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Unit 6: Set 6: Capitol Fire - New Capitol

Introduction | The Fire | New Capitol | The Strike | Cornerstones | Activities

The 1931 legislature appropriated $2,000,000 to build a new capitol. This was a tiny amount for a large public building and a brave, but necessary position on the part of the legislature and the governor. The state of Louisiana had recently appropriated funds for a new capitol that would cost more than $4,000,000, and in 1928 Nebraska had completed a new capitol for $10,000,000. To plan a building adequate for state offices that was also fire-proof and elegant enough to suggest the power and dignity of the state for such a small sum was a bold move, but also reflective of North Dakota’s values, the economic depression that had dogged the state since 1920, and the international architectural movement toward spare and functional styles.

New Capitol Under Construction
Construction of the New Capitol.
SHSND: C3322

After a painstaking search, the Capitol Commission settled on the well-known Chicago architectural firm of Holabird and Root. But the commission had to solve the problem of making this a North Dakota project. Therefore, Holabird and Root drafted the design of the building and the commission hired two of North Dakota’s premier architects, Joseph Bell DeRemer of Grand Forks and William Kurke of Fargo, as the on-site architect and construction superintendents. The legislature had asked that the building use North Dakota materials and North Dakota contractors. However, North Dakota has few quarries for marble, granite, limestone, and other building materials which were chosen by the architects to cover the steel beam framework. And few North Dakota contractors had experience with high-rise buildings, so contractors and much of the material came from other states.

Memorial Hall
Memorial Hall. SHSND: TC90368

The design was controversial. It was not typical of many other state capitols with gold-covered domes, elegant rotundas, and spacious hallways. North Dakota’s capitol combined a practical floor plan that used available space efficiently by building upward to 18 stories, while putting an elegant face on the interior and exterior walls with polished stone and bronze elements. Because the legislature meets every other year, the two legislative chambers were set to one side where they could be closed off when not in use. The area known as the Memorial Hall which connects the legislative chambers with the office tower was designed to be the location of public events. It is lighted by south-facing windows and elegant hanging lamps; doors open onto a grand stairway to the capitol grounds. Despite its beautiful features, some derisively called the new capitol, “Shafer’s silo.”

Nevertheless, after discarding some of the unnecessary adornments, the building was completed under budget for a cost of $1,984,488.26. Though a strike stopped work for two weeks, and financial scandals plagued the commission in charge of construction, the building was completed in late 1934 at a cost of forty-three cents per cubic foot, about half the cost of similar buildings at that time. The building is also far more efficient than the other two capitols it is most often compared to. Nearly eighty per cent of the building is occupied by state offices, while Nebraska’s capitol tower is virtually empty, and Louisiana’s forty-three story tower has a far lower rate of occupancy.

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