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Susan Quinnell's blog

The 1935 House that Introduced the FHA to Bismarck

Sketch of house

This is a 1935 sketch of 903 North 9th Street, a model home that helped introduce FHA loan programs to Bismarck. The house still exists and looks much like this, with the interior features much the same. From The Bismarck Tribune, March 10, 1935, 6.

It was a real surprise to find out so much about my neighbor’s house while researching the Federal Relief Programs started by the Roosevelt Administration. This house still embodies many modern features for energy efficiency and convenience that inspired and thrilled our grandparents. It was built as part of a nation-wide competition to promulgate the new Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and showcase the latest in modern home comforts.

In the early 1930s Bismarck and the rest of the country was in the depth of the Great Depression, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had rolled out numerous federal agencies designed to get wageworkers re-employed. One of the industries hardest hit was construction. In 1930 Bismarck had 57 new home starts, but in 1934 there were only seven.1 Most local construction workers were under or unemployed.

These grim conditions were everywhere, so one of the best-known federal agencies specifically organized to get construction revitalized was the FHA, founded in 1934. The Better Housing Program, under the FHA, encouraged homeowners to improve their house’s function and resale value through small but complex projects that would require cabinetry or the hiring of an electrician, plumber, or other trade specialist. It also funded new homes and promoted major repairs to improve neglected housing stock through low-interest loans.2 In North Dakota, homeowners spent $1,250,000 in 1934 – 1935 on home improvements, which facilitated getting tradespeople back to work.3

The Better Housing Program publicized a competition for a new modern home to be drawn by an architect and completed by a local builder in each city. Nationally 1,500 designs were submitted. Bismarck’s 1935 home is still standing today at 903 North 9th Street. It was designed by architect H. M. Leonard and built by Robert G. Aune.

Here are some of the conveniences packaged in this Picturesque-style home. The basement floor has an insulating concrete type (new in the 1930s), according to the architect, and balsam wool batt insulation in the attic.4 The living room is in rustic design with a beamed ceiling, oak flooring on the first floor, and birch trimmings. It contains a fireplace of native rock. Other lovely characteristics of the first floor are its rustic iron stairway to the second floor, a telephone niche, and a built-in buffet.5

The builder Robert Aune was a multi-talented cabinet-maker who later headed the FHA’s office for Bismarck. In the mid-1930s there was a serious housing crunch in Bismarck fueled mostly by refugees from dust bowl conditions in the surrounding area and natural population increase.6 The FHA’s support and pent-up demand for housing led him to build his model home on the corner and the house next to it at 905 North 9th Street. He also specialized in stonework as well as being a general contractor. I’m looking for other examples of houses and buildings that he built. If you know of any, please contact me at squinnell@nd.gov!

A few of the many FHA-related headlines generated in the mid-1930s (Bismarck Tribune). Housing Situation Acute Here; Heavy Construction Seen. Insulation will be of Great Interest, Architect Believes. FHA Drive Produces Big Results in ND. Home Owners, Businessmen Hold Key to Success of Modernization Drive. Completed Plans for Ultra-Modern House Announced.

1 Bismarck Assessing Division, Construction Analysis, 1930 – 1950, October 5, 2005, compiled from assessors records.
2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSce7l0SlkI Better Housing News Flashes by Pathé Films, 1934.
3The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, North Dakota), Tue, Apr 30, 1935, 3.
4The Bismarck Tribune Jul 8, 1935, 7. http://www.ncwhomeinspections.com/Balsam+Wool+Insulation
5The Bismarck Tribune June 10, 1935 page 6.
6 Bismarck Census Figures from: http://www.bismarcknd.gov/DocumentCenter/View/4382

Quirky Connections of Robinson Town Hall, WPA, and Ole

The City of Robinson in Kidder County (about 30 minutes northeast of Steele), has a wonderful town hall that was constructed as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1935, the founding year of the WPA. I am writing a National Register of Historic Places nomination for this building. The WPA federal program had one mission – to put people back to work during a Depression that began in late 1929.

Robinson Hall exterior

Robinson Hall, Main Street. Photo by Susan Quinnell.

Even though they had just incorporated in 1929, the town leaders of Robinson were able to get a WPA construction project funded and completed quickly. This was because they had already had a special election in October 1934 and passed a $2000 bond to initiate construction of the town hall, which would also feature an auditorium. Constructing a multi-purpose town hall was common at the time. They discussed the design with a Bismarck architect Herman M. Leonard. He designed the building with a bowstring truss that allowed the auditorium portion to have a 40’ x 90’ clear span. This wide open space with beautiful maple flooring was much appreciated in the ensuing decades, as it allowed events to flow smoothly. Basketball games could proceed with high throws and predictable passing. In the 1930s, schools often had auditoriums in the basements with low ceilings, water-damaged, uneven wood flooring, and large pillars. Oftentimes they were simply too small to allow full court movement. Large weddings and other celebrations occurred inside as well.


Current auditorium with original maple flooring and dropped ceiling. Photo by Susan Quinnell

More than 600 people attended the dedication ceremony on September 11, 1937. During the course of my research, this event presented a little mystery. Movies were held in the auditorium that day, yet records from the Northern Plains Electric Cooperative show that electricity didn’t arrive until 1942. So I thought there must have been an alternative power source. Further research uncovered a gas-powered contraption in a museum in Georgia that could project movies at the time and didn’t need electricity, so that seemed plausible. However, the current mayor of Robinson, Bill Bender found old newspaper articles stating that a man by the name of Ole Saltness came to Robinson in 1929 and owned a Philco generator, which produced enough power to provide electricity to a few neighbors, businesses, and the Robinson Hall. At that time, the load probably would have been little more than one or two low-wattage light bulbs per building. Instead of choking on gas fumes, the movie audience would cry “Ole, Ole!” if a fuse blew. Robinson Hall provides a glimpse into the quirks of small-town life in North Dakota during the New Deal era.