Architecture of the Germans from Russia
The built environment of North Dakota reflects a rich architectural heritage shaped by the region's various cultural groups. Among these communities, the German-Russian immigrants left a lasting imprint on the state's architectural landscape. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this community brought with them a unique blend of German and Russian architectural traditions, which they incorporated into the construction of their homes, churches, and community structures. Through their use of vernacular architecture, which relied on locally available materials, they created sturdy and practical buildings that served as an embodiment of their cultural identity. Today, these structures stand as a testament to the enduring legacy of the German-Russian community in North Dakota and a vital part of the state's cultural heritage.
The GRHC collaborates with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Tri-County Tourism Alliance, NDSU Center for Heritage Renewal, NDSU School of Design, Architecture, and Art, NDSU Department of History, and numerous other individuals and institutions to identify, interpret, preserve, and share German-Russian heritage, architecture, and history.
Online Exhibit | Building Life & Home on the Prairie
- Common Home Layout
German-Russian homesteads, while exhibiting individual variation, shared a common selection of materials and construction techniques. This similarity in approach was honed through successive generations of German immigrants in the Black Sea region of South Russia. The experiences of these settlers on the steppe of Russia imbued them with customs and construction expertise that facilitated the process of building a life and home on the prairies, enabling them to maintain their material identity.
Early German-Russian homes display a striking resemblance to the contemporary rambler-style homes that are still prevalent in the United States. They were typically comprised of an elongated, rectangular, single-story structure that was one room deep, featuring a gable roof that was aligned along an east-west axis. The earthen walls were roughly two feet thick and initially had earthen materials for roofing. Builders later transitioned to wood frame gable roofs with the increased availability of timber.
An additional architectural feature was the vorhausl, a roofed entrance that was customarily positioned on the south side of the house, which acted as a supplementary barrier between the home and the elements. The central location of the kitchen, with bedrooms and living rooms flanking either side, was also a typical design. The deep window wells that were situated on the south side of the home facilitated the circulation of cool southern summer breezes, while the bare northern wall obstructed harsh winter winds from entering the home. Furthermore, the thick earthen walls helped maintain the home's warmth during winter and coolness in summer. Another recurrent feature was the exterior staircase, leading to the attic or loft, which served multiple purposes such as hanging meat, storing food items, and even functioning as an extra bedroom.
Despite minor differences in design between individual homes, it is apparent that German-Russian immigrants constructed practical, comfortable, and unpretentious homes that were well suited to their agricultural lifestyle. This approach to housing design was underpinned by a rejection of the notion that a home was a status symbol, and instead emphasized utility and comfort.
- Building Materials
The German-Russian community developed their home-building practices through generations of lived experiences on the steppe near the Black Sea in what is now Ukraine. They brought their traditions of building sturdy, practical homes out of locally available materials with them when they immigrated to the North Dakota prairies. The most common materials that German-Russians used to build their homes were clay, straw, manure, and stone. The combination of these earthen materials created a few distinct construction styles.
- Batsa brick homes were another construction style where soil or clay would be combined with manure and straw, formed into rectangular bricks with either wood forms or by hand, and left to dry in the sun. Once dry, they stacked bricks and use the same clay/mud mixture as mortar. Batsa were larger than modern bricks, sometimes up to three feet long. Builders would typically stack the batsa multiple layers deep to create thick walls
- Puddled clay was an ad hoc method that required builders to stack loose clay into piles and shape the wet mixture into wall formations. Usually, builders used wood forms to keep a uniform appearance, often including stones in the mixture. Once dried, builders would add another wall section until they achieved the desired height.
- Rammed earth used a mixture like puddled clay, but the method of building the walls differed. Rammed earth required wood forms much like modern pour-in-place construction. The poured mixture was then tamped or “rammed” with a large piece of wood to compress the mixture into place. Walls were built in sections until they dried, then builders would remove the forms and stack them for a new wall section until they achieved the desired height.
- Stone and mortar construction used stacked field stones that were sometimes cut, and then mortared with a clay or mud mixture. Stone homes were much more common in western North Dakota, where stone was more plentiful.
All home types were often covered with stucco, plaster, or wood siding to protect the earthen material from the elements and add an extra layer of protection against the harsh prairie weather.
The German-Russian community, known for their agricultural lifestyle, required multiple structures to support their farms and families. Among the various outbuildings, the Sommerkuche (summer kitchen) was one of the most common. This small building provided a separate space for cooking during the summer months, while also keeping the main house cool. In addition, underground cellars, or Kellars, were utilized for food storage, either as outbuildings or integrated into the home under the floor. Smokehouses, typically made of stone construction with a hipped roof, were utilized for smoking and storing butchered hogs and cows.
- Father William C. Sherman Photograph Collection
The Father William C. Sherman Photograph Collection encompasses over 13,000 black and white photographs, negatives, color slides, floor plans and site survey documents. The subjects of interest include houses, barns, sheds, and various agricultural structures. Today, many of these structures no longer exist. Find the Father William C. Sherman Collection on Digital Horizons.
- Welk Homestead State Historic Site
The Welk Homestead State Historic Site of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND), located near Strasburg, ND, presents important Germans from Russia architectural construction of the original 1899 farmhouse, made from traditional sun baked batsa bricks, as well as the original summer kitchen, granary and privy. GRHC works closely with the SHSND to provide visual presentation of the history and culture of the Germans from Russia at the Welk Homestead. For further information of the Welk Homestead, go to the Welk Homestead State Historic Site page.
- Recommended Resources
Koop, Michael, and Stephen Ludwig. German-Russian Folk Architecture in southeastern South Dakota. Vermillion: South Dakota State Historical Preservation Center, 1984. (Catalog record)