Transformations of Montana Avenue

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Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

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Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

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At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

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No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

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Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.

 

Kalispell’s Main Street Business District

Flathead Co Kalispell Main St 1Kalispell’s Main Street–the stem of the T-plan that dates to the town’s very beginning as a stop on the Great Northern Railway–has a different mix of businesses today than 30 years ago when I visited during my state historic preservation plan survey.  It also now is a historic district within National Register of Historic Places, noted for its mix of one-story and two-story Western Commercial style businesses along with large historic hotels and an opera house for entertainment.

Flathead Co Kalispell Opera House 4The Opera House, and I’m sorry you have to love the horse and buggy sign added to the front some years ago, dates to 1896 as the dream of merchant John MacIntosh to give the fledging community everything it needed.  On the first floor was his store, which over the years sold all sorts of items, from thimbles to Studebakers.  The second floor was a community space, for meetings, a gymnasium, and even from a brief period from 1905 to 1906 a skating rink.  In this way, MacIntosh followed the ten-year-old model of a much larger building in a much larger city, the famous Auditorium Building in Chicago, providing Kalispell with a major indoor recreation space and landmark.  Allegedly over 1000 people attended a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin soon after the opening.

Another highlight of the historic is the Kalispell Grand Hotel (1912), designed by local architect Marion Riffo and constructed by B. B. Gilliland, a local builder. Designed not only as a railroad hotel for traveling “drummers,” it also served as a first stop for homesteaders flooding into the region in that decade.  Montana writer Frank B. Linderman was the hotel manager from 1924 to 1926, and his friend western artist Charles M Russell visited and stayed at the hotel in those years.  This place, frankly, was a dump when I surveyed Kalispell in 1984-1985 but five years later a restoration gave the place back its dignity and restored its downtown landmark status.

img_8485The Alpine Lighting Center dates to 1929 when local architect Fred Brinkman designed the store for Montgomery Ward, the famous Chicago-based catalog merchant.  Its eye-catching facade distinguished it from many of the other more unadorned two-part commercial blocks on Main Street.

My favorite Main Street building is probably the cast-iron, tin facade over a two-story brick building that now houses an antique store.  It was once the Brewery Saloon (c. 1892). This is a classic “Western Commercial” look and can be found in several Montana towns.

Main Street defines the heart of the business district.  Along side streets are other, more modern landmarks.  Let me emphasize just a few favorites, starting with the outstanding contemporary design of the Sutherland Cleaners building, located on 2nd Street, the epitome of mid-20th century Montana modernism.  It is such an expressive building but of course in 1984 it was “too recent” for me to even note its existence.

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At least I had enough good sense to note the existence of its neighbor, the Art Deco-styled Strand Theater (1927).  I enjoyed a movie there in 1984–and the theater kept showing movies until 2007.

The preservation of the Strand Theater, and the other downtown historic theater building, the Classical Revival-styled Liberty Theater (1920-21) by Kalispell architect Marion Riffo, is the work of the Fresh Life Church, which owns and uses both buildings to serve its congregation and the community.

Another modernist favorite is a Fred Brinkmann-inspired design, the flamboyant Art Deco of the historic City Garage (1931), now home to local television station.

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On the other side of Main Street is another building that evokes 1930s interpretation of Art Deco, the Eagles Lodge Building, a reminder of the key role played in fraternal lodges in developing towns and cities in early Montana.

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Let’s close this look at Kalispell’s commercial architecture with the Kalispell Mercantile Building (1892-1910), which was established by the regional retail powerhouse, the Missoula Mercantile, at the very beginning of the city’s existence.  Kalispell has figured out what Missoula refuses to do–that a building such as this is worthy of preservation, and if maintained properly, can continue to serve the town’s economy for decades more.

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Kalispell’s downtown historic districts: the public and sacred

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When Kalispell developed and approved its National Register multiple property nomination project in the early 1990s, the residents embraced historic preservation as part of the city’s future and its economic development.  With its Preserve America designation from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, residents took their efforts to a new level and when I visited in 2015 it seemed that everywhere I went I found physical examples of their determination to melt the past with the present and the future.

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This work throughout the city–such as the restoration of the Flathead County Courthouse (1904-5)  at the south end of the business district–is impressive.  When created in the late 19th century, Kalispell was as classic of a T-plan railroad town as you could find, with its depot and Great Northern Railroad line marking the top of the T, Main Street businesses lining the stem of the T, and then the courthouse standing at the bottom of the

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stem.  Despite its eye-popping late eclectic Victorian style and soaring clock tower, magnificence of the courthouse, designed by famed Montana architects Bell and Kent,  reacted to the railroad engineers’ arrangement of space within the town itself.  Certainly, the railroad, at the head of town, was important, but the public mattered too–not just at the courthouse but another impressive Victorian era monument, the Richardsonian Romanesque-styled Kalispell Central School of 1894, which is now a city museum.

Designed by William White of Great Falls, this impressive statement of town building by local residents was threatened with demolition in 1991–indeed its plight was one of the issues that awoke local citizens to the need for the National Register multiple property nomination.  Not only was this landmark preserved, its transformation into a museum met a heritage tourism need in the region, and also marks, in my mind, one of the most positive developments in historic preservation in the region in the last 30 years.

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Other public buildings in Kalispell, however, show how the past can work with present.  From my work in 1984-85 to my visit in 2015, Kalispell’s population more than doubled, demanding enhanced public services.  Yet the city found a way to retain the simple yet effective Colonial Revival-styled building the 1927 City Water Department while extending that block into a new center for public safety services with a modernist styled complex.

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Flathead Co Kalispell public safety building 1The town’s early religious institutions also built to stay, leaving key landmarks throughout the neighborhoods that serve as historic anchors today. On Main Street alone there is the unique Arts and Crafts styled First Presbyterian Church (1925-26) by architect Fred Brinkman, and the Gothic Revival masonry and tower of Bethlehem Lutheran Church (1932-1937).

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Also on South Main Street nearby Bethlehem Lutheran is another related architectural monument, the Hjortland Memorial Youth Center, which came out of the Bud Hjortland Memorial Fund and was constructed in contemporary 1950s style between 1953 and 1954.

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My favorite modernist style Main Street landmark is the St. Matthew’s Catholic School (1958) which serves students from preschool to grade 8.

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Flathead Co Kalispell Main St catholic schoolThe city’s first Catholic school dated to 1917.  The historic St. Matthew’s Catholic Church (1910) by Great Falls architect George Shanley remains the city’s most commanding Gothic landmark.

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The Missoula Mercantile’s Uncertain Future

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As I write this post, one of Montana’s earliest and most significant commercial buildings faces demolition.  Considering the many positive gains Missoula has achieved from the wise adaptive reuse of its historic built environment–for example, unlike so many Montana cities, it has both of its historic railroad depots (the Northern Pacific and the

Milwaukee Road) still extant and serving as architectural and cultural anchors for the city. Missoula has kept the corporate landmarks of its founding generation, but now, some 125 plus years after the fact it wishes to dump its entrepreneurial landmark in the Mercantile Building? Incredible.

I have been following the story for years now through the pages of the Missoulian and read the accounts of the terrible condition of the building, and how nothing can be done with this–and 21st century Missoula needs this block to be vibrant again.  As regular readers of this blog are well aware, the Mercantile is not in poor condition–we have looked at buildings that fall into that category–and I can add in other examples across the country where a building might need a hand-up but it can still serve us today.  No doubt, the Mercantile needs to be re-energized, not as a purist historic preservation,

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museum-quality restoration but an approach that accepts that this block and the four brick walls that define the block also define something fundamental to the Missoula psyche and identity.  Corporate giants like the railroads of old still stride across Montana, and often still get their away.  But what made communities and built cities were not just those rails of steel but the commitment by private business men and women to establish opportunities for themselves and their employees.  Such commercial emporiums as the Mercantile not only helped to build Missoula but all of the surrounding towns and ranches where Montanans came her to trade.

Missoula Co Missoula mercantile 6Are we truly at a point in our culture that we can’t take the past and build a stronger community–this blog has pointed out countless examples of how that has happened across Montana–and we rather tear down and waste as we bow to the inevitability of Big box retail?  The entrepreneurial spirit of Montana needs its landmarks–and the adaptive reuse of the Mercantile would be a great place to say here we make our stand, and build a better Missoula.

 

 

Philipsburg: Victorian Town in the Pintlers

Granite co, Phillipsburg, BroadwayMiners first began to gather at what is now Philipsburg in the late 1860s; the town was later named for Philip Deidesheimer, who operated the Bi-Metallic Mine works. As the Bi-Metallic Mine and Mill expanded operations in the 1880s, a rapid boom in building

occurred, creating one and two-story brick buildings with dazzling Eastlake-styled cast-iron facades. The town was incorporated in 1890.

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IMG_2333The quality of the Victorian commercial architecture still extant in Phillipsburg, such as the 1888 Sayrs Block above, astounded me during the 1984-85 preservation work. So much was intact but so much needed help. Residents, local officials, and the state preservation office understood that and by 1986 the Philipsburg Commercial historic district had been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Granite Co, McLeod and Doe Blocks, PhillipsburgWhat is exciting is that in this decade, entrepreneurs are building upon early successful renovations and adaptive reuse project to launch new businesses and create new jobs. The town’s population is growing, after 30 years of decline.

No business has been more central to this transformation than the Sweet Palace, shown above, which is next door to the two-story brick Masonic Lodge.


Another key to recent success has the resurrection of local hotels and bed and breakfast establishments, along with the staging of various summer productions at the town’s Opera House Theatre, built in 1896, making it the longest continuous operating theater in the state. These properties give visitors a reason to stay longer, and not just stop at the Candy Store, grab a brew at one of the town’s historic bars, and then move along.

The town has recently added an amphitheater, located behind the historic school building, that also serves summer events that drive ever-increasing numbers of people to visit this mountain mining town and to spend more time and money there. This is modern-day heritage development at work.

Amphitheater, PhillipsburgThe new developments in Philipsburg are interesting and invaluable changes since 1984-1985. At the same time, I am happy that residents have still embraced their historic public buildings in a similar fashion.  The photograph I used in my book about the town in 1985

Phillipsburg HS, Granite Co (p84 59a-28)was the Philipsburg School, with its soaring tower symbolizing the hopes that residents had for Philipsburg’s future in the 1890s. The historic school, which is listed in the National Register, remains although the community built a new building adjacent to the historic one in 1987. (you can see a corner of the new building at the lower left).

IMG_2317When I first visited in 1984 the only building in Philipsburg listed in the National Register was the Queen Anne-styled Granite County Jail of 1902.  It also remains in use.

IMG_2145But now the Classical Revival-styled Granite County Courthouse (1913) is also listed in the National Register.  Designed by the important Montana architectural firm of Link and Haire, this small town county courthouse also speaks to the county’s early 20th century ambitions, with its stately classical columned portico and its central classical cupola.

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Granite Co, Phillipsburg, courthouse, 1912-13, Link and HaireBy climbing the hill above the courthouse you also gain a great overview look of the town, reminding you that these rather imposing public buildings are within what is truly a modest urban setting that is connected to the wider world by Montana Highway 1.

Overview of Phillipsburg, facing S

A couple of final thoughts on Philipsburg.  Its range of domestic architecture from c. 1875 to 1925 is limited in numbers but impressive in the variety of forms, from brick cottages to brick Queen Anne homes to textbook examples of bungalows and American Four Squares.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the M.E. Dow House is a frame Queen Anne home, modest considering the flamboyant Eastlake-styled cast-iron front to his downtown business block.

IMG_2118The Philipsburg Cemetery, which like so many that I ignored in 1984-1985, was a revelation, reflecting the quality of Victorian period architecture found in the town.

IMG_2341The beauty and serenity of its setting were impressive enough, but then some of the family plots and individual markers reflected Victorian era mortuary art at its best.

Phillipsburg Cemetery 5  This cast-iron gate, completed with urns on each post and the music lyre gate, is among the most impressive I have encountered in any small town across America.  And this cemetery has two separate ones.

Phillipsburg Cemetery, metal gateMany grave markers came from local or nearby masons but others, like these for the Schuh and Jennings families, were cast in metal, imitating stone, and shipped by railroad to Philipsburg.

Other markers are not architecturally impressive but they tell stories, such as the one below, for Mr. George M. Blum, a native of Germany, who was “killed in runaway at Phillipsburg” in 1903. I look forward to a future visit to this cemetery for further research.

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Stevensville: continuity in the midst of change

Stevensville commercial HDSince my earlier work on the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, few places in Montana had experienced such rapid population growth as Stevensville.  The place had just over 1200 residents in the 1980s, and that increased to a mere 1221 in 1990.  But now Stevensville is close to 2,000 in population.IMG_2472

Stevensville Feed and Mill, 407 MainBut enough is still here–like the historic mill complex above–that even as the business changes there is still the feel of an agricultural town at Stevensville. A major reason for the sense of continuity is the Stevensville Commercial Historic District, which has helped to protect the core of the town.

IOOF Hall, 217-19 Main St, StevensvilleAlso, buildings such as the two-story Old Fellows Hall (1912) have been individually listed in the National Register, adding prominence to the historic district. The district has a range of one-story and two-story brick buildings, most from the agricultural boom of the first two decades of the 20th century. A notable exception is a two-story concrete block

Classical Revival-styled bank building, where the blocks are shaped to resemble masonry. You can find this architectural treatment across the state, most often in residential architecture. The Stevensville bank is an important commercial example.

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Stevensville Main St, 300 block oddOne major trend of Stevensville over 30 years is how buildings have been adapted to new uses.  You expect that in a commercial area with a rising population, but here it has happened to such landmarks as the historic turn of the 20th century school building,

Public School (1884) now Methodist Church, 216 College, Stevensville NRwhich is now the United Methodist Church, while the two-story brick American Four-Square house below is the historic Thornton Hospital (1910), but now serves as the Stevensville Hotel.  Both buildings are listed in the National Register.

IMG_2443One area that I really failed to consider in the 1984-1985 work was the diversity and cohesiveness of the historic residential neighborhood.  It too has been documented by a National Register historic district, but some dwellings, such as the impressive Classical Revival-styled Bass House have been individually listed.

Bass House, 100 College, Stevensville 1909Another favorite dates to the 1930s and the impact of the International Style on Montana domestic architecture:  the Gavin House, with its flat roof, its boxy two-story shape and bands of windows at the corners.

Gavin House, 1941, 219 College St, Stevensville, NR, internationalBetween these two extremes of early 20th century domestic design, Stevensville has an array of architectural styles, from the Folk Victorian to the more austere late 19th century vernacular to bungalows to revival styles.

Stevensville residents have used the National Register as an effective tool to commemorate their pasts but also to lay the foundation for a 21st century future in the midst of the some of the most rapid growth in the state.

 

Virginia City, past and present

 

thumb_IMG_2489_1024Virginia City was Montana’s first effort to protect a large district of buildings, and it took place through private initiative.  In the late 1980s, out of the earlier fieldwork that decade, I was preparing an article on Montana’s preserved landscapes, and eventually the piece appeared in a book on historic preservation in the West published by the University of New Mexico Press.  Virginia City had always intrigued me, because of how the Bovey family admitted to anyone who would listen that their encouragement came from the success of Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, where I had began my career.

As I discussed in the article, “the Bovey family spent its own money and raised funds to restore Virginia City, then largely abandoned and in decay, to its appearance during the years the town served as a major western mining center and the territorial capital of Montana. Like the Williamsburg restoration, which focused on one key story—the revolution—in its depiction of history, the Virginia City restoration also showcased one dramatic event—the vigilante movement for law and order of the late 1860s. Success at Virginia City led the restoration managers to expand their exhibits to the neighboring “ghost town” of Nevada City, where they combined the few remaining original structures with historic buildings moved from several Montana locations to create a “typical” frontier town.”

thumb_IMG_2480_1024“The Bovey family lost interest in the project during the 1990s and at one time it appeared that many of the valuable collections would be sold and dispersed. The State of Montana and thousands of interested citizens stepped forward and raised the money to acquire the

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property and keep both Virginia City and the recreated Nevada City open to the public.” The black and white photos I am sharing here come from a trip in 1990 that I specifically took to record Virginia City as the restored town out of the fear that the place would be dismantled, and this unique experiment in preservation lost.

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About ten years ago, I was given the opportunity to return to Virginia City and to see what the public efforts had brought to the town.  At that time local and state officials were interested in pursuing heritage area designation.  That did not happen but it was a time when I began to understand even larger stories at Virginia City than 20 years earlier.

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One of the “new” properties I considered this decade in my exploration of Virginia City was its historic cemetery.  Yes, like tens of thousands of others I had been to and given due deference to “Boot Hill,” and its 20th century markers for the vigilante victims

IMG_0095I am speaking instead of the very interesting historic city cemetery, just a bit to the north. It has a wide of grave markers, that show the confluence of folk burial practices of the mid to late 19th century with the more popular, and mass produced imagery of Victorian burial markers.  There are, just as in southern cemeteries, family plots marked by Victorian cast-iron fences. Or those, in a commonly found variation, that have a low stone wall marking the family plots.

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There are hand-cut stone grave houses, placed above ground–the burial is actually below the ground, but the houses for mid-19th century Americans symbolized home, family, and the idea that the loved one had “gone home.”  The one at the Virginia City Cemetery has a “flat roof” while I am more accustomed to a sharp gable roof on such structures.

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The cast-metal prefabricated grave markers, according to early literature on the topic, are “rare.”  Compared to masonry markers, yes these Victorian era markers are few in number.  But they are not particularly rare; I have found them in rural and small town cemeteries across the South.  They are here in Virginia City too.

One of the most prominent belonged to Union Civil War veteran, and Kentucky native, James E. Callaway, who served in the Illinois state legislature after the war, in 1869, but then came to Virginia City and served as secretary to the territorial government from 1871 to 1877.  He also was a delegate to both constitutional conventions in the 1880s. He died in Virginia City in 1905.

IMG_0107Callaway’s grave is one of several of individuals significant in the territorial era.  Thomas J. Dimsdale, the chronicler of the vigilante movement, is buried here as well as a more elaborate grave site for Bill Fair-weather, which includes a marker that describes him as the discoverer of Alder Gulch.

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Another property type I ignored in 1984-85 during my work in Virginia City was the impact of the New Deal.  The town has a wonderful WPA-constructed community hall/ gymnasium, which is still used for its original purposes.

 

The impact of the Montana Heritage Foundation and the concerted state effort beginning in the mid-1990s has been profound on Virginia City.  There has been a generation of much needed work of collection management at the curatorial center, shown below.  The Boveys not only collected and restored buildings in the mid-20th century, they also packed them with “things”–and many of these are very valuable artifacts of the territorial through early statehood era.

IMG_0181The impact on the buildings, and the constant efforts of repair and restoration, is very clear today.  Virginia City is far from a sanitized outdoor museum environment.  Residents still work and live here, but the historic built environment is in better shape than at any time in the early 1980s, as the images below attest.

 

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IMG_0153Save America’s Treasures funding has been leveraged with private donations and state funding to shore up the most significant properties.  There is also a much greater, and more accurate, public interpretation found through the historic district.  Visitors get much

more than a “quaint, Old West” experience–they can actually learn about the rigors, challenges, and opportunities of the gold rush frontier in the northern Rockies.

 

IMG_0165As the image above of the Smith Store attests, there is no need to paint too rosy of a picture about the future of Virginia City.  This National Historic Landmark will always need a lot of care, attention, and funding if it is to survive another century.  During the national hoopla of the Civil War sesquicentennial in the first half of this decade, the same sesquicentennial of the gold rush to the northern Rockies (Bannock, Virginia City, Helena, etc.) has passed by quietly.  But both nation-shaping events happened at the same time, and both deserve serious attention, if we want to stay true to our roots as a nation.

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Here in 2016, the preservation community is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.  The impact of that federal legislation has been truly significant, and can be found throughout the state.  But the earlier efforts by families, local communities, and state governments to save what they could of the past, in some cases to market it as a heritage tourism asset, in other cases, to save it for themselves, must also be commemorated.  Virginia City begins the state’s preservation story in many ways–and it will always need our attention.