Photos by Hayley Johnson and Noah Kupcho & courtesy of Kilbourne Group
If you’re relatively new to Fargo, there’s something you might not realize: It wasn’t always like this. We take for granted the bustling city center that Downtown has become—filled with trendy restaurants, farmers markets, and charming buildings—but not that long ago, the landscape was quite a bit different.
For the next eight issues and in partnership with our friends at Tellwell and Kilbourne Group, we’ll be telling the story of Downtown’s transformation in a series focused on the pivotal projects and historic renovations that paved the way for what the area has now become.*
Each story will also have an accompanying mini-documentary that can be found on Kilbourne Group’s blog: KilbourneGroup.com/News
When Kilbourne Group Founder and current North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum was young, his mother, Katherine, would walk with him down Broadway and tell him stories about the buildings. History, it seemed to him, was layered between the bricks and in the crevices of the wood-plank floors—remnants of the early pioneers and visionaries who built the city.
As a young man, however, Burgum saw things begin to change. Businesses were shutting their doors, and people no longer wanted to stay and build in Fargo. As a result, the beloved buildings of his mother’s stories were disappearing one by one.
One such building was a 100-year-old structure on Eighth Street North, right next to the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The structure, originally built as a farm-implement warehouse and dealership, had most recently served as a retail outlet for Northern School Supply. In 1997, though, after nearly 90 years of use, the business was closing its doors. The four-story, 50,000-plus-square-foot building was facing demolition.
“It was one day away from a wrecking ball,” says Dan Mahli, a city planner with the City of Fargo.
There were many who didn’t want to see that happen, though.
Champions of Fargo’s historic preservation met to discuss how to save the building and how to protect the rest of historic Fargo from a similar fate.
Saving the Northern School Supply building was not an easy sell. Walking through its dilapidated halls was not unlike walking through a haunted house, where the only inhabitants were pigeons and a resident raccoon. There was also an asbestos problem and other environmental issues to go along with the fact that a defunct, 100-year-old boiler produced frozen pipes that led to icicles the size of stalactites.
Burgum and his team could look past that. They noticed the beautiful brick-and-timber frame structure—designed in the Richardsonian style of the early 1900s. They saw the high ceilings and wide-open rooms, to say nothing of the fact that it was located in central Downtown, a spot that lent itself to an inherent walkability.
“It was one day away from a wrecking ball.”
Still, they had no idea what to do with the building, and the clock was ticking. Already, the City of Fargo had paid several months rent to delay demolition.
Risky decision-making was familiar territory for Burgum. At that point in time, he’d already toted a slate of high-risk decisions, most notably betting the entire family farm on a fledgling software company. When it came time to embark on what would become the future Renaissance Hall, he again led his team in a bold leap.
Despite a suspicion that it could turn into a colossal money pit, in August 2000, Burgum purchased the building.
“That’s where the most risk was taken in this entire project,” says Mike Allmendinger, general manager of Kilbourne Group, which was just forming at the time. “It was one individual choosing to spend resources and time … to find out what could happen with a building like this.”
What could happen with a building like this? The answer was already starting to form on the adjacent campus of North Dakota State University.
Quitting the Quonsets
Cindy Urness, associate professor and program director for architecture at NDSU, had long imagined better buildings for her students. At the time, classes were housed in three ancient World War II quonsets that were “truly an eyesore to the university,” she recalls.
Urness, who’s an NDSU graduate herself, describes the buildings.
“On the ground floor,” she says, “you would need to work with winter coats and mittens. While at the same time, students on the upper floor had to wear tank tops and shorts. The circulation was that poor. The students were all over the place, and they often didn’t know each other because one group was here, and one group was there. It was sort of a discombobulated existence at the time.”
It was this need for a new, cohesive space that led to Burgum’s preliminary conversations about turning the Northern School Supply building into an NDSU facility. They imagined that architecture students could help design their new home while simultaneously participating in one of Fargo’s first historic preservation ventures.
At first, the response was mixed. Some were skeptical about moving classrooms so far from campus. As Urness puts it, “Change isn’t easy.”
The final decision to move forward was made possible thanks to the efforts of then-NDSU President Joe Chapman, the NDSU Development Foundation—then led by John Q. Paulsen—and the City of Fargo—then led by Mayor Bruce Furness. Together with Burgum and his team, they dreamed up what the old building could become.
Early in 2001, the Fargo Renaissance Zone Authority approved a five-year property tax exemption for the building, and in December of that year, Kilbourne Group donated the building to the NDSU Development Foundation along with $1.5 million of Burgum’s own money to complete the restoration.
In December, Doug donated the building to the NDSU Development Foundation along with $1.5 million for restoration.
NDSU Moves Downtown
Now, it was time to “stabilize the patient.” Together with the Kilbourne Group, the Development Foundation, the City of Fargo, and the National Park Service worked to give the building a new roof, demolish the unsightly annexes, remove the asbestos, purchase the land underneath, and, at last, defeat the non-compliant, icicle-making boiler.
“We get the sense that they were looking out for future students.”
As the building began to take shape, so too did the plans for NDSU’s move Downtown. Michael J. Burns, then a recent graduate of NDSU’s architecture program, was the lead architect on the project. He and his team went about their work with what Professor Urness called “tender, loving care.”
“This was their alma mater, and this was their department,” she says. “We get the sense that they were looking out for future students.”
Much attention was given to the smallest of details, squeezing every bit of the tight budget to both stay within the strict guidelines set forth to preserve the historic quality of the building while also ensuring it would last.
For instance, a wooden baseboard was kept throughout the building rather than replacing it with the more modern rubber. The plywood sheet floors were preserved and sealed—rather than replaced—and the ceiling was left exposed, showcasing the pipes that ranged and circulated throughout the building.
“The building is always a teaching tool,” Urness says. “We can take the students and point to what we’re trying to teach them about.”
The newly christened Renaissance Hall was Fargo’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building, which means it was designed to take care of resources, use less water and energy, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. This paved the way for many more LEED buildings to spring up throughout North Dakota.
When it was finally finished, Renaissance Hall was stunning. It included an added floor where the roof once was and nearly 70,000 square feet of offices, studios and classrooms.
It was time to bring in the students.
It has been 13 years since Renaissance Hall first opened its doors, and today, it’s bustling with students and professors. Architecture models line the walls, and expansive sketches of future building designs, skyscrapers, and storefronts are scattered on desks and hang in the hallways.
Diedrich Harms is a fifth-year architecture student at NDSU. Three of those years (and many long nights) have been spent in his full-time studio at Renaissance Hall.
“It’s nice having everything contained. My professors are literally on the same floor as me,” he says.
All the tools he needs are easily accessible: a downstairs woodshop for making models, laser cutters, computer labs and his own private desk. It’s not uncommon for Harms to run into other students—freshmen to seniors—who frequently help each other on their projects.
“It helps foster community because we’re all in the same spot,” he says.
Another fifth-year architecture student, Tommy Schmidt, experienced how Renaissance Hall offered a unique window into what a downtown community is really like.
“It’s a really good lab to see and practice architecture every day,” he says.
Being downtown means architecture is much more than something you study—you’re surrounded by it. Both Schmidt and Harms live Downtown and can bike to work and school within just a few minutes. To be part of the fabric of a downtown, particularly in Fargo—a growing, moving and transforming community—offers a unique experience for an architect.
“As an architect, you look at the world through a different sort of lens than everyone else,” Schmidt says. “You see possibilities. From my window at my desk, I can see a parking lot. Every day I look at it and think, ‘What could that be?’”
Urness, who has seen the before and after of Renaissance Hall, understands that the increase in students who engaged with Downtown has been an impetus for Fargo’s revitalization as a whole.
“In many ways, our students at that time were sort of Downtown pioneers,” she says.
“Now, our students just take it for granted that they go to school in a building that has a great urban feel.”
Those early students began living Downtown, eating sushi Downtown, walking dogs Downtown, and bringing a youthful vibrancy to an area where businesses had been closing or abandoning altogether. In the years since, Downtown Fargo has seen an influx of new businesses, coffee shops, restaurants, and breweries, all contributing to what is now a thriving community.
“Now, our students just take it for granted that they go to school in a building that has a great urban feel—that their building is in an incredibly lively downtown area,” Urness says. “I think that’s so wonderful. And for us, looking back over 14 years, what we’ve seen is that it’s been a phenomenal recruitment tool.”
And it all started with the ability to see the potential in an old building facing a wrecking ball.
“Very few people really believed (that) what could happen here would happen,” Mahli says. “To see that this place, which we saw could be an energetic and enthusiastic source of strength for our community and our downtown driven by young people, that it has become that? It’s just incredible to be a part of it.”
This new reality, conceived by Burgum and that core group of visionaries as we entered a new millennium, encompassed much more than saving one structure. It was the dream to revive and restore the stories Katherine Burgum wove for her young son. It was about revealing what was still concealed within the walls and floors of those buildings. It was in fact, the dawn of the Fargo Renaissance.