Nevada City and Montana’s building zoo tradition

 

Virginia City in the 19th century was a living, breathing place, and continues so today.  After all it is not all a recreated outdoor museum, it is the location, still, of the Madison County Courthouse and is the seat of Madison County. The courthouse is one of the great 19th century public buildings of Montana.

IMG_0127In restoring Virginia City, the Bovey family thus worked within a local government context.  The Montana Heritage Foundation also works within that context today.

Nevada City, just a stone’s throw away, was and is different.  Here stood the historic Gothic Revival-styled Finney House, built c. 1863-64, along with about a dozen or so other historic buildings.

IMG_0196There was no living community here to speak of.  It presented the opportunity for the Boveys to acquire and save other buildings from the area, however.  The Finney  property became the historic foundation of one of the state’s first “building zoos”–a collection of historic buildings moved together to tell a local history story.  In 1984, when I was surveying Montana for the state historic preservation plan process, I paid little to no attention to Nevada City–here, I thought, was fake western history, with a bunch of moved buildings, which by definition are rarely eligible for the National Register.

Today I think about Nevada City differently.  As a historic district of related buildings, placed here in a coherent plan c. 1959-1960 that was designed to convey to the public a range of the western experience during the northern Rockies gold rush era, and to serve smack dab on the side of Montana Highway 287 as a heritage tourism resource, Nevada City is due a re-assessment.  These once scattered buildings have established a new context over the last 30 years.  And, like in Virginia City, the Montana Heritage Foundation is doing what it can to repair and conserve this unique built environment.

IMG_0193Nevada City tells multiple stories.  One of the most apparent is how heritage tourism has shaped the late 20th century historic preservation movement.  The lodging and restaurant at Nevada City is part of the general sustainability plan for the entire operation.  The authentic environment and ease of highway access are major draws for tourists.

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Behind the fenced barriers of the outdoor museum (unlike several building zoos in the state this place is just not open without barriers for tourists to visit), you can encounter significant properties associated with the vigilante movement, such as this spot associated with the hanging of George Ives in 1863.

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Another theme is vernacular architecture on the gold rush frontier, and how even the mundane false front style of so many buildings at that time could be more elaborate, and expressive.  The craftsmanship of the original buildings would need to be carefully assessed to determine whether what you see today reflects 150 years ago or the craftsmanship of restoration 50 years ago.

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IMG_0195Another way to consider Nevada City is how heritage tourism ideas of the 1960s–especially the idea of excursion passenger trains–impacted the built environment.  What is now known as Alder Gulch Railroad started c. 1964, a way of attracting visitors to stop in Nevada City where then they could take the short ride to Virginia City.

Therefore, when in 1984-1985 I made the decision to give Nevada City little more than a nod, that was ok–the restored village effort was then only 20-25 years old.  Not very historic, although the buildings came from history.  Thirty years later, my thoughts have changed dramatically.  Nevada City is much more than a passing interest.  In fact, it is a

IMG_0194telling example of how historic preservation worked in the West, a true public-private partnership, in the years immediately before the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966.

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.

 

The Gallatin Gateway and U.S. 191

When I was conducting the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, Gallatin Gateway and U.S. 191 was still outside of Bozeman, untouched by the subsequent suburban and commercial explosion of the county.  In wake of the Milwaukee Road’s bankruptcy and closure in 1980, the state historic preservation office’s focus was on one property in particular, the railroad’s spectacular Gallatin Gateway Inn.

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Built in 1927 and designed in a Spanish Revival style–not common in Montana in that time for major commercial buildings–by the firm of Schack, Young, and Myers, the Inn had been listed in the National Register in 1980.  The nomination noted both its distinctive, rich architectural statement but also its purpose in 1920s tourism traffic for

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the railroad–it was the Milwaukee’s gateway to the West Yellowstone entrance of the national park.  Electric trains would move passengers from the main line at Three Forks,

Gallatin Co Gallatin Gateway Inn 1 – Version 2

stop here, the end of the line, where bus transport would take them on to the park.  Consequently the “inn” was a bit of misnomer.  There were only a bit over 30 guest rooms, but huge dining rooms, and an expansive comfortable lobby and public space where travelers would wait for auto transport on U.S. 191 to the park.  The Milwaukee was a latecomer to the railroads’ push to Yellowstone:  the Northern Pacific had a generation earlier secured its gateway at Gardiner and built the magnificent Old Faithful Inn inside the park.  The Union Pacific had arrived from the south and built its gateway and rustic-styled dining room at West Yellowstone.  The Milwaukee could not duplicate that–but it could give travelers a bit of the exotic in its Spanish Revival railroad/highway gateway property.

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Here was a 1920s railroad terminal where the highway facade, shown above, was actually the more prominent feature, more than the second entrance, shown below, facing the tracks and the end of the line.

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The gravel road is what is left of the original Milwaukee roadbed, looking north towards Three Forks

I visited the Inn several times in the 1980s, staying in the period rooms, later having quite a fine dinner there when the inn was rehabilitated and opened as one of the “Historic Hotels of America” properties as designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  With the overall boom in the economy of Gallatin County, I frankly assumed by 1990 that the inn’s future was secured–this rare jewel had been saved.

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Then in 2013 the inn closed, and it was still shuttered when I visited in May 2015 (although clearly the building and grounds were being maintained).  Surely a new use, and a new life, can be found for this Montana landmark in the 21st century.  Across the street from the inn is a community landmark that proves that the past has a future in this part of Gallatin County–the historic Gallatin Gateway school.

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Its simple yet forceful facade, with projecting central entrance and its solid brick construction has given it a life into this century as part of a growing community.  Let’s hope for the same for the Gallatin Gateway Inn, and soon.

U.S. 89 and the Blackfeet Reservation

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot 032U.S. Highway 89 enters the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on its southern border, heading for its junction with U.S. Highway 2 and the reservation center of Browning.  Before the junction, you cross the historic Two Medicine River, a historic corridor for the Blackfeet.  To the west of the river crossing is a highway historical marker for Coldfeet School, a one-

Glacier Co US 87 school markerroom school (not extant) built for Blackfeet children in 1933 during the New Deal. To the east of the highway river crossing, however, was one of the earliest schools (1889) on the reservation, the Holy Family Catholic

Mission. As the two photos above show, the massive nature of the historic built environment caught my eye like few places in Montana in 1985.  A few years later, I wrote an article titled “Acculturation By Design,” which looked at both Holy Family and St. Peter’s missions in Montana, for the “Great Plains Quarterly.” It discussed how the buildings were part of the

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turn-of-the-century white acculturation process–place Native American children in a structured, industrial-like environment then they could be more easily molded into “farmers.” It didn’t work the way the missionaries predicted and in the 1940s the mission was closed.  Forty years later I wondered about the future of the old dormitories that surrounded the mission chapel.

Glacier Co Holy Family Mission 7 – Version 2This panorama of the mission site today shows that neither of the dormitories remain, although the historic frame barn and mill still stand (to the left) while the chapel is still a dominating element, and has been incorporated into present-day Blackfeet culture. It is in excellent shape.

IMG_9293Another change is that the Blackfeet provide public interpretation of the site, through their own historical markers, which is extended into the adjacent historic cemetery, one of the most somber places in the region.  The old mission is now part of the reservation’s heritage tourism effort.

Glacier Co Holy Family Mission 1Glacier Co Holy Family Mission 6 – Version 2Returning to U.S. 89 and heading northwest, you head to the junction of U.S. Highway 2 and the town of Browning.  The town is a center for reservation education, as shown by the new campus for the Blackfeet Community College.

Glacier Co Browning Blackfeet community collegeHere too is another historic Catholic Church, the Little Flower Catholic Church, built in 1931, from locally available stone in a Gothic Revival style.  The congregation supports a small Catholic school next door.

Glacier Co Browning Little Flower Catholic ChurchThe Browning fairgrounds is an important Blackfeet recreation and cultural center, with this recent installation again providing public interpretation of Blackfeet culture.

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Across the street is the Museum of the Plains Indian, which the Indians Arts and Crafts Board of the U.S. Department of Interior established in 1941.  The museum and craft center was located at the junction of U.S. 2

Glacier Co Browning museum of plains indians 2and U.S. 89, heading north.  It created an appropriate, respectful way for the increasing number of auto tourists headed to Glacier National Park to learn about the Blackfeet in particular and Plains Indian culture in general.  The famous mid-20th century anthropologist, John Ewers, had worked tribes to create the museum’s initial exhibits and collections. In the 21st century, the Blackfeet have developed additional institutions to take advantage of tourism through the nearby Glacier Peaks casino and hotel, a complex that has developed from 2011 to 2015.

Glacier Co Browning casino 1These new buildings are part of a long-term continuum of tourism in Browning, starting with this old concrete tipi, built originally as a gas station in 1934 and now converted into a coffee shop.  And the Blackfeet

Glacier Co Browning tipi 1

Glacier Co BrowningTrading Post is a business found in all sorts of national park gateways–the classic place to get cheap souvenirs and t-shirts of all types, not to mention moccasins and all of the stereotypical material culture of Native American tourism in our country.

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To finish, for now, this look at U.S. Highway 89, we will end with spectacular architecture of the St. Mary’s Visitor Center at Glacier National Park, where the historic Going-to-the-Sun Highway junctions with U.S. 89. The center, built in 1964 from designs by Cecil Doty and the architectural firm of Brinkman and Lenon, is one of the state’s best examples of “Mission 66 modernism” associated with the National Park Service.  What I was particularly pleased to encounter in this decade are the new exhibits within the visitor center which finally give the Blackfeet

IMG_0673the primary voice on what the park means, and how visitors can think about it today.  The Native American presence on U.S. Highway 89 today is much more evident, with much more public interpretation, than in my travels 30 years ago.

 

 

Choteau, U.S. Highway 89 Crossroads

Teton Co ChoteauOne of my favorite county seats is Choteau, where U.S. Highways 89 and 287 meet.  Both of those roads were and are among my favorite to take in the state, and Choteau I quickly found had one of my favorite local dives the Wagon Wheel.  Back in the day, however, I did not appreciate how the town’s history and built environment was shaped by the Sun River Irrigation project and the overall growth in the county during the first two decades of the 20th century and later a second boom in the 1940s.

Teton Co Choteau courthouseChoteau has a different look than most towns from this era of Montana history.  The centerpiece of the towns plan is not a railroad depot but the magnificent Teton County Courthouse (1906), which occupies a spot where the two federal highways junction.  Designed by architects Joseph B. Gibson and George H. Shanley, the National Register-listed courthouse is made of locally quarried stone in a late interpretation of Richardsonian Romanesque style, similar to, but to a much lesser scale and detail, than H. H. Richardson’s own Allegheny County Courthouse (c. 1886) in Pittsburgh.

 

The courthouse defines the south end of town and then U.S. Highway 89 heading north defines Main Street.  Since my first visit to Choteau in 1982 the town’s population has only declined marginally, about 100 less residents in 2010 than in 1980.  But there is a clear pattern of building change in more recent years.  Some are successful adaptive reuse projects, such as the conversion of this old service station/garage across from the courthouse (left above) into offices.

Teton Co Choteau 6This historic neoclassical-styled bank building is now home to a coffee shop but other commercial buildings have changed very little, except for the mix of retail business.  This is not a dying business district but one with a good bit of jump, of vitality.

The historic Roxy Theater is still open, and its Art Deco-styled marquee gives a bit of flash and dash to Main Street.

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Chateau has its share of eye-catching roadside architecture on both the south and north ends of town.  South on U.S. 89 is the Big Sky motel, little changed over 50 years but on the north end of town is a far different story

Teton Co Choteau 13 US 89 roadsidewhere the historic Bella Vista Motel–a perfect example of a 1950s motel with separate units like tiny Ranch-styled houses–has given way to a c. 2015 conversion into apartments.

The north end of town is also home to Choteau’s heritage tourism, with the local Old Trail museum significantly expanded since the 1980s with more moved buildings, artifacts, and a special focus on dinosaurs.

The stability of Choteau is reflected in its historic church buildings, defining architectural landmarks within the residential neighborhood to the west of Main Street.  Arts and Crafts style influences the look of the Trinity Lutheran Church while the United Methodist Church is a textbook example of Colonial Revival style.  St. Joseph’s Catholic church is also a revival styled building, one in keeping with a vernacular Gothic than the modern look shared by so many Catholic Church buildings in rural Montana.

East of Main Street is the railroad corridor and associated warehouses, elevators, and other industrial buildings along with the historic county fairgrounds and a pretty city park, watered by an irrigation ditch.

Stability, continuity, yet change have marked Choteau over the last 30 years–let’s hope all three traits remain for another generation.