Walter Benjamin Hancock was born on this date in 1863 in Gloucestershire, England. He immigrated to the U.S. with his older brother in 1882 – George was 32; Walter was around 18. George had a degree in construction and architecture from the South Kensington Institute in London and was eager to take part in the great expansion taking place in Dakota Territory.
The brothers landed in Fargo, where George soon forged an enviable relationship with the territory’s second Episcopal Bishop, William Walker, who arrived in Dakota Territory at about the same time as the Hancock brothers.
Compared to the Calvary Chapel, the church Walker served in New York City for 20 years, his new “parish” of 70,000 square miles would prove a true challenge. Transportation was still very limited, with only a scant railroad route for going across the state with any semblance of speed.
Bishop Walker described his new home in the Red River Valley as “magnificent country... as flat as the poorest sermon ever preached, but vastly richer and more productive. Blizzards in winter and mosquitoes in summer constitute its only drawback.”
There were only four Episcopal Church buildings at the time – in Fargo, Grand Forks, Valley City and Bismarck. The bishop felt places of worship needed to be more scattered, and he determined to build many smaller churches in place of a few large ones.
For this mission, Bishop Walker needed a partner. George Hancock filled the bill, because he had actually lived and worked among the buildings the church wanted to emulate – English Anglican Gothic churches.
Meanwhile, after working for his brother a few years, young Walter went to Syracuse University to get his own degree. He graduated in 1889 and came back to Fargo, where he and George formed Hancock Brothers architectural firm. Whereas George’s work had featured tall, elaborately adorned buildings, Walter now introduced a new style popular in the East – Richardsonian Romanesque style: more rounded, compact and lower to the ground.
In 1893, fire destroyed almost every business in downtown Fargo. Carpet-bagging architects descended on the town, but easily half the rebuilding contracts went to the Hancock Brothers.
“So much of [downtown Fargo] was built in a short amount of time that it was cohesive,” says architecture historian, Ron Ramsay. “There’s this massive rebuilding, and the one thing that is unique is the buildings are fairly uniform in style and materials and scale.”
Among the Hancocks’ Fargo creations are the Hotel Gardner, the Masonic block, the Island Park bandstand, First Congregational Church, the old Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, and McKinley and Washington schools. At NDSU are Old Main, Ceres Hall, and Festival Hall. Among Hancock buildings on the National Historic Register are St. Michael’s in Grand Forks, Jamestown’s Historic District, St. Mary’s Academy in Devils Lake, the State Normal School in Valley City, McLean County Courthouse in Washburn, and the Powers Hotel in Fargo.
As for the prairie churches, the Hancocks helped Bishop Walker realize his dream during his 12-year stay in North Dakota. By 1896, the Bishop had overseen the building of 22 churches – many of them financed from his own pocket and from contributions from friends back east. Among these Walker-Hancock gems is the recently renovated Old Stone Church in Buffalo.
Wagner, Steven P. “Designs stand the test of time.” The Forum. 12/12/1999.
“Walter B. Hancock Papers, 1881-1935.” NDSU Institute for Regional Studies. <http://www.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu/ndirs/collections/manuscripts/arch&hp/hancock/biography.html>
“GEORGE HANCOCK: Prominent Fargo Architect.” Buffalo Historical Society, Inc. <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/2253/Hancock.html>
“Bishop William Walker: Builder of Churches on the North Dakota Prairie.” <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/2253/BishWalk.html>
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm