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Published April 17 2014

Forum editorial: Reminder of lost heritage

One of the striking features of Robin Huebner’s Tuesday report in The Forum about long-gone Fargo College was the archival photograph of the school’s impressive buildings, which stood on the rise just south of Island Park. The photo, courtesy of North Dakota State University Archives, is a reminder of what can be lost when community leaders lack vision.

All but one of the college’s structures was razed decades ago. The reasons for their loss might have seemed legitimate at the time. After all, sensibilities about old buildings change. But the imposing brick and stone edifices obviously were built to last longer than they did. Imperatives other than preservation of an architectural heritage were dominant when the wrecking crews took the buildings down. And once gone, a part of Fargo’s history and heritage was gone, too.

It would not have happened today. The proclivity to “redevelop” and “modernize,” no matter the value and potential uses of older buildings, was the civic mandate for most of the 20th century. It began to change only recently, and the results have been remarkably positive.

The preservation, rejuvenation and repurposing of some of Fargo’s oldest buildings have been most evident downtown. A combination of public incentives and private investment (the tenets of the Renaissance Zone) has generated a downtown resurgence that has succeeded beyond predictions. The program has melded the irreplaceable beauty of the old with the business, retail and residential requirements of the new. In the process, the tax base has grown large – more than making up for the temporary loss of revenues because of tax incentives.

The zone’s success does not necessarily mean respect for historic properties is universal across the city. For example, architectural heritage is being bulldozed regularly in the city’s oldest residential neighborhoods, even in areas deemed historic districts. And some of the barracks-like buildings springing up in new areas of the city have all the ingredients to create architectural blight in the future.

The Fargo College story is a reminder – tinged with melancholy – that magnificent historic buildings cannot be replaced. It’s not merely about brick and mortar or the cheapest way to go or the utilitarian shortcomings of an old building. It’s about our history and the willingness to make the extraordinary effort to preserve and protect a heritage.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.