Havre’s historic preservation legacies

Havre, the seat of Hill County and more importantly the commercial and transportation hub of the Hi-Line, has already been the topic in several posts over the past year.  In 1984, it was the first place where one of the state historic preservation review board members, Eleanor Clack, took me around and explored the town’s history.  So let’s review the historic Havre of 1984 and consider what Mrs. Clack showed me, and what we see today as significant properties.

Clack’s spouse was Earl Clark, a businessman with concerns up and down the Hi-Line and a heritage advocate to boot.  The county museum bears his name and that is where we started, at the fairgrounds along U.S. Highway 2 west of downtown on a bluff overlooking the Milk River.



The fairgrounds acknowledged the role of the Great Northern Railway in the town’s and county’s history–indeed Havre was a virtual shrine to the Empire Builder as I would discover–but Mrs. Clack was especially hurried to cross what was then a two-lane highway and go to the other side of the bluff, where she unlocked a fence and we explored the Wahpka Chu’gn buffalo jump, then one of the handful of properties in Hill County on the National Register.




Today, it is difficult to find the property, even with the buffalo sculpture and signage along U.S. 2.  When the highway doubled in size, that improvement led to intensive development of the river bluffs, and today access to the site is behind a shopping center.



The site was the Clacks’ pride and joy.  Not only was the setting stunning, with the valley crossed by the Great Northern mainline, they had worked with other preservationists to open the property for tours and interpretation.  At that time, it was the best interpreted buffalo jump–make that the best interpreted prehistoric site–in the region, if not the entire state.

After hours of exploring the property, Mrs. Clack next took me to the town’s turn of the century historic neighborhood.  There I encountered the first of several historic Carnegie-funded public libraries I would see in Montana (the actual town library had already moved into new quarters).


Carnegie library, 1984


Carnegie library, 2013

We also visited the Young-Almas house, a rambling Classical Revival dwelling, which was the second National Register anchor in the historic residential neighborhood.



Today, of course Havre has a large National Register residential district, with state-funded markers telling the stories of the houses and families on almost every block.


Finally we turned into the business district, where we stopped at the Federal Building and Post Office–a New Deal building–and then the commercial district.


Mrs. Clack expressed her hope for the future, that the distinguished set of two-story commercial buildings that lined U.S. 2 would find a new future through historic preservation.


U.S. 2 corridor, north, downtown Havre, 1984



As these 2013 photos attest, Havre’s historic downtown survives 30 years later, although the historic preservation potential still waits to be fully tapped.  After all, the historic preservation funding available in 1984–and the assumption that the movement’s early successes in sustainable urban renewal would bring about more–never happened.  Federal funding, in adjusted dollars, reached its hey-day in the Reagan administration, and has declined ever since. Mrs. Clack and I could not know the future in 1984.  But if she could see Havre today, I think she would be pleased with how residents and officials have built on the early foundation:  that is the topic of the next posting.

Havre Has It: Modernism that is

While working along the Hi-Line in 1984, I encountered the motto, “Havre Has It” seemingly everywhere. While the slogan was corny, it was true I kept on thinking in that Havre had the best shopping, the better restaurants (here’s to the old Duck Inn), the best collection of historic architecture, the university of the region, etc.

Although I didn’t realize appreciate it in 1984, it is quite apparent in the 21st century that Havre also has the region’s best collection of modernist designs. In the new issue of Montana: The Magazine of Western History, H. Rafael Chacon has a wonderful article on “Montana Modernism.” It is highly recommended reading as one of the best articles on Montana architecture published in the magazine over the last two decades. Chacon highlights MSU-Havre’s Armory Gymnasium, designed by Montana architect Oswald Berg. He includes photos of the building under construction and then as the finished building.

MSU Havre gym

The 1950s saw many universities receiving federal dollars to construct large campus buildings that served both as new gymnasiums and growth in popularity in college basketball but also as offices for ROTC and similar military programs. In 2008 I documented a similar dual-purpose building at the University of Tennessee, also built in the late 1950s. The UT Armory-Gymnasium building is also modernist in design, but subdued in its presentation compared to the Northern Montana College gym, with its bit of influence from Saarinen’s very famous 1955 modernist design of the Kresge Auditorium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Although lacking the splash and dash of the Kresge Auditorium, these views of the end elevations of the Northern Montana College gym clearly show the influence of Saarinen’s earlier design.


Havre’s traditions of modernism are not merely an aesthetic introduced form the outside by state government. In the residential historic district there is an Art Deco/International style building that embodies 1930s style.


Then, more importantly, there is the Havre Central High School and Gym of 1949-1951 that reflects the New Deal interpretation of modernist ideals of the 1930s as embodied in literally hundreds of similarly styled schools funded by the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration across the country.


The new design of the school stood in stark contrast to the city’s public building aesthetic of the first half of the 20th century, best represented by the Classical Revival style of the Hill County Courthouse and the monumental Colonial Revival of the U.S. Post Office and Federal Building.



Then, two years after the high school and gym were finished came the remodeling and expansion of the Great Northern depot in 1953. Suddenly there has a long rectangular block of brown/gold bricks in the center of town, a structure totally at odds with the earlier tradition of slightly Victorian-styled or Classical influenced passenger stations that served as literal gateways to the railroad towns of the plains.


Can anyone doubt the influence of the Great Northern on the prospects and identity of Havre in the 1950s? It was the key economic engine. In the wake of the new passenger station, other businesses and institutions in downtown Havre shed their earlier skins for the look of modernism. The Bell Telephone building was a sharp-edged box, influenced by an International style look of shifting patterns of brick and glass.


Adding significantly to the city’s rich legacy of church architecture is the 1959 almost Prairie -style achievement of the Van Orsdel Methodist Church, located on the edge of the town’s residential historic district.

The Schafer Insurance Services building–a striking commercial example of what was called contemporary design (think of the angles and sweep of the modern house featured in the classic Hitchcock film, North by Northwest)–sits square in the town’s residential historic district.

The city pool, across from the high school, exhibited another version of contemporary design, tending in fact toward what architectural historians call “Ranch style,” similar to many new suburban homes being built in Havre in the 1950s and 1960s.

And the impact of modernism was not over at Northern Montana College. The rambling, Ranch-style effect of Morgan Hall and the more Miesian Student Union Center, combined with the gym and the earlier mechanical arts building to turn what had been a typically Gothic Revival campus of the turn of the century into an almost hip, “with it” college environment of the 1960s.



The epitome of Havre’s new look came in the early 1970s with the decision to build a new hospital. The Northern Montana Hospital (1975) is an impressive achievement, almost as if a spaceship had landed on the town’s northern outskirts. If it had been built a few years earlier, pundits no doubt would have called it “star wars” style. More fairly, the building expresses our faith in modern medicine, and complements well the modernist style of the adjacent Northern Montanq College campus. Certainly Northern Montana College represents the capstone of a generation of change within Havre, which can be explored today by discovering the town’s modern architecture landmarks.