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Gilbert Horton a pioneer architect

(Originally published on Oct. 19, 1982)

By James Smorada

For The Sun

If a builder is a teacher, Gilbert R. Horton is a great teacher. In his lifetime he designed 256 schools in North Dakota, South Dakota and eastern Montana of which 91 were innovative country school houses. Of all those schools, nearly 165 are still in use, in James-town, throughout the county and the states.

If an architect is a healer, Horton is a good doctor. He has built hospitals in all coroners of North Dakota and two stand in Jamestown. Jamestown Hospital and the new annex to what was Trinity Hospital are Horton designs.

And if a designer of buildings is a public servant, Horton's municipal structures have served towns all across the prairie. The buildings -- fire halls, town halls, municipal plants -- in brick or field stone all bear the mark of a man who sold a service to people who wanted a building.

Of his 94 years Gilbert Horton has spent 67 of them as an architect and in those years designed and supervised the construction of more than 600 buildings -- structures that would shelter students, help heal the sick and house the functions of government and commerce all across the state. But Jamestown, his home, would benefit most from what he did.

Horton arrived in James-town on May 11, 1911. The little town did not have paved roads and sidewalks were made of wood but there was the prospect of growth everywhere and the young bachelor from St. Paul could smell it in the air.

It was the air he liked and a lot more. "The prairie appealed to me ... I can't really say why ... but I think it was the people. They were open and friendly. The further west you got, the more cordial people seemed to be. Somehow, and again I can't say how exactly, the people I met here were different. They didn't take a friend for granted ...and here were those wide open spaces."

It would be wide open spaces he would become most familiar with either by car or train. It would be spaces he would fill with buildings in towns connected by roads he would mark and lobby to see they were improved.

Horton arrived in James-town knowing someone. A Danish contractor, Jeff Schelde, built structures in both Jamestown and Litchfield, Minn., the town in which Horton grew up. With Schelde working on major projects here -- St. James Catholic Church was one -- Horton believed there would be work for him.

In 1913, he opened a three-room office on the second floor of the Citizens National Bank of First Avenue (a structure south of Haroldson's Office Supply) and went to work.

And work he did. "I came up with an innovation for one-room schools that made me popular with school boards and teachers," Horton told The (Fargo) Forum in 1979.

"That was, of all things, a basement. Before 1910, most schools were erected on a concrete slab. The basement was a place for the stove and provided a lunch and playroom for the kids."

The innovation and the way the young architect handled his commission drew special attention from then Stutsman County Superintendent of Schools Mary Cusator.

"She liked the fact that I avoided offering local school boards stock plans," he said. "And I continued the supervision until the job was done. She recommended me to other school boards in other counties and in Montana and South Dakota."

Between 1914 and 1916 Horton would complete designs and supervise the construction of 22 school houses, in Medina ($12,810); Woodbury ($1,200); and Homer Township ($1,600) as well as buildings in Buchanan, Montpelier and Wadsworth.

When America marched "Over There" in 1917, Horton was working on schools in Mandan, Millarton, Wilton and Edmunds. In 1918 through 1919 Horton would work on 22 schools including the completion of a school at Ellendale which was begun in 1915.

And when the war was over and the troops came home, Horton was building a hospital in Hettinger, a theater in Cavalier and schools.

"I worked hard and kept healthy. Before cars came in, I hopped branch-line trains to get to where the job was. When cars came, I wore 'em out in rapid succession."

In his lifetime Horton would drive 2.5 million miles by his own estimate and own 22 different cars -- Buick and Franklin, Mercedes Benz and Rolls Royce.

Horton was in a unique position. He was a pioneer in North Dakota with other pioneers in other fields. In 1917, when architects needed to be certified, Horton applied and obtained license No. 10; it was issued Oct. 25.

He was a pioneer in other ways and the American Institute of Architects would honor him for the innovations in 1968.

In 1913, Horton developed a method of insulating glass. It was known then as double glazing and it eliminated the need for a storm window. Horton used the concept in schools and some residences. The idea would catch on.

In 1927, Horton and other builders like him, faced shortages of material to build commercial buildings. The scarcity of many common construction items prompted Horton to reconsider ways of building walls. He investigated the use of hollow brick -- for strength and insulation purposes. He experimented and decided the concept had merit. The school auditorium and gymnasium at Rogers, N.D., was the first structure to benefit from this technique. It would be one of many structures employing the concept. (In Jamestown, the building housing The Jamestown Sun is an example of the technique).

In 1930, Horton designed a wood laminated, bolted arch. At the time, it was considered a daring innovation. The arch was constructed on the ground using long strips of wood and bolts. When the arch had been shaped and bolted together, it was raised in place and the roof and walls were added.

The arch was used in the Jamestown auditorium, which stood in McElroy park. A building 200 feet long and 120 wide, it was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project from timbers salvaged from an old mill and elevator which Horton and the crew took down. To produce the right cuts of wood for the auditorium, mill timbers had to be cut by hand by men using a whip saw.

A professional journal, "The Engineering News Record," would praise the arch and the building Horton and the WPA crew built; the building was noted for its "unusual design" at an "unusually low" cost.

And during the same period -- in the middle of the depression -- Horton accomplished another feat for which he would be recognized in 1968. He developed a method of using rocks and field stone as a premium building material.

Rocks and men needing work were everywhere. Horton combined the labor and the material to build structures for people who needed them. The municipal hall at Steele still stands as a testament to skills Horton taught the men; skills that could find a grain in the rock and split it just so to make it square like a brick.

"Watching those boys learn to select the right rock for the right place and building a wall was a real thrill," Horton relected in a story published in The Jamestown Sun in 1972. "I don't know where you could find a man to get the ball rolling today. The walls, they're just as sound as the day they were put in place. ..."

The walls that are still standing, that is. One monument to this kind of labor --the first to be attempted -- a gymnasium in Dickey has been pushed down and left as rubble.

From the time Horton opened his office he had work. The economy was with him. The territory was growing. People needed buildings and could pay for them. Horton was a good salesman. But after 1929, there was no sales technique that could overwhelm the economic fact of life: the nation had fallen into a deep depression. Banks had failed. Savings had been wiped out. There was no money for buildings or to pay those who designed them.

Horton faced near-bankruptcy.

He sold the house -- the one at the foot of stadium hill (820 Third St. N.E.) and moved his wife and two boys to 16 acres he bought on the east side of the city.

To survive, the family raised chickens. The egg business kept the family together. It kept them fed and working hard.

Oscar Zimmerman, the newly elected mayor of Jamestown, asked Horton if he would like to serve as city engineer. Horton said he would. "It kept the wolf away from the door."

The wolf would have had to travel hard to find Horton. He was busy supervising WPA crews and building projects the city and the area needed. A swimming pool. An auditorium. A revised map of the city with street numbers, not names.

While in office he found time for the Boy Scouts, Rotary (he was a charter member) and for a variety of other civic duties.

Horton left office in 1937. When America went to war -- World War II -- he worked on government projects in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. He said he enjoyed it but was glad to get back, back to Jamestown. It was home.

Horton reopened his office -- at Sunny Hills -- in 1946. The war was over and the economy was growing again. Decision makers could afford new buildings and now, they could pay for them.

The architect's philosophy served him well. Horton believed that the design of a structure must reflect the hopes, aspirations and purpose for whom it is built.

He believed that a building must make a community look better because the building is there.

When he reopened his office he followed a sense of scale he had when he started out: he wanted a modest sized firm that would offer personal architectural and engineering services. "That's where the real architecture is practiced," he told The Forum, "and not in very large shops with rows of draftsmen, specializing in small phases of work."

Horton did not believe an architect sold a building. That was done before the architect was hired. Those soliciting help knew they wanted a structure, what they did not have was someone to supervise its proper construction.

As far as Horton was concerned, that was one of the architect's principle jobs, one of the services to the clients.

In 1968, 22,000 of America's architects made the man who spent his time building on the prairie a Fellow of their society. It was a rare honor; the first for a North Dakotan.

Over the next ten years, Horton's direct involvement in the firm diminished. He left the firm's work to his sons Kent Horton, an engineer and Bert, an architect.

His work has left a legacy of fine shelters.