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.
In 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.
There 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.
Nevada 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.
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.
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.
Another 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
telling 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.