Bozeman’s historic districts after 30 years

Bozeman, the county seat of Gallatin County, was one of my favorite Montana towns during the 1984-1985 survey.  In some ways, it was still a cowtown, a commercial center for the hundreds of surrounding ranches in Gallatin County.  Yet it was also a college town–bars, music, cheap eats–as home to Montana State University.  In 1980 its population was over 21,000–thirty years later by 2010 it had boomed to over 37,000.  By the time I explored the town in 2015 for this new survey there were an estimated 42,000 residents, double of that of the 1980s town I had so enjoyed.

In 2007 then State Senator Lynda Bourque Moss stopped with me in Bozeman as we traveled from Billings to Helena where I was to speak to the governor’s task force on historic preservation, a meeting where the idea that I would recreate the survey of 1984-1985 first took root.  We stopped because she wanted to show me changes.  The four photos above showed me that yes, change had come, and in a big way to Bozeman.  The old Hallmark Store, which had moved into an earlier Stockman Bar, had become an upscale wine bar–a bit of California in the old cowtown of Bozeman–and when I next returned “Plonk” had added sidewalk seating.  We could have been in Aspen, at least Breckinridge, Colorado.

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Plonk and the sporting goods store, 2007

Bozeman had eagerly embraced the idea of historic districts in 1984-1985 as a way of revitalizing its downtown–so much had moved, or was going to move, out to the interstate exits.  John DeHaas at Montana State University had done so much to promote historic preservation in the 1970s and early 1980s.  A tradition and commitment were in place.  That much was clear when I surveyed the town and talked with residents and decision makers in 1984-85. The next several posts will explore the impact of those historic districts in the last 30 years, and offer observations on where next steps may go.

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Let’s start with what I saw as the public landmarks, and anchors, for downtown Bozeman in 1984-1985.  None was more important than the New Deal era Gallatin County High School, a striking Art Moderne design by Bozeman architect Fred Willson.  At that time, the “new” high school–which stood right by an earlier 20th century brick high school building–was not “old enough” to be considered for the National Register.  This building, like many of the state’s New Deal era legacy, has since been listed in the National Register.  And its grounds have been re-energized for all who walk by through the installation of a statue in honor of Malcolm Story, designed by Belgrade, Montana, artist Jim Dolan and placed in front of the earlier high school in 1995.

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Across Main Street is another public anchor, also funded by the New Deal in the late 1930s and also designed by Fred Willson:  the Art Deco classicism of the Gallatin County Courthouse.  Next door is the historic county jail, in a distinctive castellated Gothic style, which already had been converted into headquarters for the local historical society and county museum when I visited in 1984.  The facility still serves that purpose today.

A couple of blocks away from this public landscape core of Bozeman were additional public buildings, on side streets to Main Street.  Tracy and Babcock Streets had the town’s first two federal buildings/post office.  The 1915 neoclassical styled post office operated until 1964 and filled several community roles, including a turn in the 1990s hit movie A River Runs Through It until it became home to the non-profit HRDC after a complete renovation at the turn of the 21st century.  The building also has been enlivened by the addition of Jim Dolan’s statue in honor of Jeanette Ranklin, the first woman U.S. Congress representative, elected in 2010 from Montana.

Nearby is the mid-1960s Federal Building, a grand though boxy five-story building that symbolized the growth of the federal government and its impact on Gallatin County in the Cold War era while also adding a modernist design landmark to the city’s mix of Victorian and Classical architectural styles.  The earlier post office was given attention in my 1984-85; due to its date of construction and style, I paid no attention to the new Federal Building.  I didn’t repeat that mistake in 2015–the Federal Building of 1964-66 is one of the region’s most impressive statements of Montana modernism. and a much more recent Federal Building, which I ignored, for reasons of chronology that no longer apply in 2015.

The final public anchor was the Carnegie Library of 1902-1903, one of the better architectural expressions of Classical Revival style in the state, designed by architect Charles S. Haire, who shaped so much of state’s architecture in the early 20th century.

IMG_6895Then Senator Moss took me for a quick tour of its late 1990s renovation in 2007–its conversion into law offices respected both its original spaces and interior design.

 

That brings me to the four commercial anchors you encountered on Main Street in 1984-1985.  Two were massive buildings on either end of Main Street that defined the entire district–the Renaissance Revival style of Hotel Baxter, individually listed in the National Register in 1984, and the massiveness of the Victorian Romanesque style of The Bozeman Block, reminding everyone of the town’s railroad era.

In the middle of the district were two other key National Register properties–the Ellen Theatre, a wonderful Beaux Arts design scaled for the small town that it served in the 1920s.  Everyone thought that keeping a movie house/ theater downtown would help keep it alive at night.  The second building, the Union Hall, was both historically important but also could serve as a symbol of what downtown revitalization meant–a building need not

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be spectacular to serve an important role in the historic district.  The c. 1880s building belonged to the town’s boom during after the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, and originally served as a brewery.  Here was where the Bozeman historic preservation office was located when I conducted the state historic preservation plan survey in 1984-85. Next let’s consider the town’s railroad resources, a focal point of mine 30 years ago.

 

 

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