Downtown Missoula’s architectural wonders make it a distinctive urban Western place. Let’s start with my favorite, the striking Art Moderne styled Florence Hotel (1941) designed by architect G.A. Pehrson. Located between the two railroad depots on Higgins Street, the hotel served tourists and residents as a symbol of the town’s classy arrival on the scene–it was the first place with air-conditioning–of a region transforming in the 1940s and 1950s.
With the coming of the interstate highway in the 1970s, tourist traffic declined along Higgins Street and the Florence Hotel was turned into offices and shops, a function that it still serves today.
Next door is another urban marvel, the Wilma Theatre, which dates to 1921 and like the Florence it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The building was the city’s first great entertainment landmark (even had an indoor swimming pool at one time) but with offices and other business included in this building that anchored the corner where Higgins Street met the Clark’s Fork River. Architects Ole Bakke and H. E. Kirkemo designed the theatre in the fashionable Renaissance Revival style, with a hint towards the “tall buildings” form popularized by architect Louis Sullivan, the building later received an Art Deco update, especially with the use of glass block in the ticket booth and the thin layer of marble highlighting the entrance.
With their soaring height the Florence and Wilma were dominant commercial landmarks. Much of the downtown was built earlier, with the Missoula Mercantile (discussed in an earlier blog) being a very important lure for customers from throughout the region–by far
Missoula’s first major department store and entrepreneurial center. The late Victorian era architectural styling of the two-story building also set a standard for many other downtown businesses from 1890 to 1920. These can be categorized as two-part commercial fronts, with the first floor serving as the primary commercial space and the second floor could be offices, dwelling space for the owner, or most common today storage space.
My favorite Victorian-era commercial building in Missoula is another Higgins Street landmark, and a rarity in Montana as a Queen Anne-styled business block, complete with projecting turret bay, highlighted by stone, defining its corner location and signifying its prominence as the local bank.
The Classical Revival that transformed the look of so many western railroad towns from the late 1890s to 1920 is also well represented in its different architectural forms. The Missoula County Courthouse (1910) was built following the arrival of the Milwaukee Road and the county’s economic boom led by the two railroads and the thousands of homesteaders headed into northwest Montana. Designed by Montana architect A. J.
Gibson, the building is one of the state’s best examples of what is called “Beaux Arts classicism,” a movement in the west so influenced by the late 1890s Minnesota State Capitol by architect Cass Gilbert.
Another example of Beaux Arts classicism, in a more commercial setting, defines the facade of the Masonic Temple, designed by the Montana firm of Link and Haire in 1909.
Just as impressive, but in a more Renaissance Revival style, is the Elks Lodge (1911), another building that documents the importance of the city’s working and middle class fraternal lodges in the early 20th century.
And speaking of Renaissance Revival, the historic Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse also embraces the early 20th century Classical Revival movement as interpreted by three different federal architects over a 25-year period (James Knox Taylor, 1911-13; James A. Wetmore, 1927-1929; and, Louis A. Simon (1937). The three different periods of
construction, however, did not leave Missoula with an incoherent statement of classical architecture. In fact, the various sections help to document different era in the city’s development, from the height of the homesteading boom of the 1910s to the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Of more recent construction is another federal courthouse, the modernist-styled Russell Smith Federal Courthouse, which was originally constructed as a bank. In 2012, another judicial chamber was installed on the third floor. Although far removed from the classic
look, the Russell Smith Courthouse is not out-of-place in downtown Missoula. There are several other buildings reflecting different degrees of American modern design, from the Firestone building from the 1920s (almost forgotten today now that is overwhelmed by its neighbor the Interstate Bank Building) to the standardized designed of gas stations of
1930s and 1940s, complete with enamel panels and double garage bays, standing next to the Labor Temple.
Modernism is alive and well in 21st century Missoula, with a office tower at St. Patrick’s Hospital, a new city parking garage, and the splashy Interstate Bank building, which overwhelms the scale of the adjacent Missoula Mercantile building–which had been THE place for commerce over 100 years earlier.