Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Grand Forks, ND
The Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse was among the first monumental civic buildings in Grand Forks. Originally completed in 1906, the building was envisioned to be a majestic Post Office and Federal Courthouse at a time when Grand Forks was achieving increasing prominence in the agricultural hub of the Red River Valley. The city's existing post office, housed in an 1870s log cabin, had become obsolete and rising political and business influences demanded a more monumental and permanent post office and courthouse. The new Federal building was sited at the north corner of Fourth Street and First Avenue in the downtown business district.
James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, was responsible for the building's Beaux-Arts Classical design. The building inspired similar architecture for the adjacent enclave of Classical Revival buildings, including City Hall and Central High School.
In 1936, the demand for more space prompted the construction of a three-story addition to the rear of the building, designed by Louis A. Simon of the Supervising Architect's Office. The addition harmonized modern infrastructure with the original architecture by using like materials and details. The new configuration included passenger elevators and a light well to illuminate the first-floor work areas.
In 1964, when the U.S. Postal Service moved out of the building and into a new, larger facility, interior renovations remodeled the first floor into offices, adding a new stair tower to the north side of the building.
In 2002, the building was renamed after Federal District Judge Ronald N. Davies. Judge Davies served in the municipal courts in Grand Forks from 1932-40, and was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the U.S. District Court Judge of North Dakota. Most notably, Judge Davies presided over the Stromsodt v. Parke-Davis and Company case in 1966, a case that involved a damage suit against one of the nation's largest pharmaceutical manufacturers.
The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
The Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse reflects James Knox Taylor's mannered use of classicism to create an imposing architectural statement of the Federal Government's presence in Grand Forks. The building is a three-story, rectangular, masonry structure of yellow brick and limestone detailing that creates one of the most prominent displays of Beaux-Arts Classicism in the city. Federal Government architects embraced classicism during the early twentieth century as a method of symbolizing democratic ideals of government and power. The distinctive style is exemplified in the building's symmetry, central emphasis, and classical ornamentation.
On the facade, the most elaborate decorative features are reserved for the centralized three-bay section. Like the secondary elevations, the facade is composed of three horizontal zones. A rusticated base of alternating bands of limestone and brick courses is differentiated from the smooth limestone walls of the upper stories, which form the middle zone. The upper stories are articulated fenestration framed by colossal Tuscan pilasters. The third zone is defined by the entablature, including a blank frieze surmounted by a heavy dentil molding, projecting cornice, and balustraded parapet, composed of alternating balusters with raised panels. A large festooned cartouche at the parapet is a crowning feature of the central bay's vertical axis.
Refined Beaux-Arts embellishments accentuate the facade's key features. The main entrance is prominently centered and framed by a segmental arch bedecked by a keystone and festooned swags, and banded pilasters, which support an "audience balcony" above.
The interior public spaces are monumental in scale and classical in detail. The first-floor entry lobby, while reduced in size from its original configuration, retains its 16-foot ceiling, featuring a cast-plaster cornice, moldings, soffits, and modillions. Marble adorns the walls and window sills. A central marble staircase with a richly ornamented cast-iron balustrade ascends from the first-floor lobby to the upper floors. The second- and third-floor finishes are generally unchanged from their original condition, consisting of white marble wainscoting and green marble base and trim. Second- and third-floor public corridors have coved ceilings with cast-plaster picture moldings at the spring line.
The courtroom - with monumental proportions - represents a dignity apropos of its function as a Federal courthouse. Its coffered, 24-foot ceiling features dentil molding, modillions, and plaster acanthus leaves and buds that grace each coffer's perimeter. The walls are divided by wood wainscoting surmounted by raised plaster panels with molding surrounds. Windows extend upwards from the wainscoting and are partially trimmed on three sides with cast-plaster acanthus leaves matching those on the ceiling. From its earliest period, the courtroom has been carefully preserved. When the judge's bench and jury boxes were relocated from the east to the west wall in 1936, the alterations to the wainscoting, plaster ceiling details, and the wall panels were painstakingly matched to existing 1906 finishes.
Because few older buildings in the city's central business district have survived unmodified, the Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse stands as an unusual example of a monumental structure essentially unaltered. As it has for the past century, the building today represents the Federal presence and stands as a visual focus and historic architectural antecedent in downtown Grand Forks.
1905-06: The Post Office and Federal Courthouse in Grand Forks is constructed.
1927: Designs are made for the building's rear addition, providing more space for U.S. Postal Service offices.
1936: The rear addition is completed and opened to the public.
1964: The U.S. Postal Service moves to a new, larger facility. Major renovations convert the exiting workspaces into offices.
1976: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
2002: The building is named after Federal District Judge Ronald N. Davies.
ARCHITECTS: James Knox Taylor; Louis A. Simon
CONSTRUCTION DATES: 1905-06; 1936
LANDMARK STATUS: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
LOCATION: 102 North 4th Street
ARCHITECTURAL STYLE: Beaux-Arts
PRIMARY MATERIALS: Yellow brick masonry, limestone
PROMINENT FEATURES: Beaux-Arts exterior ornament, Historic Courtroom with original 1906 detailing.
The Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Grand Forks, North Dakota, was featured in the 2004 Historic Building Poster and Brochure series. Copies may be obtained by contacting the Center for Historic Buildings. The poster is also available for downloading in PDF format.
The Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse (originally the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse) constructed in the Beaux Arts style is a three story structure clad in masonry located at the north corner of North Fourth Street and First Avenue North. Like all original streets in Grand Forks, these streets are platted at 45° to cardinal directions to align with the Red River. The site is simply landscaped with small planting beds on the south and west that have a variety of bushes growing in them with river rock ground cover.
The three story structure is rectangular in plan with a central second and third floor light court. The building is faced in tan brick with cut limestone detailing on the upper floors and ashlar granite cladding at the basement. The structure has a flat roof with composite roofing and a balustraded parapet. The public entries are accented with carved limestone festoons and keystones. A large limestone cartouche is mounted over the main entry at the roof balustrade. The building is divided into a classical three-part horizontal composition. The first floor is composed of alternating bands of striated limestone and brick on a granite clad basement forming a visual base. The second layer is delineated by the second and third floor limestone framed windows and engaged two story pilasters on the main façade pavilion. The roof’s projecting limestone cornice and balustraded parapet articulate the third layer.
The main (west) façade fronts Fourth Street and is divided into five bays. At the basement, glass block windows with wrought iron security bars pierce the coursed ashlar granite plinth. Window openings on the first floor have segmented arches with cut limestone and projecting faceted keystones. Paired one-over-one aluminum window units with solid transoms fill the openings. The main entry is located in the projecting pavilion of the center bay. The entry doors and arched transom are recessed within the limestone pavilion. Above the entry doors is a carved limestone festoon and elaborate keystone. The pavilion is composed of multiple projections that become the base of two-story engaged un-fluted Tuscan pilasters. The brick pilasters define the bays on the second and third stories. Atop the pavilion, fluted and scrolled limestone brackets support a limestone audience balcony that has a balustrade that matches the roof parapet. Leading up to the main entry is a granite staircase flanked by granite raised panel cheek walls.
The first story is capped with a limestone cornice above which the second story rectangular windows are framed with limestone with a limestone frieze and cornice above each window. The windows at this level are paired one-over-one aluminum units with solid transoms. The window openings on the third story are square with limestone frames that abut the building entablature. The windows are paired one-over-one aluminum units. A modillion cornice and balustraded parapet containing a large central mantled and festooned limestone cartouche complete the building.
The north and south facades contain seven bays. The detailing on both elevations matches that of the west elevation. There are alternating bands of brick and limestone at the first floor, brick cladding punctuated by limestone framed windows at the second and third floors capped by a projecting limestone cornice and balustraded parapet. A brick faced tower constructed in 1967 projects from the original face of the two east bays of the north façade. The south façade has an entry with detailing similar to that found on the main façade. A set of granite steps with granite cheek walls lead up to entry doors framed by limestone. The east façade maintains the rhythm of the other façades, but the detailing is minimal. The elevation has brick cladding with only the first story and roof limestone cornices continuing on this elevation. The balustraded parapet does not continue on this façade and is instead a solid brick parapet.
On the inside of the building, the public spaces are monumental in scale and classical in detail. The first floor entry lobby, has been restored so it is similar to its original plan, and maintains its original 16-foot ceiling height with cast plaster cornice mouldings, soffits and modillions. The walls are clad with marble panels, original panels on the exterior walls and modern panels on the interior. The windows have marble sills and wood trim on the upper portion of the windows, above the marble panels. The flooring is the original terrazzo flooring with marble borders. The second and third floor corridor finishes are generally unchanged from their original condition with terrazzo flooring with marble borders and plaster walls with white marble wainscoting and green marble base. Modern suspended ceilings with recessed light fixtures have been installed in the corridors. There is a marble and cast iron central staircase leading from the main lobby to the upper floors.
The courtroom has a 24-foot high coffered plaster ceiling with elaborately detailed plaster dentils and modillions. The walls have painted panel plaster moulding and the window casings are accented with plaster carved leaf swags and decorative “keystones”. The original courtroom doors have glazed transoms painted with the words “COURT ROOM” and are clad with red leather attached with brass upholstery nails. The woodwork was last refinished in 1961. The current configuration of the judge’s bench and jury box dates to 1936, when they were relocated from the east wall to the west wall. This alteration required changes in the wainscoting, plaster ceiling detailing, and plaster wall panels that were completed with great care to match the existing 1906 finishes. Some of the furniture was replaced in 1964 but the original configuration was retained.
The judge’s chamber on the second floor consists of two offices (one public, one private), a judge’s library and private restroom. This area has maintained its original 1936 configuration and finishes. The judge’s library has built-in oak bookcases with glass doors. All wood trim in the library is stained dark and varnished.
The original public and private restrooms are mostly intact and have terrazzo flooring with a coved marble border, plaster walls with marble wall panels, and marble partitions with wood doors. The original lavatories, water closets and urinals are generally intact and a few restrooms have the original light fixtures.
The Beaux Arts style Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is one of the earliest monumental civic structures in Grand Forks, and it has served as a an inspiration to other buildings subsequently constructed in the area, including Central High School and City Hall. The three story building is comprised of the original 1906 portion designed by James Knox Taylor, and a substantial three story addition designed by Louis A. Simon in 1936. It is a masonry and steel structure faced with yellow pressed lime-sand brick, cut limestone detailing and an ashlar granite base. The Beaux Arts style is exemplified in the building’s ornamentation including: classical pilasters extending between the second and third floors, a decorative festoon over the entry, and the roof’s balustrade parapet with integral cartouche.
The first post office in Grand Forks was housed in a log cabin constructed in the 1870’s. The growth of agricultural activities in the Red River Valley led to Grand Forks’ development as the center of business and cultural affairs in the area. The rise in political and business influences resulted in the construction of a more influential and permanent Post Office and Federal Courthouse. James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department from 1892 to 1912, designed the new Post Office and Courthouse that was completed in 1906. Taylor is credited with the design of numerous federal buildings throughout the country.
By the mid-1920’s the post office required more space. A major addition that extended the building sixty-nine feet to the east was designed in 1927 under the auspices of Louis A. Simon, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department. This addition maintained the detailing, materials, finishes and style of the original building. A slight change in brick size and color occurred because a more stable clay brick was used on the new addition. The original brick was a rather porous material made from a mixture of steam-cured sand and lime. An interior light court with a skylight that provided light to the main work area on the first floor was part of the 1936 addition. As was a covered loading dock with a freight elevator constructed on the north side of the building. The addition altered the layout of some of the spaces in the original building. The 1906 judge’s chambers, located south of the courtroom, were demolished to allow for the installation of a passenger elevator and new chambers were constructed to the north of the courtroom in the addition. To accommodate this change, the courtroom orientation was flipped so the north wall became the front of the courtroom but the original layout and detailing were retained.
In 1964, the Postal Service moved from the building to a new larger facility and a major renovation by Kurke Associates converted what was the Post Office workroom, office and lobby on the first floor into private offices. This renovation included new partitions and suspended acoustical tile ceilings. A stair tower was added to the north side of the building, providing a second egress from the upper floors and necessitating the removal of the 1936 marquee over the loading dock. The 1936 skylight was also removed at this time.
Minor alterations after 1964 included the 1966 alterations to improve handicapped access and the 1973 replacement of existing wooden windows with new brown anodized aluminum units. These units altered the window configuration noticeably. The original first floor windows were one-over-one windows with an arched upper pane. The replacement aluminum window changed this configuration to a one-over-one window with an arched transom with a solid infill panel. The second floor window profiles were maintained but the transoms were converted to solid infill panels. The third floor window profiles were maintained.
The Red River flooded on Monday, April 18, 1997, causing an evacuation of Grand Forks. The Federal Building was inundated with ten feet of water, completely submerging the basement. The building survived, however the basement was completely destroyed. The basement housed mechanical operations, a U.S. Geological Service lab, a U.S. Customs office and the GSA’s maintenance offices. After the flood, all of the building materials damaged by the flood were removed and the basement was remodeled with modern materials and systems. The remodel work was not completed, so there are several rooms that are only partially finished.
In 2005 the first floor lobby was returned to its original layout. The project restored the original terrazzo flooring and plaster ceiling. The exterior walls have the original plaster finish and marble wall panels. Interior walls were constructed to replicate the appearance of the Post Office boxes and service windows with modern marble wall panels that are a close match to the original. Pendant hung light fixtures that are similar to original fixtures found in the building were installed in the lobby.
The building was renamed the Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in 2002. Davies received a law degree from Georgetown University Law School in Washington D.C. in 1930 and practiced law in Grand Forks. He served as a judge at the Grand Forks Municipal Court from 1932 – 1940. President Eisenhower nominated Davies as the U.S. District Court Judge of North Dakota in 1955 and he assumed the position on August 16, 1955. On August 22, 1957, Davies was temporarily reassigned to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. While there, Davies made several rulings that resulted in the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School following the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. The most prominent of which was on September 20, 1957, when he granted the NAACP lawyers an injunction barring Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus from using the National Guard to block nine black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. Davies served as a federal district court judge for thirty years and the majority of that time he presided over court in Fargo, North Dakota. In 1987, Davies was awarded the State of North Dakota’s highest award, the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award. He passed away on April 18, 1996.