Chester Fritz, Baukol Historic District added to National Register of Historic Places

Nov. 26—GRAND FORKS — Two examples of Grand Forks' mid-20th century architectural history have been formally recognized as the newest additions to the National Register of Historic Places.

UND's Chester Fritz Auditorium and the Baukol Historic District were added to the national register this month after the city's Historic Preservation Commission and State Historical Society applications were approved by the National Register, which is run by the National Park Service.

The process of adding things to the national register can take months to years. Research and a lengthy application have to be submitted to the register for consideration. In August, the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission voted to recommend both the Chester Fritz Auditorium and Baukol Historic District to be added to the list.

For prospective entries, the Historic Preservation Commission considers projects that would preserve Grand Forks' history. The commission then makes the nomination and sends it to the State Historical Society, which coordinates all the North Dakota nominations.

"We were funded to do National Register nominations for the Chester Fritz Auditorium and the Baukol Historic District," said Susan Caraher, coordinator of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. "Each year our commission considers projects that are relevant to preserving Grand Forks' History and these two were part of our grant application."

The Chester Fritz Auditorium was built in 1972 as a performing arts venue for UND. In more than 50 years of existence, it has hosted a variety of performances ranging from UND's orchestras to Johnny Cash. The closest equivalents to the auditorium for size and acoustical quality are Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis and Winnipeg's Centennial Concert Hall, which were each built between the 1960s and 1970s.

The auditorium was designed by architect Myron Denbrook, who was from the Grand Forks Wells, Denbrook and Adams Inc. Denbrook also consulted with Robert. C. Coffeen and Associates, now Avant Acoustics, to design the acoustics of the auditorium. It was one of that firm's earliest projects.

"The building itself has significant architectural integrity; it looks very much the same as it did when it was built," Caraher said. "It's part of the campus fabric, and some of the campus is already part of a historic district."

UND Vice President for Finance & Operations Karla Mongeon-Stewart said the Chester Fritz Auditorium's inclusion on the National Historic Register is fitting.

"We are excited that we are able to continue to use the auditorium as a key venue for the arts for the region," she said. "Additionally, we are looking to make some updates to the lobby area this year as it continues to be a key space for UND."

The lobby looks much the same way it did when the auditorium's first event was held on Oct. 12, 1972, when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir performed. According to the register application, the biggest changes were replacing worn-out carpeting and updating "the prominent 1970s monochromatic color palette to be more agreeable to today's visitors."

But the auditorium was designed with the unknown future of the performing arts in mind.

"It is impossible to predict the precise nature of all the activities to take place in the auditorium in the years ahead because the performing arts are dynamic," a souvenir booklet dated from the time the building was opened read. "They are different from yesterday. They will change tomorrow."

The application cites the auditorium's design foresight into why the building has been in continuous use for more than 50 years.

The Baukol Historic District encompasses about two blocks of homes between North Third and North Fourth Streets next to the Riverside Neighborhood Historic District.

This neighborhood is notable as it's some of Grand Forks' earliest examples of post-war housing and evidence of a new form of homeownership becoming popular across the country after World War II. The Baukol District is also an early example of housing that followed the Federal Housing Administration's push to create housing for veterans returning from World War II.

"This was the first time (in Grand Forks) that we could see that a contractor-slash-developer was building a neighborhood and this ties in very clearly with what was going on nationally with early post-war development where a lot of returning servicemen were coming and needing a place to live," Caraher said. "We could see then that it was a veteran neighborhood and we could tie it in with the 1950 census. We claim it as being Grand Forks' first baby boom neighborhood."

The houses are representative of the simplified, single-volume architecture becoming popular with American homes in the post-war period. All the homes are single-family and less than 1,200 square feet that range in style from ranches, plain residential, hipped box roof, colonial revival and other styles popular in the mid-20th century.

Previous to the Second World War, neighborhoods would often be built out by a person buying a lot and building a house. The Baukol District represents a new form of building homes where a developer or contractor would buy lots, build homes and sell them to people.

"The first 22 to 26 homes (built) adhere to this really strict criteria of the size house and cost of the house because the government was subsidizing (their construction)," Caraher said. "And then the rest of homes in the neighborhood marks this sort of transition from very early GI Bill-funded mortgages to this (later mid-century) style."

As part of the process of determining entries, the Historic Preservation Commission surveyed all the single-family homes in Grand Forks built between 1945 and 1970. The typical threshold for eligibility for historical preservation is that a property has to be at least 50 years old. This means that any property built before 1973 is old enough to be deemed historical.

Most of the homes in the Baukol District were built between 1946 and 1962 and include many aspects of post-war and mid-century housing, including fallout shelters. The district also has some of Grand Forks' earliest examples of ranch-style suburban homes that were becoming popular at the time.

The Chester Fritz Auditorium is a well-preserved example of the late-Modernist movement in architecture. The building is also reminiscent of the day it was opened 52 years ago. Additionally, the area surrounding the auditorium hasn't changed much since it was when UND underwent a building boom after World War II, making it a prime candidate to be added to the National Register.

Now that they've been added to the list, they'll now be eligible for grants and funding through historical preservation programs. Being added to the list doesn't mean the property can't be altered or sold, and it provides prestige and protections for property owners, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

"Life for the average American changed dramatically after World War II, from technological advances to changes in society and ethics that start showing up in the built environment," said Lorna Meidinger, lead historical preservationist with the State Historical Society. "It really was a huge period of change."