Hamilton’s Daly Mansion: A New Interior and New Interpretive Directions

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The story of the Daly Mansion from a shuttered family owned property in 1984-1985 to a fully realized historic house museum 30 years later also reflects well my timeline of engagement with the historic landscapes of the Big Sky Country.  It was a time capsule in the mid-1980s–a house starting to come apart but full of family furniture, papers, and countless treasures.  When the house was saved but the interior furnishings sold at auction, it seemed like a permanent separation.

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My first post on this blog in 2013 about the Daly Mansion and its restoration lauded the determination of the local non-profit to finish the exterior renovation and repairs, and to have the place open to the public on a regular basis.  It was and is an impressive achievement in a time when so-called experts say the era of historic house museums is over. But it was very much an exterior tour–when I visited six years ago, photographs were not allowed, not so much to protect items but because so much remained to be done. The place just did not have a historic “lived in” look.

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In the last five years, the Daly Mansion board and its many local supporters have finished the job.  Key pieces of family furniture, like the settee above and much of the dining room below, have returned, due in large part to purchases and commitments made at the original auction in the 1980s but many objects coming back to the house due to the persistence of board members and the willingness of auction buyers to return items now that 30 years have passed.

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The result is a house museum that depicts well the life of a wealthy family on their version of the 20th century country estate, and now with an appropriate focus on Margaret Daly, who selected the architectural style, purchased many of the furnishings, and kept the estate forefront in Montana luxury for four decades (Marcus Daly died in 1900, before the Colonial Revival conversion of the original house; Margaret lived until 1941).  Margaret Daly’s bedroom furniture had long been in the collections of the University of Montana Library–they are now in their rightful place in the Daly Mansion.

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The lushness, and personality, of Margaret Daly’s private quarters is now the norm across the house, from the first floor parlor to the second floor setting room.

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Even the third floor ballroom, once an evocative but largely empty space, is now used to display and interpret the rather amazing clothing collections of the museum.

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Certainly the words of one visitor during my May 2018 ring true:  “they were rich but had little taste” in the decorative arts.  But for Margaret Daly her Riverside estate was not a showplace as much as a place to escape for the summer.  The hodge-lodge of trendy but individually undistinguished furniture and objects suited that purpose just fine.

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The Daly Mansion is at a new place–a preservation and restoration project that had stretched out for thirty years.  But now the interior story, especially the focus on Margaret Daly, steps up to center stage.  The meaning of Riverside and the Bitter Root Stock Farm is still waiting for a full exploration and analysis.

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Canyon Ferry and the transformation of the Missouri River Valley

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Canyon Ferry Lake is the third largest in Montana.  A good part of it lies just east of Helena, the state capitol, while the bulk of the lake stretches southward into Broadwater County.  Living in Helena during the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan survey, and often driving U.S. 287/12 which parallels the lake, you would think that the lake and its history would have played a major role in that initial plan.  Such was not the case–rarely did I or anyone else give it much of a thought.  Canyon Ferry Lake in 1984 was just 30 years old–it was not “historic.”

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But its historic impact can’t be ignored.  As part of the massive federal plan to conquer the Missouri River, the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944 was justified by wartime conditions–it would create new sources of hydroelectric power–but actual construction did not get underway until the later 1940s and 1950s.  Historians have studied the act’s disastrous impact on Native American tribal lands in the west, and the environmental consequences of building some 50 dams on the Missouri and its various tributaries.

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For Lewis and Clark County and Broadwater County, you can see the relationship between the dammed Missouri and irrigation, as shown above along Montana Highway 284, and you can find remnants of how the project displaced towns, landmarks, and people along the length of the river. No longer was the Missouri the river that the Corps of Discovery had traversed at the beginning of the 19th century.

Broadwater Co MT 284 St Joseph Catholic NR 1St. Joseph Catholic Church, perched now on a barren bluff facing the lake, was moved about 2.5 miles east to its present location in 1954.  Originally near the river in what was then known as the Canton Valley settlement, the church building is one of the state’s oldest, dating to 1874-1875 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The proud Gothic styled church is the remnant of one of the valley’s earliest settlements.

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Not far from the church is another remnant of the early 20th century settlement boom during the early 20th century homesteading era after the creation of the county in 1897.  Located along Montana Highway 284 this one-room school is typical of the type found throughout the state from 100 years ago, as adaptive by communities and school boards with the small gable-end extension creating storage space and a barrier between the cold winds of the outside and the inside of the classroom itself.

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These vernacular buildings and landscapes compare starkly with what the U.S. Corps of Engineers built at Canyon Ferry in the 1950s.  It is a Colonial Revival styled federal village–an architectural choice wildly out of step with regional traditions, and a reminder to anyone that here was the federal government, in the midst of the Cold War, placing its imprint on the land.

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In 1984-1985 I ignored this new public landscape of a school, administrative building, work buildings, and village.  Thirty years later, of course I see Canyon Ferry as a very distinct historic district, symbolic of the entire Pick-Sloan project and a significant example of an architectural aesthetic from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

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The Canyon Ferry headquarters of the mid-1950s is not listed in the National Register but it could be–an evocative grouping of buildings that helps to document that 60 years we were assured and more than a bit arrogant in our power and mastery of technology.  We were convinced hat as we controlled the world, we could also control nature.

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