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.)

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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A former Great Northern depot in Windham.

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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.

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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

Libby: Disaster and Persistence

Lincoln Co Libby stem of T planLibby is the seat of Lincoln County, a typical railroad town along the historic Great Northern Railway corridor.  The image above is from the town’s railroad depot, the symbolic beginning of town, from which runs a long main street of businesses, reflecting the T-plan town design, where the long railroad corridor defines the top of the T and the main street forms the stem of the T.

The depot is a good example of the railway’s “Chalet” style that it used in many of its Rocky Mountain properties, reflecting the influence of the early resorts in Glacier National Park and the railroad’s wish to connect such rural outposts as Libby with the tourism traffic it wished to generate along the line.

Libby was much like I remembered it from 1984.  The town’s population had dropped by about 100, and some historic store buildings had been leveled, but a new brew pub was in operation and the historic Dome Theater was still going strong.

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And I liked the New Deal impact on Libby’s public buildings, such as the WPA Deco City Hall, which is now solely the domain of the police department.  Then there is the Lincoln County Courthouse, truly a story of two buildings in one as the mid-1930s Art Deco-styled

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img_8345courthouse received a totally new front, in a contemporary style, in the 1970s as the town and county expanded in the wake of the federal spending in constructing Libby Dam. The rectangular blockiness, flat roof, and band of windows set within a symmetrical facade makes the courthouse one of the state’s best designs for a rural public building in the late 20th century.

img_8348 I liked all of those things about Libby in 1984. Imagine my shock and disappointment to learn, as everyone else did, that Libby was one of the poisoned places in the west.  In 1919, vermiculite, a natural material that contains asbestos, had been discovered outside of town, and the mines were still operating, producing 80 percent of the vermiculite in the world, under the control of the W.R. Grace company. Residue from the mines had been used in local yards and buildings for decades, a fact that was not known  when I visited the town for the state historic preservation plan.  When the discovery of the danger became public, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency entered into the fray in 1999, it was already too late for many residents.  A federal Superfund project began, and did not conclude its work until 2015, spending some $425 million. Then in 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency announced a public health emergency, spending another $130 million to help residents and to leave a new health infrastructure in place.  In a generation, Libby had been turned inside out.  EPA announced in 2016 that the cleanup would continue to 2018, and that the project was the longest in the agency’s history.

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The Cabinet Peak Medical Center (2014), designed by CTA Architects, represents the beginning of a new chapter in Libby’s history, as it starts its second century. It extends the city’s earlier healthcare history, represented by the historic St. John Lutheran Hospital, which opened in the 1952 and operated until 2014 when it was closed in favor of the new Cabinet Peaks center.

Lincoln Co Libby hospitalDespite the disaster, I saw many signs that Libby residents were determined to remain and rebuild their community.  One of the most powerful examples is the conversion of one of  the town’s historic schools into a new community arts center as well as school administration offices.

 

Then the public library–home to an active and lively genealogy group and collection–is still a point of pride and activity.  The same is true for the mid-1970s Lincoln County Museum–a wonderful modern log building designed and built by the community during the American Bicentennial just outside of Libby–which remains an active part of the town’s heritage tourism offerings.

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Lincoln Co Libby museum 5The asbestos crisis was a terrible disaster for Libby–yet residents refused to let it define their future.  There are past accomplishments to acknowledge, an active railroad depot to cherish, a beautiful river and lake, the mountains all around, as celebrated in this public art mural on a downtown building. This place is here to stay, and the historic built environment is a large part of it.

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The Missoula Mercantile’s Uncertain Future

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As I write this post, one of Montana’s earliest and most significant commercial buildings faces demolition.  Considering the many positive gains Missoula has achieved from the wise adaptive reuse of its historic built environment–for example, unlike so many Montana cities, it has both of its historic railroad depots (the Northern Pacific and the

Milwaukee Road) still extant and serving as architectural and cultural anchors for the city. Missoula has kept the corporate landmarks of its founding generation, but now, some 125 plus years after the fact it wishes to dump its entrepreneurial landmark in the Mercantile Building? Incredible.

I have been following the story for years now through the pages of the Missoulian and read the accounts of the terrible condition of the building, and how nothing can be done with this–and 21st century Missoula needs this block to be vibrant again.  As regular readers of this blog are well aware, the Mercantile is not in poor condition–we have looked at buildings that fall into that category–and I can add in other examples across the country where a building might need a hand-up but it can still serve us today.  No doubt, the Mercantile needs to be re-energized, not as a purist historic preservation,

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museum-quality restoration but an approach that accepts that this block and the four brick walls that define the block also define something fundamental to the Missoula psyche and identity.  Corporate giants like the railroads of old still stride across Montana, and often still get their away.  But what made communities and built cities were not just those rails of steel but the commitment by private business men and women to establish opportunities for themselves and their employees.  Such commercial emporiums as the Mercantile not only helped to build Missoula but all of the surrounding towns and ranches where Montanans came her to trade.

Missoula Co Missoula mercantile 6Are we truly at a point in our culture that we can’t take the past and build a stronger community–this blog has pointed out countless examples of how that has happened across Montana–and we rather tear down and waste as we bow to the inevitability of Big box retail?  The entrepreneurial spirit of Montana needs its landmarks–and the adaptive reuse of the Mercantile would be a great place to say here we make our stand, and build a better Missoula.

 

 

Stevensville: continuity in the midst of change

Stevensville commercial HDSince my earlier work on the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, few places in Montana had experienced such rapid population growth as Stevensville.  The place had just over 1200 residents in the 1980s, and that increased to a mere 1221 in 1990.  But now Stevensville is close to 2,000 in population.IMG_2472

Stevensville Feed and Mill, 407 MainBut enough is still here–like the historic mill complex above–that even as the business changes there is still the feel of an agricultural town at Stevensville. A major reason for the sense of continuity is the Stevensville Commercial Historic District, which has helped to protect the core of the town.

IOOF Hall, 217-19 Main St, StevensvilleAlso, buildings such as the two-story Old Fellows Hall (1912) have been individually listed in the National Register, adding prominence to the historic district. The district has a range of one-story and two-story brick buildings, most from the agricultural boom of the first two decades of the 20th century. A notable exception is a two-story concrete block

Classical Revival-styled bank building, where the blocks are shaped to resemble masonry. You can find this architectural treatment across the state, most often in residential architecture. The Stevensville bank is an important commercial example.

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Stevensville Main St, 300 block oddOne major trend of Stevensville over 30 years is how buildings have been adapted to new uses.  You expect that in a commercial area with a rising population, but here it has happened to such landmarks as the historic turn of the 20th century school building,

Public School (1884) now Methodist Church, 216 College, Stevensville NRwhich is now the United Methodist Church, while the two-story brick American Four-Square house below is the historic Thornton Hospital (1910), but now serves as the Stevensville Hotel.  Both buildings are listed in the National Register.

IMG_2443One area that I really failed to consider in the 1984-1985 work was the diversity and cohesiveness of the historic residential neighborhood.  It too has been documented by a National Register historic district, but some dwellings, such as the impressive Classical Revival-styled Bass House have been individually listed.

Bass House, 100 College, Stevensville 1909Another favorite dates to the 1930s and the impact of the International Style on Montana domestic architecture:  the Gavin House, with its flat roof, its boxy two-story shape and bands of windows at the corners.

Gavin House, 1941, 219 College St, Stevensville, NR, internationalBetween these two extremes of early 20th century domestic design, Stevensville has an array of architectural styles, from the Folk Victorian to the more austere late 19th century vernacular to bungalows to revival styles.

Stevensville residents have used the National Register as an effective tool to commemorate their pasts but also to lay the foundation for a 21st century future in the midst of the some of the most rapid growth in the state.

 

Telling Butte’s Stories

Archives and fire station, ButteLet me just jump right in:  I do not know of another town in Montana that has done more with the concept of heritage development than Butte in the last 30 years.  Heritage development, in brief, means that a community identifies the stories and places that define their past and sense of identity and then uses them as tools for community revitalization and growth.  The stories and places must be authentic, meaningful, real–fake pasts don’t get you very far.  In 1981, out of fears that its storied and nationally significant history would be lost in the haze of late 20th century urban renewal and economic change, Butte created as part of local government the Butte-Silver Bow Archives–everyone I knew were excited about its potential and its early discoveries at the time of the state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985.  Now that institution is one of the key rocks upon which Butte’s future lays.  Above is the conversion of a historic firehall into the modern archives/heritage center the institution is today–in itself a great example of adaptive reuse and historic preservation at work.

Professional staff and volunteers, all led by Ellen Crain, keep both the community and scholars engaged–the number of strong histories, public projects, and exhibits that have come, in whole or in part, from this place in the last 30 years is very impressive.  Plus it is

IMG_1105a vibrant institution, always in touch as its community room hosts other heritage groups and special programs throughout the year.  The archives is just around the corner from one of the most important, and solemn,  places in the city, the location of the Butte Miners’ Union Hall, which was bombed in 1914.

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Now an interpretive monument talks about the union, the bombing, and addresses directly a chilling chapter in the long struggle between labor and capital in Butte. Installed c. 1993 near the “top” of Main Street, this site sets the stage for the amount of public interpretation found in the city today.

2011 MT Silver Bow County Butte 033Heritage development has become part of the basic sinews of Butte. Along with its active archives board, the city also maintains an effective historic district commission, and provided seed money for several key projects over the past generation.  The Original Mine site below, the city’s first copper mine, not only serves as part of the city’s public

interpretation efforts, it is also a place for community gatherings, such as the Montana Folklife Festival in recent years. It is important to note that the marker at the Original just doesn’t celebrate the technology it also notes how many men–43–died at that mine.  The progress of Butte happened on the back of its working class miners.

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Here is another promising change:  the willingness to landmark and discuss the human costs of mining.  Butte’s most infamous event was the Granite Mountain/ Speculator Mine disaster of 1917 in which 168 miners died–still the single most deadly disaster in American hard-rock mining history. Not that the event was ignored at the time.  In fact the North Butte mining company erected the memorial above to those who perished in Mountain View Cemetery, far from the scene, shortly thereafter.  Who knew this memorial existed?  There were no signs marking the way there–you had to search to find it.

IMG_1230Today the Granite Mountain site is one of the best interpreted mining properties I have encountered.  The miners’ stories are told–often with the words they were able to write down before dying from the lack of oxygen–and their multiple ethnic backgrounds are acknowledged, and celebrated.

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IMG_0977The interpretive memorial overlooks the mine, and is located high over town.  But when I visited in May 2012 a school group was there too, along with visitors like me.

ARCO, along with public partners, funded the site in this century, as part of the general Superfund cleanup of the mining district.  But the park was long overdue as well as the recognition that some 2,500 miners lost their lives in the Butte district.  The marker’s statement–“you are standing on hallowed ground”–is typically reserved for military parks.  Within the context of Butte, however, it is totally justified, and an important point to remember wherever you are in the city.

The reality that Butte’s mines contributed significantly to American war efforts in the 20th century is recalled through a public art mural near a public transit stop.  Public sculpture also interprets what was and what has been lost in Butte.

Through the efforts of the state historic preservation office, and its commendable program of providing interpretive markers for National Register properties, the residential side of Butte’s story is also being told.  You have to love the “blue” house, associated with U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler, one of the New Deal era movers and shakers.

I-15 interpretive markers, ButteAll of these efforts considerably enhance earlier efforts at public interpretation, be they along Interstate I-15 and its overview of Butte or the visitor center maintained just off the

Butte Visitor Centerinterstate by the local chamber of commerce.  The center, yet another change in the last 30 years, is an attractive reproduction of a classic railroad depot design.  It also provides a useful perspective of the city from its south side, giving special prominence to the soaring clock tower of the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Butte overview from visitor centerThe Berkeley Pit in 1984 was a giant hole in the earth, with a viewing stand.  It too now has a more comprehensive heritage experience with a small visitor center/ museum adding to the public understanding of the massiveness and significance of the pit.

Berkeley Pit, entrance, Butte

Then of course, designed for highway travelers and tourists, there is the now classic World Museum of Mining, established in 1965 around the Orphan Girl mine.  The WMM lets rusting industrial artifacts convey part of the story while the existing mining buildings are open, allowing you to get a more physical experience of what the head frames and mines were really about.  And, as typical of Montana museums of the 1960s and 1970s, there is the attached “frontier village,” interpreting what early Butte was all about. Don’t get me

wrong: there are many things to like about the WMM–it is rich in artifacts, as the miners items above suggest (and more about it in another post).  But it is a controlled, sterile experience, and I would hate for that to be the only takeaway visitors have about Butte and its significance.  The museum is away from uptown Butte, and visitors who stop here may never go explore the deeper story within the town and its historic neighborhoods.

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Old Butte Historical Adventures on Main Street is just one group of heritage entrepreneurs who provide visitors with a “up close and personal” viewpoint and experience of Butte’s historic landscape.  Walking tours of Uptown along with various special theme tours engage visitors and residents with local history in a way different from traditional monuments, markers, and historic sites.

But one must be aware that the pressure to commercialize can also distort, and demean, the significance of it all.  What happens at the Dumas Hotel–a historic brothel–will be interesting to watch.  The story of prostitution is very much part of the fabric of the city, but one that for many years people did not want to tell, except with snide references and a snicker or two.  Let’s hope that changes as the Dumas is restored and opened as a heritage venue:  addressing the sex trade and role of women and men accurately and in context would add immeasurably to the sense of authenticity, of realism, in the Butte story.

Butte Greenway towards Walkerville

The most exciting part of Butte’s heritage development to my mind are the series of greenways or trails that link the mines to the business and residential districts and that link Butte to neighboring enclaves like Walkerville (shown above).  Recreational opportunity–walking, jogging, boarding, biking–is a huge component of livable spaces for the 21st century.  When these trails are enhanced by the stories they touch or cover,

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they become even more meaningful and valuable.  If you have lived in Montana for 6 months or 60 years, it is time to return to Butte and take the Copper Trail–not only would it be good for your health, it also gives you a lasting perspective of a mining town within the vast Northern Rockies landscape, and how men and women from all sorts of backgrounds and nations established a real community, one that has outlasted the mines that first created it.

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Last notes on Bozeman, for now

IMG_6984Few places in Montana, or for the nation for that matter, have benefited more from historic preservation and heritage development than Bozeman. To see a grain elevator complex find new uses and life in a century where grain elevators are typically a relic of a bygone era, tall hulking figures on the northern plains landscape, you discover that so much of our historic built environment can be re-imagined and put back into use.

No doubt Bozeman has changed markedly in this century–as the 2007 photo of the  Masonic Lodge and Army-Navy store (a place I frequented in the 1980s) as given way in 2015 to a bike and ski shop. Yet the landmark sign–with the horse rearing up as if to say what the hell is going on here–remains, a bit of the old cowtown of the past.

The fraternal lodges and the American Legion remaining on Main Street is an important link to a past when these organizations were central to the town’s growth and development–mainstays of community still today as their eagles fly high over the business district.

Gallatin Co Bozeman St James Episcopal ChurchThe town’s historic churches are other important anchors.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, St. James Episcopal Church is a distinguished statement of Gothic Revival executed in locally quarried sandstone designed by architect George Hancock of Fargo, North Dakota and built by local contractor James Campbell in 1890.

Gallatin Co Bozeman Theory Building 1Preservation efforts 30 years ago were focused on Main Street landmarks, with much success.  But the combination of preservation and adaptive reuse has moved into the town’s railroad corridor with similar positive results, and the number of historic neighborhoods have multiplied.

But work remains to be accomplished, as the 2015 effort to Raise the Rialto on Main Street shows–yet the number of partners involved also show how the audience for preservation has grown over the years.  Montana State University is a key component for the future too.  The university’s growth over a generation is astounding. Its

historic core has never looked better.  The question with the university is growth and how that is managed for the benefits of the students, but also the neighborhood and community that surrounds the university.  If growth deteriorates the community, then students lose–the lure of Bozeman and its many attractions become that much less.

Just as old and new MSU co-exist in harmony so too must historic Bozeman and every expanding MSU remain partners, in communication, and working together.

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Bozeman and two railroads

IMG_6990On Bozeman’s Main Street today there is a huge mural celebrating the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1882. The impact of the railroad on the town was certainly a topic of interest in the 1984-85 survey, and one image included the existing Northern Pacific Railroad and adjoining grain elevators and other businesses reliant on the corridor.IMG_2659Today that same place has been transformed, through adaptive reuse, into a micro-brewery and restaurant–pretty good place too, and a great place in 2015 for me to get out of a persistent rain.  The Northern Pacific reached a deal with rancher Nelson Story in 1882 to build through his property but also provide a spur line to his existing mill operations.  From the beginning both the railroad and local entrepreneurs saw an agricultural future for Bozeman and Gallatin County.

A similar re-energized future has not yet happened for Bozeman’s historic Northern Pacific passenger depot.  The depot is a turn of the 20th century brick building that received a remodeling and expansion from Bozeman architect Fred Willson c. 1922 that turned it into a fashionable (and for the Northern Pacific line, a rare) example of Prairie style in a railroad building.

IMG_6976The depot and adjoining buildings have been designated as a historic district, with a pocket city park providing some new life to the area.  But this impressive building’s next life remains uncertain even as the city encourages creative solutions for the area.

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IMG_6973The c. 1922 depot is adequately moth-balled–the new roof has lots of life left–and as the city maintains it is structurally sound with key interior features intact.  Yet graffiti now mars one end of the building, and any building that is empty, especially in such a booming local economy, is cause for concern.

Why?  Because Bozeman has a tradition of tearing down historic railroad depots.  The images above from 1985 were of the town’s Milwaukee Road depot (c. 1907).  It was abandoned then, and I was concerned because so many of the railroad’s buildings had already disappeared across Montana, and because the arrival of the Milwaukee Road in Bozeman had launched an economic boom that shaped the town from 1907 to 1920.  In 2003, despite howls of protest, the building was demolished–a new use for it had never been found.

IMG_2660The same fate did not befell the Milwaukee Road’s other significant building in Bozeman, its concrete block warehouse, shown above in an 1985 image.  The open space, solid construction, and excellent location helped to ensure a much longer life for the building, which is now a building supplies store, with a repainted company sign adorning the elevations of the building.

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IMG_6993It is encouraging that the city recognizes the significance, and the possibilities, for the historic buildings along Bozeman’s railroad corridor.  Let’s hope that a permanent solution soon emerges for the empty Northern Pacific depot.