It’s nine years before Dakota Territory will enter the Union as two separate states, and the place is rustling with activity – new cities springing up, new governments forming, new townspeople in need of services such as libraries.
It’s an ideal place for an architect on the prowl for big commissions, and that’s what brings New Hampshire native Wallace Dow, at about age 36, all the way up the Missouri River to the small town of Pierre on the eve of statehood.
“Wallace Dow did initially move to Pierre with his brother Wilbur in 1880,” says documentary filmmaker Jennifer Dumke.
In time Dow will become the artist in stone, brick and wood who does more than any other single person, arguably, to shape South Dakota’s first important buildings – spaces in which things can take place. But it all begins here in 1880 with a young man arriving in Pierre, Dakota Territory, probably by riverboat, and taking his first look around at the houses on the bluffs.
Building South Dakota
Pierre in 1880 is still about a quarter century away from getting the final nod as the choice for state capital, however, and the river town must have seemed like an inauspicious place for an architect who wants to make his mark. It’s probably noteworthy that when Dana Bailey’s History of Minnehaha County appears in 1899, with a biographical note about Wallace Dow included, it mentions his arrival in Pierre and feels obliged to add that the city is “in this state” for those who might not know. Pierre is definitely not the place for an architect in 1880.
“He spent a few months there before moving to Yankton, which was the territory capital at the time,” Dumke said.
David Erpestad and David Wood, in their book, “Building South Dakota: A Historical Survey of the State’s Architecture to 1945,” write that Wallace Dow opens an architectural practice in Yankton in 1881 but moves on to Sioux Falls in 1884, the site of three important early commissions for him – the territorial penitentiary, the School for the Deaf and All Saints School.
Sioux Falls is also the center of a growing quartzite industry, and Dow is fond of native materials. His bag of tricks includes some proficiency with a style called Richardsonian Romanesque, among others – ideal for suggesting institutions that are firm and unshakeable. It’s also noteworthy that Dow is an able businessman, too, catering to the building trade with his patented Perfection concrete block and cement brick machines. It’s an ideal combination for a state that is building everything from the ground up.
“Dow received uncommon architectural opportunities from Dakota Territory during the expansionist 1880s when towns were intent on acquiring public and private institutions,” Wood and Erpestad write. “Nearly all early commissions for charitable and corrections institutions and a number of important university and college structures were awarded to him. Dow proved his competence by providing about fifty buildings during the 1880s alone that have yielded a century of useful life. He designed in most of the late nineteenth century styles, often employing Sioux quartzite.”
Documentary explores the man who put his mark on South Dakota
It’s because Wallace Dow was such a formative figure in the history of the state that he has received some attention in recent decades, including a new documentary film that is just nearing completion, funded partly by a South Dakota Board of Preservation grant.
The film is called “W.L. Dow, Architect,” and filmmakers Brad and Jenn Dumke plan to hold screenings around the state – including one planned for Pierre – starting about Jan. 1.
Jenn said she, as a writer and researcher, and Brad as a videographer and film editor have been at work, off and on, on a film about Wallace Dow’s career since 2004.
“I have an interest in design, so the architecture kind of grabbed us,” Jenn says.
But the project got a nudge forward in 2011, the 100th anniversary of Dow’s death, when the Pettigrew Museum in Sioux Falls held an exhibit about him.
Dow is an important figure not only for Sioux Falls, where he based his practice for most of his career, but also for other parts of the state.
“I think he definitely put his stamp on South Dakota by his architecture and his style, his use of our native stone,” she said.
She added that researchers have identified 156 buildings that they’re confident are Dow’s work.
Even when another very good architect named Joseph Schwarz set up shop in Sioux Falls, Wallace Dow can count on a good share of the business. Bill Hoskins of the Siouxland Heritage Museums in Sioux Falls said Dow is also very active in southwest Minnesota and, Hoskins believes, probably in northwestern Iowa as well.
“Joseph Schwarz got the Carnegie libraries in Sioux Falls and Pipestone. Dow got the Carnegie libraries in Pierre, Mitchell and Yankton,” Hoskins said. “They’re competing for the same contracts.”
In addition to major buildings in stone, he designed residences, at least 13 of which are still standing in Sioux Falls. Hoskins said Dow may have designed “hundreds” of buildings, from the very famous to the ordinary.
“The Old Courthouse Museum is one of the icons of Sioux Falls, and it’s a Dow building,” Hoskins said. “I think there’ s a lot more that he did and we just don’t know about them. He’s not limited to a particular style. He uses Queen Anne, he uses Richardsonian Romanesque – the Old Courthouse is Richardsonian Romanesque – but he also uses neoclassical. He’s got a very wide range of styles and a wide range of materials.”
New Hampshire connection
Dow, born in New Hampshire in September 1844 to a father who was a building contractor and carpenter. He was also fortunate to have an uncle named Edward Dow who was an architect in Concord, N.H. Dow learned architecture in his firm.
The Dumkes believe Dow’s New Hampshire connections may have been a factor, too, in what brought him to Dakota Territory, since the controversial Nehemiah Ordway, a New Hampshire native himself, is territorial governor at the time.
Whether it’s because they are both from New Hampshire or not, Ordway appoints Dow in February 1881 – just months after his arrival in Pierre – as one of the directors in charge of building the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Later, Dow gets a similar commission to build the penitentiary in Bismarck, perhaps also through his Ordway connection.
South Dakota made Dow as an architect, but Dow – as an architect – also made South Dakota.
He not only designed its first major buildings, he did it with a flair that the frontier didn’t usually see.
“His uncle was a very prominent architect in New Hampshire,” Jennifer Dumke said. “He came here with a lot of good ideas ready to go. He definitely dabbled with design elements that were big-city. He brought those designs here and made us also look like we were doing big things.”
In addition, Dow’s willingness to champion native materials – mining the stone that made the Old Courthouse from the very site on which it stands, for example – is part of what grounds him in South Dakota.
“He was, as far as I know, the first architect who both lived and worked in Sioux Falls. A lot of his buildings are similar to buildings of the time that you find farther east, but he uses native materials to the extent that they exist,” says current Sioux Falls architect Jeff Hazard of Koch Hazard Architects. “He was probably the first architect to commit to working on the (South Dakota) frontier.”