Buildings designed specifically for commercial and related business functions appeared early and figured prominently in the settlement of the Great Plains. Stores, banks, office blocks, restaurants and bars, and hotels were all well-defined types by the mid.nineteenth century, when the region was opened to European American settlement. While many new settlers took up agriculture and lived dispersed on the land, others came to pursue trades and professions and were actively engaged in town building. In many parts of the Great Plains the competition among nascent communities was intense. Many boosters harbored visions of their towns becoming metropolises in the span of a generation, just as had occurred to midwestern centers such as Chicago and St. Louis.
Virtually from the inception of settlement, a principal business street began to emerge in Great Plains towns. This first-generation growth was impermanent in both intent and appearance. Buildings were generally of woodframe construction and were utilitarian in character, with little or no embellishment. They were also modest in size, occupying only a portion of their lots and seldom exceeding one or two stories. Like the businesses they held, these buildings were initial ventures; it was presumed they would be replaced later by more substantial quarters.
The overplatting of towns in the Great Plains led to many instances where communities fell far short of original expectations. At the same time, hundreds of places did advance to the second generation of growth, which entailed permanent commercial buildings erected approximately two to four decades after initial settlement. The new buildings were generally of substantial masonry wall construction. They consumed the full width and much of the depth of their lots and boasted ornamental fronts, often with cast- or stamped-iron details. The majority of these buildings were two stories tall; some, especially those housing hotels, theaters, and fraternal organizations, were three or four stories. Only in the largest cities such as Omaha were greater heights reached before the turn of the twentieth century.
Second-generation buildings were tightly clustered for purposes of convenience but also out of a collective desire to make the community appear impressive. As in towns farther east, these commercial centers rose as symbols of attainment and potential for their communities. Individual design and group arrangement emulated established urban models; only the character of overall development– the wide main street, the low density of surrounding residential areas, the expansiveness of open space beyond–distinguished Plains towns from older cities to the east. Aspirations of metropolitan stature began to dissipate by the early twentieth century, as the industry needed to sustain large concentrations of people failed to materialize.
The region supported few true cities; in numerous cases town centers did not expand significantly during the decades that followed. Instead, commercial development was a process of small, incremental changes to the existing fabric, many of them in response to functional demands. The growth of retailing, for example, led to the construction of new department stores and, by the 1920s, the remodeling of others to accommodate emerging national chains such as Montgomery Ward and J. C. Penney. With the rapid rise of electrification and telephone networks, utility companies often erected fancy new quarters. In the late nineteenth century many towns of 2,000 people or more had at least one theater, often called an opera house. Many opera houses were later supplanted by movie theaters, with exotic fronts and interior spaces. The hotel was often the largest, best-appointed building in town. Between 1900 and 1950 and especially during the 1920s, with the proliferation of automobile travel, imposing multistory hotels were erected with elaborate public rooms. The automobile also led to the creation of new building types, including sales and service facilities, filling stations, and tourist courts.
Until the 1960s most downtowns retained the business functions that served their communities and the rural areas beyond. But even by the 1920s small-scale business dispersal was evident in the larger towns. Many of these facilities were modest, purveying routine goods in residential neighborhoods. Clusters of more than two or three commercial buildings were rare except in cities or in districts catering to large numbers of college students. While most filling and service stations were concentrated in the center, growing numbers were dispersed, primarily along main routes through the community. These arteries also attracted tourist courts, which generally were sited near the periphery.
Substantial changes occurred to the appearance, configuration, and siting of commercial buildings during the second half of the twentieth century. Designs sporting the abstract vocabularies of modernism, rare in the region before World War II, had become ubiquitous for buildings of all types by the 1950s. Many commercial establishments already standing were given new veneers, often covering the entire facade. Spiraling demand for space to accommodate motorists led to the demolition of existing buildings for parking lots. Banks erected conspicuous new quarters on the edge of downtown in what had been residential blocks. Business development away from the center grew. By the 1960s shopping centers had emerged to challenge the downtown's hegemony, and the continued development of such places has led to the decay or a much narrower focus of commercial functions in the core. Commercial centers in many small towns have been rendered redundant by improved highway access to regional facilities in larger communities. As pronounced as such shifts have been, they embody national characteristics no less than did the commercial center of the nineteenth century.
Richard Longstreth George Washington University
Hudson, John C. Plains Country Towns. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Larson, Paul Clifford, ed. The Spirit of H. H. Richardson on the Midland Prairies: Regional Transformations of an Architectural Style. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1988.
Longstreth, Richard. The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture. Washington DC: Preservation Press, 1987.