Too often we think that New Deal agencies always built in rustic style–that is what you find at the national parks, the often iconic log structures from the Civilian Conservation Corps. But just as common—just not recognized as such–were modernist designs. I close this month’s look at historic fairgrounds with one of the state’s best groupings of modernist buildings from the historic Northern Montana State Fairgrounds (now Expo Park) in Great Falls.
The Works Progress Administration added these buildings in 1937. The Mercantile Building is Art Deco design at its best–linear, hard edged, and projecting elevations. It spoke to the modern age of machinery and technology and new tools for farmers both on the ranch and in the home.
Compare that to the Fine Arts Building with its sweeping curvilinear facade and projecting entrance, almost like an automobile grille from the 1930s. The design laid claim to urban sophistication and trendy design–an appropriate statement for the “fine arts” to say in Great Falls.
The Administration Building blends both Art Deco and Moderne elements into a classic International Style statement of domestic architecture. ExpoPark is to be congratulated for its stewardship of these three buildings. They are not typical of fairgrounds found throughout the northern counties–and differ markedly from the WPA designs for the Musselshell County Fairgrounds in Roundup, for instance. But the three buildings speak to Great Falls’ context as a city within the plains, dependent in so many ways on the agriculture that surrounded it but still an oasis of urban life in the Depression era.