To those who built a state, and made history

Sad news came out of the state capitol last week when budget cuts gave the Montana Historical Society no choice but to announce that its uber talented staff just don’t have the funding to travel to the hundreds of important places across the state, to gather stories, preserve historic buildings, conserve invaluable documents and photographs, and to celebrate with communities both large and small the history, traditions, and people that made Montana the special place it is.

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It’s unfortunate when a state steps back from its past and thinks its future is better without it.  When I look for those who built the state, the deep past is where I start, and the leaps forward in how Montana’s tribes are documenting and interpreting their history to their terms and needs, one of the most important developments in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 plus years.

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Then there are the properties that link the peoples of Montana and their sense of themselves and their past–cemeteries large and small across the state, where veterans are commemorated and families celebrated.

IMG_7537Fort Kipp Cemetery, above, is one of those place, nestled on the river bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  On a larger scale but still intimate, personal, and compelling is the city cemetery of Red Lodge, hundreds of miles away. Here surrounded by the mountains

are graves from the early Finnish residents who came to work at the coal mines and build a community. Some are of a traditional design, immediately translated from the old country.  Others–like the cast iron family marker shown above–are as mainstream as American industry could make it at the turn of the twentieth century:  a prefabricated marker cast somewhere back east but with Finnish lettering, speaking to those who also came over in c.1900 to build a new land.

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The Finnish imprint on the landscape of Carbon County has been eclipsed by generations of growth since the early 1900s, but as the 2016 Road Show of the Montana Preservation Alliance demonstrated, buildings large and small are still part of the landscape.  With a few acres of land outside of Red Lodge, Finnish settlers and their descendants have maintained a place of community–the Kavela–which remains vibrant some 100 years later.  At this place of ethnic identity and celebration, you almost feel like an intruder–that you have stepped inside a sacred circle as an outsider.  But families go out of their way to make you feel welcome, through fellowship, good food, and stories of past and present.  The Kavela naturally features one of the most traditional Finnish community buildings–the sauna, built of concrete in the 1920s.  Speak of tradition, ethnic pride, and assimilation–a concrete sauna might say it all.

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Indeed what you can find in the Finnish landscape of Carbon County is repeated countless times across Big Sky Country, just in different languages and with different forms.  It is why you get off the interstates and travel the backroads, the dirt roads, for

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the markers of the nations that built our nation can be almost anywhere. It might be of the many ethnicities who mined the copper of Butte, or the African American railroad

workers and other average citizens who established permanent institutions such as the Bethel Union AME Church in Great Falls, pictured below.

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Stonemasons from Croatia are credited with many of the architecturally striking stone buildings in Lewistown, shown below, whereas if you stop and explore the state capital

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of Helena, you can see where  Irish Americans banded together to fund some of the state’s most iconic structures, from the majestic Catholic Cathedral that overlooks the city and the commanding statue of General Thomas Meagher in front of the State Capitol.

From the Meagher statue it is only a few steps to the east to the doors of the Montana Historical Society.  Its operating hours are fewer but you will find an institution not just of the past but of the future for like the land itself, the society, its collections, and dedicated staff are the keepers of the things and words that remain from those who built the state.  The idea that Montana can stride into the 21st century without the Montana Historical Society is folly, defined.

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The Public Landscape of Statehood

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 126 State CapitolThe Montana State Capitol was my first heritage project in the state–the Montana Department of General Services worked with the Montana Historical Society to have me prepare an interpretive guide to the capitol, and then set up the interpretation program, following an excellent historic structures report prepared by the firm of Jim McDonald, a preservation architect based in Missoula.

The capitol was designed by the firm of Charles Bell and John Kent of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who moved to Helena to supervise the project.  The first phase of construction dates from 1899 to 1902 and then between 1909 and 1912 the building was largely completed to its present form with additions from the Billings firm of Link and Haire.  It was a splendid building and a joy to work with, and clearly a point of pride of the thousands of Montanans who would visit in a given year.

HPIM0825.JPGWhen I worked at the capitol, of course I passed daily by other state government buildings, and rarely gave those “modern” buildings another thought, except perhaps for the museum exhibits and archival collections at the Montana Historical Society.  Years later, however, what seemed unbearably recent in the early 1980s were now clearly historic.  One of my MTSU graduate assistants, Sarah Jane Murray, spent part of a summer last decade helping develop a inventory of the buildings and then, finally, in 2016 the Montana State Capitol Campus historic district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

It is really a splendid grouping of buildings, reflecting both the growth of Montana in the middle decades of the 20th century and how state government has expanded its services to  the citizens.  The Scott Hart Building dates to 1958, an impressive bit of Montana modernism by the firm of Bordeleau, Pannell, and Amundsen.  it was an addition to the original Montana Highway Building (1936), a New Deal project in PWA Moderne style from

the Great Falls architect George Shanley. The initial highway building now houses the departments of livestock and agriculture.

HPIM0839.JPGThe Capitol Annex (1910) was the first building added to the capitol campus, and its restrained classicism came from the firm of Link and Haire.

HPIM0836.JPGThe nearby Livestock Building (1918) is like the annex, complimentary of the capitol’s classicism but also distinguished in its own Renaissance Revival skin.  Link and Haire were the architects.

HPIM0826.JPGThe mammoth Sam W. Mitchell Building (1948-50) reflected the post-World War II interpretation of institutional modernism and its mammoth scale challenged the capitol itself, especially once a large addition was completed at the rear of the building in 1977. The architect was Vincent H. Walsh of Helena.

HPIM0841.JPGAnother Link and Haire building on the campus is the Board of Health Building (1919-1920), which continues the pattern of more restrained architectural embellishment that shaped the look of the government buildings in the middle decades of the century.  HPIM0832.JPGThe Cogswell Building (1954-55, 1981) is another Vincent H. Walsh design, again reflecting the stripped classicism institution style often found in Cold War era public buildings.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-003While the capitol campus took form on a hill about a mile east of Last Chance Gulch, the state’s governor still lived downtown, in the Queen Anne-style “mansion” originally built by miner and entrepreneur William Chessman and designed by the St. Paul firm of Hodgson, Stem and Welter.  The state acquired the house in 1913 to serve as the residence for the governor and his family, and it remained the governor’s “mansion” until 1959.

Helena MT Governor Mansion 2006 003It was the opportunity to be the curator of this house museum that attracted my newlywed wife Mary Hoffschwelle that led me to come with her to Montana.  She was born in Billings; I had never been west of Dallas.  But then over 25,000 miles of driving, visiting, and looking in Montana transformed me, and led not only to the 1986 book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History but now this Montana historic landscape blog.  Fate, perhaps.  Luck–I will take it any day.

 

Helena’s downtowns

img_0964Helena, the capitol city of Montana, was where I made my home from 1981 to 1985, and served as my base for travels far and wide across the state during my work for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office’s preservation plan in 1984-1985.  I started the project at the 1950s modernist Montana Historical Society building next door to the state capitol.

I ended the project at a far different environment, one of Helena’s downtown historic buildings, just off from Last Chance Gulch.

masonic-hall-helenaHelena then was a small town but a big urban environment, and I used to enjoy exploring its two sided urban landscape:  the 1970s “Last Chance Mall” where planners and designers closed the street for a few blocks and inserted a pedestrian mall, thinking that a “walking mall” experience would keep businesses downtown, and then the rest of the downtown before urban planners decided to change it into something it never was.

Don’t misread me–I spent many, many hours in the town’s Last Chance Mall, and at first I thought it quite brilliant, because as the historian I liked the fact that the walking experience was distracted by various interpretive pieces, depicting cattle drives, placer mining, and early 20th century urban life.

But soon enough I was like long-time residents–the sculptural and interpretive elements were nice enough for tourists–it was the surrounding historic brick environments that proved much more fascinating, and lasting.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-026The impetus behind the urban renewal of the 1970s was not only federal dollars through the Model Cities program but also federal presence.  Officials wished to anchor the new Last Chance Gulch Urban Renewal project with a Park Avenue section that

 

began at the intersection of Last Chance Gulch and Broadway and then stretched back to new modernist-styled city library and a flashy Federal Building, moving the federal presence from where it had stood for most of the century–on a hill overlooking the gulch

helena library plaza

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in an Italian Renaissance-styled landmark designed by federal architect James Knox Taylor and constructed in 1904.  That building would become a new city-county municipal building, still with a downtown post office.

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 047 federal building post officeThe pedestrian mall on its west side ends at the imposing Richardsonian Romanesque styled T.C. Power Block, one of my favorite commercial buildings not just in Helena but in all of Montana.

Once you crossed the street, you found yet another downtown–not more historic but more architecturally diverse and without as many 1970s improvements.  The gulch is the dominant corridor,  with two lanes of traffic, parked cars, and all of the traffic bustle you expected in a historic downtown.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-043This downtown has several architectural landmarks, as you see below with the Art Deco-styled First National Bank building, and then a short block away, a magnificent statement of power and influence, the Montana Club, designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert.

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Gilbert would gain his greatest fame later in his career for the designs of the Woolworth Building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.  The Montana Club (1903-1905) comes from the first part of Gilbert’s career, where he pursued multiple design inspirations, from the Richardsonian to the Gothic to the stylish Arts and Crafts approach then described as Mission style.

Certainly this part of downtown has changed over the last 30 years, be it from recent, and quite necessary, preservation work at the Montana Club to jazzy new facades added to commercial blocks along the way.

A whole different world, one of the 21st century, beckons when you walk through the Hill park, with its controversial fountain founded by a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and reach the park’s intersection with Neill Avenue.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-049Once you cross Neill Avenue, you enter a new downtown of 21st century Helena, created by the demolition of the historic Great Northern Railway passenger station in the 1990s and the construction of a new Federal Reserve Bank.  Here suddenly was a new downtown

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 078 federal reserve bankanchor, similar to that of the 1977 Federal Building on the opposite end of Last Chance Gulch.  And the name given to this?  the Great Northern Center, where not only the

 

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-073Federal Reserve lived but also a huge new Federal Courthouse, the Paul G. Hatfield Courthouse (2001-2002), a neoclassical monument of a scale that Helena had not seen since the construction of the State Capitol more than a century earlier, along with its more

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-071modern styled neighbor, the Senator Max Baucus Federal Building.  In less than 40 years, the federal presence not only moved from one end of the gulch to another, it had become much larger and architecturally distinct.

All that remained from the Helena I recalled from 1985 was the Moorish Revival Civic Center, a building unique in an architectural style but one that still serves as community gathering spot for the arts and music.  Here I experienced the Johnny Cash Show in the early 1980s, among other concerts and events. Downtown Helena now has four layers, and the surrounding neighborhoods had changed too–as we shall explore in future posts.