A New Deal Marvel: Pondera County Courthouse, Conrad

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The Pondera County Courthouse is a Public Works Administration project of 1938.  Located in Conrad, which served as the seat of government for the recently created (1919) Pondera County, the courthouse stands across the street from the National Register-listed City Hall, a building which for the county’s first generation served as a catch-all public building for this agricultural community.  Neither the city hall nor the courthouse lie at the center of town–the railroad tracks and passenger depot were the focal point of the original town plan.  Both public buildings are about a block away from the town”s primary commercial crossroads.

 

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Conrad City Hall, 1919, listed in National Register of Historic Places

Architect Angus V. McIver of Great Falls designed the courthouse in the PWA Modern style found in New Deal projects across the country.  McIver, born 1892, attended public schools in Great Falls and then took a combination degree in architecture and engineering at the University of Michigan. McIver had started his practice in 1915 as part of the firm McIver & Cohagen.  He served in the military during World War I and then returned to Montana and took his architectural license in 1918. When McIver took on the Pondera County Courthouse project, he already had experience with federal projects, having been one of the principals with the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse at Billings.  After the Conrad project, he took on a public housing project in Great Falls.  McIver also designed the historic library building for the University of Montana and the Glacier County Courthouse, another New Deal project, in Cut Bank.

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During World War II, McIver was a principal architect for the East Air Field (now Malmstrom AFB) in Great Falls and the much more controversial Heart Mountain Relocation Center (a Japanese internment camp) near Cody, Wyoming.  

A dedication plaque in the entry hall notes the county commissioners for the project: Walter M. Brophy, chairman; Walter Banka; W. C. Collins; and the clerk of the board, Adolph L. Rachac.  Contractors were Lease & Leigland, J. H. Hubbard, and the Palmquist Electric Company.  The plaque also proclaims that the courthouse was “dedicated to the citizenship of Pondera County for the purpose of keeping the records, enforcing the law and upholding justice.” Many New Deal era buildings have lost their dedication plaques over the decades; this one expresses the hope and determination of a community that had been bombarded with difficulties during the Great Depression.  A county history from 1968 noted: “the anxious days of the thirties affected Conrad as they did all other parts of Montana and the nation.  Not too much progress was made.  Banks and many businesses closed, jobs were scarce and so was money” [Pondera History Association, Pondera (Great Falls, 1968), 53].

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The courthouse in Conrad is one of McIver’s most intact architectural achievements.  The blending of Art Deco styling within a general classical composition characterized PWA Modern style, and the Pondera County Courthouse is excellent, intact representation of this 1930s architectural movement.  Key architectural details include the use of streamlined metal stair-rails throughout the building; the sleek stone wainscoting in the public areas, even the Art Deco-influenced water fountains.

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The courtroom is a major achievement, with its Art Deco-styled bench, jury box, and the movie theater-like seats for the public.  Many New Deal courthouses survive but often the interiors have been renovated to either remove or obscure the original craftsmanship of the 1930s.  Not so with Pondera County Courthouse; it is an exceptional public property in northern Montana.

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One thought on “A New Deal Marvel: Pondera County Courthouse, Conrad

  1. An impressive building and interior. It is really an icon. Pondera County is to be congratulated for their high level, and manner of stewardship. Thank you for your presentation.

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