Montana’s Community Gymnasiums

The state basketball tournaments have been all of the talk in Montana newspapers and communities over the last three weeks, and in places like Belt, in Cascade County, they are celebrating state championships this March morning.

Cascade Co Belt school

Gyms were not on my mind particularly when I carried out the 1984-1985 historic preservation plan survey for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, but even then I picked up on some of the community gyms created by the WPA during the New Deal, such as the one in Virginia City, an unassuming building if there ever was one, and then

VC gym, rear

VA City WPA gym, community center

the tiny log construction gym for Sanders, a tiny community in Treasure County, seen below.  Both the Virginia City and the Sanders gyms are listed in the National Register of

Community Hall Sanders Treasure Co 2

Community Hall Sanders Treasure Co 4

Historic Places, but the state has dozens of other worthy community gyms, that are very much at the center of recreational, sports, and social life in these towns and counties. Some await new fates and new futures, such as the gyms in Pony, Madison County, also on

Pony school gym

the National Register, and the more architecturally distinct Craftsman-styled community gym built for Whitehall in Jefferson County.

Gym, facade, Whitehall

Others date to mid-century and their more modern styles reflect their function–the half-barrels roofs–but they also dominate the one buildings around them, such as the high school gym in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, seen below.

Meagher Co White Sulpjur Springs school 2

Then there is the frankly spectacular modern-style gym of Twin Bridges, in the state’s southwest corner, with its sweeping overhanging roof.

Twin bridges gym

But wherever you encounter community gyms, you can tell from their location and maintenance, these are buildings of local pride and achievement, and places necessary to community life when so much else is scattered and disconnected.

McCone Co Circle school 3

Gymnasium in Circle, McCone County.

Powell Co HS Gym

Powell County High School Gym, Deer Lodge.

Lake Co Polson gym

High School Gym, Polson, Lake County.

Phillips Co Malta old gym

The “Old Gym” in Malta, Phillips County

Communities across Montana are clearly proud of their gyms, and even when new ones come along, they find new uses for the stately buildings, like the conversion of the old gymnasium below, located in Boulder, into a fine arts theater, which is just one example of this type of adaptive reuse project in the state.

Gym facade, Jefferson County high school, Boulder

Here’s to new futures, grounded in meaningful pasts, for these community, and often times architectural, landmarks across the Big Sky Country. As a group, they are powerful reminders of the importance of community spaces in the counties, both urban and rural, of Montana.

Flathead Co Kalispell high school gym 1

Art Deco styled gymnasium, Kalispell, Flathead County

 

 

The Great Falls Heritage Area, part one

IMG_9146Along the Missouri River is Paris Gibson Park, deep in the heart of Great Falls, Montana.  Gibson was one of the classic civic capitalists of the late 19th century who understood that as the community prospered he too would achieve this dream of building a great western empire, with his town of Great Falls as the center.  Almost 100 years after his death, in 2015, residents, preservationists, historians, and economic developers began discussions on establishing a heritage area, centered on Great Falls, but encompassing the Missouri River as the thread between the plains and mountains, that has shaped the region, and the nation, for hundreds of years.  I strongly endorse the discussion and will spend the next several posts exploring key resources in Cascade County that could serve as the foundation for a larger regional story.

Sand Coulee Coal Mine, Cascade Co (32-34)

Abandoned coal mine at Sand Coulee from the 1984 preservation survey.

Let’s begin with the coal deposits to the east of Great Falls, often forgotten places today but the exploitation of the easily accessible belts of coal not only provided the railroads crisscrossing the region with necessary coal but also left in their wake classic mining communities such as Belt, just off of US 87/Montana 200.

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Situated along a creek nestled within coulees of coal, Belt is a classic mining town, where all of the historic buildings are situated along the main road into town.  When I visited in 1984, Belt like most central Montana towns was no where near its population height of over 1100 residents during the homesteading boom, but its 800 plus residents in 1980 was a marked increase from recent decades and many of the town’s historic buildings were in use.

Belt, Cascade Co (32-23)

The Farmers and Miners State Bank said so much to me in 1984, and beyond its classical facade so in keeping with the Classical Revival style favored by state banks throughout the state.  It was the name:  farmers and miners–both walked the street and helped to make the town.

IMG_8860Thirty years later, Belt’s population had bottomed out, declining to under 600 by the time of the 2010 census.  But both times I have stopped by, in 2013 and 2015, the town has a sense of life about it, and hope.  The town’s two historic taverns, the Harvest Moon Tavern  and the Belt Creek Brew Pub, as well as the Black Diamond Bar and Supper Club attract visitors from nearby Great Falls and elsewhere, giving the place a sense of life at evenings and weekends.

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IMG_8868When planners talk about heritage areas, they often focus on the contributions of local entrepreneurs who take historic buildings, like the Pioneer above, and breathe new life into them.  Throughout small town Montana and urban commercial districts, new breweries and distilleries are creating such opportunities.

Cascade Co Belt Hardware 1896 Belt historic district NR  - Version 2

IMG_8859IMG_8862Belt has a range of historic buildings, mostly of vernacular two-part commercial style that speak strongly to the boom of 1900 to 1920.  The Victorian-styled cornice of the Belt Hardware Store (1896) speaks to the town’s origins.  The Knights of Pythias Lodge of 1916 has been restored as a community theater, another reason for visitors to stop and explore.IMG_9850.jpgThe result is a living cultural experience, since nothing in Belt is over-restored or phony feeling.  It is still a gritty, no frills place. That feel is complemented by the Belt museum, which is housed in a historic jail on road down into town and within sight on a railroad trestle, a reminder of what literally drove the town’s development, coal for the railroads.

IMG_8865During the 1984 survey, I gave the jail a good bit of attention since this stone building spoke to the craftsmanship of the era, the centrality of local government as the town developed, and the reality that this building was the only thing in Belt listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But in 2004 the state historic preservation office approved the Belt commercial historic district, and that designation has done much to drive the town’s recent revival.  Belt is just the first place that speaks to the promise of the Great Falls heritage area concept.