Romanesque on the Plains: The Look of Sioux Falls

By John Tierney

Introductory note by James Fallows: Yesterday I discussed why the part of greater Sioux Falls that is visually least interesting, to put it politely -- the expanse of fast food joints and big-box malls on the town's periphery -- is connected to a quite interesting part of the city's economic history and current civic culture.

That in turn is connected to a theme I mentioned back in the first dispatch from this "East River" part of the Dakotas: Sioux Falls has made such a powerful and mostly positive impression on us largely because it so clearly represents a long-standing part of the essential American bargain. It is successful, and rough-edged -- a contemporary City of Big Shoulders, with lots of its economic machinery displayed rather than tucked out of site. A century-plus ago, one aspect of its economic boom was its role as quickie-divorce center. A generation-plus ago, it put itself on the financial-services map when South Dakota eliminated usury laws and drew Citibank and other credit-card companies to set up headquarters in Sioux Falls. There will be more to say about that phase of the city's history.

But in addition to the visible raw edges, like the huge slaughterhouse and the penitentiary that both sit right downtown, the city also has an extensive and remarkable architectural heritage. That is what John Tierney describes today, starting with the striking Richardson-style Romanesque buildings that define much of the look of downtown. The image at the top shows one of many buildings by the city's most influential architect, Wallace L. Dow. It's part of the state pen.

By John Tierney

It used to be that if you wanted to get a sense of what distant cities and towns looked like, you had to travel there yourself, view guidebooks and coffee-table photobooks, get hold of postcards, or endure friends’ slide shows and endless monologues. These days, it’s easy to learn the look of other places by turning to Google’s Street View, YouTube, and other Web resources.

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But it’s still helpful, if you’re trying to get a sense of a city’s architectural style and its most treasured structures, to have someone curate a selection of buildings and sites for you. So, in that spirit, for many of the cities that Jim and Deb will be visiting for the American Futures project, we’ll provide an amateur’s guide to notable buildings in town. Some of these will be Fallows photos; most will be from the Web.

Sioux Falls is a terrific city to begin this exercise because it contains many beautiful buildings, over 65 of them on the National Register of Historic Places. Carolyn Torma, an expert on South Dakota’s architectural treasures, explains in a 1989 article in the journal South Dakota History, that many of the grand buildings in Sioux Falls were designed in the late nineteenth century by Wallace L. Dow and Joseph Schwarz, architects who “celebrated the picturesque and the romantic,” working in “richly ornamented and colorful styles.” Torma explains:

Both employed in many of their buildings rusticated or rock-faced Sioux quartzite [a red/pink quartzite quarried in abundance in the Sioux Falls region], round-arched Romanesque [Richardsonian] details, and irregular floor plans. Further, the picturesque styles of the era – Romanesque, Stick, Shingle, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Gothic Revival, to name a few – made little attempt to reproduce faithfully their historical sources. Instead, designs were bold, almost freehand, interpretations.

Let’s look at some of the best of those Romanesque buildings with Sioux quartzite:

Old Minnehaha County Courthouse, Sioux Falls, SD

Architect: Wallace L. Dow

Style: Romanesque Revival

Date: 1893

More info: Converted into a museum in the 1970s.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Sioux Falls, SD

Architect: Willoughby J. Edbrooke, with additions by James Knox

       Taylor (1911) and James A. Wetmore (1931)

Style: Romanesque Revival

Date: Constructed 1892-1895, 1911–1913, 1931

More info: Wikipedia

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Pettigrew and Tate Building, Sioux Falls, SD

Architect: Cross & Richard

Style: Romanesque Revival

Date: 1888-1889

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

First Congregational Church, Sioux Falls, SD

Style: Romanesque Revival

Date:  1907-1909

More info: First Congregational United Church of Christ and

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


So, clearly, architects working in Sioux Falls in the late 1800s and early 1900s were enamored of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. And they loved that quartzite!  

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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