By Stephanie Hess, Northfield History Collaborative, January 2019
The city of Northfield is known for its historic architecture. In fact, 65 of Northfield’s downtown buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Many other historic buildings can be found throughout the city—maybe even on your block.
The first major building in town was John W. North’s sawmill, completed in 1856. Other settlers built Northfield’s first general store on Bridge Square, two hotels, a meat shop, and two carriage and blacksmith shops. They also built several wood-frame houses during this time, too.
These early settlers built these structures to meet a particular need. They needed shelter and a place to make a living. Their buildings were simple structures made from materials close at hand. The Lyceum, Northfield’s oldest surviving building from this period, is a good example.
As Northfield grew in size and prosperity, its residents began replacing wooden storefronts with tall brick or stone buildings. These new buildings were built to last and had more decorations. From the 1870s through 1900s, the town built most of its major religious, educational, business, and residential structures.
These buildings have a very special look, also known as an architectural style. Most of Northfield’s buildings from this time fit into the Italianate, French Second Empire, Queen Anne, Gothic, or Romanesque styles. For example, Northfield’s first limestone store was the Scriver Building. It has Romanesque Revival arches above its windows and doors.
Northfield is also known for its beautiful historic houses. The style of a house often symbolized its owners’ goals and beliefs. Many local houses are excellent examples of Italianate, Queen Anne, or Gothic Revival architecture.
Northfield builders learned about these new styles from patterns in building books. Some hired professional architects to design a house, church, school, store, or college building. The architectural firm of Alden and Howe designed Northfield’s first professionally designed building: Willis Hall at Carleton College in 1872. In 1878, architects Long and Haglin designed the Main Building of St. Olaf College.
Some memorable college buildings were built more recently using a modern style. Northfield architect Edward Sovik, Jr. and his firm designed several award-winning buildings at St. Olaf College in the 1960s. Also in the 1960s, Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki designed five modern buildings for Carleton College.
Northfield is fortunate to have many examples of significant architecture in town. In the 1970s, Northfield leaders created a historic downtown district to preserve many of these buildings. The city also set up a Heritage Preservation Commission as an advisory board and resource for owners.
The historic buildings of Northfield are important artifacts of its culture. They reflect the lifestyles, dreams, and goals of Northfield’s citizens at different times. Over the years, the buildings of this city have shaped the history and everyday life of the people who live here.
Discussion Questions and Activities
When you look at the individual items in the Northfield History Collaborative, use the zoom-in tool to view details in the images or more easily read the documents. Use the tab labeled “TEXT” to read full transcriptions of the documents.
- Pick one of the photographs of a Northfield building in the set above and click on the link so that you can zoom in. Look closely at the building and describe its characteristics – noting its size, building material, features, roof, windows, doors, decorations, and more. How does this building look similar to buildings you’re familiar with? How is it different?
- Look through the building photographs in this Views of Northfield Which one is your favorite? Why? Can you imagine yourself living in or using the building somehow? Describe what it would be like.
- Check out this “Architecture Word List“. Pick out 5 words you do not understand that describe a building or its features, and look them up in a dictionary. Then find photographs of Northfield buildings that can be described by these words.
- Building materials are the pieces that builders use to create a structure. List at least 5 different types of building materials you might use around the world. How would you use these materials in a building?
- Compare and contrast the different buildings pictured in the set above. Pay attention to their shapes, sizes, uses, materials, and age. What makes them the same? What makes them different?
- The use and the look of buildings change over time. Think of a house – what is different between a 100-year-old house and the place where you live? Why do you think this changes? What do you think a house 100 years from now will look like? How will it work?
- Do you think it is better to replace an old building with an up-to-date one, or fix up the old building so it can be reused? What are the pros and cons of each situation?
- Use styles available on this website and pick your favorite house style. Look up the words that describe the parts of a house to understand what makes the style unique. Find a few examples of that style of house in the Views of Northfield. If that style doesn’t exist in Northfield, why do you think that is?
- Using this Northfield When guide to the downtown historic district, create a walking tour with 5 of your favorite buildings and explain the history and significance of each one to your friends or family. You can become a tourist in your own town!
- Pick a historic building in Northfield. Design and build a model of this building using cardboard, paper, milk cartons, craft sticks, paint, and more. Use photographs, drawings, and in-person visits to learn about the features of the building and replicate it in your model. Familiarize yourself with the “terminology of the architectural style” of this building and find 2-3 other buildings that are also of this style.
- Plan a fictional new town, just like John North did. Create a system of roads and dedicate areas of the town for different uses, such as factories, shops, schools, restaurants, houses, and more. Work together as a class to build a model of this new town, and explain why it is laid out the way it is. Consider methods of transporting people and goods, and the patterns of daily life, as you lay out your town.
- Use the grade-appropriate guidelines found at “Architecture – It’s Elementary!” to picture your own home, learn about proportions and scale, measure and draw your classroom, design your own home, design a neighborhood, and/or design a city.
Related Items on the Northfield History Collaborative
Northfield Arts Guild Hall – biography of the building
Views of Northfield – photograph booklet
Additional Resources for Research
“Architeacher: Historic Preservation Education.” The Center for the Study of Art and Architecture, 2002. Web (accessed August 23, 2018).
“Architecture: It’s Elementary!” curriculum guide. American Institute of Architects Michigan / Michigan Architecture Foundation. Web (accessed August 23, 2018). Full book and individual chapter downloads available.
Architecture lesson plans. KinderArt © 1997-2018. Web (accessed August 23, 2018).
ArchKIDecture lessons. © 2018 archKIDecture. Web (accessed August 23, 2018).
Home Sweet Home lesson plan. PBS Teachers, © 2003-2014 Oregon Public Broadcasting. Web (accessed August 23, 2018).
Carlin, Lynn, ed. and Jim Bohnhoff, visual ed. Continuum: threads in the community fabric of Northfield, Minnesota, sponsored by the Northfield Bicentennial Committee. Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, 1976.
Edwins, Steve, ed. Northfield Downtown Guidebook: Heritage Preservation in the Historic District. Northfield, MN: Heritage Preservation Commission, 1982. Also online (accessed May 1, 2018).
Millett, Larry. “Three Thousand Years of Building in Minnesota.” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. Web (accessed May 1, 2018).
National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for the Northfield Historic District. Completed 1978, with additions in 1993 and 2004. State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society. Available online (accessed June 12, 2018).
Nelson, Charles. “Early Architecture of Minnesota: Tech Talk on Minnesota’s Architecture, Part I.” In Minnesota History Interpreter, pages 3-6. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, January 1999. Available online (accessed May 1, 2018).
Nelson, Charles. “Post-Civil War Architecture: Tech Talk on Minnesota’s Architecture, Part II.” In Minnesota History Interpreter, pages 3-6. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, May 1999. Available online (accessed May 1, 2018).
Nelson, Charles. “The Bric-a-Brac Styles: Tech Talk on Minnesota’s Architecture, Part III.” In Minnesota History Interpreter, pages 3-6. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, September 1999. Available online (accessed May 1, 2018).
Nelson, Charles. “The Academic Revival Styles: Tech Talk on Minnesota’s Architecture, Part IV.” In Minnesota History Interpreter, pages 3-6. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, November 1999. Available online (accessed May 1, 2018).
Nelson, Charles. “Styles of the Modern Era: Prairie School, Bungalow, Art Deco, International & Revivals: Tech Talk on Minnesota’s Architecture, Part V.” In Minnesota History Interpreter, pages 3-6. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, January 2000. Available online (accessed May 1, 2018).
Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission. “At Home in Northfield: A Walking & Biking Tour. Central Park: Northfield’s Historic Neighborhoods.” 1993. Available online (accessed May 1, 2018).
Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission. Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community. Northfield, MN: Northfield Printing, 1999.
Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission. “Northfield Commercial Historic District Resurvey 2016.” 2016. Available online (accessed May 1, 2018).
Primary Source Analysis
Here are some tips for analyzing the primary sources found above and throughout the Collaborative. For each source, ask students to indicate:
- the author’s point of view
- the author’s purpose
- historical context
For inquiry-based learning, ask students to:
- explain how a source tells its story and/or makes its argument
- explain the relationships between sources
- compare and contrast sources in terms of point of view and method
- support conclusions and interpretations with evidence
- identify questions for further investigation
Minnesota Education Standards
Here is a list of education standard codes for benchmarks that can be explored using this Primary Source Set.
- 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199
- 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52
- 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206
- 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168
- 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199
- 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206
This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.