Frank C.W. Kuehn, SD architect and mapmaker

While in graduate school, I used to tease a friend and colleague who lived about three blocks away from where I lived but always required directions to get to my domicile. It was not a tricky route, nor a large campus nor community — so as a joke, as well as a hope for a practical application, I gave her a map with the route mapped out. She laughed and told me that she couldn’t read a map anyways, so she would be continuing to call me to get directions before she came over every time — which she did! It became rather endearing, really, and she does live in an age where a voice on her cell phone can now tell her exactly where to turn when to get to almost any destination. 

I myself often lose track of time when looking at maps. It seems ironic to get lost when looking at something that provides all the information one needs to avoid getting lost, but a map provides a view of a part of the world that is quite different than how I see it on a day-to-day basis. I typically notice something new or learn about the proximity of things I hadn’t noticed prior to looking at the map or the name of something that makes me curious about finding out about its origin - and of course, I also learn about the best routes to get to where I am going, whether on foot, bicycle, vehicle, etc. The ability to read a map is both interesting and practical, and I hope parents and schools continue to teach the skill.

I came across the son of Dakota Territory pioneers who helped to design various important buildings throughout the state as well as create maps. In Jennifer L. Littlefield’s “Dakota Images” article in the Vol. 37, No. 4 edition of “South Dakota History,” she describes that Frank Charles William Kuehn spent his early life in a shod claim shanty before becoming an architect who went on to design approximately 500 buildings over 60 years.

Born Sept. 4, 1884, in LeMars, Iowa, Kuehn traveled with his family to a homestead in Jackson Township, Sanborn County, in southern Dakota Territory when he was about 7 months old, and when he was 19, he moved to Huron. 

“Handy with tools, Kuehn worked at a lumberyard and became a carpenter in the rapidly growing community,” Littlefield writes. “In 1904, he decided to pursue a career in architecture and took classes from the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania, eventually becoming a draftsman and gaining a job with Huron architect George Issenhuth.”

Huehn opened his own office in Huron in 1909, and his first project was a two-story, brick school in Frankfort, S.D., “done in the Prairie School style that would become one of his trademarks,” Littlefield writes. “The project began a forty-one-year association with the State Department of Public Institution. Throughout his career, Kuehn submitted nearly one-hundred fifty plans and specifications for schools, mostly one-room rural schools, and became widely recognized outside the state for his standard rural-school plans.”

But his architectural expertise extended outside of the realm of schools. Kuehn also helped to design, “some of the most impressive buildings in Huron,” Littlefield writes, including the United Methodist Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, Huron City Hall, Lyric Theater, and Campbell Park bandshell. “In 1920, he became one of the first South Dakotans to gain membership in the American Institute of Architects,” the article states. “In addition to many structures in Huron, Kuehn designed dozens of schools, churches, libraries, residences, and commercial and civic buildings throughout eastern South Dakota.”

Kuehn married Amelia Wagner in 1914, and the couple had three daughters, Jeannette, Lois, and Margaret.

As world events impacted the construction industry, Kuehn adapted his offerings to continue to succeed in the changing world. Littlefield describes that “During the world wars and Great Depression, when new construction projects slowed due to lack of supplies and financing, the architect supplemented his income by selling insurance and drawing maps. Mapmaking became his major focus after 1942, when he established the Huron Blue Print Company, which produced county maps to sell to insurance and title companies and local governments,” she writes. “Within a few years, Kuehn’s firm became the foremost producer of highway maps in South Dakota and eventually expanded to cover North Dakota and Minnesota.”

Following Amelia’s death in 1950, Kuehn married Florence Dokken Hanson in 1954, and Kuehn died in 1970.

His daughters wrote, “F.C.W. Kuehn, Prairie Architect,” detailing his life and works, in 1984, and the F.C.W. Kuehn Papers are also accessible at the South Dakota State University Archives and Special Collections, Hilton M. Briggs Library, and the papers are available for viewing online. The introduction to the papers describes Kuehn as a “leading Midwestern architect” whose projects over his lifetime were “too numerous to mention.” I’d recommend taking a look at his designs and maps — but only if you’ve got some time to get lost for a bit in the past!

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