Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Fargo, ND

Constructed in 1931, the Federal Building and Courthouse is located in the central business district of Fargo and occupies one-half of a city block. The building is a symmetrical, three-story structure faced with limestone on the primary elevations and brick on the secondary elevations at the rear. The primary façade along First Avenue is 216 feet in length. The depth of the building along Roberts Street is 102 feet in length.

The building's biaxial symmetry, strong horizontal lines, and classical motifs characterize it as Renaissance Revival in style. The plan is organized along a primary east-west axis, with identical elevator/stair cores located at opposite ends of a double-loaded central corridor. The two stair cores open to identical granite stair entries with double leaf doors and round top transoms on the main (First Avenue) façade. Originally designed as a U.S. Post Office on the main floor with mailroom and loading lock at the rear, the first floor fills the entire rectangular footprint and is flush to the rear alley. The upper floorplates are E-shaped, with two light courts providing natural lighting to offices on the second floor and to the Courtroom and supporting spaces on the third floor. The building also has a full basement and attic level.

The first floor is the tallest, with a floor-to-floor height of 17-feet 6-inches. Upper floors recede in height: The second floor is 12-feet 6-inches; the third floor is 11-feet. The building is articulated vertically in three sections: The first story to grade is rusticated and capped with a 12-inch beltcourse. The main entry bays are accentuated by being brought forward of the main building face, and this vertical accent is carried the full height of the building. The upper floors section (second and third floors) is finished with smooth ashlar that is capped with a 30-inch cornice and frieze. This center section frames the most dominant feature of the main façade: a symmetrical composition of ten ionic engaged columns alternated with tall window openings and cast iron spandrels. The upper most section atop the cornice is comprised of a limestone parapet with balustrades that are aligned with window openings below. The roof, not generally visible from street level, is a steeply pitched hipped roof with small dormers in each face of the attic level.

The structure consists of a reinforced concrete frame and floors supported on concrete spread footings. Walls are concrete with limestone facing on the primary facades. Walls of the rear light court are brick masonry. The primary roof is a steel truss structure.

Exterior walls on floors 1-3 are furred with 2¿ terra cotta [see wall section]. Typical partitions are 6¿ terra cotta. Vaults have walls and ceilings of 6¿ reinforced concrete.

The basement is arranged about a double loaded corridor between stair cores, with smaller storage rooms around the south and east perimeter, and the mechanical equipment and boiler in the center and rear of the building. Natural lighting was originally provided to the perimeter rooms by double hung window that opened onto an areaway. These windows have been infilled and the areaway replaced with planting areas.

Both round-top main entry openings have aluminum replacement doors and transom. A new entry and handicapped ramp on the east (in a former window opening) is similar but with square transom.

Windows are double-pane aluminum slider type, with fixed transoms. All windows (with the exception of one unit in the original basement toilet room) were installed in 1970 to replace the original divided-lite wood double-hung windows. New windows retain the original openings, except for those altered to accommodate doors of a new handicapped entry on the east and doors to the new addition at all levels on the west.

The first floor was originally designed as a U.S. Post Office with the public lobby occupying extending between the two elevator cores and the service bays, the post office ¿screen¿ defined by the row structural columns separating the lobby from the large workroom at the rear behind (reference Finish #6, with cornice). The workroom opened to the loading dock at the rear of the building. Postmaster offices were located in the front corner spaces of the first floor. Concrete vaults were located adjacent the two stair cores. A lookout system for monitoring the workroom and the vaults from above extended the full length of the workroom and the walkway wrapped around on the east and west to provide views to the vaults (see 1930 construction photo). The two original entries were constructed with metal and glass doors and transoms with decorative cast iron trim. The entries also included storm vestibules similarly detailed, reflecting the harshness of the local winter climate (see drawing detail and 1959 photo).

Most of the building is currently used as rental office space for various GSA departments, and has been remodeled to accommodate tenant requirements. There is no connection between the east and west elevator/stair cores on the first floor. The original building entrances on First Street are closed except for emergency egress. A newer entry with accessible ramp on the east connects to the east elevator lobby, but is rarely used. The main entry is currently from the new courthouse building addition on the west, through a new corridor to the west elevator lobby.

The second floor elevator lobby retains portions of the original finishes (#3, no cornice) consisting of terrazzo floor and marble base. Other portions of the second floor have a newer office finish package that consists of carpet, painted wood base and casing, flush rated doors, paneled non-rated doors, painted drywall walls, acoustic ceiling with 2-foot square grid and fluorescent light fixtures.

The third floor elevator lobby retains portions of the original finishes (#3, no cornice) consisting of terrazzo floor and marble base. The Courtroom Lobby, Courtroom, Library, and Judge¿s Chambers have a higher level of original finish (Lobby #4, Courtroom #5, Library #8) and much of this finish is intact. The Courtroom is in the process of being renovated at this time. The existing original features that will be retained include the stained millwork (paneling and doors), the judge¿s desk, and the benches. The witness stand and jury box will be replaced to accommodate accessibility requirements (these elements date to a prior renovation and are not considered historically significant). The existing acoustic ceiling has been removed, and it is anticipated that the ceiling will be restored to it original configuration, with modifications to accommodate modern lighting levels.

The primary hip roofs (originally standing seam metal) are finished with asbestos shingls and drain to scuppers and outlets at the center and corners of all building faces, then to internals outlets (drains). Integral gutters are lined the galvanized metal. There are penthouses above each elevator. The flat roofs over the first story in the light courts are composition roofs that drain to gutters and downspouts along the alley façade.

The Federal Building and Courthouse is a prominent Federal building adjacent to the Fargo Central Business District. It is a contributing building in the Downtown Fargo District (#83004064), listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. It is significant as it reflects the Federal presence in Fargo, and as an example of the architectural quality and intent of the Federal government building program in the first half of the 20th century. Alterations to the building that stemmed primarily from changing use in the 1960s (moving the Post Office out of the building) and secondarily from energy conservation and life-safety programs of the 1970s have diminished the integrity of the building's original 1930 character. Construction of a new courthouse building in 2001 that is adjacent and attached to the original Post Office/Courthouse has further eroded its presence. The exterior of the building with its finely articulated limestone façade and prominent round-top entries with granite steps at each end has remained largely original in appearance, although the building currently has no direct public access from the street.

Fargo Context
In the 1920s, Fargo was a well-established distribution hub for an area with a radius of 200 miles in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Fargo's business district was identified with large volume service and retail establishments, and in particular, with agricultural implement dealerships, as a result of its location in the Red River Valley and its excellent rail connections in the cardinal directions.

The construction in 1929 of Fargo Post Office/Courthouse required demolition of two buildings on the site at First Avenue between Eighth and Roberts St.: the Presbyterian Church along Eighth and the original Post Office that fronted on Roberts Street across First from the present Gardner Hotel (see Engineering Plat of the Federal Building Site, 1928, Image 02-02-jpg). The site selection is typical for Federal post office buildings, being located on a corner lot with good visibility and access and adjacent a primary commercial corridor of the city. The original Post Office in Fargo had the distinction of being the first as well as the only post office and courthouse built by the Federal Government in North Dakota during the nineteenth century. It was constructed in 1893-97 after the Fargo fire which destroyed much of downtown Fargo, and was individually-designed under the administration of William Martin Aiken in the Renaissance Revival style. It was three stories tall under a hipped red tile roof and was dominated by a three-story round tower above a semi-circular portico on the south side. The exterior walls were constructed of buff brick with Bedford limestone and terra cotta trim. Windows were pedimented and round-arched, some on the east façade grouped and surrounded by stone molding above a shallow first-story loggia (see Image OrigPO-1.jpg).

Federal Building Context
Both the 1893 Post Office/Courthouse and its 1929 antecedent reflected the national standards of design and use of classically-derived building designs and quality to evoke the dignity and solidity that was considered befitting Federal architecture.

In 1915, the Federal Public Building Commission established a new set of construction policies that mandated a method of standardized design, in lieu of individual design, which had been judged to be vulnerable to political maneuvering and potential abuse of tax dollars. The McAdoo Classification System, named after William McAdoo who chaired the Commission, identified four classes for post office buildings based on their annual receipts, and a corresponding quality/expense of finishes for the exterior and public interior spaces. The 1929 Fargo Post Office/Courthouse with it limestone façade, decorative cast-iron spandrels, and fireproof reinforced concrete frame appears to have ranked a Class B in this system ¿ something between the marble-faced monumental "Class A" and the brick-faced "Class C".

The emphasis given to the entry experience of the 1929 building with its two sets of stone steps and finely detailed doors communicated an elevated, yet accessible, presence to the patron. The richness of interior detail and materials in the public spaces reinforced the desired sense of dignity. The highest levels of finishes, with marble wainscot, terrazzo floors, and decorative plaster cornices was lavished on the Post Office Public Lobby that extended across the entire front of the building between the entries, the two public stairways and elevators, and the third-floor Courtroom, Judges Chambers, and related public spaces. The large postal Workroom, that comprised over than half the first floor area, was finished with an eight-inch deep solid wood block floor, an expensive measure, but highly durable and also an important amenity for workers spending all day on their feet.

Adaptive Use and Energy Alterations
The Fargo Post Office/Courthouse remained largely unaltered for forty years following its construction. The most significant change to the building occurred as a result of the post office functions being relocated from the original building to a new Post Office two blocks east. A major renovation in 1970 accommodated this change in use of the first floor as well as a list of programmed "updates" for energy conservation and life-safety code compliance. The changes were not particularly sympathetic to the original character of the building. Those with the most negative effects on the historic character were: 1/ the replacement of all original wood divided-light windows and entry double door/transom units with aluminum insulating-glass windows and doors, 2/ enclosure of the stair/elevator cores with fire-rated metal doors, and 3/ the introduction of suspended acoustic ceilings throughout the building to enclose new mechanical ductwork. The first floor Public Lobby and Workroom were essentially "gutted" to make way for the more flexible Federal office tenant finish.

In 2001, most of the Federal court functions of the building were re-located to the new Courthouse Annex that was constructed adjacent to the 1929 building, connected by an atrium with access at the first, second, and third floor levels to the west side of the 1929 building. The building use was again reconfigured to accommodate Federal offices, leaving the Courtroom and Judges Chambers on the third floor as the sole survivor of the original building interior. The west entry on the main façade was restricted to emergency egress only; the east entry was closed to use in either direction. The ramped handicapped entry that was constructed on the east side of the building in 1970 now serves as the primary entry for government employees in the building.

Existing Integrity and Reversibility of Alterations
Building alterations and upgrades are a necessary part of their vitality. User needs change over time and a building must be adapted to maintain its utility. Maintaining the historic character and original fabric of a building at the same time is a challenge. Some of the alterations made to the Fargo Courthouse over time have resulted in a loss of integrity. Some are reversible and some are not. The replacement windows installed in 1970 may well have reached their expected lifespan, and will again be replaced. There is an opportunity to replace the windows with new wood windows that match the appearance of the original divided-light double-hung sash, but with thermal characteristics that satisfy current needs and standards. Reinstatement of the post office within the building is not likely to ever occur, but there may be an opportunity to recapture the original public lobby space in the first floor of the building for a public use, e.g, an art gallery or some other use related to the Federal offices or courts. This would allow for restoration of the original volume of the space and its original finishes that are largely intact behind newer finishes. It would also improve the building's main façade by opening the two stairways and building entrances to the public.

Description Architect
Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Fargo, ND Improvement James A. Wetmore
1929 1931 Original Construction James A. Wetmore
Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13