Kalispell’s downtown historic districts: the public and sacred

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When Kalispell developed and approved its National Register multiple property nomination project in the early 1990s, the residents embraced historic preservation as part of the city’s future and its economic development.  With its Preserve America designation from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, residents took their efforts to a new level and when I visited in 2015 it seemed that everywhere I went I found physical examples of their determination to melt the past with the present and the future.

Flathead Co Kalispell Main St courthouse

This work throughout the city–such as the restoration of the Flathead County Courthouse (1904-5)  at the south end of the business district–is impressive.  When created in the late 19th century, Kalispell was as classic of a T-plan railroad town as you could find, with its depot and Great Northern Railroad line marking the top of the T, Main Street businesses lining the stem of the T, and then the courthouse standing at the bottom of the

Flathead Co Kalispell Main St courthouse 1

stem.  Despite its eye-popping late eclectic Victorian style and soaring clock tower, magnificence of the courthouse, designed by famed Montana architects Bell and Kent,  reacted to the railroad engineers’ arrangement of space within the town itself.  Certainly, the railroad, at the head of town, was important, but the public mattered too–not just at the courthouse but another impressive Victorian era monument, the Richardsonian Romanesque-styled Kalispell Central School of 1894, which is now a city museum.

Designed by William White of Great Falls, this impressive statement of town building by local residents was threatened with demolition in 1991–indeed its plight was one of the issues that awoke local citizens to the need for the National Register multiple property nomination.  Not only was this landmark preserved, its transformation into a museum met a heritage tourism need in the region, and also marks, in my mind, one of the most positive developments in historic preservation in the region in the last 30 years.

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Other public buildings in Kalispell, however, show how the past can work with present.  From my work in 1984-85 to my visit in 2015, Kalispell’s population more than doubled, demanding enhanced public services.  Yet the city found a way to retain the simple yet effective Colonial Revival-styled building the 1927 City Water Department while extending that block into a new center for public safety services with a modernist styled complex.

Flathead Co Kalispell public safety building

Flathead Co Kalispell public safety building 1The town’s early religious institutions also built to stay, leaving key landmarks throughout the neighborhoods that serve as historic anchors today. On Main Street alone there is the unique Arts and Crafts styled First Presbyterian Church (1925-26) by architect Fred Brinkman, and the Gothic Revival masonry and tower of Bethlehem Lutheran Church (1932-1937).

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Also on South Main Street nearby Bethlehem Lutheran is another related architectural monument, the Hjortland Memorial Youth Center, which came out of the Bud Hjortland Memorial Fund and was constructed in contemporary 1950s style between 1953 and 1954.

Flathead Co Kalispell Hjortland Youth Lutheran center 1953

My favorite modernist style Main Street landmark is the St. Matthew’s Catholic School (1958) which serves students from preschool to grade 8.

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Flathead Co Kalispell Main St catholic schoolThe city’s first Catholic school dated to 1917.  The historic St. Matthew’s Catholic Church (1910) by Great Falls architect George Shanley remains the city’s most commanding Gothic landmark.

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