I had to walk only about one mile to take in all of Fargo’s best architectural treasures. Through the downtown and a leafy residential neighborhood, from my hotel to the campus of North Dakota State University, these edifices rise gently and graciously, and I had been able to spy quite a few of them (and some wonderful sunsets on the shockingly flat horizon) from the windows of my room at the Radisson Hotel Fargo, the tallest building in the city, at 18 floors. These are my favorites.
#1 South Engineering Building
North Dakota State University has the lion’s share of Fargo’s most beautiful buildings. With generous grounds around them and with a cohesive architecture, these structures make visiting, and getting an education on, the appealing campus a delight. Top among them all is the South Engineering Building. Built in 1907, it anchors the campus’ southern area, where I found many of the university’s historic buildings. Constructed for a measly $65,000, this handsome three-story building houses lecture halls, classrooms, and laboratories. Outside, the 80’ x 90’ Classical Revival building sports a light-brown pressed brick façade, with vertical brickwork for the lower-floor window keystones, and a red dormer roof. The contrasting dark brown of the rusticated sandstone at the base is repeated in the windowsills, pilaster capitals, brackets and dentilled cornices, the Palladian window treatment above the main entrance, and the Tuscan columns beneath it. You’ll love the view of the whole thing from beside the giant bison statue out front.
#2 Ceres Hall
Quick on the heels of South Engineering Building, Ceres Hall was completed only three years later, in 1910. It was the first women’s dormitory on campus, when the university was still the North Dakota Agricultural College. Intended to be named after the first female student at the college, Jessie Slaughter, the trustees realized students would easily call it “the Slaughter House,” and they wisely christened it Ceres Hall, in honor of the Roman goddess of agriculture. Strikingly similar to South Engineering Building, Ceres has the same brick façade, mansard roof, and windowsills, with an extra story and more pronounced keystones over the windows. Entrances, at the two projecting towers, are framed by pilasters with Ionic capitals. Originally housing 115 women, a cafeteria, and a gymnasium, Ceres now is home to administrative offices—and a couple of ghost stories. One revolves around a female student who hanged herself, troubled by her failing grades; the other involves a man who hanged himself from a heating pipe in the basement. If you don’t want to see the orbs of light detected by ghost hunters, stay outside and just admire Ceres Hall from afar.
#3 Old Main
Officially called College Hall, or the Administration Building, the oldest building on the North Dakota State University campus is mostly referred to as Old Main. When it was completed in 1893, Old Main contained classrooms, offices, faculty laboratories, a small library, a gymnasium, a small chapel that was later converted to a theater, and the office of the president. Today, it’s the domain of the president and other top university administrators. Like South Engineering Building, Old Main has a dormer roof and the same light-brown pressed brick façade resting on a dark brown rusticated sandstone base. A tall staircase leads up to the recessed double-arched entrance. On either side, two asymmetrical sections protrude just a bit, and the front corners of the building are enhanced with two different round towers, the taller of which bears clock faces and a pointier roof.
#4 Cathedral of St. Mary
Fronted by generous grounds with meticulously trimmed grass and clipped shrubs, and with the bishop’s house next door, the Cathedral of St. Mary has been tending to the spiritual needs of the local Roman Catholic community for more than a century. Built in 1899, nearly 20 years after the parish was founded, St. Mary’s is a handsome brick Romanesque Revival structure resting on a rusticated stone base with two towers of uneven height. The taller rises 172’ and contains the church’s only bell; the shorter bears a statue of the Virgin Mary in a niche. Both have shingled spires topped by gold crosses. In the center, statues of Sts. Peter and Paul flank the large round arch window, with a little rose window above it. Inside, I admired the barrel-vaulted ceiling, curves apse, wonderful Stations of the Cross, and especially the large stained-glass windows that were restored in 2014 to their original glory from more than 100 years ago.
#5 Fargo Theatre
After roaming around Fargo for most of the day, I had some time to spare before searching for some dinner. I hadn’t been to a movie for a while, and I had read that the Fargo Theatre was a sight to see, so I purchased a ticket and joined exactly four other people who were there for the late-afternoon screening. Opened in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theater (when tickets cost 25 cents), this great art deco structure has evolved over time, retaining its purpose as a movie venue but also becoming the best downtown locale for concerts and other live events. A meticulous restoration in 1999 and the addition of a second auditorium in 2009 revitalized the theater. Today, the theater shows 100 move titles annually, and it has served as the main venue of the Fargo Film Festival since 2001. The iconic “FARGO” marquee is the city’s most photographed spot, and a row of bricked-in arches and lion heads graces the façade. Inside, the art deco details come alive in sweeping vertical and curved lines and bold neon colors. After the movie, I hunted for the wooden statue carved in the likeness of Frances McDormand’s character in the 1996 movie Fargo. A second treasure goes back to the theater’s origins—the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” a 1926 pipe organ used to score every showing of a silent movie in real time, including the very first movie shown here, The Man on the Box, a 1925 comedy starring Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother, Syd. Factoid lovers will appreciate that it’s the largest theater organ in the United States between Minneapolis and Seattle. Steeped in history and listed on the National Register of Historic Place, yet still contemporary and relevant, catching a show in Fargo Theatre is a lovely way to end your day in North Dakota’s largest city.
- First Lutheran Church (1920)
- Putnam Hall, North Dakota State University (1906)
- Great Northern Railway Depot (1906)
- Hotel Donaldson (1893)
- Powers Hotel (1914)
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