Finding new uses for old landmarks: lessons from Red Lodge

Roosevelt school, red lodge

In my Montana travels over the last two years, one of the most interesting, and potentially impactful, projects I encountered was in Red Lodge, where the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation is leading efforts to revitalize the historic Roosevelt School. When, earlier in the decade, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced its interest in the one-room and rural schools of the Treasure State, I worried somewhat that the larger historic schools in small towns and county seats might be forgotten.  Red Lodge showed me that was not the case.

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I attended a historic preservation conference there in the summer of 2016, where the Montana Preservation Alliance used the school’s historic gymnasium as the conference hall–a simple yet very effective conversion.  Gyms had always been community gathering spots, for basketball obviously but also for all sorts of events.  There is always a comfortable feel to these spaces.

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My surprise came when we toured the building.  I thought that due to the name Roosevelt, that the school had been yet another of the dozens of schools constructed in Montana during the “New Deal” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the depression decade of the 1930s.  Wrong–it was a 1921 building, named for former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the champion of national parks and the open rugged west that Red Lodge was very much part of.  Charles Suiter was the architect.  He had twenty plus years earlier worked with the much more famous Montana architect John Paulsen as the contractor for the landmark Montana Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman.

So, the overall context for the school was different from what I had gathered in the past.  Here was an early 1920s community statement by Red Lodge leaders–the homestead boom had already busted, and tough times were just ahead for Montanans but the community then felt it was time for a modern building, with well-lit interiors and well-placed blackboards that did not glare in the sunlight.  And throughout the building there

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Roosevelt school red lodge 2were so many intact details from the time of construction–built-in storage spaces, private restroom stalls, when hallway clocks ticking down the minutes in a day–the place was like a time capsule.

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And then there was the third floor masterpiece, the combination library and performance hall.  Classical pilasters framed the stage and added touches of class and seriousness to the space.  Here was a public building that spoke to community ambitions but also community pride.

roosevelt school, red lodge 5Intimate spaces, classroom spaces, grand public spaces.  The Roosevelt School meant too much to be left to the wrecking ball, and the progress the community foundation is making there is reassuring:  once again smart, effective adaptive reuse can turn a building in a sustainable heritage asset for the town. It’s worth checking out, and supporting.  And it is next door to one of the state’s amazing throwback 1960s roadside

Yodeler Motel Red Lodge

experience, The Yodeler Motel, built in 1964.  Step back in time but also look at the heritage-infused future of Red Lodge:  a worthwhile stop indeed.

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Montana’s Community Gymnasiums

The state basketball tournaments have been all of the talk in Montana newspapers and communities over the last three weeks, and in places like Belt, in Cascade County, they are celebrating state championships this March morning.

Cascade Co Belt school

Gyms were not on my mind particularly when I carried out the 1984-1985 historic preservation plan survey for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, but even then I picked up on some of the community gyms created by the WPA during the New Deal, such as the one in Virginia City, an unassuming building if there ever was one, and then

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VA City WPA gym, community center

the tiny log construction gym for Sanders, a tiny community in Treasure County, seen below.  Both the Virginia City and the Sanders gyms are listed in the National Register of

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Historic Places, but the state has dozens of other worthy community gyms, that are very much at the center of recreational, sports, and social life in these towns and counties. Some await new fates and new futures, such as the gyms in Pony, Madison County, also on

Pony school gym

the National Register, and the more architecturally distinct Craftsman-styled community gym built for Whitehall in Jefferson County.

Gym, facade, Whitehall

Others date to mid-century and their more modern styles reflect their function–the half-barrels roofs–but they also dominate the one buildings around them, such as the high school gym in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, seen below.

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Then there is the frankly spectacular modern-style gym of Twin Bridges, in the state’s southwest corner, with its sweeping overhanging roof.

Twin bridges gym

But wherever you encounter community gyms, you can tell from their location and maintenance, these are buildings of local pride and achievement, and places necessary to community life when so much else is scattered and disconnected.

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Gymnasium in Circle, McCone County.

Powell Co HS Gym

Powell County High School Gym, Deer Lodge.

Lake Co Polson gym

High School Gym, Polson, Lake County.

Phillips Co Malta old gym

The “Old Gym” in Malta, Phillips County

Communities across Montana are clearly proud of their gyms, and even when new ones come along, they find new uses for the stately buildings, like the conversion of the old gymnasium below, located in Boulder, into a fine arts theater, which is just one example of this type of adaptive reuse project in the state.

Gym facade, Jefferson County high school, Boulder

Here’s to new futures, grounded in meaningful pasts, for these community, and often times architectural, landmarks across the Big Sky Country. As a group, they are powerful reminders of the importance of community spaces in the counties, both urban and rural, of Montana.

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Art Deco styled gymnasium, Kalispell, Flathead County