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Cornerstone of Bismarck High School

Bismarck High School is a very historic building, having been constructed in 1935, in the hard-times of the Great Depression. The three-story structure has distinctive Art Deco architecture – with vertical decorative lines cut into stone along the doorways and between the rows of windows – simple, yet stylish. The architect was Robert A. Ritterbush (1891-1980), a native of Oakes and a 1917 architectural graduate of what is now called the University of Cincinnati.

Ritterbush instilled beauty into the building by including low-relief carvings in stone above the doorways. The west and east entrances feature a “symbolical figure of a mother sending her son to school,” while the south doorway beheld an image of a “pioneer mother” accompanied by the engraved words: “The public school, first flower of our frontier and greatest gift from our pioneer founders.”

The new high school was considered necessary because Bismarck was growing in population despite the Depression, in part because Bismarck, as the state capital, had expanded services and offices because of New Deal programs.

In fact, it was the New Deal program called the P.W.A. – the Public Works Administration – that provided partial-funding for building the school. The total cost was $404,400, with 30% covered by a P.W.A. grant. Bismarck’s citizens approved a bond issue to cover the rest, minus $85,400 from an existing building fund.

Because the school was built during the Depression, labor costs were low, with subsistence wages of $0.50 to $1.20 per hour. Materials such as marble and brass fixtures were of magnificent quality, but there, too, the cost was low due to Depression prices.

It was on this date, in 1934, that the Bismarck Tribune published an article about laying the cornerstone. Students and school administrators placed 45 items in a copper box, sealed in the cornerstone, that revealed details about the culture of those times - in school, business, and the community in general.

So, if you get the chance, take a look at the architecture and appreciate the “greyish brown” Hebron brick walls, the “rose-red Kasota limestone” foundation, and the stylish Art-Deco lines preserved in Bismarck’s historic high school.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department

Sources:

“Cornerstone Will Give Good Idea of Education System,” Bismarck Tribune, December 11, 1934, p. 1; “To Lay Cornerstone of New High School,” Bismarck Tribune, December 10, 1934, p. 1.

“Beauty, Utility Combined in New High School,” Bismarck Tribune, August 22, 1935, p. 9.

“Building, Equipment to Cots Half Million,” Bismarck Tribune, August 22, 1935, p. 9.

“Attractive, Economical High School Planned,” Bismarck Tribune, April 7, 1934, p. 43.

“Strong Support is Given Proposal at Election Thursday,” Bismarck Tribune, September 15, 1933, p. 1.

“Robert Ritterbush, Bismarck Architect,” Bismarck Tribune, January 19, 1980, p. 8.

“History of Bismarck High School,” www.bismarckschools.org, accessed on September 21, 2018.

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