While the library has been around for fifty years and has had an addition built onto it, as well as cosmetic changes on the inside, the firm that designed the building has a history reflected in numerous projects around the Red River Valley. By the construction of the Chester Fritz Library, the architectural firm Wells & Denbrook had an established reputation. Who were the men and what is the history of the firm?
According to their Architects’ Roster submitted to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in February 1953, the firm was a partnership between architects Theodore B. Wells and Myron Denbrook, Jr., with Wells being in sole proprietorship as an architect prior to entering into partnership in 1948. They were located at the Northern Hotel in Grand Forks, ND, which no longer exists, but was located in downtown at Fifth Avenue South and Kittson Avenue. Based upon a post on the Grand Forks Tornado of 1887, it appears that Wells’ father, Hugh N. Wells owned the Northern at one time.
The two men had interesting backgrounds, with Wells being the older of the pair, born in Grand Forks on September 8, 1889 and Denbrook was born on June 22, 1922 in Wayne County, Ohio. Wells attended school in town (though not specific, it is likely that he attended Grand Forks Central High School), then attended the University of North Dakota, and furthered his education in Paris. In contrast, Denbrook attended Ohio State University and earned his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Washington in 1945. Based on both their educational backgrounds, they were experienced in their field and Denbrook working with Wells was potentially an early opportunity for him to gain experience and success.
Based upon years in practice and professional affiliation, Wells was likely the senior partner in the firm, as he had been a practicing architect since 1923 in Nebraska and had served as past president of the North Dakota Association of Architects. Denbrook commenced his practice in 1948 and both men were pending members in the AIA. Both men were active in the community, with Wells being involved in the Kiwanis Club, Chamber of Commerce, and the YMCA, while Denbrook was in the Lions Club. Wells also served in World War I with the 307th Engineers, attached to the 82nd Division, serving 22 months, with 13 in France.
In the section of the roster dedicated to the qualifications of the firm for membership in AIA, the men noted their firm’s “reputation for careful design.” They also noted the large volume of business in the region, with many jobs being for the same client. Further, their goal was “not to build monuments to ourselves, but to design functional, economical, yet beautiful buildings that represent the best buy for the money.” Based on the projects they listed up to 1953, they demonstrated working on several projects for one client, with several buildings on the University of North Dakota campus to their credit, including the Medical Science building (O’Kelly Hall), Education building, and the Engineering building. In addition, they worked on several public building projects throughout North Dakota and northern Minnesota, mostly schools, courthouses, and a few churches.
While they also have the Chester Fritz to their credit, they did face a few problems after building the CFL. The firm was involved in a legal dispute resulting from exterior problems relating to construction of the Kittson County (MN) court house in 1966, where exterior finish of Granolux began cracking. Details about this case can be found here
The style of the CFL did reflect some of the aims of the firm as it reflects an element of simplicity, yet strength. The building is not very ornate, excluding the tower, which has scholarly images carved into the concrete. It matches many of the buildings surrounding it, several which were designed or worked on by the firm. Based upon AIA directory records, Wells died in 1976 and Denbrook became the principal architect in the firm by the construction of the CFL.
When reflecting on the CFL and many other buildings on campus, it is clear that Wells & Denbrook were good at their craft and that this area was fortunate to have these architects working in Grand Forks.