Historic properties in Fargo, Moorhead get new life, new chapter to their story
Some of Fargo's oldest industrial and commercial buildings have found new life in recent years.
FARGO — Nestled west of Fargo’s main downtown thoroughfare is a stately brick building erected more than a century ago when approximately 20,000 people called the city home. Once known as the Union Storage & Transfer Company and Armour Creamery buildings, The Historic Union on NP Avenue is now home to downtown dwellers and booming businesses.
Restoring the building into a usable facility was no small task, but owners Jessica Alsop, John Williams and Erik Barner believe all the effort and additional education needed was worth it in the end. That seemed like a tall order when the property was purchased back in 2013, flooded basement and all.
“We knew the whole building needed to be revamped or it would no longer be able to be used at all,” Alsop explained. They just had to figure out how to do it and maintain the historical integrity of the building.
What was originally the frozen foods side of the building was deemed best for residential apartments because the solid brick walls offered sound-proofing and insulation from neighbors, Alsop said. The opposite section — which housed the creamery portion of the business — offered architecturally appealing settings for commercial tenants. The entire facility, though empty and in disrepair when purchased, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
The historic preservation process dictated many decisions about how to restore features of the building such as the windows, structural columns, doors and railings. “It was overwhelming to figure out how to work around the historic standards in order to stay on the registry,” Alsop said.
Fortunately, the group worked with MBA Architects, which had ample experience on historic preservation projects. Their insight meant former loading docks were revamped as outdoor patios for both private and public use, and exposed wood beams were refinished to maintain aesthetic appeal. Because certain elements had to remain, no two residential apartments out of the 38 units are identical, a feature highlighted for those looking for a unique downtown living space.
“That’s the case with most buildings — there are certain elements, like windows, the headroom or finishes — that make the project unique,” said MBA architect and developer Kevin Bartram. “There are a lot of advantages to old buildings that new buildings don’t have.”
Since the project began nearly a decade ago, the neighborhood surrounding The Historic Union has changed as well. Gone are dilapidated buildings, unsightly parking lots and rundown lots. In their places are gleaming new apartment complexes and trend-setting businesses like Wild Terra Cider and Love Always Floral.
“The neighborhood has changed so much,” Alsop said. “It’s fun to see we’ve been making an impact in the neighborhood even before it began changing.”
Though the area surrounding The Historic Union has changed, the building’s significance to Fargo’s history has not. Union Transfer Company began operating in 1906 by shipping non-perishable merchandise and farm implements and parts.
The first warehouses were built by C.A. Bowers and J.H. Bowers of Bowers Bros. in 1909 and 1916. As business boomed in the 1920s, B.L. Bertel — who had been working for the company in 1908 first as a day laborer while taking college courses at night before being promoted to bookkeeper in 1911 — and several partners purchased it, changing the name to Union Storage & Transfer Company in 1929.
The current structure consisting of a four-story cold storage plant with full basement and an adjacent three-story creamery was designed by prolific Fargo architect William F. Kurke and constructed that year. During the Great Depression, the business provided stable employment for many.
“During construction, people stopped to tell their stories about working here or selling eggs to the creamery,” Alsop said. “It was really tied to the agriculture industry and seen as a mercantile icon of the city.”
Another historic save
Across the Red River in Moorhead, Bartram and MBA Architects are taking on another project involving a former creamery. Fairmont Creamery on the north side of Moorhead’s downtown was purchased from Eventide Senior Living Communities, which had owned the building since 1994 but moved residents from the historic building in the summer of 2021.
Fairmont Creamery was founded in Nebraska in 1884 but didn’t open the Moorhead location until 1924. During World War II, the operation supplied powdered eggs, hiring more than 100 local women to work at the plant .
By 1980, the creamery closed, and the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places two years later. According to the application , “the Fairmont Creamery is significant as a harbinger responsible for the introduction of diversified agriculture to the Red River Valley region of Minnesota and as a good representative example of 1920 industrial architecture.”
Although preliminary approval for historical rehabilitation has been received, construction has yet to begin on the 105 multi-family housing units due to cost issues, Bartram said. He’s hopeful that construction will begin within the year, and the building remains in good condition, which should make the rehabilitation process go smoothly.
“There are always certain standards to maintain, but each project will have its own historic preservation standards because, historically, there’s a reason it’s on the register,” he explained.
The Fairmont project will be another historic preservation project in MBA’s portfolio, along with the Armory Event Center, a 1915 building formerly home to the Moorhead armory and a Muscatell auto dealership, on Center Avenue, as well as the adjacent Simon Warehouse Lofts, which transformed a century-old potato warehouse into 65 modern apartments .
Built in 1922, the warehouse offered many characteristics similar to the Union Storage buildings in Fargo — loading platforms became patios, a galvanized garage door now offers privacy and separation in a community room that used to house the freight elevator, plus each unit is distinct thanks to the building’s original features.
“At the time it was built, it was one of the largest potato warehouses between Minneapolis and Seattle,” Bartram said.
He said he has his eye on other potential historic preservation projects in the Fargo-Moorhead area, although they have not been publicly announced yet.
When it comes to assessing a project, Bartram keeps several things in mind. “It has to have good bones and be an interesting building, plus we need to find a creative use for the building,” he explained. “The point of historic preservation is to maintain old buildings and keep them as close to their original intent as possible.”
Just down Interstate 90, MBA Architects is working to redevelop the historic Red River Flour Mill in downtown Fergus Falls into a 5-story, 31-room boutique hotel , which comes on the heels of redeveloping former Kirkbride nurses’ dormitories into apartment buildings .
Historic architecture office could become single-family home
The tiny but historically significant Milton Beebe home that was once the office of a well-known architect will soon become the Cass Clay Community Land Trust office. NDSU professor and the home’s longtime owner Ron Ramsay recently gave the property deed to the Trust. Ramsay plans to deed three other Beebe properties to the Trust, as well — two other Beebe properties exist but are privately owned by someone else. All six properties reside in the Milton Earle Beebe Historic District, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 .
Ramsay and his husband, Peter Vandervort, established a nonprofit years ago called Plains Architecture and will leave their estate to that organization, which will be managed by the FM Area Foundation. Eventually, a five-member board will award grants and fellowships through Plains Architecture.
Beebe’s Neoclassic, or Greek Revival, office was built in 1906, the last of his six properties. Originally from New York, Beebe unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Buffalo, losing to Grover Cleveland. Eight years later, Beebe left New York and settled in North Dakota, establishing his practice in 1899. He built the Moorhead Public Library, Fargo Masonic Temple and other buildings in Fargo and on NDSU’s campus.
He retired in 1910 and moved to San Diego, where he died in 1923 at the age of 82.
In the map below, click on the purple marker to read more about the historic project.