The story of the Daly Mansion from a shuttered family owned property in 1984-1985 to a fully realized historic house museum 30 years later also reflects well my timeline of engagement with the historic landscapes of the Big Sky Country. It was a time capsule in the mid-1980s–a house starting to come apart but full of family furniture, papers, and countless treasures. When the house was saved but the interior furnishings sold at auction, it seemed like a permanent separation.
My first post on this blog in 2013 about the Daly Mansion and its restoration lauded the determination of the local non-profit to finish the exterior renovation and repairs, and to have the place open to the public on a regular basis. It was and is an impressive achievement in a time when so-called experts say the era of historic house museums is over. But it was very much an exterior tour–when I visited six years ago, photographs were not allowed, not so much to protect items but because so much remained to be done. The place just did not have a historic “lived in” look.
In the last five years, the Daly Mansion board and its many local supporters have finished the job. Key pieces of family furniture, like the settee above and much of the dining room below, have returned, due in large part to purchases and commitments made at the original auction in the 1980s but many objects coming back to the house due to the persistence of board members and the willingness of auction buyers to return items now that 30 years have passed.
The result is a house museum that depicts well the life of a wealthy family on their version of the 20th century country estate, and now with an appropriate focus on Margaret Daly, who selected the architectural style, purchased many of the furnishings, and kept the estate forefront in Montana luxury for four decades (Marcus Daly died in 1900, before the Colonial Revival conversion of the original house; Margaret lived until 1941). Margaret Daly’s bedroom furniture had long been in the collections of the University of Montana Library–they are now in their rightful place in the Daly Mansion.
The lushness, and personality, of Margaret Daly’s private quarters is now the norm across the house, from the first floor parlor to the second floor setting room.
Even the third floor ballroom, once an evocative but largely empty space, is now used to display and interpret the rather amazing clothing collections of the museum.
Certainly the words of one visitor during my May 2018 ring true: “they were rich but had little taste” in the decorative arts. But for Margaret Daly her Riverside estate was not a showplace as much as a place to escape for the summer. The hodge-lodge of trendy but individually undistinguished furniture and objects suited that purpose just fine.
The Daly Mansion is at a new place–a preservation and restoration project that had stretched out for thirty years. But now the interior story, especially the focus on Margaret Daly, steps up to center stage. The meaning of Riverside and the Bitter Root Stock Farm is still waiting for a full exploration and analysis.