Roundup Montana: A town with a plan and on the move

One of the most exciting results of my recent work on the historic landscape of Montana is how many residents contact me with developments–both good and bad but mostly good–as they use their past and historic built environments to build new futures for their families and community.  Such an update just arrived last week from Roundup, the seat of Musselshell County.

roundup schoolA resident reported on the towns decision to join the Main Street program and how a community partnership effort had been formed to guide the process, assuring me that the wonderful historic Roundup school would find a new future as a multi-purpose and use facility.  That update has spurred me to share more images from this distinctive Montana town that I have enjoyed visiting for over 30 years.

Roundup stem of TAs I discussed in my earlier large posting on Roundup, it is both a railroad town on the historic mainline of the Milwaukee Road and a highway town, with a four-lane Main Street defining the commercial district. It is less than a hour’s drive north of Billings, Montana’s largest urban area.  But nestled at the junction of U.S. 12 and U.S. 87, Roundup is a totally different world from booming Billings.

Roundup lodgeRoundup store  You see the difference if how false frame stores and lodge buildings from the first years of the town’s beginnings still stand, and how the commercial district is pockmarked with more stately early 20th century brick commercial blocks, whether two stories high or a mere one-story. Yet the architectural details tell you the community had ambitions.  It

roundup 119 Main

was just that hard times came in the 1920s and stayed awhile, despite the best efforts of New Deal reformers who helped to fund the county’s magnificent Art Deco-inspired Musselshell County Courthouse at the end of the depression decade,

roundup courthouse

The bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road in the early 1980s did not help recovery, and it was soon after that I found myself in Roundup for the first time in 1984.

roundup elevatorI found a place then, and still today, that was proud of its past and of its community.  I visited and spoke at the county museum, which was housed in the old Catholic school and included one of county’s first homestead cabins moved to the school grounds. The nearby town park and fairgrounds (covered in an earlier post) helped to highlight just how beautiful the Musselshell River valley was at Roundup.

Roundup museum

Roundup river

Community pride was evident in the well-kept homes of the downtown neighborhood, and I have already posted on the architecturally important modernist Catholic church.

roundup jailThen the public buildings–the school, the courthouse, and even the classically tinged county jail shown above–added to the town’s impressive heritage assets. Of course some buildings I ignored in the 1980s but find compelling today–like in the riverstone lined posts of the modernist Wells Fargo Bank, and the effective and efficient look of city hall.

roundup bank


roundup City Hall

Yes when you take a close look at Roundup–the possibilities are there, as the new community partnership effort proves.  I can’t help but encourage this grassroots effort.  Good job Roundup, and I will be there soon enough to grab a float at the A&W and explore how a community moves forward with their impressive past as a foundation.

roundup A&W drive in

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.


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

roosevelt school red lodge 4

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.



Miles City’s Boom, 1907-1925

The Renaissance Revival-styled U.S. Post Office, designed by Oscar Wenderoth, opened in 1916 during the height of the region's homesteading boom.

The Renaissance Revival-styled U.S. Post Office, designed by Oscar Wenderoth, opened in 1916 during the height of the region’s homesteading boom.

Following the construction of the Milwaukee Road and its various shops, roundhouse, and offices, Miles City entered a boom period unlike any other in the town’s history.  The boom lasted for just under 20 years, ending soon after the Northern Pacific Railroad constructed its new passenger depot in 1924.  In between the arrival of the Milwaukee, and the opening of the new Northern Pacific depot, an array of new middle-class homes, churches, new public elementary and high schools, and businesses gave the city its early twentieth century “look” still prized today and protected by three historic districts.


Washington School, Miles City

Census records tell us a mere 1,938 people lived in Miles City in 1900, but by 1910 that number had jumped to 4,697 and ten years later, 1920, almost 8,000 people lived there.  Hemmed in by the Yellowstone River and the mainline of the Northern Pacific, the town spread to the east, along Main Street, and then north into the new neighborhoods associated with the Milwaukee Road developments.

The East Main Historic District has a number of architecturally distinctive buildings from the 1910.  The Horton House (1911) is an excellent example of the “American Four-Square” house designed by Miles City architect Brynjulf Rivenes.  The two-story house is now a bed and breakfast business.  You don’t typically equate eastern Montana towns with the latest in domestic architecture styles, but the Love House (1916) is an excellent Montana example of the Prairie style, first created by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and here executed in a design from George Wageley. Another example of the Prairie style from that same decade is the Pope House, built by Thomas Horton.

Horton House Bed and Breakfast, Miles City

Horton House Bed and Breakfast, Miles City

Love House, Miles City

Love House, Miles City

Pope House, Miles City

Pope House, Miles City

Just off of East Main Street is the Wibaux Park neighborhood, centered around a public space donated by cattleman Pierre Wibaux in 1915.  Here the dwellings included bungalows, Colonial Revival cottages, and an impressive example of Tudor Revival style.

Wibaux Park, Miles City

Wibaux Park, Miles City

Tudor Revival style house facing Wibaux Park, Miles City.

Tudor Revival style house facing Wibaux Park, Miles City.

Congregations also built large, architecturally distinctive church buildings to serve their growing congregations.  The Methodists added a Gothic Revival style building, designed by Woodruff and McGulpin, in 1912.  The Presbyterians added their own Gothic edifice two years later, a mammoth building designed by Brynjulf Rivenes that stood between the downtown commercial district and the new residential areas.  The Catholics added a new Sacred Heart church in 1924, adding to the contributions started by the Ursulines at the first of the century.

Methodist Church, Miles City

Methodist Church, Miles City

First Presbyterian, entrance, Miles City

First Presbyterian, entrance, Miles City

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Miles City

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Miles City

New public schools–with the buildings still in use today–completed the process of urban growth between 1907 and 1925.  The Custer County High School, finished in 1922, became a centerpiece not only of Miles City but the the county as a whole.  Here was a modern facility that gave local students opportunities their parents never had. The boom had been magnificent but as drought and homesteading failures multiplified across eastern Montana by the mid-1920s, residents were learning that the bust would be transformative too.  We will look at the era of bust and recovery next.

Custer County High School, 1922

Custer County High School, 1922