Violent hail storms, spooky clouds, and tornado sirens didn’t deter me from walking around South Dakota’s largest city and appreciating its outdoor attractions (although they did delay me a bit every now and then, and drove me to an earlier-than-expected dinner one night at the outstanding Minervas). Even in the heart of the city, it’s a great place to appreciate nature, whether I was strolling along the pleasant Riverwalk on the banks of the Big Sioux River or marveling at the rushing waterfalls in Falls Park, one of the best urban parks in the world. Scattered around all that, there are plenty of beautiful buildings to admire, many of which you can pop into to make new discoveries and escape Mother Nature’s temperamentality. These are my favorites.
#1 Old Minnehaha County Courthouse
It took four years to construct the Minnehaha County Courthouse, and when it was completed in 1893, the architect claimed it to be “the largest courthouse between Chicago and Denver.” Whether that was accurate or just a boast, I couldn’t say, but it is, indeed, very large, and very beautiful. This tremendous structure, faced with dark pink Sioux quartzite, is one of the most substantial buildings in downtown Sioux Falls. Its defining element, the 165’ tower, features a clock face and a loggia with heavy, squat columns on each of its four sides. The rusticated stone, round-arched windows, and deeply recessed entrances—all hallmarks of the Richardsonian Romanesque style—combine to create a gorgeous exterior, and the roofline sports heavily embellished dormer windows. Abandoned in 1962, when the courts moved to a larger building, the building was threatened with demolition to create a parking lot. Concerned citizens saved it, and in 1974, a year after it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the building reopened as a museum, which today grants you free admission and a chance to explore the interior. Among the exhibits, I found an old Norwegian loom, a Fawick Flyer two-door model car that could reach 60 miles per hour when the South Dakota speed limit was only seven, an exploration of the railroad’s influence on the city, and a special exhibit on chairs, including the electric chair that took only one life in South Dakota—that of a man named, appropriately enough, George Sitts. But I didn’t neglect also to notice all the wonderful surviving parts of the building—the slate stairs, granite columns, stained-glass windows, tiled fireplaces, restored circuit courtroom with its upper galley and fine stenciling, and 16 wonderful murals. These large paintings were created by a Norwegian immigrant and depict early Dakota life, natural landscapes, and images of the artist’s life in Norway. Completed in 1917, they’re just as beautiful a century later.
#2 Pettigrew Home & Museum
The tornado warning had driven the last tour group at the Pettigrew Home & Museum to take shelter in the cellar. By the time I arrived shortly after, the sun had returned, and I walked through a lawn littered with ping-pong–sized balls of hail. Clearly, the violently abrupt weather had kept everyone else away; I was the guide’s only visitor for the next turn around this elegant Queen Anne home from 1889. Named for its second owner, U.S. Senator Richard Franklin Pettigrew, who lived here from 1911 to 1926, and now a house museum, this stately home features a red brick upper story and a quartzite ground floor. There’s a small front porch, a wonderful trio of windows projecting from the roof, and a three-story bayed tower with a handsome brick chimney. Inside, my guide led me through the rooms with a finely crafted staircase, fireplaces, stained-glass windows, silk damask wall coverings, pocket doors, and furnishings from Pettigrew’s era. In addition to his political career, Pettigrew was integral in developing the city, bringing in five railroads, and championing the rights of women, farmers, and the common working man. He was also a worldwide traveler and amateur archaeologist who amassed an impressive collection, which he opened to the public in his house in 1925, making it the state’s oldest museum. When he died the following year, he willed the property to the city, along with his collections, to maintain it as a museum. For nearly a century, the state has been doing just that, and you’ll be able to see, among other objects, Native American arrowheads, a piece of Giza’s Great Pyramid, a cane from Hawaii’s Queen Liliʻuokalani…and Pettigrew’s indictment for treason based upon his opposition to the United States’ entry into World War I.
#3 Cathedral of St. Joseph
Building a great cathedral in a largely rural parish with only half as many parishioners as there are today was a tremendous undertaking in the early 1900s. But support for it was strong, and work on the new seat of the Diocese of Sioux Falls began in 1915. Interrupted by World War I, which siphoned off materials and skilled workers, the cathedral wasn’t completed until 1919. Today, thanks to its hilltop location, its twin towers with conical roofs are visible from great distances around the city. Built from granite, sandstone, and Indiana limestone on a Latin cross plan, the tremendous Cathedral of St. Joseph incorporates both French Romanesque and Renaissance styles. A grand double staircase leads to the three main rounded-arch entrances, the central one encased between Corinthian columns supporting a rounded arch with a carved relief in the tympanum. The interior is a grandiose display of marble, columns, wood confessionals with carved figures, a tremendous organ, beautiful chandeliers, reliefs of the Twelve Apostles set in medallions, finely sculpted Stations of the Cross, and a striking pulpit, baldachin, and altar. Since 1974, the cathedral has been on the National Register of Historic Places and the namesake and key contributing property to the Cathedral Historic District.
#4 Edward Coughran House
Another of the city’s historic districts, All Saints Historic District, features some truly wonderful homes. Just a few blocks away from lovely McKennan Park, the Edward Coughran house has been one of the most beautiful since it was built in 1887. A staircase rises gently up the front lawn of this corner property to the two-and-a-half–story Queen Anne house. A mixture of clapboard and shingles covers the building, resting on a stone foundation. Its flamboyant architecture, with its tall proportions, irregularity of plan, and variety of window shapes and sizes (from elliptical to stained glass) completely charmed me. I particularly admired the elaborate wraparound porch, which resembles an arcade, a design choice repeated in the porte cochère. Three fantastic brick Jacobethan chimneys rise from the roofline and flare upwards. Named for the second owner of the house, a prominent realtor whose family resided here from 1892 to the late 1930s, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Retaining its architectural integrity, it remains one of the best-preserved Queen Annes in South Dakota.
#5 Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse
This massive building in downtown Sioux Falls was constructed in 1895 not only to validate the federal government’s surety of westward expansion, but also to convey a sense of stability for newly arrived settlers in the young state of South Dakota, admitted to the Union only a few years earlier, in 1889. Occupying most of a city block, the building was enlarged in 1911 and in 1931. Today, the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse remains a striking example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, with a façade of native Sioux rose-colored quartzite, a request made by the state’s first senator. Originally a two-story structure, with a post office on the first floor and the courthouse on the second, it has since added a third floor plus an attic. The symmetrical façade, with both smooth and rough-hewn stones, features a wide arched entrance and octagonal corner turrets. Belt courses encircle the building, adding extra emphasis to the delineation of the stories and interrupted by the central gable. A cornice of repeating arch shapes echo those above the windows on the lower floor. The post office moved out in 1968, and the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It remains one of the most substantial, and impressive, buildings in Sioux Falls.
- First Congregational Church (1907)
- John W. Tuthill House (1890)
- Lyman T. Dunning House (1886)
- Rock Island Depot (1886)
- Central Fire Station (1911)
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