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Downtown Bismarck Business District

By | Last Modified: May 30, 2017
Main Avenue Between 4th & 5th Streets

Downtown Bismarck is a national historic district that held strong importance to the initial growth and success of the Bismarck area. Bismarck’s downtown is roughly located between Washington Street & 7th Street; and Rosser Avenue and Main Avenue. Broadway Avenue and Thayer Avenue make up a set of east-west one-ways between 4th & 6th Streets; 4th Street and 6th Street in turn make up a set of north-south one-ways.

Downtown History

Downtown Bismarck was once a hustle with activity, home to the largest national retailers at the time, along with hotels, theaters, and restaurants; however, since the 1970s, many contributing factors have lead to a steady decay of downtown. There has been a recent push to revitalize the district, including a tax incentive program aimed at restoring the historic buildings. The area that now makes up downtown was the point of initial development for Bismarck. Most of the first buildings were constructed in what is now declared downtown, due to its proximity to the railroad. Until the closure of the Garrison Dam in 1953, there was little development south of downtown, making it the southern most point of the city up to that point.

1898 Fire Destroys Downtown Bismarck

Most of downtown Bismarck was destroyed by a major fire in August 1898, but the city would quickly rebuild, propelling Bismarck from a frontier town into a modern city. New fire codes were implemented, and henceforth structures were built mostly of brick and concrete, instead of wood.

Local Retailers Dominate

AW Lucas & Company downtown location at 116 N 4th Street. Image courtesy of MISSOURI RIVER ROOM COLLECTION, BISMARCK PUBLIC LIBRARY

A.W. Lucas was a local department store for nearly 80 years.

Webb Brothers was one of the first retailers to open in the area, when they opened a furniture store in 1884. Their original structure was destroyed by the 1898 Fire, forcing them to construct a new building, which now houses Zimmerman’s Furniture. When competitor A.W. Lucas opened in 1899, Webb Brothers actually offered financial support, believing the added competition would be beneficial. Both of these local retailers served Bismarck for decades, competing on par with national chains when they arrived in the 1920s.

Hotels Prosper

Due to its close proximity to both the railroad, and later U.S. Highway 10, downtown was home to several successful hotels. On January 1, 1911, the famous McKenzie Hotel (later renamed Patterson Hotel) opened its doors. The Grand Pacific Hotel followed one year later. For more than six decades, these two luxury hotels would cater to the prosperous flow of visitors to the area. Another major downtown hotel was the Van Horn Hotel (later Prince Hotel), which opened in 1916.

National & Regional Retailers Arrive

Montgomery Wards opened at the corner of 4th & Thayer in 1928.

Local retailers would soon have to share their success with that of national chains. F.W. Woolworth was the first national retailer to arrive in Bismarck, around 1915. Montgomery Ward arrived in 1928, followed by J.C. Penney the following year. J.C. Penney had previously opened a location in Mandan in 1920, however. When Webb Brothers closed in December 1945, the building became home to Sears-Roebuck, the largest national retailer at the time.

At the height of downtown, the area had housed that largest national retailers of the time, in addition to highly successful local retailers like Webb Brothers and A.W. Lucas. Other local and regional chains to serve downtown included Shark’s, Buttrey’s, and Evan’s. There were also several drugstores to have served downtown, from national to local, including Osco Drug, White Drug, Rexall Drug, Cowan Drug, and Finney Drug.

The Decay of Downtown Bismarck

Even after the decline of the railroad, downtown Bismarck continued to prosper from the never-ending vehicle traffic on U.S. Highway 10. Until the completion of Interstate 94, all major through traffic had little choice but to travel right through the heart of downtown Bismarck to cross the Liberty Memorial Bridge. However, the opening of Interstate 94 in 1965 shifted all major traffic about two miles north, greatly affecting businesses located downtown.

Downtown Bismarck took another serious blow with the construction of Kirkwood Mall in 1970, followed by Gateway Mall in 1979. The two regional shopping centers, in conjunction with the altered traffic patterns, lead to the eventual decline in downtown Bismarck. The Patterson Hotel and Grand Pacific Hotel both closed in the mid-1970s, unable to compete with the newer, more modern hotels that had opened outside of the downtown area. Even the newly constructed, and nationally renowned, Bismarck Holiday Inn near the Liberty Memorial Bridge would eventually fall victim.

Downtown Bismarck Today

Blarney Stone Irish Pub

Blarney Stone Irish Pub opened in 2009.

Despite the initial decline beginning in the 1970s, Downtown Bismarck has since seen a steady rebound and continues to thrive to this day. Nearly every building is occupied, providing a rich mix of industries. There has been a recent push to revitalize the downtown district. The Renaissance Zone Project provides tax incentives to building owners who choose to renovate historic buildings.

Due to its proximity to Burleigh County Courthouse, many of the downtown buildings house legal offices. There are also numerous stores and restaurants, residential units, banks, a hotel, church, hospital, auditorium, and other entities located downtown. The Bismarck Public Library is also located just north of downtown.

Parking

Parking in downtown has been an increasing issue over the past five decades. There are very few downtown business with parking lots. Street parking is strictly monitored and patrolled by Bismarck Parking Authority. Signs are clearly posted listing restrictions.

A series of parking garages have been constructed, beginning with the Parkade in 1970, to help alleviate some of the parking problems. Today, there are a total of three municipal parking garages and three privately-maintained garages located downtown. Construction of a new 500-stall parking ramp at the corner of Broadway and 5th is expected to begin in Summer 2010, with an estimated completion of January 2011.

There is a small fee to park in the garages; however, many businesses offer free parking vouchers upon request.

Notable Downtown Destinations

Restaurants & Bars

Government

  • Burleigh County Courthouse
  • City & County Administration Building
  • Federal Building, Post Office, and Federal Courthouse

Banks & Office Buildings

Entertainment & Attractions

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)

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