Missoula’s Downtown Wonders

 

Missoula 2006 021 Medical Arts Building Art DecoDowntown Missoula’s architectural wonders make it a distinctive urban Western place. Let’s start with my favorite, the striking Art Moderne styled Florence Hotel (1941) designed by architect G.A. Pehrson. Located between the two railroad depots on Higgins Street, the hotel served tourists and residents as a symbol of the town’s classy arrival on the scene–it was the first place with air-conditioning–of a region transforming in the 1940s and 1950s.

missoula medical florenceWith the coming of the interstate highway in the 1970s, tourist traffic declined along Higgins Street and the Florence Hotel was turned into offices and shops, a function that it still serves today.

Missoula Co Missoula The Florence 5Next door is another urban marvel, the Wilma Theatre, which dates to 1921 and like the Florence it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The building was the city’s first great entertainment landmark (even had an indoor swimming pool at one time) but with offices and other business included in this building that anchored the corner where Higgins Street met the Clark’s Fork River. Architects Ole Bakke and H. E. Kirkemo designed the theatre in the fashionable Renaissance Revival style, with a hint towards the “tall buildings” form popularized by architect Louis Sullivan, the building later received an Art Deco update, especially with the use of glass block in the ticket booth and the thin layer of marble highlighting the entrance.

With their soaring height the Florence and Wilma were dominant commercial landmarks.  Much of the downtown was built earlier, with the Missoula Mercantile (discussed in an earlier blog) being a very important lure for customers from throughout the region–by far

IMG_7565.jpgMissoula’s first major department store and entrepreneurial center.  The late Victorian era architectural styling of the two-story building also set a standard for many other downtown businesses from 1890 to 1920. These can be categorized as two-part commercial fronts, with the first floor serving as the primary commercial space and the second floor could be offices, dwelling space for the owner, or most common today storage space.

My favorite Victorian-era commercial building in Missoula is another Higgins Street landmark, and a rarity in Montana as a Queen Anne-styled business block, complete with projecting turret bay, highlighted by stone, defining its corner location and signifying its prominence as the local bank.

 

The Classical Revival that transformed the look of so many western railroad towns from the late 1890s to 1920 is also well represented in its different architectural forms. The Missoula County Courthouse (1910) was built following the arrival of the Milwaukee Road and the county’s economic boom led by the two railroads and the thousands of homesteaders headed into northwest Montana.  Designed by Montana architect A. J.

Missoula 2006 045 courthouseGibson, the building is one of the state’s best examples of what is called “Beaux Arts classicism,” a movement in the west so influenced by the late 1890s Minnesota State Capitol by architect Cass Gilbert.

Another example of Beaux Arts classicism, in a more commercial setting, defines the facade of the Masonic Temple, designed by the Montana firm of Link and Haire in 1909.

Missoula Co Missoula Masonic TempleJust as impressive, but in a more Renaissance Revival style, is the Elks Lodge (1911), another building that documents the importance of the city’s working and middle class fraternal lodges in the early 20th century.

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And speaking of Renaissance Revival, the historic Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse also embraces the early 20th century Classical Revival movement as interpreted by three different federal architects over a 25-year period (James Knox Taylor, 1911-13; James A. Wetmore, 1927-1929; and, Louis A. Simon (1937).  The three different periods of

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construction, however, did not leave Missoula with an incoherent statement of classical architecture.  In fact, the various sections help to document different era in the city’s development, from the height of the homesteading boom of the 1910s to the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s.  Missoula Co Missoula federal courthouseOf more recent construction is another federal courthouse, the modernist-styled Russell Smith Federal Courthouse, which was originally constructed as a bank.  In 2012, another judicial chamber was installed on the third floor. Although far removed from the classic

Missoula Co Missoula Russell Smith courthouse 2look, the Russell Smith Courthouse is not out-of-place in downtown Missoula.  There are several other buildings reflecting different degrees of American modern design, from the Firestone building from the 1920s (almost forgotten today now that is overwhelmed by its neighbor the Interstate Bank Building) to the standardized designed of gas stations of

Missoula Co Missoula firestone store1930s and 1940s, complete with enamel panels and double garage bays, standing next to the Labor Temple.

IMG_7516Modernism is alive and well in 21st century Missoula, with a office tower at St. Patrick’s Hospital, a new city parking garage, and the splashy Interstate Bank building, which overwhelms the scale of the adjacent Missoula Mercantile building–which had been THE place for commerce over 100 years earlier.

 

Nightlife, and then some, in Missoula

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As we are reminded everyday by the massive historic Labor Temple, just off Higgins Street in the heart of downtown, Missoula was a working town–not just a college town–for most of its existence.  Laborers, whether for the railroads, the sawmills, and numerous factories, daily passed through the downtown on the way to work and then to home.  And they had their choice of downtown watering holes to grab a drink and a bit of relaxation if they were so inclined.

I understand that it is more than a stereotype to wax eloquent about a western town’s bars, but frankly I cannot help myself.  Whenever I came to Missoula while a Montana resident, and when I go there today, my plans center around simple propositions–do I go to the Northern Pacific Railroad passenger station and turn left to stop at the Double Front for a brew and some of the best fried chicken in America (and remember I’m a southerner), or do I stroll down Higgins Street and grab a burger and beer at the Oxford?

It sorta depends on the mood–the Double Front is more of a family place–it even has been gussied up a bit since my time there in the 1980s.  The Oxford has a well earned reputation for being a bit rough-edged, but I love it, warts and all.

I have good friends who still wish to argue the virtues of a quick bite at the Missoula Club, a great place just off Higgins Street.  In fact, I can say the same for the Stockmans Cafe and Bar, as well as Red’s Place, which has gone the sports bar route.

And when I really want to go old school, I return to the Northern Pacific passenger station, find Railroad Street and then venture in–and I mean venture–the Silver Dollar Bar, one of the city’s first to reopen after the end of Prohibition and still serve customers today.

Missoula Co Missoula 51The Silver Dollar, like the Double Front, were meccas not just for railroad workers but also travelers weary of life on the rails and looking for a bit of liquid refreshment.  It remains a drinkers’ bar today.

Missoula Co Missoula 42I realize that Missoula now has a wide range of downtown establishments–even a wine bar for a good measure–and I wish them well.  But give me the Ox, the Double Front, or the Club any day, any time.

 

 

Missoula: a two-railroad town

IMG_2137The Clark’s Fork River and transportation through the valleys and over the Rocky Mountains lie at the core of Missoula’s early history.  Captain John Mullan blazed his road through here immediately before the Civil War, and a Mullan Road marker is downtown.

IMG_2130White settlement first arrived in the initial territorial years and a sawmill was the first major business.  As a river crossroads town, Missoula grew, and then became a permanent dot on the federal map with the arrival of Fort Missoula, established in 1877.  The fort, largely neglected when I conducted my work for the state historic preservation plan in 1984, is now a regional heritage center.

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Quartermaster building, Fort Missoula, built 1911.

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Fort Missoula overview, taken in 2007.

But so much of that you see and experience today in downtown Missoula is shaped by the arrival of two railroads, the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883 and then the Milwaukee Road in 1908.  In those 25 years, much of historic environment of present-day Missoula was built, creating a north side, south side look to the city that reflects not only the central thread of the Clark’s Fork River but also the impact of the two sets of railroad tracks.

NPRR depot, MissoulaBuilt in 1901, the Northern Pacific passenger station is an impressive example of Renaissance Revival style, designed by the architectural firm of Reed and Stem, and symbolized the turn of the century dominance of the railroad over the region’s transportation and the importance of Missoula to the railroad as a major train yard. The station, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, stands at the historic “top” of downtown Missoula, which at its bare bones has the classic T-plan of a railroad hub of the late 19th century.  The Northern Pacific tracks and related railroad warehouses are the top of the “T” stretching in both directions with Interstate I-90 crossing the river bluffs to the northeast.  Two reminders of the historic railroad traffic are adjacent to the station–a steam Northern Pacific engine and a diesel Burlington Northern engine.

From the passenger station stretching into the town itself is Higgins Street,which runs in a straight line to the river.  The most important early commercial building, near the Higgins Street bridge is of course the threatened Missoula Mercantile building (discussed

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in an earlier blog), which has sections dating to the 1880s.  Higgins Street bridge crosses the Clark’s Fork, which on the south side became the street’s connection with the later Milwaukee Road.

Missoula Co Missoula Milwaukee Road depot 5The Milwaukee was not to be out-done by the Northern Pacific when it arrived in Missoula in 1908.  Railroad architect J. J. Lindstrand gave the line a fashionable Misson-style passenger station and offices, which opened in 1910.  It too is listed in the National Register.  Like the company’s stations in Great Falls and Butte, built approximately at the same time, the station has a tall tower that commanded the city’s early 20th century skyline, and made the depot easy to find. Located dramatically along the Clark’s Fork River, the arrival of the railroad and the construction of the depot led to a new frenzy of building on South Higgins Street, and a good many of those one-story and two-story buildings remain in use today.

Missoula Co Missoula south side stores

That is enough for now–the railroads of Missoula have been introduced.  Next I will explore landmarks between the two depots of Missoula.

Missoula County’s country towns

IMG_8038Missoula County has grown, a lot, since my state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985, especially in the county seat of Missoula and surrounding suburbs.  Yet Missoula County still has several spectacular rural drives, like Montana Highway 83 above at Condon, along with distinctive country towns.  This post will share some of my favorites.

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Let’s just stay at Condon.  The Swan Valley Centre–it was just a general store back in the day–still operates, providing for locals and in the summer the tourists who are flocking to Seeley Lake or passing through on the way to Glacier National Park or Flathead Lake.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club 2The Condon Community Center and adjacent Swan Valley Community Library serve as additional hubs for those living along the lakes and mountains of northeast Missoula County.  Both buildings are excellent examples of mid-20th century Rustic style–a look that, in different variations, dominates the Highway 35 corridor.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center 1Condon is also the base for the Condon Work Center, home to the Great Northern Fire Crew, of the Flathead National Forest.  Here you can take a mile-long Swan Ecosystem Trail and learn of the diversity of life in this national forest region.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley LakeSouth of Condon on Montana Highway 83 is Seeley Lake–a place that certainly has boomed in the last 30 years–witness the improved highway, new businesses, and population that has increased over 60 percent since my last visit in 1992.  Yet it still had places rooted in the community’s earlier history such as the Sullivan Memorial Community Hall–a good example of mid-20th century Rustic style.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley Lake community hallAnd it had added one of my favorite bits of roadside architecture in this part of Montana: the Chicken Coop Restaurant as well as opening a new Seeley Lake Historical Museum and Chamber of Commerce office at a spectacular highway location just outside of town.

Let’s stay in the mountains but go northwest of Missoula to the historic Ninemile Remount Depot of the U.S. Forest Service.  In earlier posts I have praised the historic preservation work of the Forest Service at various places across Montana–30 years ago it might have been like pulling teeth to have forest service managers to recognize the many heritage assets under their jurisdiction but no more.  The Forest Service has done right by many of its National Register historic places, with Ninemile Depot being a particularly good example. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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In 1984 too few of us were focused on resources coming from the New Deal era.  When I was at Ninemile in 1984 I was looking for the historic school house–and was pleased 30 years later to find that it stood, and had been converted into a residence.

Missoula Co Ninemile schoolI don’t recall even thinking about the forest service facility, but here was an entire complex devoted to the forest service’s use of mules and horses before the days of the ATV that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The remount depot is an interesting

mix of restrained Colonial Revival styled offices and residences combined with a early 20th century functional aesthetic for the various barns and work buildings, which could have come straight from the USDA’s standardized plans for farm buildings of that time.

If you want to explore how the New Deal transformed the Montana landscape, the Ninemile Remount Depot is a must stop.  It has a museum about what has and still happens here and campgrounds are located nearby in the national forest.

Missoula Co Frenchtown RR corridor

Frenchtown is a Milwaukee Road railroad town closer to Missoula and the city’s sprawl to the northwest has impacted the town, as evident from the new school complex. When I visited in 1984 the town was a paper mill town.  Waldorf Paper Products Company opened the mill in 1957, but a successor company, Smurfit-Stone, closed the mill in 2010.  At that time the town had experienced a significant population boom, having grown from 883 in 2000 to over 1800 in 2010.

Missoula Co Frenchtown school 2The name Frenchtown dates to 1868 and is a reference to a number of French Canadians who moved here in the early settlement period.  A National Register-listed church, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church (1884) marks that first generation of settlers.  Its classical-tinged cupola has long been the town’s most famous landmark.

Missoula Co Frenchtown St John Baptist Catholic NR 3The Milwaukee Road built through here in 1907-1908 and there remains a handful of historic business buildings from the time of the Milwaukee boom. There is one landmark

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from the paper mill days that I recall from my work in 1984–because I stopped here for a break back then: the Alcan Bar–and note the “F” for Frenchtown on the hill behind it.

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Evaro is also northwest of Missoula, more north than west along U.S. Highway 93.  The highway’s four-lane expansion has changed so much of the roadside landscape between this place and Hamilton far to the south.  Yet Evaro still has its c. 1930 one-room school, which is now the community center, helping to preserve this historic building. And its has

IMG_7827another roadside landmark–the Bucksnort Bar, just further evidence to add to the Chicken Coop and the Alcan that you won’t go hungry if you explore the small towns of Missoula County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelers Rest: New State Park Jewel in Missoula County

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One of the most significant developments in Montana historic preservation has been the verified location of “Travelers Rest,” outside of Lolo in Missoula County.  Here is where the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along Lolo Creek in 1805. During my state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, we agreed on the general location–the property had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark for years.  In fact, as indicated in the marker above, the Daughters of the American Revolution had also marked the place as early as 1925.  But one was convinced that the campsite had been definitely located. Not until archaeology in 2002 had the actual campsite been proven, and by the time I visited Missoula County in 2006 I happened to arrive on the day a celebration for the new Travelers Rest State Park was underway. The park was not yet finished but the Travelers’ Rest Preservation and Heritage Association wanted to host an event during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial period.  It was exciting to see the launch of this new, important historic site not only for Missoula County but the state and nation as a whole.

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Move forward almost ten years to the completed Travelers Rest State Park.  It is one of the best interpreted sites along the entire length of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. It doesn’t have grand monuments–but it does have a walking trail that gives you different vantage points on the camp site.  Although not far from U. S. Highway 12, it is quiet, peaceful, and you can imagine what the expedition members thought about this landscape some 200 years ago.

The interpretive markers do not overwhelm the site.  But by text and illustration, along with use of primary documents, the markers tell an inclusive story, one that draws you into the landscape by reminding you that generations of Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Nez Perce people used these resources long before Lewis and Clark arrived in the fall 1805.

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IMG_2159Since I last visited in 2012 efforts have been underway to secure additional acres and to preserve a buffer around the property since growth and highway expansion between Missoula and Stevensville has engulfed Lolo.  The park now has 51 acres and represents quite an achievement by the non-profit Travelers Rest Preservation and Heritage Association, local government, and Montana State Parks.

Thanks for Being One of 100,000

Ravalli Co, beaver slide at Sula

Over the weekend, the Revisiting Montana’s Historic Landscapes site received its 100,000 visit.  When I began this project, I thought that if it reached 10,000 people–about the number who purchased copies of my Traveler’s Companion to Montana History in 1986-87 that would be worth the four-year effort to drive Montana roads and resurvey all of the places I first visited in the mid-1980s.  Thank you for being part of this journey, thanks too to the Montana Preservation Alliance and the Montana State Historic Preservation Office for their encouragement and support along the way.

Daniels Co Flaxville 1At this time, my entry on Flaxville, the tiny place above in Daniels County, has received the most views.  Perhaps that changes as I continue to move into the northwest portion of the state, starting with one of the most rapidly changing places in the last 30 years, Missoula County.

IMG_7263I am on the back end of my trek across the Big Sky Country, with probably 50 entries to go–see you soon!

 

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.