Missoula’s Downtown Wonders

 

Missoula 2006 021 Medical Arts Building Art DecoDowntown Missoula’s architectural wonders make it a distinctive urban Western place. Let’s start with my favorite, the striking Art Moderne styled Florence Hotel (1941) designed by architect G.A. Pehrson. Located between the two railroad depots on Higgins Street, the hotel served tourists and residents as a symbol of the town’s classy arrival on the scene–it was the first place with air-conditioning–of a region transforming in the 1940s and 1950s.

missoula medical florenceWith the coming of the interstate highway in the 1970s, tourist traffic declined along Higgins Street and the Florence Hotel was turned into offices and shops, a function that it still serves today.

Missoula Co Missoula The Florence 5Next door is another urban marvel, the Wilma Theatre, which dates to 1921 and like the Florence it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The building was the city’s first great entertainment landmark (even had an indoor swimming pool at one time) but with offices and other business included in this building that anchored the corner where Higgins Street met the Clark’s Fork River. Architects Ole Bakke and H. E. Kirkemo designed the theatre in the fashionable Renaissance Revival style, with a hint towards the “tall buildings” form popularized by architect Louis Sullivan, the building later received an Art Deco update, especially with the use of glass block in the ticket booth and the thin layer of marble highlighting the entrance.

With their soaring height the Florence and Wilma were dominant commercial landmarks.  Much of the downtown was built earlier, with the Missoula Mercantile (discussed in an earlier blog) being a very important lure for customers from throughout the region–by far

IMG_7565.jpgMissoula’s first major department store and entrepreneurial center.  The late Victorian era architectural styling of the two-story building also set a standard for many other downtown businesses from 1890 to 1920. These can be categorized as two-part commercial fronts, with the first floor serving as the primary commercial space and the second floor could be offices, dwelling space for the owner, or most common today storage space.

My favorite Victorian-era commercial building in Missoula is another Higgins Street landmark, and a rarity in Montana as a Queen Anne-styled business block, complete with projecting turret bay, highlighted by stone, defining its corner location and signifying its prominence as the local bank.

 

The Classical Revival that transformed the look of so many western railroad towns from the late 1890s to 1920 is also well represented in its different architectural forms. The Missoula County Courthouse (1910) was built following the arrival of the Milwaukee Road and the county’s economic boom led by the two railroads and the thousands of homesteaders headed into northwest Montana.  Designed by Montana architect A. J.

Missoula 2006 045 courthouseGibson, the building is one of the state’s best examples of what is called “Beaux Arts classicism,” a movement in the west so influenced by the late 1890s Minnesota State Capitol by architect Cass Gilbert.

Another example of Beaux Arts classicism, in a more commercial setting, defines the facade of the Masonic Temple, designed by the Montana firm of Link and Haire in 1909.

Missoula Co Missoula Masonic TempleJust as impressive, but in a more Renaissance Revival style, is the Elks Lodge (1911), another building that documents the importance of the city’s working and middle class fraternal lodges in the early 20th century.

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And speaking of Renaissance Revival, the historic Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse also embraces the early 20th century Classical Revival movement as interpreted by three different federal architects over a 25-year period (James Knox Taylor, 1911-13; James A. Wetmore, 1927-1929; and, Louis A. Simon (1937).  The three different periods of

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construction, however, did not leave Missoula with an incoherent statement of classical architecture.  In fact, the various sections help to document different era in the city’s development, from the height of the homesteading boom of the 1910s to the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s.  Missoula Co Missoula federal courthouseOf more recent construction is another federal courthouse, the modernist-styled Russell Smith Federal Courthouse, which was originally constructed as a bank.  In 2012, another judicial chamber was installed on the third floor. Although far removed from the classic

Missoula Co Missoula Russell Smith courthouse 2look, the Russell Smith Courthouse is not out-of-place in downtown Missoula.  There are several other buildings reflecting different degrees of American modern design, from the Firestone building from the 1920s (almost forgotten today now that is overwhelmed by its neighbor the Interstate Bank Building) to the standardized designed of gas stations of

Missoula Co Missoula firestone store1930s and 1940s, complete with enamel panels and double garage bays, standing next to the Labor Temple.

IMG_7516Modernism is alive and well in 21st century Missoula, with a office tower at St. Patrick’s Hospital, a new city parking garage, and the splashy Interstate Bank building, which overwhelms the scale of the adjacent Missoula Mercantile building–which had been THE place for commerce over 100 years earlier.

 

Bozeman’s neighborhoods

The quality of Bozeman’s historic residential area between downtown and Montana State University was apparent even to me in 1984-85–someone at the time much more in tune with public buildings, industrial corridors, and downtown blocks than the mix of Victorian, vernacular, and 20th century revival styles that you find in Bozeman’s historic neighborhoods.

Gallatin Co Bozeman Willson Ave 5 Willson House

Everyone at the state historic preservation office was excited about the 1985 listing of the Burr Fisher House, designed in distinctive Spanish Colonial style by Bozeman architect Fred Willson, and wherever you looked you saw potential for many other properties, if not entire neighborhoods. Passing decades had left to neglect, perhaps not the wisest choices in treatments or tenants, but the potential remained to be tapped.

As indicated by the above before and after photos, with the 1985 image on the left and the 2015 image on the right, the last 30 years have been a time of transformation and restoration in many of the downtown neighborhoods.  Indeed, where there were no historic residential historic districts, there are now multiple districts, crisscrossing the city and creating a real foundation for community stability, pride, identity, and growth.

What I didn’t notice as well in 1985 as I did last year was the neighborhood’s imprint of Montana modernism from the New Deal era, represented so well by the Longfellow School

and its long horizontal massing and stylish entrance, to the contemporary styles of the 1960s into the 1970s, as seen below, in the Grand Avenue Catholic Center, and the contemporary style house on Story Avenue.

Gallatin Co Bozeman Grand Ave Catholic Center 1950s

Gallatin Co Bozeman Story Ave 1950s modern

These dwellings are truly just a taste of the richness and diversity of architectural statements in the town’s historic neighborhoods from Main Street to the university.  Bozeman’s successful neighborhood districts represent one of the lasting achievements of historic preservation and property owner engagement in Montana over the last 30 years.

 

Bozeman’s historic districts after 30 years

Bozeman, the county seat of Gallatin County, was one of my favorite Montana towns during the 1984-1985 survey.  In some ways, it was still a cowtown, a commercial center for the hundreds of surrounding ranches in Gallatin County.  Yet it was also a college town–bars, music, cheap eats–as home to Montana State University.  In 1980 its population was over 21,000–thirty years later by 2010 it had boomed to over 37,000.  By the time I explored the town in 2015 for this new survey there were an estimated 42,000 residents, double of that of the 1980s town I had so enjoyed.

In 2007 then State Senator Lynda Bourque Moss stopped with me in Bozeman as we traveled from Billings to Helena where I was to speak to the governor’s task force on historic preservation, a meeting where the idea that I would recreate the survey of 1984-1985 first took root.  We stopped because she wanted to show me changes.  The four photos above showed me that yes, change had come, and in a big way to Bozeman.  The old Hallmark Store, which had moved into an earlier Stockman Bar, had become an upscale wine bar–a bit of California in the old cowtown of Bozeman–and when I next returned “Plonk” had added sidewalk seating.  We could have been in Aspen, at least Breckinridge, Colorado.

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Plonk and the sporting goods store, 2007

Bozeman had eagerly embraced the idea of historic districts in 1984-1985 as a way of revitalizing its downtown–so much had moved, or was going to move, out to the interstate exits.  John DeHaas at Montana State University had done so much to promote historic preservation in the 1970s and early 1980s.  A tradition and commitment were in place.  That much was clear when I surveyed the town and talked with residents and decision makers in 1984-85. The next several posts will explore the impact of those historic districts in the last 30 years, and offer observations on where next steps may go.

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Let’s start with what I saw as the public landmarks, and anchors, for downtown Bozeman in 1984-1985.  None was more important than the New Deal era Gallatin County High School, a striking Art Moderne design by Bozeman architect Fred Willson.  At that time, the “new” high school–which stood right by an earlier 20th century brick high school building–was not “old enough” to be considered for the National Register.  This building, like many of the state’s New Deal era legacy, has since been listed in the National Register.  And its grounds have been re-energized for all who walk by through the installation of a statue in honor of Malcolm Story, designed by Belgrade, Montana, artist Jim Dolan and placed in front of the earlier high school in 1995.

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Across Main Street is another public anchor, also funded by the New Deal in the late 1930s and also designed by Fred Willson:  the Art Deco classicism of the Gallatin County Courthouse.  Next door is the historic county jail, in a distinctive castellated Gothic style, which already had been converted into headquarters for the local historical society and county museum when I visited in 1984.  The facility still serves that purpose today.

A couple of blocks away from this public landscape core of Bozeman were additional public buildings, on side streets to Main Street.  Tracy and Babcock Streets had the town’s first two federal buildings/post office.  The 1915 neoclassical styled post office operated until 1964 and filled several community roles, including a turn in the 1990s hit movie A River Runs Through It until it became home to the non-profit HRDC after a complete renovation at the turn of the 21st century.  The building also has been enlivened by the addition of Jim Dolan’s statue in honor of Jeanette Ranklin, the first woman U.S. Congress representative, elected in 2010 from Montana.

Nearby is the mid-1960s Federal Building, a grand though boxy five-story building that symbolized the growth of the federal government and its impact on Gallatin County in the Cold War era while also adding a modernist design landmark to the city’s mix of Victorian and Classical architectural styles.  The earlier post office was given attention in my 1984-85; due to its date of construction and style, I paid no attention to the new Federal Building.  I didn’t repeat that mistake in 2015–the Federal Building of 1964-66 is one of the region’s most impressive statements of Montana modernism. and a much more recent Federal Building, which I ignored, for reasons of chronology that no longer apply in 2015.

The final public anchor was the Carnegie Library of 1902-1903, one of the better architectural expressions of Classical Revival style in the state, designed by architect Charles S. Haire, who shaped so much of state’s architecture in the early 20th century.

IMG_6895Then Senator Moss took me for a quick tour of its late 1990s renovation in 2007–its conversion into law offices respected both its original spaces and interior design.

 

That brings me to the four commercial anchors you encountered on Main Street in 1984-1985.  Two were massive buildings on either end of Main Street that defined the entire district–the Renaissance Revival style of Hotel Baxter, individually listed in the National Register in 1984, and the massiveness of the Victorian Romanesque style of The Bozeman Block, reminding everyone of the town’s railroad era.

In the middle of the district were two other key National Register properties–the Ellen Theatre, a wonderful Beaux Arts design scaled for the small town that it served in the 1920s.  Everyone thought that keeping a movie house/ theater downtown would help keep it alive at night.  The second building, the Union Hall, was both historically important but also could serve as a symbol of what downtown revitalization meant–a building need not

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be spectacular to serve an important role in the historic district.  The c. 1880s building belonged to the town’s boom during after the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, and originally served as a brewery.  Here was where the Bozeman historic preservation office was located when I conducted the state historic preservation plan survey in 1984-85. Next let’s consider the town’s railroad resources, a focal point of mine 30 years ago.

 

 

Carter County’s Country Schools on U.S. Highway 212

IMG_5418U.S. Highway 212 enters Montana from South Dakota in Carter County at the state’s southeast corner.  U.S. 212 in this part of the state is a flat, fast ride.  You typically meet little other traffic except for trucks using the highway as a cut-off from Billings to the Black

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Hills.  Traveler accounts from today typically say nothing about this section of the state, save, perhaps, for the Stoneville Saloon in Alzada, really the only serious watering hole for miles around, with its inviting false front–“cheap drinks”–capturing your attention.

IMG_5420But if you slow down a bit, you can find three country schools, with all three being good examples of the types of Montana rural schools that the National Trust for Historic Preservation called attention to in 2012.

IMG_5427Alzada’s school is the largest, with its bracketed hipped roof recalling the schoolhouse style so common in the United States from 1910 to 1940.  It is located a few hundred yards off of the highway, a place that is still the heart of the community.

IMG_5433The Hammond school is a later 20th century version of schoolhouse design–it looks much like a Ranch style house of the 1960s and 1970s.  It faces the highway–you can’t miss it.

IMG_5437Nor can you miss the Boyles school, now closed, like pretty much everything else in this hamlet at the western end of Carter County.  This school is a classic example of the one-room schools of the homesteading era.  Like the other two schools, it faces south, with its band of windows facing east, better to capture as much sunlight as possible since it was built in the era before electricity served this section of Montana.

Three small places–three small schools, important parts of Carter County history that you can still explore today.,

Shifting Meanings in the Big Horn Landscape

IMG_5494When I first arrived in Montana in 1981 the first place that I stopped at was Little Bighorn Battlefield, then known as Custer Battlefield National Monument.  As a southerner new to the west, here was a place that “everyone” knew about, an iconic western battlefield where Gen. George A. Custer and the 7th Calvary suffered a devastating defeat from a combined Sioux-Cheyenne force.  Everything then was focused on “Last Stand Hill” where

Custer Battlefield, Crow Agency (43-30)

Little Big Horn Battlefield, 1984

Custer and his troops had stood for almost 100 years.  As a veteran visitor to southern Civil War battlefields, it struck me how what you saw and experienced was all about the federal side–similar to what you found back then at southern Civil War memorial parks, where valiant Confederates fought what seemed to be a foe with no name outside of enemy.

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This quotation from Theodore O’Hara’s “Bivouac of the Dead” is found in many Civil War era national cemeteries.

IMG_1364Over the decades I have returned to the battlefield numerous times, even once (by accident I hadn’t even thought that the day would be an anniversary) when re-enactors posed by the famous obelisk monument, creating a very odd juxtaposition between past and present. (I don’t think Custer and his men were smiling on that hill in 1876).

IMG_1383By this time, meaning at the battlefield had shifted to a larger, more inclusive narrative, beginning with the actual name of the park, now Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Public interpretation, fueled not only by the changing times but an intensive archaeological investigation of the park in the late 1980s, suddenly located Native Americans within the battle landscape.  There was a growing feeling that yes this was a battle between enemies, but enemies with names, motivations, and their own sense of what it all meant.

IMG_1377Last Chance Hill was still a focal point in 2015 but now its narrative of unity and sacrifice was countered by a new monument, built to consider the story of Little Bighorn from the perspective of the Native American warriors who fought here.

IMG_5520The monument compels reflection—the metal profiles of Native American warriors blend into the actual battlefield landscape as if ghosts of warriors past were again upon the field.  Text and images add additional layers of interpretation and meaning to the battlefield, from a decided Native American perspective.

IMG_5514Then new tombstones, in a brownish stone, distinguished fallen Cheyenne warriors from the marble tombstones for soldiers from the 7th Calvary.  The place has been ennobled, transformed as a both a park and a place of reflection on what the Indian Wars of the 1870s have meant to the nation and to the peoples who fought in them.

IMG_5504Nearby within Crow Agency is a further addition to the public interpretation of the region’s military history: the exemplary Apsaalooke Veterans Park, an installation that celebrates veterans past and present.  IMG_5530At the I-90 exit for U.S. 212 at Crow Agency, a new landscape has emerged through spaces such as the park, the new Apsaalooke casino, and especially the modernist styled medical center, located near the fairgrounds for the annual Crow fair.

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The sparking bright lights of casino sign stand in stark contrast to the old mission church, now The Father’s House place of worship.

IMG_5524In the middle of the Crow Indian Reservation is another landscape of change, one not so visited by tourists.  St. Xavier was an important Catholic mission among the Crow Indians, established along the Big Horn River in 1887-1888 by Father Peter Prando.  The understated Gothic-styled church was a building documented in my A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History book in 1986 and the survey included both the church and small gable-front residence built for the priests.

St. Xavier Mission Chapel, Crow Reservation (45-2)    

Those same buildings remain today, as does the nearby Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy, representing community continuity and the Catholic commitment to the reservation.  But

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IMG_5961the mid-20th century St. Xavier town site has not weathered the decades so well.  Businesses have largely disappeared and the Art Deco-styled St. Xavier public school, a Public Works Administration project from the New Deal designed by Billings architect J.G. Link in 1938 is now abandoned and decaying.

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IMG_5953Across the road from the school is St. John’s Lutheran Church, a weather- and time-worn, a 20th century log building speaking more to the past than the present. And running

IMG_5958nearby is one of many irrigation ditches that promised the transformation of the Big Horn Valley for 20th century homesteaders but as the forgotten ranches surrounding St. Xavier remind us, the irrigated empire of eastern Montana did not bring riches to everyone.

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IMG_6003Transformations and shifting meanings of the past from the perspective of the present make the Big Horn a fascinating place to explore.

Red Lodge’s Commercial District: Turn of the 20th Century Masonry in the Yellowstone Valley

IMG_5789Red Lodge’s commercial district is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  While the construction dates in the district span over 100 years, from the 1890s to more recent modern-era “in fill” buildings, the most notable pattern is the number of two-story stone or brick commercial buildings from the turn of the 20th century.

IMG_5728The landmark Pollard Hotel is a good example.  Opened in 1893 as the Spofford Hotel, the building was an instant business landmark, a hotel located halfway between the depot and the heart of the new city.  As the boom intensified at the turn of the century, Thomas Pollard bought the place and doubled its size in 1902. The Pollard served as that “booster” hotel, designed to show businessmen and investors that Red Lodge was an up and coming place.

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The Pollard was not alone in defining the city’s look.  Facing it were long blocks of two-part mostly brick commercial buildings, with retail and sales on the first floor and residences and offices for a growing professional class on the 2nd floors.

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The decorative cornices proudly proclaimed that the new buildings were part of the new century, and a promising era for all involved.  Of course commercial design in more settled areas to the east and west had already moved away from the heavy masonry typical of the 1880s–but Red Lodge was largely a Victorian commercial district for what would be a 20th century mining boom town.

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While two-story, two-part commercial blocks set one pattern in historic Red Lodge, another is created through the rhythm of the large commercial enterprises and the less ambitious one-story brick buildings of the district.

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Here is another building material found in abundance, rusticated concrete block meant to mimic stone masonry, and the stuccoed top half of the bakery building is another reminder that some owners used imitation materials to fit into Red Lodge’s streetscapes.

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While the commercial district retains much of what made it a special place when I first visited over 30 years ago, it has lost some of that small town Montana feel as owners increasingly cater to those tourists passing through.  The challenges of preservation in Red Lodge will be the next topic.

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Billings: a few more words, for now

HPIM0190.JPGI always have more to say about Billings, the centerpiece of the Yellowstone valley and Montana’s largest city.  I have been thinking about it, and exploring its history, since 1982, a time when hardly anyone in the history field (except for Dr. Lawrence Small at Rocky Mountain College) was paying attention. But for now–until I get back in May for new fieldwork–I want to place Billings aside, but offer some words about how historic preservation and adaptive reuse–at least what I have witnessed since 1982–have impacted the city.

Dedication plaque at Parmly Billings Library (now Western Heritage Center), Billings

Dedication plaque at Parmly Billings Library (now Western Heritage Center), Billings

When I began my first project at the Western Heritage Center, that historic library building and the old county jail, turned into the Yellowstone Art Center, was about it, for historic preservation, in Billings.  There also was the county museum, which was early resident Paul McCormick’s “town” cabin since moved to the airport and used as the county museum, and The Castle, Austin North’s downtown residence turned into a store. Many thought that was plenty–few thought that even the Classical Revival landmark of the

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Northern Pacific Railway depot deserved much attention.  Luckily, three women that I met in those days, Senia Hart, Ruth Towe, and Lynda Moss, thought otherwise.

Former Hart-Alpin department store, Billings

Former Hart-Alpin department store, Billings

Hart, whose husband had built the Hart-Albin store into a regional brand name, was distressed by the apparent death of downtown Billings.  Everyone, and many businesses, wanted to relocate to either the Heights or at Rimrock Mall.  Traffic shifted away from downtown into the suburbs and interstate.  Hart saw a robust still viable building stock, and thought otherwise.  I heartily agreed.  Everyone back then liked to show off the Rex Hotel as a sign of the future.  The old flea bag railroad hotel had been transformed in downtown’s best restaurant by the early 1980s.

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Hart was not the only business woman or man devoted to downtown–it took many to keep it alive, such as Alberta Bair.  Her donation for the conversion of a historic Art Deco theater into a modern performing arts center interjected new life into downtown.

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In the 1990s the first historic district was created along Montana Avenue, with the Rex Hotel as a real anchor to encourage other new investment.  To say that Montana Avenue has worked in the decades since would be a major understatement.

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Success didn’t come immediately–for a long time, the Rex stood alone, but the depot got new life, most buildings were repaired, or restored, and by the 21st century a new wave of adaptive reuse gave new opportunities to once forgotten industrial buildings around the district.  Montana Avenue, and downtown Billings, once again became a destination.

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Montana Avenue in 2006

CTA Architects building, 2006

CTA Architects building, 2006

Encouraging CTA and others to see downtown in new ways back then was State Senator Lynda Moss (who served 2005-2013)–she got introduced to the potential of downtown as the director of the Western Heritage Center, in some ways bringing the story full circle.  Moss though pushed investors and residents to think about the south side of the tracks downtown, and the potential of Minnesota Avenue.

Previously neglected building south of tracks in Billings

Previously neglected building south of tracks in Billings

Minnesota Avenue, Billings

Minnesota Avenue, Billings

And then came the news that the once lap of luxury hotel–but closed for some years– in downtown Billings was also receiving a new life.  The 2011-2012 restoration of the Northern Hotel–I haven’t had a chance to visit the final result yet–marked the close of a decade of real, sustainable change in downtown Billings.

Northern Hotel, Billings, 2011

Northern Hotel, Billings, 2011

Yet, at the same time, it took us back to the city’s roots.  Banker Preston W. Moss had championed the need for a luxury hotel, to attract business and further investment.  More than anyone, Ruth Towe, made the preservation of Moss’s story, and his mansion, to be a life task.  I had the chance to listen to many of the Moss Mansion group’s plans and

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dreams back in the 1980s.  Their legacy today is not just the city’s primary historic house museum, but also a renewed interest in the historic downtown residential neighborhoods.  Billings has a rich collection of domestic architecture, and the good condition of those places today, like the ongoing renovation and expansion of the McKinley School, tells anyone that downtown Billings is alive and well.  Individuals like Ruth Towe willing to work with others can make a difference in historic preservation.  I have seen it in my professional career in Billings.  There will be much more to be said about this place in future postings.

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The Art Deco style of the Babcock Theatre is yet another downtown historic preservation anchor.