North Dakota has always been a low-tax and relatively low-service state, reflecting the austerity of its residents. Neighboring Minnesota, on the other hand, has always been a state known for higher taxes and a greater level of government services.
The differences between North Dakota and Minnesota were never starker than in the “Capitol flap” this spring.
Minnesota House Majority Leader Matt Dean ridiculed North Dakota’s skyscraper statehouse in April when he compared the capitol buildings of Minnesota and the surrounding states.
“Wisconsin has a pretty nice Capitol,” Dean said. “Iowa has a fairly nice Capitol. North Dakota, I mean my goodness grief. Has anybody seen North Dakota’s Capitol? It’s like State Farm Insurance called, they want their office building back. I mean, it’s terrible. It’s embarrassing.”
But Dean’s statement proved that he did not really understand the history behind North Dakota’s statehouse.
The original state Capitol in Bismarck burned down catastrophically in December 1930, but no one was hurt. It had been constructed in a classical monumental style with a few pillars and rounded archways around the doors. It had no dome, which differentiated it from the U.S. Capitol and numerous other state capitols of that era.
When the North Dakota Legislature decided to build a new capitol, they were influenced by the new skyscraper-style capitol buildings in Nebraska and Louisiana.
The Nebraska architects labeled the old domes and elaborate styles “obsolete.” Instead of building an imposing structure, the Nebraskans opted for efficiency and modernism and purposely built their new statehouse to resemble an office tower. It took 10 years, from 1922 to 1932 to complete the 15-story tall capitol in Lincoln.
In Louisiana, Gov. Huey Long, a flamboyant character, pushed through construction of a 34-story statehouse, the tallest of them all. It was more modern and efficient than Nebraska’s statehouse. Unfortunately for Long, he got shot and was killed in the lobby in 1935, three years after construction was complete.
So, North Dakota lawmakers followed the trend and opted for a skyscraper to replace the old statehouse. But it was a bad time for construction, as the Great Depression had pounded the state and tax dollars dried up along with the crops in a decade-long drought.
The budget for the building was capped at $2 million, though the intent was to construct “high-class, usable space,” according to the Bismarck Tribune.
The architectural firm chosen for the project, Holabird and Root of Chicago, had plenty of experience building skyscrapers and were able to stay within the budget.
Two North Dakota architects, Joseph Bell DeRemer of Grand Forks and William Kurke of Fargo, were supposed to be consultants for the Chicago firm, but they had little input on the design. Instead, Kurke and DeRemer supervised the construction activities.
The style of the capitol was to be art deco – the look of modern times – with zigzags, geometric lines and metalwork. Its motto was “form follows function,” so all the design was for economic efficiency inside and out.
The original drawing for the North Dakota Capitol, published in newspapers across the state in 1932, called for decorative lines on the outside of the building and plenty of art deco designs in the interior. However, money got tighter as construction continued into 1934.
The interior design kept its strong linear patterns of art deco detailing with the bas-relief on the elevator doors and beautiful stone and wood, which was cheaper than usual due to the hard times of the Depression.
It was on the exterior that the decorative elements, the carved lines extending from top to bottom, had to be eliminated due to budgetary constraints.
And so the North Dakota Capitol stood as the “Skyscraper on the Prairie,” visible from miles away by motorists approaching Bismarck on I-94. But it looked plain on the outside, and became the subject of unkind comments by a legislator from Minnesota in 2012.
Those from North Dakota look with pride upon the Capitol, however, because they knew from the start that this building was chosen to “give the people of the state the most for their money.” And it embodied the thrifty North Dakota tradition of a “low tax, low service” state government.
-Steve Hoffbeck is a professor of history at Minnesota State University at Moorhead and a freelance writer for the Great Plains Examiner.