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Architect Gilbert Horton


Architect Gilbert Horton moved from St. Paul to set up practice in Jamestown on this date in 1911. He liked it immediately. “The prairie appealed to me,” he said. “I can’t really say why... but I think it was the people. They were open and friendly. The further west you got, the more cordial people seemed to be. Somehow, and again I can’t say how exactly, the people I met here were different. They didn’t take a friend for granted... and here were those wide open spaces.”

Those wide-open spaces later influenced many of his architectural designs. Some have been lost, but many wonderful examples of his work still stand across North Dakota.

Schools were Horton’s bread and butter – he built 256 in the Dakotas and Montana. Many still exist, including some of his 91 country schools. Horton later told the Fargo Forum, “I came up with an innovation for one-room schools that made me popular with school boards and teachers. That was, of all things, a basement. Before 1910, most schools were erected on a concrete slab. (A) basement (had) a place for the stove and provided a lunch and playroom for the kids.”

Horton designed 22 schools in Medina, Woodbury and Homer townships alone. Others were built in Mandan, Millarton, Wilton, Edmunds and Ellendale. He also designed main street businesses, the theater in Cavalier and the hospital in Hettinger.

“I worked hard and kept healthy,” he said. “Before cars came in, I hopped branch-line trains to get to where the job was. When cars came, I wore ‘em out in rapid succession.” Researcher James Smorada writes Horton estimated he drove 22 different cars 2.5 million miles in his work.

Horton also came up with a method for insulating glass, known as double-glazing, which eliminated the need for storm windows. But perhaps his greatest work came about when construction materials became scarce in the late 1920s. Using hollow bricks, he came up with a way to build walls and provide insulation at the same time. He used this design for the school auditorium in Rogers and then in a building that later housed the Jamestown Sun.

In 1930, Horton discovered he could construct arches on the ground by bending, laminating and bolting long strips of wood together. These arches were then raised into position, and the roof and walls were added. Using this technique he built Jamestown’s Hippodrome, a large Art Deco auditorium that received national attention for its “unusual design” at an “unusually low cost.” Unfortunately, the Hippodrome has since been demolished.

When the Great Depression hit, it nearly finished Horton. Close to bankruptcy, he had to sell his house, and the family subsisted by raising chickens. Horton then landed a job as Jamestown’s city engineer and was able to stay afloat until the tide turned.

In 1968, Horton became the first North Dakotan to be named a Fellow to a society of American architects; ironically, he received the honor for work he began developing during the depression. The two things the state had in abundance, then, were rocks and people needing work. Fields provided the first; the WPA provided the second. Finding the correct grain of a fieldstone, his crews learned to split and chisel rocks so precisely, they’d square up like bricks.

Horton’s first great work in stone was an auditorium in Dickey that’s unfortunately gone. Other treasures like the Wishek Civic Center and the Medina Village Hall are still with us. As Horton once remarked, “The walls, they’re just as sound as the day they were put in place.”

Source: Century of Stories, Jamestown ND, Stutsman Co, 1983

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm