Helena, 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.
Helena 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.
The 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
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.
The 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.
This 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.
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.
Once 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
anchor, 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
Federal 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
modern 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.