Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Fargo, ND
Location: 655 1st Ave N #130, Fargo, ND 58102
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.
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.
- GSA Building Number: ND0006ZZ
- Landmark Status: National Register Listed