Our Notre Dame — which Fargo-Moorhead icon would be most heartbreaking to lose?
FARGO — People in Paris, and around the world, were horrified to see the famed Notre Dame Cathedral go up in flames on Monday, April 15.
Mark Peihl, an archivist at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County in Moorhead, was among them.
“Just the tremendous sense of loss that it must be for all of humanity,” Peihl said of his reaction to seeing the 850-year-old building on fire.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney was struck by the sight of people singing "Ave Maria" in the streets as the church burned. “It was how they dealt with the loss,” Mahoney said.
The cathedral, a Catholic Church treasure and French Gothic architectural marvel, lost its roof and iconic spire in the fire. However, most of the religious relics and artifacts inside were saved. French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild.
A tragedy of this magnitude often makes people wonder: What if something like that were to happen here?
The Forum posed the question to a handful of community leaders, with acknowledgment that no building in the Fargo-Moorhead area comes close in age or historical significance to Notre Dame, and found there are plenty of structures and landmarks that would be deeply missed.
Top landmarks, historic buildings
The historic Fargo Theatre, built in 1926, was mentioned by virtually all as something that would be sorely missed if destroyed by fire or natural disaster.
“That would be a punch to the stomach,” Mahoney said, though he added he’s certain the theater would be rebuilt in that circumstance.
He and others also mentioned churches a few blocks north of the theater.
Losing the 120-year-old Cathedral of St. Mary or the 100-year-old First Lutheran Church would have a tremendous impact on those who worship there, but also the community at large, said Charley Johnson, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Across the Red River, Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd cited the Hjemkomst Center as the symbol of his city. The Hjemkomst Viking Ship inside and the white tent that shelters it, along with the replica Norwegian Stave Church outside, help shape the city's skyline.
Judd also listed the campanile, or bell tower, at Concordia College. “Those landmarks are a really big deal,” Judd said.
Other historic mentions were the Comstock House in Moorhead, a Victorian home built in 1882 that's now a museum, and both Old Main buildings on the North Dakota State University and Concordia campuses.
Johnson also said it would be a blow if any of the historic buildings at Bonanzaville in West Fargo were lost. In fact, a church on the grounds of the history museum complex was destroyed by fire in 2014. St. John’s Lutheran, built in 1898, was later demolished, and South Pleasant Church of Christine, N.D., was moved to the site.
Johnson said losing any historic building or attraction in the Fargo-Moorhead area would also make it more difficult to attract visitors to the area.
For Peihl, the archivist, it’s not so much the buildings in some cases, but the collections of historic or artistic materials housed in them that are vulnerable.
“That’s where the real prize is, and that’s what’s a danger,” he said.
Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen and Moorhead Fire Chief Rich Duysen both recognize the devastation and deep loss that resulted from the Notre Dame fire. In their line of work, however, they also take a more practical view.
“Obviously there wasn’t a fire protection system in there,” Dirksen said.
The cathedral is outfitted with smoke alarms. However, it had no firewalls or sprinkler system so as not to alter the design or introduce wiring considered a greater risk to the timber roof, The New York Times reported.
“It’s amazing to me that they haven’t had more fires in a structure that old,” Duysen said.
Efforts are being made locally to better protect older buildings on college campuses.
Some buildings at Concordia and NDSU have been retrofitted with sprinkler systems, and the Black Building in downtown Fargo is getting a fire protection system as part of a major renovation, the fire chiefs said.
Oftentimes, keepers of history don’t want to alter a building with sprinklers because that’s not the way it was originally built. But Dirksen said it’s something they should heavily consider.
“If you want it for future generations to see and enjoy, then there’s a level of protection,” he said.