Kalispell: Growth and Preservation in Northwest Montana

 

Kalispell was a Montana jewel 0n the Great Northern Railway.  Despite that fact, in 1984 the preservation of the railroad’s historic passenger station was not certain.  This landmark, at the head of the T-plan town, still stood but was viewed as an impediment even an eyesore by some.  The depot (1892, 1899, 1914, 1929) was built when Kalispell was an important division point on the railroad’s main line then altered over the next three decades to the stuccoed exterior you find today.  It marked literally the beginnings of the town’s history.  Yet, when I held a public meeting at another landmark, the town’s historic Carnegie Library (1903) that had recently been through an adaptive reuse into the

Hockaday Art Museum, strong sentiments for more preservation were rarely heard. The depot was not listed in the National Register nor were many of the downtown buildings.  There were a few of the town’s rich stock of Victorian era houses listed. The success of the Hockaday and the Conrad Mansion (1892-1895) historic site seemed to be enough for many residents, or they thought preservation only meant pretty homes and buildings.

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Then came the work east of Kalispell in and around Glacier National Park to inventory and list eligible buildings to the National Register in the mid to late 1980s.  That, along with the loss of key downtown landmarks and new voices from preservationists and property owners, began to grow the interest in historic preservation.

The result was a massive multiple property study of Kalispell for the National Register of Historic Places, resulting in the listing of dozens of additional historical properties in 1994.  The historic railroad depot was listed and serves as home for the Chamber of Commerce and a visitor center, a front porch for the downtown. A new era in historic preservation had been launched, and the result today is impressive, as the next posts will explore.

Appreciating the town’s achievement in historic preservation over the last 20 years comes at an opportune time. The economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s are ready to be repeated again.  A federal grant, matched by local sources, will mean that the historic railroad corridor through the center of town will be moved–opening up acres for new construction.  Everyone knows this will be as fundamental of a change as when the Great Northern moved their division point to Whitefish in 1904. But now Kalispell has a strong historic core, identity, and purpose–the past has become fundamental to its future. Now let’s review that preservation achievement.

Flathead Co Kalispell Preserve America sign

 

Dillon’s public buildings

IMG_3276Dillon is not a large county seat but here you find public buildings from the first third of the 20th century that document the town’s past aspirations to grow into a large, prosperous western city.  It is a pattern found in several Montana towns–impressive public buildings designed to prove to outsiders, and perhaps mostly to themselves, that a new town out in the wilds of Montana could evolve into a prosperous, settled place like those county seats of government back east.

The public library dates to 1901-1902, constructed with funds provided by the Carnegie Library building program of steel magnate Andew Carnegie.  This late example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture came from architect Charles S. Haire, who would become one of the state’s most significant early 20th century designers.

The library reflected the town’s taste for the Romanesque, first expressed in the grand arched entrance of the Beaverhead County Courthouse (1889-1890), designed by architect Sidney Smith. The central clock tower was an instant landmark for the fledging railroad town in 1890–it remains that way today.

IMG_3236The Dillon City Hall also belongs to those turn-of-the-20th century public landmarks but it is a bit more of a blending of Victorian and Classical styling for a multi-purpose building that was city hall, police headquarters, and the fire station all rolled into one.

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The most imposing Classical Revival public structure in Dillon is also the smallest:  the public water fountain, located between the railroad depot and the Dingley Block.

Dillon, post office, c. 1940, NRA New Deal era post office introduced a restrained version of Colonial Revival style to Dillon’s downtown. The central entrance gave no hint to the marvel inside, one of the

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IMG_3262state’s six post office murals, commissioned and executed between 1937 and 1942.  The Dillon work is titled “News from the States” painted by Elizabeth Lochrie in 1938. It is a rarity among the murals executed across the country in those years because it directly addressed the mail and communication in early Beaverhead County.  Ironically, few of the post office murals actually took the mail as a central theme.

Dillon P.O. Mural NR 1The New Deal also introduced a public modernism to Dillon through the Art Deco styling of the Beaverhead County High School, a building still in use today as the county high school.

Dillon, Beaverhead Co HS

IMG_3227A generation later, modernism again was the theme for the Dillon Middle School and Elementary school–with the low one-story profile suggestive of the contemporary style then the rage for both public and commercial buildings in the 1950s-60s, into the 1970s.

Dillon Middle School

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Dillon elementary schoolThe contemporary style also made its mark on other public buildings, from the mid-century county office building to the much more recent neo-Rustic style of the Beaverhead National Forest headquarters.

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Dillon, Beaverhead Ntl Forest headquarters

The Beaverhead County Fairgrounds is the largest public landscape in Dillon, a sprawling complex of exhibition buildings, grandstand, and rodeo arena located on the outskirts of town along the railroad line.

But throughout town there are other reminders of identity, culture, and history.  Dillon is energized through its public sculpture, be it the cowboys in front of the Chamber of Commerce office or the Veterans Memorial Park on the northern outskirts.

 

 

 

Lewistown’s Public Buildings: Legacies of Service in Two Centuries

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For a town of 6,000, Lewistown has an imposing, impressive public presence in its historic built environments.  Clearly town founders and generations of later residents have taken the meaning of public architecture to heart–not only are they just buildings meant to hold public services but they are buildings that are meant to ennoble–to say that the town matters to those who use them, and those who come this way.

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The Fergus County Courthouse (1907-1908) lies at the center of town, on a rise above the railroads tracks and central business district and then the homes and schools that surround it.  Newton C. Gauntt of Yakima, Washington, was the architect.  He also designed courthouses in Washington and Oregon.  His Classical Revival design reflected a more vernacular interpretation of the style that preceded the courthouse by two years–that would be the Carnegie Library of 1905.  T. J. Tubb was the

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contractor/designer and used the town’s Croatian stone masons to create one of the most distinctive Carnegie designs in the state.  The additions below and in front came in 1990–quite the change in 30 years but also a necessary one to keep the original building as a community landmark and to serve a much different public library audience of the late 20th century.

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Behind the library was the place I always stayed at in Lewistown during the fieldwork of 1984–the Calvert Hotel.  Originally built as a girls’ high school dormitory, the building was a disappearing relic from the early homesteading days before buses and automobiles dominated traffic do and from county schools.  Students in faraway ranches would spend the week, maybe more, in the dorms during the school term–a reality that spoke to sense of distance and the limits of transportation 100 years ago.  In the 1980s, the Calvert was much like its dorm-day appearances: some modern upgrades but it was a rustic, and inexpensive, stay, perfect for someone like me.  New owners, thankfully, carried out a complete restoration and upgrade between 2007-2009.  The Calvert is now a totally different place, and fits squarely in our theme of a public building serving the community well, through adaptive reuse and historic preservation, in the 21st century.

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The same can be said for the historic school just up the street from the Calvert and its conversion into the Esplanade condominiums.  Here again, a public building still serves the community but in a different way than before.

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In the central business district, the grand triple-arched entrance of the Civic Auditorium is a reminder of the impact of the New Deal on the city.  The Works Progress Administration did a lot of little things in Lewistown, streets, sidewalks, utilities, but its most lasting contribution is the civic auditorium of 1936, still a meeting place for community events.

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Another federally funded building a few steps away was finished during the beginning of the Great Depression, the Lewistown Post Office, an impressive Classical Revival design from 1931.

 

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On the outskirts of town is another important set of buildings still in community service, not just to Lewistown but to towns and villages from miles away:  the Central Montana Fairgrounds.  The monument at the front entrance, part of the fair’s centennial celebration a few years ago, says it all:  100 years of pulling together.  Yes, it is a good motto for the fair, but to my eye it’s also a fitting motto for the entire town.

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The fairgrounds has an array of historic barns, stalls, and exhibition buildings that define the grounds while the new grandstand defines the signature events of today’s 21st century fair experience.

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Baker: The Milwaukee Road’s Eastern Gateway to Montana

Fallon Co Baker Milwaukee Road corridor  - Version 2The Milwaukee Road, the last transcontinental railroad to crisscross Montana, enters eastern Montana at the town of Baker, established in 1908, which served as an important rail center for the company with the full name of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific.  When I visited Baker in 1984 i noted that many of its buildings dated from the homesteading era although there was a clear second layer of development died to the region’s oil boom of the late 1960s and 1970s.  In A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986) I noted “Baker’s railroad corridor is still largely intact, and the spatial arrangement created by its Milwaukee depot and the neighboring Baker Hotel, an imposing brick building dating to 1916, symbolizes the railroad’s importance to the town.” Both buildings are gone now unfortunately but an indication of the prominence of the corridor is still conveyed by the brick building below which has served the community in many commercial and professional ways over the decades.

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Insurance was just one of the services provided by this neoclassical styled building.

Today the hotel, the tracks, and the huge grain elevators along the railroad corridor remain, and the elevators still visually dominate the surrounding mostly one-or two-story built environment.  But the depot is gone, leaving a hole in the town’s historic fabric.

IMG_0402Buildings and railroad tracks were not the only legacy of the Milwaukee in Baker–there was the large lake the company developed to provide water for its trains in a largely parched region.  The Baker Lake, 30 years ago, was undergoing another improvement project, part of the town’s generation-long effort to turn a forgotten corporate remnant into a community asset.  The company built the lake c. 1908 but soon found that the water was too salty–it corroded the equipment.  And so the lake sat, until the 1950s when the Baker’s Woman Club began an effort to convince the railroad to transfer the lake to local

IMG_0462government.  County leaders became convinced that yes, Baker needed a community recreation asset, and eventually the land was transferred into the public use, and Baker Lake by the end of the century was an unique asset in southeastern Montana, and a center for recreation and special events.

Fallon Co Baker library  - Version 2The lake is not the only contribution of the Woman’s Club.  it also was central in creating, staffing, and maintaining a public library, and the contemporary-designed library from 1970 remains but also has been enlarged since 1984.

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The Fallon County-City of Baker Administration Building, 1974-1975

Indeed, I noted the recent construction of the 1970s in Baker, like the new county courthouse/city administration building where I held a public meeting, but I didn’t really process the layer of modernism in the town, a reflection of its growth from 1950 to 1970, when the population grew from 1,772 to 2,584.  The new joint administration building, designed by the Billings firm of Johnson Graham Associates, remains an impressive piece of contemporary design.  Architects Willard Johnson and Orval Graham had established the firm in 1967.  The Baker project established a connection between the firm and county that continued into the present:  the new grandstand at the Fallon County Fairgrounds is also a JGA design, from 2011.

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The tradition of county fairs dates to 1909 and today the Fallon County Fair is one of the region’s largest.

IMG_0465Historic schools are other important contributions to the town’s built environment.  Above is the Washington School, built in 1927.  It is a brick Classical Revival statement of the town’s insistence for permanence in the face of the homesteading bust. When I last visited in 2013, the school was undergoing rehabilitation to become an office building. On the other side of town stood a more modern design, the Longfellow School, built in 1968 during the height of the population boom in Baker.  Its low, rectangular mass was modern school design at its best, although since my 1984 visit the casement windows have been covered so central heat and air could be installed.

IMG_0410The second building in Baker listed in the National Register was the only one designated in 1984, and it was the pride and joy of the community:  the old county courthouse converted into the O’Fallon Museum.  Here was not only the historical exhibits typical of the area but also installations about the region’s prehistoric past and moved buildings to host special

IMG_0414collections but also to interpret the homesteading past.  I will always remember my public meeting in Baker, for the obvious pride residents had in the museum but also for the comment that they could not wait to show me “our really old stuff,” such as a 1916 homestead.  Coming from my training at Colonial Williamsburg, considering places from 1916 as really old was a notion that took some getting used to, but of course in the context of settlement and development of southeastern Montana, it made perfect sense.

IMG_0463Today I would even join into the call for the “really old stuff”–like the Lake Theatre of 1918.  It certainly deserves a place in the National Register as so few classic movie theaters remain in this part of the state.  The same could be said for this classic c. 1960 drive-in,

IMG_0404which is part of the town’s roadside architecture traditions along U.S. Highway 12, the federal road that parallels so much of the Milwaukee Road’s route through Montana.  For

IMG_0472good measure I would even dare say that it’s time to assess the significance of the oil wells and facilities along Montana Highway 7 as you enter or leave Baker.  The discovery of oil and its development in the 1960s and 1970s certainly was the major economic story of the town and county in the second half of the 20th century.

IMG_0468In 2015 Baker has retreated from that c. 1960-1970 boom.  Population peaked at 2584 in 1970.  It remained just a hundred or so under that in 1980, but changes in demand, technology and the bankruptcy of the Milwaukee meant that Baker in the last 30 years has lost residents, in 2010 down to 1741, about the same number as in 1950.  Yet I like that the lake had been restored, and it remained a vibrant part of the town, that new banks and new renovations were part of the town, and indeed, that an old car dealership and garage was now the very good Three Garages Bar.  Historic preservation can play a larger role in Baker’s future just as it did during Baker’s boom in the past.

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Red Lodge: Coal Town on the Clark’s Fork River

Clark's Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

Clark’s Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

When the Northern Pacific Railroad entered the Yellowstone Valley in the 1880s, officials and investors immediately began the search to find and acquire locally available deposits of coal.  First there came the Klein mines north of Billings and then by the end of the decade, the first move toward mines to the south, in the Clark’s Fork Valley, at what would become Carbon County with its major town of Red Lodge. Development began slowly, with the Depression of 1893 intervening, but as the era’s financial and railroad magnates combined the Great Northern, the Burlington Route, and the Northern Pacific into one huge co-operative venture, they selected a new place in the Yellowstone Valley, a town called Laurel at the confluence of the Clark’s Fork and Yellowstone rivers, to connect the three railroads. In short order, a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line was built down the Clark’s Fork to the place called Red Lodge–U.S. Highway 212 follows this route–and the boom was on.

IMG_5759Entering Red Lodge from the north via U.S. 212 you encounter immediately the town’s roots as a railroad town, as the historic Northern Pacific depot remains rooted at the head of the town.  Here is where my long-interest with the Red Lodge story began in 1984 when

IMG_5760I met with a small group of local historians, preservationists, and civic leaders determined to keep Red Lodge and its still intact historic environment together. The group’s vision for the depot was for it to be a visitor center, an arts center, but more than anything a community center, a visible sign of the turnaround that could happen.  Already, at the head of town artist Peter Toth had begun the new tradition with his mammoth wood sculpture, “In Honor of a Proud and Noble People,” installed in 1979, a theme of the region’s

IMG_5764Native American history and proximity to the Crow Indian Reservation that also was captured in a much more commercial way by the neon sign of the Red Lodge Cafe then, and still to my mind, the best place in town.  The neon, like Toth’s sculpture, was designed

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to attention of the one course of heritage tourism income that locals recognized:  that summer traffic coming out of Billings and off the interstate heading to Yellowstone National Park via U.S. 212 and the Beartooth Pass, one of the true highway wonders of the United States.  How to get people to stop, and how to restore pride and hope for the town itself: those motivated the group I met in 1984 moreso than any well meaning goal of merely preserving history and pretty buildings.

IMG_5758To say that the initial depot project was successful would be an understatement.  Thirty years later the depot is a public space that includes a gazebo, outdoor art, and a setting of history and culture rarely rivaled in the region.  As you move south from the depot, you also immediately encounter several of the dreams the groups discussed in 1984:  a National Register of Historic Places historic district (there are now more than one); restored and treasured public buildings such as the Carnegie Library and Carbon County Courthouse;

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and their biggest goal of all in 1984, the acquisition, preservation, and transformation of iconic Labor Temple into a history museum and heritage center for the Carbon County Historical Society.

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The group understood the power of the Labor Temple:  they could tell a story not just of railroad magnates and economic development but could look at this history from those who came and labored in the mines, and built the town.  The building dated to the decade of Red Lodge’s height, 1910-1920, when the town’s population reached 5,000 but especially once the Northern Pacfic opened new mines at Colstrip to the east in the 1920s,  the town had been in a decades long period of population decline, where less than 2,000 people lived in 1980.  Many had given up, obviously, but those who stayed saw the bones of a possible community renaissance–and preservation was a big part of that.  That more recent story comes next.

Denton: Fergus County’s Agricultural Trade Centers

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Fergus County, with Lewistown as the county seat, lies at the heart of Central Montana.  Although gold and other precious minerals were found at Maiden and other sites in the early years, the region grew once the railroads came at the turn of the century.  More than a dozen substantial agricultural trade centers, all connected to Lewistown by the rails, soon surrounded the county seat.  When I surveyed the region in the 1980s, the continued vitality of these towns impressed–and they still deserve a close look today.

Denton Fergus Co

In 1984 I came looking for railroad depots, frankly, but was blown away by the Farmers State Bank, one of the best “strongbox” style of small town banks I had encountered anywhere in Montana.  The town then was in a pattern of slow, steady decline, from a high of 435 residents in 1950 to 356 in 1980.  That rate in most Montana country towns meant that the bank was long gone–but here it remained and stood proudly along Highway 81.

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Thirty years later, the bank building still made its statement of permanence in materials (brick) and in style along the highway.  Indeed, the town’s population had continued to slip downward, especially in the last 20 years, reaching a mere 255 residents in the last census.  But the bank remains–and even has a new addition to the rear of the building.

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I passed by this iconic Fergus County building in late May of this year, just weeks after the completion of its merger with Dutton State Bank (another great building to be discussed later).  All was well: it remained one of Denton’s anchors.

IMG_9896The town’s schools are another important anchor.  The football field (see the first image) serves as the eastern gateway to Denton; the schools are bunched together as though they grew organically from that spot one hundred years ago and have evolved ever since.

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True, Denton and its neighbor to the west Coffee Creek celebrated their centennials in 2013.  And it was appropriate that a granary announced this fact since grain is king here. The elevators standing along the old Milwaukee Road line still boldly state the importance of agriculture to Denton. Even after the Milwaukee ceased operations in 1980 state officials worked with local governments and ranchers to create a new Central Montana line, which kept the elevators running, and in more recent times, has made Denton the western terminus of the popular Charlie Russell Choo-Choo excursion train.

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Schools, a bank, and grain elevators are anchors but Denton also has maintained vibrant cultural institutions from its town library, housed in a brilliant c1960 building, and churches such as the historic Gothic-styled Our Savior Lutheran Church and St. Anthony Catholic Church.

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Residents also have kept the local Masonic Lodge in operation, housed in the 2nd floor of the post office building, which, due to its overall neoclassical style-appearance and corner lot setting, was probably a bank building built shortly after Denton became a town in 1913.

Fergus Co Denton post office and masonic hall  - Version 2

Miles City: The Yellowstone’s Forgotten Jewel

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When I first visited Miles City more than 30 years ago I came to find out more about this first white settlement place in the Yellowstone Valley, where the U.S. Army established its Tongue River Cantonment in 1876 and then, after the battles at Rosebud and the Little Bighorn that same year, it established Fort Keogh, named in honor of Myles Keogh, one of the soldiers who died at Little Bighorn.  I had a small travel grant from the American Association of state and Local History to support this research–the beginnings of the eventual Capitalism on the Frontier book of 1993, so I spent time in the local library–part of which was a classical-styled Carnegie Library, with a rather garish yet functional extension from the 1970s covering up the original building’s facade.

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I spent time that evening at another landmark, the Montana Bar, part of an early 1900s building that is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  The bar was not only full of friendly, helpful types.  It also had one of the most amazing intact tavern interiors I had yet encountered in Montana.

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Here, in these dark-stained wood booths, the decorative pressed tin ceiling, the magnificent back bar, and all of the stuffed animal heads seemed to be the real West that was being forgotten and covered over in the more urban, more populated western half of Montana where I lived.

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Miles City especially seemed a throw-back when, across the street, was the biggest, most splashy bar sign I had yet seen in Montana: that of the Ranger Rider Bar.

Miles City Custer Co

That evening I never considered meander through the streets out to the chain motels out by the interstate highway.  I just walked across the street to the Olive Hotel, a historic downtown hotel from the railroad era; the build just stood a few blocks away from the Northern Pacific Railroad depot and faced Main Street, what was for many decades u.S. Highway 10, the primary east-west link in Montana.

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For many visitors no doubt, a day and night in Miles City would be more than enough–that was certainly the reaction back in Helena.  But that early 1983 visit would be just one of many over the years since as I have carefully explored the city’s many layers, ones far deeper and more significant than the real West image the town still carries proudly.  Next comes my real introduction to Miles City during the preservation plan travel of 1984, and my meeting with the Rivenes family.