Since several hundred people gathered to watch its cornerstone placed on November 17, 1930, Downtown Fargo’s Black Building has captured the imaginations of North Dakotans. The eight-story, art-deco tower-wrapped with banks of large windows in intricate cast-iron frames, would serve as the bustling center of commerce of Fargo for decades. As Kilbourne Group and the Black Building’s many long-standing tenants embark on writing the next chapter for the iconic landmark, we are inspired by its storied past.
George M. Black, proprietor of the Black Building, was an experienced merchandiser, having grown up in the business. His father, Leslie Black, had emigrated from Ireland in the 1860s and set up his first store in Parsons, Kan. As a young boy, George worked long hours in the store-cleaning, stocking shelves and taking care of customers. When he and Leslie decide to seek out new locations in which to set up a chain of stores, Fargo happened to be a train stopover.
“A beautiful day in May, 1912,” reads the autobiography of George Black. “Lots of women out shopping. I visited the stores Herbsts, deLendrecies, and Moody’s. They were busy. Prices were good. It was an exhilarating experience.”
On June 12, 1912, The Black Store opened at 112 Broadway.
George ran a successful store and continuously expanded its footprint along Broadway. He became well-known for throwing turkeys off the roof to celebrate Thanksgiving, originating a “one-cent sale” and the unique Gold Dollar Sale, in which each purchase came with a free dish of ice cream. If a lucky customer found a capsule in their ice cream, it would mean a prize up to a five-dollar gold piece.
As the depression of the 1920s intensified, more and more stores were consolidating or closing. George was in New York on October 29, 1929, to witness the stock market collapse, an experience that prompted him to sell The Black Store in Fargo to Sears, Roebuck. He would use the proceeds of the sale to build the Black Building.
Ads for the building boasted that if all of the electrical wiring and piping in the building were placed end to end, it would reach from Fargo to Ulen, Minn., or a distance of 32 miles.
The Black Building
The basement and first and second floors would be home to the new Sears store. The remaining six floors would be the most modern, professional office space the city had seen. The top floor was dedicated to the well-appointed studios of local radio station WDAY and would be the scene of many live performances over the years.
Fargo construction company TF Powers called the Black Building its masterpiece. Other superlatives used to describe the structure: “center of activity flooded with merchandise,” “the pride of Fargoans,” and “veritable cathedral of business activity.”
Again, from George Blacks autobiography:
“During the erection of the new building, it was my duty to keep the store going. Departments would have to be moved from one place to another as construction proceeded. Business must be kept intact.”
The caption of a 1934 photograph of the Black Building lobby reads: “The above photograph, although it does not do it justice, gives one a reasonably accurate conception of the size and beauty of the luxurious entrance lobby to the office part of the Black Building. More than 4,000 people visit this lobby daily.”
Today, as the building nears 90 years old, Kilbourne Group begins the most extensive renovation the Black Building has ever seen. Our first step was to have the building added to the National Registry of Historic Places, ensuring its care for decades to come. Historic details that will be refurbished include ornate elevator doors, terrazzo flooring and marble baseboards.
Kilbourne Group’s vision is to return the Black Building to its rightful place in Fargo’s history as a destination unto itself. The Black Building will remain true to its use as retail and office space. Our goal is for it to serve as an anchor of the Downtown Fargo restaurant and retail district. As a tribute to our shared history, we hope the Black Building will again be a celebration of unique, local, authentic offerings and uniquely Fargo experiences.
Office space will be efficient, with shared amenities such as conference rooms, break rooms, restrooms, etc. The Black Building will offer the opportunity to work from a historic tower of commerce with its sweeping views of Downtown Fargo, which today is hailed as a tech hub.
Smart re-use of the building’s infrastructure to suit the needs of today’s retailers and business professionals-along with care and attention to historic details-has the potential to once again draw thousands of people into the building each day and add to Fargo’s vibrant downtown. We look forward to celebrating the revitalization of Downtown Fargo’s iconic Black Building with you!
Want to learn more?
General Manager, Kilbourne Group
210 Broadway N, Fargo