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Traces of Fargo history found at construction site

Traces of Fargo history found at construction site

This story was written by Tu-Uyen Tran for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, published July 22, 2016. Visit for images of construction and history library photographs.

  • See video coverage of the excavation and uncovered history at¬†and

FARGO- A couple of weeks ago, interns and some office workers from Kilbourne Group got the unusual assignment of gathering old bricks at a construction site behind their downtown office.

Roberts SW Corner

Click for animated flyover of the Roberts Garage project.

They amassed a pile of about 400 bricks.

Their firm is developing a parking ramp and mixed-use building on the parking lot at Roberts Street and Second Avenue. The bricks appear to be all that remains of a Carnegie library that on the site nearly five decades ago.

“If you’ve been to a Carnegie library, they’re very beautiful structures,” said Project Manager Mike Zimney. “It’s kind of fun to at least see a little bit of what remains of it.”

Kilbourne Group, a development firm with a near reverence for Fargo’s urban past, plans to use the bricks as decoration in the lobby of the mixed-use building.

“It shows how important and why it’s so important that existing historic buildings in downtown why the Kilbourne Group and others and the city go to such effort to save these buildings,” Zimney said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Besides the ramp development, Kilbourne Group also owns several buildings on Broadway, including the Black Building, and, with other partners, plans to build a high rise on the parking lot near U.S. Bank.


First library

Fargo’s Carnegie library was, like many other Carnegie libraries around the country, a gift of steel tycoon-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Made of brick, it had large arched windows to let in natural light and a frieze with names of literary greats such as Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. Like nearly all Carnegie libraries, the stacks were in an elevated main floor and most meeting rooms were in the basement.

It was, arguably, the city’s first real public library.

A library did open in 1900 in the basement of the Masonic Temple, located in what’s now the Gate City Bank parking lot. But it was only a few shelves of books cobbled together to satisfy Carnegie’s requirement that recipients of his grants must already have a library.

That was enough and Carnegie gave the city $20,000 about $534,000 today to build a stand-alone library, which opened in 1903 with about 3,000 books moved over from the Masonic library. Carnegie eventually donated some $40 million for libraries in the U.S. ¬†about $1.3 billion in today’s dollars, according to some sources.

But Fargo grew so fast that, within a few decades, the community had outgrown its Carnegie library.

An addition and renovation in 1939 helped, but by the late 1950s, library officials argued that only a new library would do. Voters agreed and a new one opened in 1968 at the site of the current downtown library.


Unlike what would happen today, there wasn’t much talk about preserving the historic Carnegie building.

In 1960, when the building was just 57 years old, library officials debating its fate thought a bank would buy it and replace it with a new bank building.

“The site is valuable only as a piece of land,” Clinton Johnston, a library board member, told The Forum. “It would be shortsighted to sell to someone who would use the building (as it stands), and considering the property value to the city with higher taxes, the bank is the logical purchaser.”

The deal fell through and the city’s parking authority razed the building in 1970. Small houses to the north had been razed in the late 1950s and buildings to the east followed in the early 1960s to make room for cars. The library was just a parking lot expansion.

It wouldn’t have been unusual in that era.

The Moorhead Carnegie library, which was across Sixth Street South from today’s Rourke Art Museum, was razed in 1963. It’s now a parking lot. The Carnegie library at the old Fargo College near Island Park was razed in 1964. The site is now occupied by RDO Co. headquarters.

Only one Carnegie library remains here today. North Dakota State University calls it Putnam Hall.


The Carnegie library wall wasn’t the only thing workers found in the ground.

“As they were taking out the asphalt to continue to excavate along the property line at Second Avenue North, they uncovered another foundation wall which was charred and had some plaster on it,” said Kilbourne Project Manager Deb Wendel Daub. “We’re 99 percent confident that was the Columbia Hotel.”

A decade before the Carnegie library was built, that was the site of one of Fargo’s finest hotels, which advertised electric lighting and a menu with Columbia River salmon. The hotel, along with much of downtown north of Second Avenue, was destroyed by the great fire of 1893.

For Zimney and Daub, it’s an interesting reminder of downtown’s up-and-down cycle. Downtown had high density in the early days when buildings close together made it easier for pedestrians. In the 1960s and 1970s, a car-centric society encouraged businesses to expand away from downtown where parking was plentiful. Underused downtown buildings were seen as impediments to parking. Today, there’s a new emphasis on walkable communities and parking lots are seen as uninviting to pedestrians.

Kilbourne Group’s parking ramp, seen as a necessary evil, will be hidden behind the mixed-used building.

“These are perfect opportunities to put buildings back where they used to be,” Zimney said.

A legacy in library design

Steel tycoon Carnegie had an enormous influence on American libraries by funding the construction of 1,679 libraries across the U.S. between 1889 and 1923.

Many followed templates recommended by librarians that are still seen in many modern libraries, such as stand-alone buildings, wide open spaces filled with book shelves, a central desk for librarians and auditoriums for public meetings.

These were cutting edge ideas at a time when most libraries were not open to the general public and were often housed together with businesses or other organizations, according to Mary Dierickx, a historical preservation consultant in New York.

Books were often not directly accessible to patrons librarians had to fetch them. There were separate reading rooms for men and women, and no children’s sections.

All of these were already trends, but Carnegie accelerated them.

Over time, though, many communities outgrew their Carnegie library, building new and bigger libraries to house more books and serve more patrons. Some of the Carnegie libraries were repurposed as offices, but others fell into disrepair and were eventually demolished.

According to the most recent survey of these buildings, which was in 1997, about 1,554 remain, of which 911 are still used as public libraries.

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