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.

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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.


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.


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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

Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 6: the cultural side

Cascade Co Great Falls business district 15

Few American cities are as obviously in love with a 20th century artist as Great Falls is with Charles M. Russell, often called the “cowboy artist.”  Russell became an icon in American western art by the mid-20th century, and Great Falls is home to multiple shrines, from the 1986 statue downtown of “Kid Russell and Monte,” the centerpiece of what was then a new downtown renewal project, and Bob Scriver’s earlier statue of “C.M. Russell: Cowboy Artist” outside of the C. M. Russell Museum, located adjacent to his historic home and studio in an unassuming Great Falls neighborhood.

Western art is a significant cultural phenomenon of the 20th century, no matter how one views it today.  And Russell, as the statues suggest, is a giant within the field, one of the handful whose work is still admired by devotees and critics today.

Cascade Co Great Falls CMR museum 3

Cascade Co Great Falls CMR museum 1

Russell’s Victorian cottage home and adjacent log cabin studio were really nothing out of the ordinary in Great Falls in the early 20th century while vernacular still easily stood side-by-side more identified forms of domestic architecture.  But his achievement rates these properties among the few 20th century National Historic Landmarks in the state, and they have been so recognized for many years now.

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But there is much more to the cultural side of Great Falls that the looming presence of Charles M. Russell.  The city has an impressive range of architectural statements from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, with the Art Deco-styled New Deal-funded buildings of the county fairgrounds shown above falling in the middle of this architectural timeline.  Many of these are listed in the National Register of Historic Places as individual properties or as historic districts.  The historic neighborhoods have scores of worthy Victorian-style homes.  There are

then gargantuan statements of style and purpose constructed by the town’s Catholic community in the early twentieth century, from the Ursuline School to the massive Columbus Hospital, once of the city’s most important landmarks of its progressive era.

Cascade Co Great Falls Ursuline Center 3 - Version 2

The town’s soaring Arts and Crafts styled Masonic Temple has recently found new investors willing to tackle this early 20th century landmark and find a new future for it some 100 years later.


Great Falls residents know such conversions can work, since when I first visited the city in 1982, everyone wanted to go and appreciate the conversion of the Dichardsonian Romanesque styled high school into the Paris Gibson Center, a new focal point for the arts in the city.

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Paris Gibson Center was just the start of 30 plus years of successful historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects, keeping such mid-century modern landmarks as the Whittier School, another New Deal

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls Whittier School 084project, and the Art Moderne landmark Intermountain bus station–once so proudly featured in the Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges movie, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” part of that decade from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s when Montana was suddenly in the lens of Hollywood.

Cascade Co Great Falls bus station DecoAll of these buildings and places help to give Great Falls its unique sense of self, and its sense of achievement and promise.  And that is not to even mention the fun, funky stuff, such as the Polar Bears and having the

IMG_9102supper club experience of 50 years ago at Borrie’s in Black Eagle.  Stepping back into time, or looking into a future where heritage stands next to the

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 130atomic age, Great Falls and its environs–from Fort Benton to the northeast to Fort Shaw to the southwest–can give you that memorable heritage area experience.

Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 5: Rails,Rivers, and a Smelter

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 024Many heritage areas in the eastern United States emphasize the relationship between rivers, railroads, and industrial development and how those resources contributed to national economic growth and wartime mobilization.  Great Falls can do that too.  Situated on the Missouri River and designed by its founders to be a northwest industrial center, entrepreneurs counted on the falls to be a source of power and then on the railroads coming from Minnesota, especially the promising Manitoba Road headed by James J. Hill, to provide the transportation.

IMG_0961Paris Gibson, the promoter of the Electric City, allied his interests to two of most powerful capitalists of the region:  Marcus Daly, the baron of the Anaconda Copper Company interests and James J. Hill, the future rail king of the northwest.  Their alliance is embodied in several different properties in the city but the most significant place was where the Anaconda Copper Company smelter operated at Black Eagle until the last decades of the 20th century.  When I surveyed Great Falls for the state

preservation plan in 1984 the smelter stack had recently come down but a good bit of the surrounding industrial plant remained.  When you look at the same place today, the site has been nearly wiped clean, still closed off to the public but ripe for the day when it could be a center for public interpretation of the impact of the smelter on the city, state, and nation.

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Great Falls already has shown an ability to reimagine and find new uses for its industrial landmarks, as demonstrated by the adaptive reuse projects surrounding its railroad corridors.  Yes, railroad corridors because while the Manitoba Road and its successor the Great Northern Railway dominated the city, the Milwaukee Road also built into the city in the first


Cascade Co Great Falls Milwaukee Road depotdecade of the 20th century and soon erected its tall tower depot right on the Missouri River.  But wherever you go along the river you find significant buildings associated with the Great Northern and its allied branch the Montana Central Railroad, especially the downtown warehouses.  Some are still fulfilling their original function but others

have taken on new uses as offices and museums, such as the local history center and the well-regarded children’s museum.

Still at the head of the city, as appropriate for its role in creating and sustaining Great Falls in its early decades, is the magnificent depot of the Great Northern.  Montana has many small town examples of the

“metropolitan corridor” written about by historian John Stilgoe; Great Falls is superb extant example of how the corridor shaped the landscape and architecture presence of urban centers across the northern plains. These properties suggest the richness of the industrial and transportation stories associated with the rise of Great Falls and its role in western history.


Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 4: Lewis and Clark

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 020The Missouri River runs through Cascade County and is at the heart of any future Great Falls Heritage Area.  This section of the river, and the portage around its falls that fueled its later nationally significant industrial development, is of course central to the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806.  The Lewis and Clark story was recognized when I surveyed Cascade County 30 years ago–the Giant Springs State Park was the primary public interpretation available then.  But today the Lewis and Clark story has taken a larger part of the public history narrative in Cascade County.  In 2003 the nation, state, and city kicked off the bicentennial of the expedition and that key anniversary date spurred the


many new efforts to preserve and interpret the “whole story” of the expedition.  The designation of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail led to many upgrades in markers and interpretive signage across the state.  Then Great Falls became a center for trail interpretation through the opening of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center along the river banks not far from Giant Springs State Park.

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 023Despite federal budget challenges, the new interpretive center was exactly what the state needed to move forward the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and its many levels of impact of the peoples and landscape of the region.  The center emphasized the harrowing, challenging story of the portage around the natural falls of what became Great Falls but its

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 006exhibits and programs have significantly broadened our historical understanding of the expedition, especially its relationship with and impact on various Native American tribes from Missouri to Washington.

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 045The contribution of the interpretive center to a greater local and in-state appreciation of the portage route cannot be underplayed.  In the preservation survey of 1984, no one emphasized it nor pushed it as an important resource.  When threats of development came about in last decade, though, determined voices from preservationists and residents helped to keep the portage route, a National Historic Landmark itself, from insensitive impacts.

At the south end of the county, the state worked with the national historic trail to established Tower Rock State Park, which preserves and interprets an important natural landmark along the river and trail, which, in 1984, was not part of the public interpretation of the expedition.  It also created a valuable heritage asset easily accessible from Interstate I-15, meaning thousands of visitors have learned about the trail as they have rushed through the state.  These developments in the last 30 years to both preserve and enhance the understanding of the expedition are just the more obvious of the efforts to improve the trail as a real heritage asset for the city, county, and state.  We can only hope that a similar effort will emerge soon to re-energize the preservation and understanding of the next major military excursion through the region–the Mullan Road of the

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 075 Mullan Monument - Version 2late 1850s.  Hundreds pass by the monument near the civic center in the heart of Great Falls but this story is another national one that needs more attention, and soon than later.