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Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, Published January 19 2014

Halgrimson: History of Fargo’s City Hall worth noting

“ ‘Architects Have Varied Background In Building Design’

“Robert B. Cerny, Ralph Rapson and W. J. Seifert are the three architects who are drawing plans for Fargo’s new City Hall and auditorium building to be erected in the civic center area along 4th Street North between 1st and 3rd Avenue.”

– The Forum, Oct. 7, 1956

At the time that story was written, the area between Fourth Street and the river and between First Avenue and Third Avenue North had been leveled for urban renewal.

According to urban renewal records, “… the (land) from Fourth Street to the Red River had become a dead area for commercial development and stagnated. Deteriorated buildings, vacant lots becoming refuse dumps and general blight became a permanent part of the area.”

About 50 years seems to be the life expectancy of a city hall in Fargo. After what served as Fargo’s City Hall was destroyed in the Great Fargo Fire of 1893, a new City Hall was built in 1906 for $17,251. It was abandoned when the current City Hall was finished in the early 1960s. The new structure cost $1,773,000.

Fargo architect Vern Hunter wrote to me suggesting that a story about the existing City Hall would spur documentation of the building so its history would not be lost. He hoped that “a budget item in the building process whereby an architecture student, class, or a historian would research, write, and photograph the significant details and history of the existing building.”

He added that many of the mid-century modern attributes that defined Rapson and that period of architecture, such as the barrel vault canopy over the walkway, have already been removed.

Rapson was a giant in American architecture. When he died in 2008 at the age of 93, it was considered the end of an era, according to Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Fisher said Rapson was “one of our last living links to the first generation of Modernists …”

In a letter to the editor, former City Commissioner Mort Mazaheri said, “The current building in combination with the library and the Civic Center received an ‘Award of Excellence’ from the American Institute of Architects. This complex was the first contemporary design in Fargo for more than 30 years. Being 50 years old, by definition it is a historic building.”

Rapson was born in Alma, Mich., in 1914. His deformed right arm was amputated at birth, but he learned to draw with his left hand.

He earned his architecture degree at the University of Michigan and then studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan under Eliel Saarinen.

While at Cranbrook, Rapson designed a prototype of a streamlined bentwood rocking chair. It was introduced on the retail market by Knoll Associates and called the Rapson Rapid Rocker.

Today, vintage Rapson rockers can cost as much as $8,000. However, an updated version is still being made.

Rapson taught at the School of Design in Chicago, now the Illinois Institute of Technology, from 1942 to 1946 and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1946 to 1954 when he became head of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. During his tenure, he won 10 national architectural awards.

He designed the American embassies and offices in Stockholm, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark;

U.S. embassy staff housing and a U. S. consulate and apartments in France; apartments in Cambridge, Mass., and Minneapolis and many private homes.

Rapson also designed the original Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1963, which was razed in 2006.

A Minnesota Public Radio story in 2005 found Rapson still at work along with his son Toby at Rapson Architects Inc., in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis for which Ralph Rapson was one of the designers.

Robert Cerny was born in 1908. He received his B.A. in architecture from the University of Minnesota in 1932 and earned a M.A. in architecture from Harvard University the following year.

Cerny worked at the Minneapolis architectural firm of Thorshov & Cerny Inc., which has built many noted buildings since 1868, among them the Metropolitan Airports Terminal in Minneapolis, Minneapolis Civic Center Development, mayor’s office in Minneapolis; Metropolitan Sports Area Stadium, Bloomington, Minn.; and the Hennepin County Historical Society.

He was also a part-time consultant professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota. He died in Minneapolis in 1985.

Wilfred J. Seifert was born in Fargo in 1921. He was a graduate of St. John’s university, Collegeville, Minn., and was employed as a construction engineer and draftsman before founding his own architectural firm in 1952. He was later associated with Edward V. Staszko for many years, and they designed many buildings in Fargo and throughout North Dakota and Minnesota. He died in 1984.

While the site for Fargo’s new City Hall has not been decided, I believe it is our responsibility as a community to document the old City Hall. And I think it is important to know and remember the past.

Sources: Forum files, New York Times, Minnesota Public Radio, Institute for Regional Studies, www.trianglemodernisthouses.com/