carlson was a determined advocate for literacy. “She was always petitioning for more books, more shelves, more space for the people she served.”

That determination led to Carlson reaching out to the world-renowned Wright, an architect who designed over 1,000 structures in his lifetime, when Carlson decided it was time to build a house. She lived with her parents and was savvy about finances, saving enough money to purchase land near Gouge Park on 4th Street, strategically along a bus line as Carlson didn’t have a car.

While Wright was famous and in high demand, Carlson wasn’t afraid to ask questions or even challenge him. During correspondence, an assistant wrote, “This is Mr. Wright’s 204th house.” Carlson scribbled in a note, “Well, it may be his 204th house, but it is my first.” She took the project very seriously, knowing it would likely be the only house she’d ever build in her lifetime.

“She had no problem standing toe-to-toe with him, saying this is what I need, this is my house and this is what I need, and most people would say, ‘It’s Frank Lloyd Wright,’” said Meronek.

The correspondence between Carlson and Wright went on for two years and the project faced various delays. In the end, ground would not be broken for a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Superior. The Great Depression had an effect, as around 1940, librarians in Superior took pay cuts and time off without pay. Suddenly now with slim paychecks, Edith couldn’t afford the price. She would eventually build a house near her parents’ home and the “Below Zero” house would eventually be built, just not for Carlson and not in Superior. Instead, the design was used elsewhere.

“She bemoaned the fact that it just wasn’t her loss, she also thought of it as Superior’s loss,” said Meronek.

New episodes of Archive Dive are published monthly. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have an idea for a topic you’d like to see covered, email Maria Lockwood at  mlockwood@superiortelegram.com.

However, Stern wasn't willing to sell and the house was taken off the buyout list in 2017.

Since then, Stern and Fargo officials have talked about what to do with the property .

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On Monday, Oct. 3, the city's engineering department presented city commissioners with five alternatives that have been crafted:

  1. One idea, which would cost the city between $2.9 million and $4.8 million, would be to build a floodwall between the house and the Red River.
  2. Another idea, which would cost the city about $1.1 million, would be to build a floodwall in front of the house, which wouldn't protect the house from flooding but would protect nearby city infrastructure.
  3. A third option presented to commissioners would cost the city about $1.8 million. That idea would involve moving the house to a nearby lot in the same neighborhood that is protected by a levee. A levee would then be constructed on the lot vacated by the house.
  4. A fourth option would simply be for the city to buyout the home for about $1.1 million and the structure would be demolished.
  5. A fifth option is a hybrid of Option 4 and would involve the city assisting Stern in rebuilding the home somewhere else based on the original plans, which would cost the city an estimated $2.1 million.

The city's Historic Preservation Commission has deemed the home, which was built in 1958, to be historically significant and an outstanding example of the mid-century Prairie Style developed by Wright. The home is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Screenshot 2022-10-03 180404.jpg
A conceptual image of what a floodwall might look like built in front of the John Stern home at 1458 S. River Road in Fargo.
Image courtesy of the city of Fargo

At Monday's City Commission meeting, Stern said he is in favor of having a floodwall built in front of his home.

He has said in the past that he is willing to live on the wet side of any flood-protection feature because he had earlier built a lower dike behind his house.

Stern told commissioners Monday the option of having a floodwall built in front of the home is appealing for a number of reasons: It is the cheapest option for the city; it keeps the property on the tax rolls; the neighborhood gets flood protection; and his family "gets to live in this house which we love so much."

On top of that, he said, the community wins because the option would preserve an "architectural masterpiece."

Stern also commended the city's engineering department for its efforts to find a solution that works for everyone.

"They're trying as hard to save the house as I am," Stern said.

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Commissioners said Monday's presentation was intended to be informational and a decision regarding which option the city may pursue will be taken at a future meeting.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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