A city is the sum of countless decisions made along the way of its evolution. With a bit of research, you can often trace the decisions that set the course and tell the story of a community. In North Dakota, many cities were started due to their proximity to the railroad tracks. In the case of Fargo, the tracks played a direct role in its location, and its name (after William Fargo, a financial backer of the railroad). By happenstance, the railroad also carried a special passenger through town who, stepping off the train on a whim, had a substantial impact on Fargo’s story.
George M. Black, proprietor of the Black Building, was an experienced merchandiser, having grown up in the business, working in his father’s store in Parsons, Kansas. When George and his father decided to seek new locations in which to set up a chain of stores, Fargo happened to be a train stopover.
“A beautiful day in May, 1912,” reads the autobiography of George M. Black. “Lots of women out shopping. I visited the stores Herbsts, deLendrecies, and Moodys. They were busy. Prices were good. It was an exhilarating experience.”
On June 12, 1912, George opened The Black Store in Fargo at 112 Broadway.
Black ran a successful store and continuously expanded its footprint along Broadway. As the depression of the 1920s intensified, more stores were consolidating or closing. Black was in New York on October 29, 1929 to witness the stock market collapse, an experience that prompted him to sell The Black Store in Fargo to Sears, Roebuck. He would use the proceeds of the sale to build the Black Building, the eight-story office tower that stands today at 114 Broadway in downtown Fargo.
How much did Black’s confidence in and commitment to Fargo in 1929 shape the city’s future? At a time when many were recoiling from investments and protecting what was left, he doubled down on Fargo and its future as a center of commerce.
After forty years of operating in the Black Building, Sears looked to double its size in Fargo. George Black’s son-in-law, William Schlossman, started West Acres Mall on 13th Avenue with the new Sears lease, also attracting deLendrecies to the new retail mecca in a field southwest of downtown.
It should be noted that Schlossman’s original idea was to build a mall downtown, but city leaders rejected the plan. The Schlossmans remained committed to investing in downtown after West Acres opened. In 1975, they renovated the empty Sears’ space in the Black Building into Elm Tree Square, a mixed-retail mall, to attract new businesses.
Today, nearly 90 years after George Black built the art deco building that would become a keystone in Fargo’s skyline, Kilbourne Group is three years into the building’s most extensive renovation. Staying true to its origins of three levels of retail space topped by six floors of office, the renovation aims to bring the Black Building back to modern, unique space with the added benefits of grand architecture and historic character.
The first space to open this summer will be fifth floor executive office suites, fully furnished and ready to go. The businesses on the fifth floor will have access to shared conference space and a new rooftop patio along the north face of the building (at the fifth-floor level) overlooking Broadway. We invite you to join on us September 24 as we celebrate the opening of the first finished floor: the Black Building Fifth Floor Executive Office Suites.
Custom fit-up is also underway on floors 3 and 4, which Doosan Bobcat, an industry leader in the engineering, manufacturing and marketing of construction equipment, has chosen as its home for an innovation center. Bobcat is a North Dakota-grown, world renowned company that has also written a chapter in Fargo’s history.
Other floors are in various stages of demolition, awaiting direction from the businesses who choose to make the Black Building part of their story. In the meantime, the roof has been replaced, along with all 280 windows, mechanical systems, and electrical systems.
In May, we had the privilege of installing a brand new 30-foot blade sign to the front face of the Black. We were inspired by the original sign that graced the building, which lit up “BLACKS” in red letters over Broadway. “Blacks” referred to the original store in the building, which was later changed to “SEARS.”
Today, the sign says Black in reference to the man who chose Fargo in 1912 and forever impacted the course of our history. The new sign signifies the start of exciting times for such an iconic building in downtown Fargo and is an opportunity to reintroduce Fargo to the building’s namesake.