Helena’s downtowns

img_0964Helena, the capitol city of Montana, was where I made my home from 1981 to 1985, and served as my base for travels far and wide across the state during my work for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office’s preservation plan in 1984-1985.  I started the project at the 1950s modernist Montana Historical Society building next door to the state capitol.

I ended the project at a far different environment, one of Helena’s downtown historic buildings, just off from Last Chance Gulch.

masonic-hall-helenaHelena then was a small town but a big urban environment, and I used to enjoy exploring its two sided urban landscape:  the 1970s “Last Chance Mall” where planners and designers closed the street for a few blocks and inserted a pedestrian mall, thinking that a “walking mall” experience would keep businesses downtown, and then the rest of the downtown before urban planners decided to change it into something it never was.

Don’t misread me–I spent many, many hours in the town’s Last Chance Mall, and at first I thought it quite brilliant, because as the historian I liked the fact that the walking experience was distracted by various interpretive pieces, depicting cattle drives, placer mining, and early 20th century urban life.

But soon enough I was like long-time residents–the sculptural and interpretive elements were nice enough for tourists–it was the surrounding historic brick environments that proved much more fascinating, and lasting.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-026The impetus behind the urban renewal of the 1970s was not only federal dollars through the Model Cities program but also federal presence.  Officials wished to anchor the new Last Chance Gulch Urban Renewal project with a Park Avenue section that

 

began at the intersection of Last Chance Gulch and Broadway and then stretched back to new modernist-styled city library and a flashy Federal Building, moving the federal presence from where it had stood for most of the century–on a hill overlooking the gulch

helena library plaza

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in an Italian Renaissance-styled landmark designed by federal architect James Knox Taylor and constructed in 1904.  That building would become a new city-county municipal building, still with a downtown post office.

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 047 federal building post officeThe pedestrian mall on its west side ends at the imposing Richardsonian Romanesque styled T.C. Power Block, one of my favorite commercial buildings not just in Helena but in all of Montana.

Once you crossed the street, you found yet another downtown–not more historic but more architecturally diverse and without as many 1970s improvements.  The gulch is the dominant corridor,  with two lanes of traffic, parked cars, and all of the traffic bustle you expected in a historic downtown.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-043This downtown has several architectural landmarks, as you see below with the Art Deco-styled First National Bank building, and then a short block away, a magnificent statement of power and influence, the Montana Club, designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert.

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Gilbert would gain his greatest fame later in his career for the designs of the Woolworth Building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.  The Montana Club (1903-1905) comes from the first part of Gilbert’s career, where he pursued multiple design inspirations, from the Richardsonian to the Gothic to the stylish Arts and Crafts approach then described as Mission style.

Certainly this part of downtown has changed over the last 30 years, be it from recent, and quite necessary, preservation work at the Montana Club to jazzy new facades added to commercial blocks along the way.

A whole different world, one of the 21st century, beckons when you walk through the Hill park, with its controversial fountain founded by a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and reach the park’s intersection with Neill Avenue.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-049Once you cross Neill Avenue, you enter a new downtown of 21st century Helena, created by the demolition of the historic Great Northern Railway passenger station in the 1990s and the construction of a new Federal Reserve Bank.  Here suddenly was a new downtown

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 078 federal reserve bankanchor, similar to that of the 1977 Federal Building on the opposite end of Last Chance Gulch.  And the name given to this?  the Great Northern Center, where not only the

 

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-073Federal Reserve lived but also a huge new Federal Courthouse, the Paul G. Hatfield Courthouse (2001-2002), a neoclassical monument of a scale that Helena had not seen since the construction of the State Capitol more than a century earlier, along with its more

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-071modern styled neighbor, the Senator Max Baucus Federal Building.  In less than 40 years, the federal presence not only moved from one end of the gulch to another, it had become much larger and architecturally distinct.

All that remained from the Helena I recalled from 1985 was the Moorish Revival Civic Center, a building unique in an architectural style but one that still serves as community gathering spot for the arts and music.  Here I experienced the Johnny Cash Show in the early 1980s, among other concerts and events. Downtown Helena now has four layers, and the surrounding neighborhoods had changed too–as we shall explore in future posts.

 

 

 

 

 

Dutton, a country town with modern monuments

2011 MT Pondera County Dutton Mike's tavern 017At first glance, Dutton is like many northern plains railroad towns, located on the Great Northern Railway spur line between Shelby and Great Falls.  The false front of Mike’s Tavern, then other plain, functional one-story buildings–we have seen hundreds of similar scenes across the Big Sky Country.

2011 MT Pondera County Dutton modern school 023Then, suddenly, there is the cool mid-century modernism of the Dutton-Brady School (Brady is another neighboring railroad town), a style also embraced by the Bethany Lutheran Church.

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But neither of these buildings prepare you for the Dutton State Bank, perhaps the best small town modernist buildings in Montana.

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Anytime I have been in this part of Montana over the last 30 years, I have stopped to see if the Dutton bank was (1) still in business (times have been difficult for small banks to say the least) and (2) if the building had changed in a major way.  In the last 30 years, a small addition has been made to the rear of the building, but all other character defining features remain, especially the “wheat-themed” sign.  It lets anyone know that while the railroad provides the transportation, it is wheat that drives the local economy,  What a wonderful, fun commercial building.

 

The east side of Glacier

HPIM0036.JPGAll of Glacier National Park is spectacular, frankly, but as you reach Logan Pass and consider the historic architecture on the east side of the park, often the landscape itself overpowers the man-made environment, be it the modernist visitor center at Logan Pass, above to the left of center of the image, or the Many Glacier Hotel on the north end of the park, below. The manmade is insignificant compared to the grandeur of the mountains.

HPIM0028.JPGThe reverse is true at East Glacier, where the mammoth Glacier Park Lodge competes with the surrounding environment.  The massive log hotel was the brainchild of Louis Hill, the president of the Great Northern Railway, who wished for a building that could mirror the earlier 1905 Forestry Hall for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.  Hill had the vision but architect Samuel L. Bartlett of St. Paul, Minnesota, carried the vision into an architectural plan.

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The lodge is impressive however you consider it and it served as a trend setter for the image that Hill wished to give visitors to his newly designated national park.

The huge main lobby, grounded in imported Douglas firs from the Pacific Northwest, brings the loftiness of the park to the interior of the hotel.

The lodge proved popular with train travelers and additions came as early as 1914-1915, with further expansions due to the demand from automobile travelers on U.S. 2.

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2011-mt-glacier-park-and-communities-083But the long landscaped walkway from the Glacier Park Lodge to the Great Northern passenger station, also themed in Rustic style, let everyone know who was in charge–the railroad, whose influence created the national park and then built the facilities that defined the look of the park for the next 100 years.

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2011 MT Glacier Park and communities 067 East Glacier GN depot

And the trains continue to arrive throughout the summer, bringing tourists to this iconic mountain National Historic Landmark.

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Conrad’s railroad corridor

Pondera Co Conrad signConrad, the seat of Pondera County, is a railroad town, although the town’s close proximity to Interstate I-15 means that so many have forgotten the importance of this Great Northern Railway spur line that stretches from Shelby on the main line south to Great Falls.

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img_9361The town’s 1920s Arts and Crafts/ Chalet style Great Northern passenger station, along with grain elevators, serve as a reminder of the railroad’s importance to transporting the grains from neighboring ranches.

2011-mt-pondera-county-conrad-006Facing the depot is a combination symmetrical town, with one story brick buildings, several of them classic western bars, and then a block long T-plan that connects to the historic federal highway U.S. 87.

Pondera Co Conrad

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The Orpheum Theatre (1917-1918) was barely hanging on when I visited in 1985 and then by the end of the century, it appeared that the theatre would never be the center of community life it had been in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Pondera Arts Council then acquired the building, restored, and it is now once again a centerpiece of the community, one of several signs of how Conrad has turned to historic preservation to build new futures out of its pasts.

 

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Cut Bank’s Public Art

No doubt readers may doubt that public art and Cut Bank are used in the same sentence, but the use of historical murals to enliven the town’s historic commercial core was the biggest change I experienced from visiting Cut Bank in 1984 and 2015.

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This welcome sign on U.S. Highway 2 in 1984 touted the oil boom that so re-shaped the town and Glacier County generally in the second half of the twentieth century.  Then the town’s penguin, a roadside landmark on U.S. 2,  accepted the commonly heard observation that Cut Bank was the coldest place in all of Montana–its World War II air base always was reporting weather conditions, ensuring that many Americans equated Cut Bank with frozen temps.

2011-mt-glacier-county-cut-bank-028I am speaking instead of the wide range of images and themes that visually interpret the town’s and county’s history. Finding public art murals about the open landscape once dominated by the Blackfeet Indians and the buffalo is not surprising–communities often embrace the deep history of their land.

Glacier Co Cut Bank buffalo and indians mural ruralThat Cut Bank also has a large expressive mural about the Lewis and Clark Expedition is not surprising–murals about Lewis and Clark were installed across several towns during the bicentennial of the expedition in the first decade of this century. East of Cut Bank is Camp Disappointment, one of the more important sites associated with the Corps of Discovery.

Glacier Co Cut Bank L&C muralNor is it surprising to see communities commemorate their homesteading roots, and the importance of agriculture and cattle ranching.

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural homesteaders

Glacier Co Cut Bank cowboys murals 3But I was surprised, pleasantly, by the number of murals that also documented the town’s twentieth century history, whether it is the magnificent steel trestle of the Great Northern Railway just west of the commercial core, or a mural that reminded everyone of the days when the railroad dominated all traffic here.

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural trestle

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The actual trestle along U.S. Highway 2.

img_9162It is this first half of the 20th century feel that the murals interpret–the era that actually built most of the historic buildings you find there today–that I find so impressive and memorable about Cut Bank, be it people on bicycles or what an old service station was like.

Glacier Co Cut Bank theater deco bike mural

img_9173Space matters when you interpret the built environment, and these various murals reflect not only a sense of town pride and identity they also give meaning to buildings and stories long forgotten.

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Number 300: The west side of Glacier National Park

img_8860Somehow it is most appropriate that my 300th post for Revisiting the Montana Landscape would find me back at Glacier National Park, especially the west side or Flathead County part of the park. From the first visit in 1982, Glacier always intrigued me–at first because of the tie between park creation and railroad development, then the Arts and Crafts/Chalet architecture associated with the park, and then high mountain Alpine environment. In the years since, I have eagerly grabbed a chance to get a cabin by Lake McDonald and just re-charge for a few days.

img_4383For the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work, however, I did not visit the west side of the park–the bulk of the travel took place between mid-February to mid-May 1984, meaning only the lower elevations such as Apgar Village were accessible.  But already the state historic preservation office was aware that a major effort was underway to identify and nominate key properties within the park to the National Register of Historic Places, and by the end of the decade that process was largely complete.  The National Park Service identified a range of historic resources from the turn of the 20th century to the Mission 66 program of the National Park Service during the 1960s–Glacier became one of the best studied historic landscapes in all of Montana.

Going-t0-the-Sun Road is an engineering marvel from the early automobile age in the park, straight and safe in the lower reaches but as you climb into the mountains it is narrow and dangerous–for those who refuse to follow the rules of the road.

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View of Lake Shelburne, east side of park, Glacier County, from Going-to-the-Sun Road.

On the west side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald Lodge is listed as a National Historic Landmark for its significance in and influence on the Arts and Crafts/Chalet style within the national park.

Flathead Co GNP Lake McDonald Lodge

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Built initially as the Lewis Glacier Hotel for Great Falls businessman John Lewis in 1913, architect Kirkland Cutter’s design reflected his earlier work at the Belton Chalet, but his interior design was a step above, especially in how he incorporated local materials, the mountain goat symbol of the Great Northern Railway, and Native American motifs to create an environment that was both of the outdoors but also of the deep cultural meaning of the mountains. The hanging lanterns are more recent, being reproductions added in the 1960s from originals at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada.  Their original designs are attributed to Kanai artists.

In 1957, the property changed its name to the Lake McDonald Lodge and soon various new buildings were added, in part to meet the demand for increased visitation but also to meet the tastes and expectations of suburban Americans who came to park not by train but by automobile. The Lake McDonald Lodge Coffee Shop (1965) has been listed in the National

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img_8916Register as an excellent example of Mission 66-associated architecture within the park.  Burt L. Gewalt of the Kalispell firm Brinkman and Lenon was the architect.

img_9268Great Northern officials considered the lodge to be the center of the mountain experience on the park’s west side.  From there visitors could take overnight hikes to two other facilities, shown below, the Granite Park Chalet to the northeast or the Sperry Chalet to the southeast of Lake McDonald, both of which are also listed in the National Register.

When I knew of my new position at the recently created MTSU Center for Historic Preservation in the summer of 1985, my wife and I made a quick last trip to the chalets, the lodge, and Glacier National Park.  Perhaps that decision, moreso than my words, show what the park and its built environment has meant to my understanding of landscape, design, and escape in the Big Sky Country.

 

Flathead County’s Gateway Communities to Glacier

Flathead Co Columbia Falls mural

U.S. Highway 2 east of Kalispell has grown into a four-lane highway (mostly–topography thus far has kept it as a two-lane stretch west of Hungry Horse) designed to move travelers back and forth from Kalispell to Glacier National Park.  In my 1984-85 state historic preservation plan work, I thought of Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, and Martin

Flathead Co Hungry Horse HuckleberryCity as one large tourism funnel.  After spending a good part of 2006-2007 working with local residents and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park about the heritage and preservation of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–one of the most notorious gateways into any national park–I learned to look deeper than the highway landscape and find some real jewels in each of these Glacier National Park gateway communities.

There is much more than the highway to Columbia Falls, as the three building blocks above indicate, not to mention the lead image of this blog, the town’s Masonic Lodge which has been turned into one huge public art mural about the town’s history as well as its surrounding landscape.  Go to the red brick Bandit’s Bar above, and you soon discover that Columbia Falls has a good sense of itself, and even confidence that it can survive new challenges as its population has soared by over 2,000 residents since the 1980s, totaling over 5,000 today.

Once solely dependent on the Montana Veterans’ Home (1896), which is now a historic district, and then relying on the Weyerhaeuser sawmill for year round employment, Columbia Falls faces a different future now once the mill closed in the summer of 2016, taking away 200 jobs. As the historic business buildings above indicate, historic preservation could be part of that future, as the downtown’s mix of classic Western Commercial blocks mesh with modern takes on Rustic and Contemporary design and are complemented, in turn, by historic churches and the Art Deco-influenced school.

Once you leave the highway, in other words, real jewels of turn of the 20th century to mid-20th century design are in the offing.  In 1984–I never looked that deep.

Flathead Co Hungry Horse 1At Hungry Horse, however, I did leave the highway and explored the marvelous landscape created by the Hungry Horse Dam and Reservoir, a mid-20th century project by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency justified the dam as a hydroelectric power project for a growing Flathead County and as a boost to local irrigation.  The irrigation side of the project–the real reason the agency exists–never happened and Hungry Horse today is an electric power and recreational project.

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Flathead Co Hungry Horse Dam 10I appreciated the vastness of the concrete arch dam–the 11th largest concrete dam in the United States–as well as the beauty of Hungry Horse Reservoir, an under-appreciated tourism asset as anyone in Flathead County will tell you.  But again, I let just the size and impact of the dam distract me from some of the details of its construction that, today, are so striking.

Here I am thinking primarily of the contemporary design of the Visitors Center–its stone facade suggesting its connection to the now covered river bluffs but the openness of its interior conveying the ideas of space associated with 1950s design.

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img_8779I am concerned, however, about news in September 2015 that Reclamation has contracted for updates and renovation at the Visitor Center–let’s hope that the classic 1950s look of the property is not sacrificed.

Flathead Co Martin City

 

Martin City is just enough off of U.S. Highway 2–it is situated more on the historic Great Northern Railroad corridor–to miss out on the gateway boom of the last 30 years, although with both the Southfork Saloon and the Deer Lick Saloon it retains its old reputation as a rough-edged place for locals.

For railroad travelers in the first half of the 20th century, West Glacier was THE west gateway into Glacier National Park.  The Great Northern Railway developed both the classic Rustic-styled passenger station and the adjacent Arts and Crafts/Chalet styled Belton Chalet Hotel in 1909-1910, a year before Congress created Glacier National Park.

img_8785Architect Kirtland Cutter of Spokane was the architect and the chalet design was actually just a smaller scale and less adorned version of the Idaho State Exhibition Building that he had designed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Cutter is one of the major figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Northwest and we will look at another of his buildings for the railroad and Glacier in the next post about Lake McDonald Lodge.

The Cutter buildings for the railroad between 1909-1913 set a design standard for West Glacier to follow, be it through a modern-day visitor center and a post office to the earlier mid-20th century era of the local school and then gas stations and general stores for tourists entering the national park by automobile.

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This blog has never hidden the fact, however, that my favorite Glacier gateway in Flathead County is miles to the east along U.S. Highway 2 at the old railroad town of Essex, where the railroad still maintains facilities to help push freight trains over the Continental Divide.  The Izaak Walton Inn was one of the first National Register assignments given to

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me by State Historic Preservation Officer Marcella Sherfy–find the facts, she asked, to show that this three story bunk house, railroad offices, and local post merited exceptional significance for the National Register.  Luckily I did find those facts and shaped that argument–the owners then converted a forgotten building into a memorable historical experience. Rarely do I miss a chance to spend even a few minutes here, to watch and hear the noise of the passing trains coming from the east or from the west and to catch a sunset high in the mountains of Flathead County.

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