Adaptive Reuse and Montana’s Depots

When I carried out the 1984-1985 survey of Montana as part of the state historic preservation planning process, one resource was at the forefront of my mind–railroad passenger stations.  Not only had recent scholarship by John Hudson and John Stilgoe brought new interest to the topic, there had been the recent bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road, and the end of passenger service in large parts of the state, except along the Hi-Line of the old Great Northern Railway (where Amtrak still runs today.)


The mid-20th century standardized design for Great Northern stations at Chester on US 2.

Some of the passenger stations in the major cities had already been converted into new uses, such as restaurants, offices, and various downtown commercial uses. The lovely turn of the twentieth century stations for the Great Northern (left) and the Milwaukee Road (right) in Great Falls showed how the location of the buildings, plus their

architectural quality and the amount of available space made them perfect candidates for adaptive reuse.  While the tenants have changed over the past 30 plus years, both buildings still serve as heritage anchors for the city. While success marked early adaptive reuse projects in Great Falls and Missoula, for instance, it was slow to come to Montana’s largest city–the neoclassical styled Northern Pacific depot was abandoned and

Billings 2006 002deteriorating in the mid-1980s but a determined effort to save the building and use it as an anchor for the Montana Avenue historic district has proven to be a great success in the 21st century.

In the 1984-1985 I documented hundreds of railroad depots across Big Sky Country.  From 2012-2015 I noted how many had disappeared–an opportunity to preserve heritage and put a well-located substantial building for the building back to work had been wasted.  But I also came away with a deep appreciation of just how many types of new lives train stations could have.

park County 2008 017

Turning iconic buildings into community museums is a time-honored tradition, as you can find at the magnificent Northern Pacific station at Livingston, shown above.  A handful of Montana communities have followed that tradition–I am especially glad that people in Harlowton and Wheatland County banded together to preserve the

IMG_9725.JPGMilwaukee Road depot there, since Harlowtown was such an important place in the railroad’s history as an electric line.


But there are so many other uses–as they know in Lewistown.  Already in the mid-1980s investors in Lewistown had turned the old Milwaukee Road station, shown above, into a hotel and conference center, the Yogo Inn.  When I visited Lewistown in 2013 the Yogo was undergoing a facelift after 30 years as a commercial business. The town’s other



historic depot, a substantial brick building (above) from the Great Northern Railway, was a gas station, convenience mart, office building, and store, all in one.


Deer Lodge MT 2006 001

Deer Lodge MT 2006 002

Deer Lodge is blessed with both of its historic depots.  The Milwaukee Road depot has become a church while the Northern Pacific depot became the Powell County Senior Citizens Center.  Indeed, converting such a community landmark into a community center is popular in other Montana towns, such as the National Register-listed passenger station shown below in Kevin, Toole County, near the border with Canada.


One of the most encouraging trends of this century is how many families have turned depots into their homes–you can’t beat the location and the long, horizontal nature of the often-found combination depot (passenger station and luggage warehouse in same building) means that these dwellings have much in common with the later Ranch-style houses of the 1950s and 1960s.


A former Great Northern depot in Windham.


A Milwaukee Road depot turned into a home in Rosebud County.

But in my work from 2012-15 I found more and more examples of how local entrepreneurs have turned these historic buildings into businesses–from a very simple, direct conversion from depot to warehouse in Grassrange to the use of the Milwaukee Road depot in Roundup as the local electric company office.



As these last examples attest–old buildings can still serve communities, economically and gracefully.  Not all historic preservation means the creation of a museum–that is the best course in only a few cases.  But well-built and maintained historic buildings can be almost anything else–the enduring lesson of adaptive reuse

To those who built a state, and made history

Sad news came out of the state capitol last week when budget cuts gave the Montana Historical Society no choice but to announce that its uber talented staff just don’t have the funding to travel to the hundreds of important places across the state, to gather stories, preserve historic buildings, conserve invaluable documents and photographs, and to celebrate with communities both large and small the history, traditions, and people that made Montana the special place it is.


It’s unfortunate when a state steps back from its past and thinks its future is better without it.  When I look for those who built the state, the deep past is where I start, and the leaps forward in how Montana’s tribes are documenting and interpreting their history to their terms and needs, one of the most important developments in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 plus years.


Then there are the properties that link the peoples of Montana and their sense of themselves and their past–cemeteries large and small across the state, where veterans are commemorated and families celebrated.

IMG_7537Fort Kipp Cemetery, above, is one of those place, nestled on the river bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  On a larger scale but still intimate, personal, and compelling is the city cemetery of Red Lodge, hundreds of miles away. Here surrounded by the mountains

are graves from the early Finnish residents who came to work at the coal mines and build a community. Some are of a traditional design, immediately translated from the old country.  Others–like the cast iron family marker shown above–are as mainstream as American industry could make it at the turn of the twentieth century:  a prefabricated marker cast somewhere back east but with Finnish lettering, speaking to those who also came over in c.1900 to build a new land.


The Finnish imprint on the landscape of Carbon County has been eclipsed by generations of growth since the early 1900s, but as the 2016 Road Show of the Montana Preservation Alliance demonstrated, buildings large and small are still part of the landscape.  With a few acres of land outside of Red Lodge, Finnish settlers and their descendants have maintained a place of community–the Kavela–which remains vibrant some 100 years later.  At this place of ethnic identity and celebration, you almost feel like an intruder–that you have stepped inside a sacred circle as an outsider.  But families go out of their way to make you feel welcome, through fellowship, good food, and stories of past and present.  The Kavela naturally features one of the most traditional Finnish community buildings–the sauna, built of concrete in the 1920s.  Speak of tradition, ethnic pride, and assimilation–a concrete sauna might say it all.


Indeed what you can find in the Finnish landscape of Carbon County is repeated countless times across Big Sky Country, just in different languages and with different forms.  It is why you get off the interstates and travel the backroads, the dirt roads, for


the markers of the nations that built our nation can be almost anywhere. It might be of the many ethnicities who mined the copper of Butte, or the African American railroad

workers and other average citizens who established permanent institutions such as the Bethel Union AME Church in Great Falls, pictured below.

Cascade Co Union Bethel AME Church NR 1

Stonemasons from Croatia are credited with many of the architecturally striking stone buildings in Lewistown, shown below, whereas if you stop and explore the state capital

Fergus Co Lewistown masonic temple downtown commercial HD 13 - Version 2

of Helena, you can see where  Irish Americans banded together to fund some of the state’s most iconic structures, from the majestic Catholic Cathedral that overlooks the city and the commanding statue of General Thomas Meagher in front of the State Capitol.

From the Meagher statue it is only a few steps to the east to the doors of the Montana Historical Society.  Its operating hours are fewer but you will find an institution not just of the past but of the future for like the land itself, the society, its collections, and dedicated staff are the keepers of the things and words that remain from those who built the state.  The idea that Montana can stride into the 21st century without the Montana Historical Society is folly, defined.