In 1989 the U. S. Custom House and Post Office at Pembina was one of a small group of 20 extant federally-built post offices in North Dakota constructed between 1900-1940. The building has the distinctive characteristics of federally-funded post offices as a property type built in North Dakota before the Second World War. It is one of only three postal buildings in North Dakota designed in the Colonial Revival style by the government. It is one of nine postal facilities built in North Dakota as a governmental response to the economic dislocations and hardships of the Great Depression. The U. S. Custom House and Post Office in Pembina is significant in North Dakota postal history for its unique architecture and functional history. It is locally significant as the grandest and best-designed building in Pembina today, public or private.
Functionally, this structure was primarily built to house the U.S. Customs and Immigration departments and was located at a major entry point between the United States and Winnipeg, Canada. Only secondarily was it a post office, this function taking less than one-third of the interior floor space. To some extent, the architecture, massing, and size follow from functional considerations: the post office was located in one wing of the ground floor with a side entrance of its own facing Cavalier Street. There was no internal interchange with the Customs and Immigration functions. It was built at a cost of $115,000 because of its combined function as border inspection station and post office. During the same time, the government also funded North Dakota border inspection stations at Portal, Ambrose, and St. John – all on the Canadian border and all built at a cost of between $54,000-74,000, far less than at Pembina (The Foster County Independent, Oct. 6, 1932, pp. 1, 5).
Historically, there seems to have been no pressing need for expanded postal facilities which prompted the government to erect this building. Rather, the government appears to have needed larger facilities for Customs and Immigration at Pembina, the main route to Winnipeg, Canada. The Pembina Customs House and Post Office is the grandest structure in Pembina and the only representative of the Federal presence in town. The building is owned by the General Services Administration and leased out. The building no longer functions as a post office or as the custom house between the United States and Canada. The post office was decommissioned and moved to a new building in Pembina in the 1990s and a new custom house was constructed on the U.S./Canada border in the mid-1960s.
According to the original blueprints, most of the Pembina Custom House and Post Office was devoted to non-postal functions. Of a gross floor area of 15,929 square feet, the building was allocated in the following way: net postal service area, 2,704 sq. ft.; non-postal federal agency net area, 8,412 sq. ft. (Customs and Immigration); and mechanical and circulation area, 4,813 sq. ft. The Cavalier Chronicle described the proposed building as "a federal immigration and customs inspection building" in the initial announcement on August 21, 1931. It went on to note that the new building would house the customs and immigration inspection services. When the facility was completed in 1932, the first floor was devoted largely to Customs and Immigration functions with a customs work room, office space, a customs waiting room, and an immigration office. The post office consisted of a work room, a small mail vestibule, and the postmaster's office in the east wing. On the second floor were rooms for the customs patrol, the U.S. Customs Court room, several detention cells, an animal inspections room run by the Department of Agriculture, and two offices. The basement was originally devoted to storage, custodial supplies, the fuel and boiler rooms, and Customs and Immigration storage rooms. In 1989, the Post Office had less space in the building than originally. It leased the postmaster's office to Immigration and a door was put into the Immigration offices on the first floor. The postmistress office was in the postal work room. The post office was decommissioned in the 1990s and converted to office space. The majority of the interior finishes were preserved and the space retains evidence of the post office that originally occupied it.
The Pembina Customs House and Post Office does not appear to have been built because of a local need for additional postal facilities since Pembina was not growing at the time of its construction. The County seat of Pembina County was moved to the city of Cavalier, some 34 miles west in 1911 (Pembina Centennial Committee, A History of Pembina County, 1967, p. 17). It is difficult to determine cause and effect, but the initiation of air mail service to Pembina might have influenced the construction of the new facility. The Cavalier Chronicle noted in its December 19, 1930, issue that Pembina was to be a transfer point for air mail service between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Some $750,000 was made available by Congress to have Northwest Airways fly mail from Minneapolis to Pembina. Canadian Airways would fly the mail from Pembina to Winnipeg some 69 miles to the north. American flyers wished the entire route, but were stopped by the Canadian government who insisted on using Canadian flyers over Canada (p. 1). As a result of this new service, the new Northwest Airways airport at Pembina was dedicated in the fall of 1931 (Pembina Centennial Committee, p. 17). It is not clear how much of the air mail might have been sorted at the new Pembina post office when it was completed.
The Pembina Custom House and Post Office is an unusual design, not one of the standard designs of the times. It is also historically the most important building in town and has been such since its construction in 1932. It was designed in the Colonial Revival style with a gambrel roof by the Office of Supervising Architect, James Wetmore, Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department. Detailing consists of 12 over 12 small paned windows, limestone trim and keystones, pediments, fluted pilasters, leaded transoms, and dentilling. It is architecturally the most imposing building in the city. Most of the buildings in the city, especially on Cavalier Street burned and several were rebuilt. Of the government buildings, two city halls have burned, and the 1881 Pembina County Courthouse was condemned in 1933 and razed. The 1919 school building has had large and major additions in 1958 and 1966 and has little original integrity remaining. The downtown today has only a two story former hotel building and a handful of one story modest stores and garages (Pembina Centennial Committee, 1989, pp. 17-18).
The information presented above was based on the architectural description in the National Register of Historic Places Inventory nomination form accepted on November 1, 1989.