Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Danish architecture in the Great Plains reads as a minority report. The number of Danes coming to the region was always small in comparison to other immigrant groups, and the fact that they tended to settle individually rather than in concentrated ethnic communities makes them relatively invisible on the landscape. Several Danish cultural strongholds do exist near and on the Plains: the area around Tyler in western Minnesota is one; another is found in the vicinity of Elkhorn and Kimballton in western Iowa; and another lies in the area around Dannebrog, Dannevirke, and Nysted in Howard County, Nebraska. Wherever they ended up, however, the Danes, like many other immigrants, constructed buildings that mirrored in their diversity the turbulent conditions under which they were conceived.

Danish emigration occurred largely in the years between 1870 and 1920 and was directly linked to the social upheavals caused by industrialization. As production shifted from farm to factory, people in the Danish countryside found themselves on the move, seeking employment first in their country's urban centers and then, after finding jobs there insufficient to match the demand, overseas. It was a time of great change: not only were people physically removed from familiar surroundings, but traditional practices of all kinds were being replaced by newer and more modern ways associated with the urban bourgeoisie. Architecturally, change came in the form of new popular designs flooding in from all sides that challenged the older folk forms associated with the increasingly discredited rural past. The Danes who came to the Great Plains left behind a building tradition very much in flux, and to make things more confusing, they were greeted in their new homes by even more architectural choices. It is not surprising that Danish architecture in the Great Plains and everywhere else the Danes went defies easy description.

Like most Plains settlers, Danish families were forced on arrival to live in dugouts or sod houses that lacked, due to their size and circumstance, a clear national or ethnic a.liation. As the occupation became more firmly established, however, architectural expectations increased, and a great number of permanent buildings, including farmhouses and outbuildings, stores, town houses, churches, and schools, were erected. These buildings display remarkable variety in design and execution, but they generally adhere to a strong progressive ethic lodged within the immigrant community. There are instances where older Danish folk traditions were followed, particularly in the use of half-timber, wattle-and-daub, and unfired clay brick construction. But such practices were extremely rare and found only in the first generation. Most Danish immigrants appear to have chosen, like their European neighbors, the new balloon-frame structural system or, more infrequently because of its high cost, fired brick. The same willingness to experiment with new ideas is found in the designs for the buildings as well.

Danish houses fall into three general categories: houses with origins in Danish nineteenth-century popular culture; houses that are American in origin but nevertheless strongly reminiscent of turn-of-the-century Danish designs; and, finally, houses that have no connection to Denmark whatsoever. This last group is by far the largest, suggesting that most Danish immigrants simply adopted whatever American house forms were popular at the time they arrived. In the 1870s a range of classically inspired rectilinear houses like the hall-parlor type prevailed; in the 1880s and 1890s Victorian cottages were the answer; and after 1900 it was foursquares and bungalows. Although Danish decorative elements and furnishings were often retained on the inside, the exterior treatments betray a strong interest within the immigrant population in affiliating with the dominant culture.

When houses do have Danish references, they are almost always to modern rather than traditional sources. For example, a number of immigrants from Denmark during the 1870s and 1880s built distinctive houses that are three rooms wide and one or two rooms deep and have symmetrically tripartite neoclassical facades. These buildings differ significantly from typically two-room-wide American forms but are not traditionally Danish either. Rather, they refer to a house form that was introduced into Denmark only during the second quarter of the nineteenth century and championed as a symbol of economic achievement by members of the emerging merchant and farmer classes. Transplanted to the Great Plains, the houses granted their occupants both economic status and national ethnic identity. The same connection is found, albeit more indirectly, in the second category of Danish houses. In the Elkhorn/Kimballton area, for example, Danish immigrants mostly built American-style houses. One of these houses, a one-and-a-half-story bungalow with a front wall dormer, appears strikingly similar to the house with a gable roof and front dormer that was gaining popularity in turn-of-the- century Danish suburbs. In Denmark the house usually faced away from the street, with the main entrance opening onto a protected courtyard, while in the Great Plains region, according to American convention, the house and front door directly addressed the street.

Other kinds of buildings demonstrate a similar spirit of progress. Danish stores were aligned along the main street and follow the American one- or two-part commercial block variety. Danish churches are similarly nondescript; except for a few Lutheran churches that have Flemish-inspired, stepped-gable parapets and crenellated towers, the predominant design for religious buildings in Danish immigrant communities was the ubiquitous gabled rectangle with engaged front tower form. Although usually clothed in standard American architectural garb, Danish folk schools, part of a sweeping attempt at reforming the educational system, are another feature of the Danish architectural landscape that should be recognized.

One other aspect of the Danish architectural experience involves the self-conscious revival of ethnic identity during the second half of the twentieth century. By the 1950s most Danish families had become so thoroughly assimilated into American life that little or no connection remained with their ancestral homeland. Since most actual sources of ethnic identity had been abandoned, new ones had to be created, and this the descendants of immigrants did by self-consciously highlighting elements of the traditional national culture like costume and food at family and community celebrations. The residents of Elkhorn, Iowa, have gone a step further in dressing up their main street stores in pseudo- Danish half-timbering, moving a Danish windmill to the town park, and commissioning for the town a replica of the famous Little Mermaid statue.


Thomas L. Carter University of Utah

Betsinger, Signe. "Danes in Iowa and Minnesota." In To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America, edited by Allen G. Noble. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992: 211–25.

Carter, Thomas. "Danes." In America's Architectural Roots: Ethnic Groups That Built America, edited by Dell Upton. Washington DC: Preservation Press, 1986: 115–23.

Faber, Tobias. Danish Architecture. Copenhagen: Danske Selskab, 1978.

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