North Dakota’s capital was established at Bismarck in 1883 during the territorial period and continued to serve as the state’s capital after 1889. The old capitol building was constructed of dark brick. It was not as imposing as some state capitol buildings, but it sat on a hill with a beautiful view of the city and the Missouri River.
The old capitol housed state officials such as the Governor, Secretary of State, and the Attorney General as well as the chambers where the Senate and House of Representatives met. Each government office kept its records in fire-proof storage cabinets.
Early on Sunday morning, December 28, 1930, the janitor heard a loud cracking noise. Looking around, he found nothing, but when he went outside, he saw flames leaping from the Senate Chambers on the fourth floor. Though he called the fire department right away, the building was much too engulfed in flames to be saved. The fire destroyed the building except for the two lower floors of the north wing.
Many people felt the fire was not a tragedy as much as it was an opportunity to build a new capitol building. The old capitol had become too small and outdated. Many people had called for a new structure that looked to the future, rather than the past, and could better accommodate a modern government with multiple agencies. However, a new building, especially in the years of the Great Depression, would cost a great deal of money and the state was not wealthy. The fire allowed the state to move forward towards a new capitol, but North Dakota would not have a wasteful, showy building for its seat of government. The combination of need and modest resources resulted in a building that drew on the newest architectural styles of its day while responding to the needs of North Dakota’s citizens for a building that was practical as well as beautiful.
Resources: SHSND Series 30275; Series 30266;
Larry Remele, ed. The North Dakota State Capitol: Architecture and History.
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