German-Russian Architecture

German-Russian immigrants from the Russian Ukraine brought with them to the prairies of North Dakota, beginning in 1884, a high level of cultural integrity. They came as Germans, with language, religion, social structure, and economic traditions intact. A self-imposed isolation allowed them to remain as a virtually undisturbed and unique culture.

Along with their social and economic ideals, the Germans from Russia brought with them a distinctive architectural style. Below is a floor plan for a traditional house. Each settler's home varied by individual needs and tastes, but several characteristics remain consistent.

    1. The stone- or earth-built house was a single story rectangular structure, with a gable roof.

    2. The vorheisel, or entrance, was an enclosed room from which to enter or leave the house; it protected the main house from temperature extremes, and always faced south.

    3. A house was usually divided into two or three rooms, running on a linear east-west axis.

    4. An exterior staircase to the loft was always located on a gable end. Occasionally an interior ladder-like staircase replaced the exterior stairs.

    5. Chimneys and stoves were centrally located on interior walls.

    6. Windows were few in number, tall, and narrow. They had deep interior sills and beveled walls. Beveled walls allowed more light to enter the room.

Three types of construction were used-stone with native clay mortar, sun-dried native clay bricks with mortar, and puddle clay. All three methods, either singularly or in combination, were traditionally used. These earth houses were economic to build, energy efficient, and colorful. On earlier houses bright colors were used both on the interiors and exteriors. With the Victorian influence, walls became more subdued, but the favorite colors of yellow, blue, red, and green remained as trim colors.

Even though German-Russian architecture was a unique sight on the Dakota prairie, its overall simplicity of design and modest size reflected the lack of importance of the house as a status symbol in the German-Russian community. This extension of the treeless prairie required little imported material or outside labor to build. It was utilitarian in space and design and reflected the German-Russian attitude towards economy and utility.

Brochure reprinted with permission of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Museum Division, Bismarck, North Dakota.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller