A memorial building built to honor the men and women from Burleigh County who served in World War I was recently designated as one of 100 official World War I Centennial Memorials nationwide.
The World War Memorial Building, located in downtown Bismarck, was one of two memorials in the state to receive the designation by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission and the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, via their 100 Cities/100 Memorials program. Also receiving designation was the Burke County War Memorial Hall, Flaxton.
“I think it’s important to honor those who served in World War I, and it’s also important to honor the families whose sons and daughters served in World War I,” said Susan Wefald, a member of the North Dakota World War I Centennial Committee, which submitted the nomination. “That’s why this memorial is so special.”
The facility was built in 1930 to not only honor the soldiers who fought during the Great War, but to provide space for community functions and to house the National Guard armory, a gymnasium and convention hall.
The N.D. State Legislature met within the steel-framed building’s confines in 1931 after the original state Capitol building burned to the ground, according to Wefald.
“The Capitol burned down in December of 1930. The memorial building was to be dedicated in January. The legislators moved in immediately,” she said.
While the cause of the Dec. 28, 1930, fire remains unknown, the most popular conclusion, according to the Bismarck Tribune’s archive, is that the fire began in a janitor's room on the fourth floor and was caused by rags that had been used to clean and varnish the legislators’ desks in preparation of the upcoming legislative session.
Numerous inaugural balls celebrating North Dakota’s governors also took place at the memorial building, which was built in the style of art deco by Andrew Weinberger.
Once the Bismarck Civic Center was built in 1969, the inaugural ball was moved to the larger venue, Wefald said.
The World War Memorial Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, now functions as a community gymnasium under the management of the Bismarck Parks and Recreation District.
North Dakota has 23 public buildings dedicated to World War I veterans, according to Wefald, who spent three years combing the state for monuments, parks, memorial buildings and plaques that honor those who served in the Great War.
Many of these memorials came to be at the urging of John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force during the Great War, Wefald said.
“John Pershing encouraged counties and cities and states to build living memorials … public facilities that could serve citizens and honor those who served in the Great War,” she said. “Money was tight during the '20s and '30s in North Dakota, so people approved special taxes for these World War I memorial buildings.”
In addition to the designation, the World War Memorial Building, 215 Sixth St., received a $2,000 grant to match funds provided by the Bismarck Parks and Recreation District. The money went toward constructing an architect-designed service structure in the building’s entrance.
The foyer’s terrazzo floor was recently polished and walls painted, as well.
“That building gets quite a bit of traffic,” Wefald said. “A decision was made to fix up the foyer and show we care about the building to people who first enter it.”
The 100 Cities/100 Memorials program, which awarded $200,000 in matching grants, was created to raise community awareness of those who served in World War I, as well as to draw attention to memorials across the United States. Additional supporters of the program are the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“More than 4 million American families sent their sons and daughters to serve in uniform during World War I; 116,516 U.S. soldiers died in the war and another 200,000 were wounded,” said Terry Hamby, commissioner of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.
“100 Cities/100 Memorials is a critically important initiative that will have an impact beyond these grants. These memorials represent an important part of remembering our past and preserving our culture," he said.