Downtown Bismarck Business District
Downtown Bismarck is the central business district and a registered national historic district that held strong importance to the initial growth and success of the Bismarck area.
After a decades-long decline, revitalization efforts have restored Downtown Bismarck as a primary economic center. It contains a diverse mix of industries, mainly healthcare, government, legal, financial, entertainment, dining, and retail. Residential in or near downtown is in high demand and there have been ongoing efforts to increase residential options.
Bismarck’s core downtown is roughly located between Washington and 7th Streets; and Rosser and Main Avenues. However, its official boundary extends portions south to encompass the Bismarck Event Center, and eastward along Broadway and Main Avenues to 9th Street. The Downtown Fringe District spans westward into the Cathedral District.
Bismarck originated in what is today Downtown Bismarck. The fledgling town’s first buildings were commissioned within or near Camp Hancock on the western fringe of today’s downtown. Anticipating the railroad’s arrival, businesses swiftly erupted along Main Avenue. Among the most noted inaugural businesses were Asa Fisher’s billiard hall, John Dunn’s general/drug store, John Yegen’s restaurant and bakery, and the Shaw & Cathcart dry goods store. All of these early businesses saw immediate success. In its first year, the Shaw store sold more than $60,000 worth of merchandise (more than $1 million worth today).
Within a year, some some sixty-to-seventy buildings had been erected, many of them saloons and others of “ill-fame.” Nearly all of the structures were log buildings and tents that were quick to assemble and could be easily relocated.
1898 Fire Destroys Downtown
Most of downtown Bismarck was destroyed by a major fire in August 1898, fueled by the log and paper shacks lining its streets. Few structures survived. In its ashes, Bismarck progressed from its frontier roots into a modern city. New fire codes were implemented, and structures were built mostly of brick and concrete henceforth.
For decades, Bismarck’s downtown was the region’s principal economic hub. Initially dominated by local firms, national and regional retailers began arriving in the 1920s. At its zenith, downtown Bismarck housed the largest national retailers of the era, competing effectively alongside such successful local retailers like Webb Brothers and A.W. Lucas.
Starting as a furniture store in 1884, Webb Brothers evolved into a prosperous department store that regularly achieved sales nearing half a million dollars annually, not adjusted for inflation. It remained in operation until 1945.
A.W. Lucas & Company was another pioneering success story. Established in 1899, A.W. Lucas expanded at an unprecedented pace, occupying several downtown locations simultaneously before establishing itself as an original anchor for Gateway Mall. It closed in 1982.
National & Regional Retailers Arrive
While J.C. Penney established a Mandan store in 1920, F.W. Woolworth was the first national retailer in downtown Bismarck, opening in 1922 inside a new addition to the City National Bank building at 406 E Main. Woolworth’s later encompasses the entire building before opening a second store at Kirkwood Mall in 1970. The downtown store closed in 1981.
Montgomery Ward arrived in 1928, followed by J.C. Penney establishing a Bismarck presence the following year. When Webb Brothers closed in December 1945, its building became home to Sears-Roebuck, the largest national retailer at the time.
Due to its close proximity to the railroad, and later U.S. Highway 10, hospitality businesses thrived downtown until the 1970s.
The Sheridan House (later renamed Northwest Hotel) was among the earliest notable hotels. Constructed in 1877 for $50,000, it was one of the largest buildings in Bismarck for years. Edward Patterson – who would ultimately leave behind some of downtown’s most lasting legacies – acquired the hotel with a partner in 1893. Patterson became its sole proprietor the following year. He continued adding to his real estate portfolio, adding the E.G. Patterson Block in 1905, and Soo Hotel in 1906. At the time of its opening, the Soo Hotel was Bismarck’s tallest building. The feat would be overcome almost five years later by Patterson’s iconic namesake hotel, which opened New Year’s Day 1911.
Initially standing at seven stories before expanding to ten, the McKenzie Hotel (officially renamed Patterson Hotel in 1927) was deemed North Dakota’s first skyscraper. It remained North Dakota’s tallest building until the current 19-story Capitol’s completion in 1934. Its remarkable size and luxury were renowned. It was the largest hotel within a 4-state region upon opening, and contained the most private baths (84) of any building in the state. It also housed the city’s first elevator.
Other notable downtown hotels included the Prince Hotel, which operated from 1916 until the 1970s; the Fleck House, which opened in between 1961-1999 before becoming the Budget Inn Express; and the Pacific Hotel – and its successor, the Grand Pacific Hotel, which operated between 1880-1973.
Despite the mass closings of downtown hotels during the 1970s, the 7-story Sheraton Galleria (today’s Radisson Hotel) commenced construction in 1982 and remains operating.
Decay and Urban Renewal
Beginning in the 1970s and escalating in the 1980s, downtown Bismarck witnessed a mass exodus, leading to a decades-long decline. Two major factors contributed to to this decline. The first was the opening of Interstate 94 in 1965, shifting traffic patterns. The second was the opening of Kirkwood Mall in 1970 and Gateway Mall in 1979, both of which lured major tenants and replaced downtown as primary commercial centers. As the oldest section of the city, downtown’s aging buildings also contributed to this decline.
In response, downtown Bismarck was targeted for Urban Renewal. Many historic buildings were razed during this time, including the Grand Pacific Hotel and the former Lamborn Hotel – Saint Alexius’s first home. On the other hand, some historic buildings were preserved and re-purposed.
Chancellor Square was unveiled in 1973 to revivify downtown into a pedestrian-friendly experience. The idea conceptualized a “mini-mall with green space and diagonal parking, climatized skyways, a park surround the train depot, and even double-decker buses shuttling shoppers between downtown and Kirkwood Mall.”
In the end, the completed Chancellor Square project was less elaborate than the original planned cityscape. The six blocks of climate-controlled skyways never came to fruition. Chancellor Square’s most significant impact was converting the downtown stretches of 4th and 6th Streets, and of Thayer and Broadway Avenues to one-ways, creating a square loop. As well, diagonal parking was added with light bollards lining the nearby curbs. Built-in benches were constructed and and an estimated 1,500 trees and shrubs were planted, including 89 ash trees. Curbs were bumped out at crossing to improve pedestrian safety. Lastly, an official debuted and and numerous replacement signs installed. The one-ways were eliminated in 2017.
Downtown Bismarck Today
Through Urban Renewal and tax incentives, namely the Tax Increment Funding (TIF) District and The Renaissance Zone, downtown has seen steady revitalization since the 1980s. While some of Bismarck’s earliest buildings were razed during Urban Renewal efforts, others have been restored, including the Patterson Hotel, which today is a senior housing facility and the former Northern Pacific Railroad Depot, which housed Fiesta Villa Mexican Restaurant from 1977-2016.
Today, Downtown Bismarck is once again thriving with a strong mix of entities. Bars, restaurants, boutique-style retailers, financial institutions, and offices predominate downtown. The Belle Mehus Auditorium, Bismarck Event Center, and Dakota Stage Playhouse enhance downtown as an entertainment destination, while the Burleigh County Courthouse and two hospitals further diversify downtown.
Downtown parking has been a noted issue since at least the 1960s. While parking meters are banned by state law, there are local ordinances governing the length of parking and “reparking,” which are strictly patrolled by Bismarck Parking Authority.
Several parking garages are located within downtown, including three municipal ramps. There is a small fee to park in the garages; however, many businesses offer free parking vouchers upon request.
Notable Downtown Destinations
Restaurants & Bars
- Fiesta Villa Mexican Restaurant (closed in 2016)
- Peacock Alley Bar & Grill
- Blarney Stone Irish Pub
- McDonald’s Rock-N-Roll Cafe
- Burleigh County Courthouse
- City & County Administration Building
- Federal Building, Post Office, and Federal Courthouse
Banks & Office Buildings
- American Bank Center Building
- Wells Fargo Building
- U.S. Bank Building
- Provident Building
- Civic Square Building
- Kirkwood Bank & Trust
- Qwest Building
Entertainment & Attractions
- Camp Hancock Historic Site
- Belle Mehus Auditorium
- Multiple Historic Buildings, some dating back to 1800s.
Major Retailers With Former Downtown Locations:
- Webb Brothers Department Store (closed in 1945)
- A.W. Lucas & Company (relocated to Gateway Mall, closed in 1980)
- Osco Drug (relocated to Kirkwood & Gateway malls)
- Sears, Roebuck, & Company (relocated to Gateway Mall)
- F.W. Woolworth (relocated to Kirkwood Mall, closed in 1985)
- Montgomery Wards (relocated to Kirkwood Mall, closed in 1998)
- JCPenney (relocated to Kirkwood Mall)
- Conlin’s Furniture (relocated to Gateway Mall)