In the early 1980s, when we talked about Butte houses, we had two new house museums on our mind: the William Clark Mansion (above), home to one of the city’s three major copper kings, and then the very different abode of his brother Charles, known then as the Arts Chateau (below) for its conversion into the city’s art center.
As a historian and historic preservationist of my generation, it was impossible not to revel in the colorful diversity of Victorian era styles found in Montana’s historic mining cities, places like Butte and Helena in particular. For someone who arrived in Montana from Colonial Williamsburg, the opportunity to finally explore a Victorian era landscape, from the late 1870s–the vernacular Victorian styled Jacobs House below dates c. 1879– to the turn of the century, was a delight.
It also was a responsibility. Even in 1984 it was clear that there would never be adequate public monies for the needs of the town’s domestic architecture. A new sense of stewardship, and the ability to solve preservation issues at the local level, would be required–and the Butte historic district commission is just one of the groups that has helped to fill that gap. Butte CPR–Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization–has made
a significant impact through its grant programs for facade improvements and repair. The organization formed in 1994 and has provided vital funds for historic preservation work on both private homes and businesses for over 20 years.
These efforts could come none too soon. In the 1980s it seemed that three generations of historic houses would rot away because no one wanted to live on the hill and had headed to the suburban utopia of the flats. Friends often kidded me about getting my Butte getaway for $25K. Not that the depressed, and depressing, situation was without its temptations. The housing stock is fascinating in its variety, details, historical associations, and sense of time and place.
During the boom of the late 19th and early 20 centuries, housing on prominent streets was fitted in wherever possible, as private homes also became rentals for boarders and temporary residents. At the same time, middle-class business owners and mine administrators engaged architects to design their homes, or duplexes, in the fashionable academic styles. In c. 1890 John Patterson was the designer of the McHatton House while Moses Bassett designed the Largely Flats (both below).
These middle-class Victorians are prized today, and Butte has dozens, especially along West Granite and Broadway.
Let there be no doubt, however, Butte’s houses also documented the chasm between labor and capital in the copper city. The small, vernacular-styled dwellings of the working class have disappeared from so much of the city–such places are almost always the first victims of urban renewal–but enough remain, stuck here and there to convey what most laborers had as home back in the boom era.
In the north end, Walkerville still shows this working side of domestic architecture well.
Here are blocks upon blocks of the unpretentious, yet homey, dwellings of those drilling out a life below the ground. And elsewhere in the city you have surviving enclaves of the
plain homes of the era, with some enlivened by glorious combinations of yard art.
Some places speak to larger truths, often hidden in the landscape, of segregated spaces and segregated lives. This corner of Idaho Street (see below) was once home to the local African Methodist Episcopal church, which served a small surrounding neighborhood of black families.
By the turn of the century, the local titans of capital lived in a far different neighborhood, concentrated along North Excelsior and Park Avenue. Here was the Hodgens-Ryan House of 1899, 1906 in flamboyant Colonial Revival style. Nearby on Park was the Hennessy Mansion, c. 1900, with its two-story Colonial Revival-inspired portico providing a sense of the grandiose to what otherwise was just another brick four-square house.
In the early 1980s, we were not even thinking about the “contemporary style” homes of the 1950s and 1960s. We saw ourselves as edgy when we even gave bungalows, like these
along Gold Street, a second look. When you come to Butte today, it is impossible to ignore how the city has several outstanding examples of mid-20th century domestic architecture. Ophir Street might be the best destination, but Montrose Street also has its marvels.
This post has focused on detached houses–boarding houses and apartment complexes are also found throughout the city’s residential areas. The Mueller Apartments may have been the most ambitious but many others, like the Scott, have been restored to new lives.
The comeback of Butte’s residential neighborhoods is no miracle–it is the legacy of a generation of long-term and new citizens determined to build the foundation for Butte’s future through homes for their families.