Repurposing Fargo

Fargo has grown immensely and gone through numerous changes in its 142-year history. Growing from just over 2,500 people in 1880 to over 107,000 today and surviving such natural disasters as fires, floods and tornadoes; nothing has been able to stop Fargo from thriving.

Fargo’s downtown has always been a thriving business mecca[1] of the Red River Valley and is a key reason Fargo has survived to be the city it is today.

Recently, the city of Fargo has begun to restore much of the historic downtown district located along Broadway and Main Street.

The 1970’s were the birth of the “mall” as we know it today. Malls could be seen sprouting out of new developments in cities all across America. These malls drew businesses and shoppers away from downtowns into one central, indoor location. This spelled death for many downtowns across the nation. Fargo was no exception. In the late 70’s, the Red River Mall[2]Red River Mall was implemented on Broadway in an attempt to draw pedestrians to shop at downtown businesses after the opening of the West Acres Mall drew much of the business away from downtown. Broadway was realigned in a zigzag pattern to slow traffic and create a more pedestrian friendly environment. By the mid 1980’s many business owners were voicing their displeasure with the Red River Mall’s design. In 1986 the Mall was dismantled and Broadway was straightened.

For much of the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, downtown Fargo was a shell of its former glory days. [3] In 1999 the city of Fargo, realizing that its historic downtown was suffering, issued the “Fargo Renaissance Zone Plan.” With lucrative incentives (five-year tax exemptions and tax credits) given to property owners that invested in the rehabilitation of Fargo’s Renaissance Zone, downtown Fargo slowly began to thrive once again.

Downtown Fargo is now a flourishing mix of residential and commercial buildings. Many of the buildings in downtown Fargo date back to the rebuilding of Fargo after the fire of 1893. The 600 block of Main Avenue[4] is the only block of buildings that survived the fire. All of the landmark buildings have gone through some sort of renovation or name change in their history.

Hotel Bison and the Fargoan Hotel are no longer hotels. They now house commercial spaces on the street level and residential living spaces on the upper floors. The Ford Building is no longer assembling cars; it houses commercial spaces and high-end residential condos. Many of the buildings have always housed businesses of some sort. Yet very few of these buildings have remained the same throughout the years. The Merchants National Bank building is now the King House Buffet, and the First National Bank building is now a bar fittingly called Fort Knox.

Two of the most iconic buildings in downtown Fargo that have stood the test of time are the Hotel Donaldson, locally known as the HoDo,[5] and the Fargo Theater. The Hodo was built in 1894 to serve as a meeting hall for the International Order of Odd Fellows. As one of the first buildings built after the fire, the building is a constant reminder of where Fargo came from. In the mid-1910’s, the building officially became the Hotel Donaldson. It has had its rough patches throughout the years, changing ownership and purpose many times, but the heart of the building and its history has survived. The Fargo Theater[6] was built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theater. Originally designed in the Renaissance style, the theater was restored in the 80’s with a more art deco style interior. The Fargo Theater still stands at its original location in downtown Fargo and is a major attraction to this day.

Downtown is once again a must see for anyone visiting Fargo. From its vibrant beginnings, surviving disaster, and period of rough times, downtown Fargo has risen to new heights. The Fargo Street Fair[7] every summer (the largest outdoor event in North Dakota) and Cruisin’ Broadway[8] have become staples of downtown Fargo’s thriving resurgence.

-Logan Kern, Digital History 2012









Prairie Progress: An Introduction to the Development of Fargo’s Commercial Center, 1871-1898

View on 500 block, Front Street, Fargo, N.D., Downtown, 1878

Front Street (Main Avenue) showing the City Meat Market, Moore Bros. stationer, Fargo News Depot, George Cooper Harness Shop, and a hardware store in Fargo. Men standing along sidewalk in front of businesses [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000959]

At the heart of nearly any fledgling prairie town of the latter decades of the nineteenth century in the United States lays an arterial business and commercial sector regardless of size or scope.  Without reliable establishments that provide basic services to meet the needs of an early population, growth becomes hamstrung and a town’s future uncertain. Business and commercial enterprises not only dictate the ebb and flow of a town’s economy, but also provide local denizens with access to everyday products and services for sustaining day-to-day activities that contribute to both the sustainability and growth of a prairie town capable of transforming into a city.

As a result, the physical buildings themselves underscore the importance of stable, sustainable, and accessible commercial presence to ensure the long-term viability of a burgeoning city. The architecture, buildings, planning, and development of businesses of early Fargo, North Dakota, therefore played an important role in the city’s original foundation and ascension to becoming the “Gateway to the West” on the Northern Plains with marked success well into present-day.

At the same time, Fargo’s prosperous business-driven economy and expanded growth represents seminal building, commercial, and infrastructural firsts that ultimately reflect the rapid, significant, and visible changes over time and embody the vital elements of a lasting community on often harsh and unforgiving landscape of the Northern Plains.

By following an exhibition of Fargo’s early commercial and infrastructural planning, business development, and construction photographs from 1871 to 1898, a sense of rapid change and significant growth soon emerges as a testament to Fargo’s vitality and successful growth on the Plains.  Despite instances of social, political, economic, and environmental adversity, settlers’ early vision for assertive business and commercial construction helped secure the city’s permanent place on the Northern Plains.

Proving Up: Three Decades of Trial and Triumph

Looking southwest from the Fargo, N.D. Post Office tower, 1898-05

An elevated view looking southwest from the top of the Post Office shows the rooftop of Marsh & Loomis Livery building that extends the full length of the image in the foreground. The rear of the Schlanser & Sons and the Armory Hall building is visible on the right, with the two pointed cupolas. Also visible are the intersection of N.P. Avenue and 8th Street, the W.H.White Lumber Company, Dakota Business College, The Arlington Hotel, First Methodist Episcopal Church. The Cass County Courthouse, and the Fargo Central High building tower above the neighborhood in the distance. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000793]

By the turn of the twentieth century, Fargo’s commercial business structures signaled a meaningful transition from the early structures. While the settlers were concerned with the immediate and practical applications, the growing city began to reflect a higher culture and advancing lifestyle on the Northern Plains. Simple utilitarian structures  gave way to the buildings that served thriving businesses at the heart of a growing city. As Fargo’s businesses continued to grow, evolve, and improve despite several setbacks, so too did the municipal amenities that ultimately cemented the city’s presence on the plains.

Icon of Progress on the Plains

Cass County Courthouse, Fargo, N.D. 1890-1899

An image of the brick courthouse building is a view toward the northeast corner of the building. The jail is visible at the building’s rear. The building is three stories with a bell tower. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000814]

The Cass County Courthouse, a far cry from the first courthouse building in 1877, exemplified the determination of the citizens of Fargo and the vast progress they made in less than two decades in often-harsh Northern Plains environment. Against many odds, buildings like the renovated courthouse provide additional testaments to the peoples’ determination and successful transformation of a vast prairie into a sovereign and flourishing city and county seat of eastern North Dakota.

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012