Motels across Big Sky Country

Big Timber roadside motelIn the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, the impact of lodging chains in Montana was pretty limited to the larger towns, and gateways to the national parks.  Many what I called “mom and pop” motels, largely from the pre-interstate highway era of the 1940s and 1950s, still operated.  I was working with the state employee lodging rate of $24 a night (remember it was 1984!) and I found that the per diem eliminated the chains and I was left with the local establishments.  During those months of intense travel I came to respect and really like the Moms and Pops.  Several of the places I stayed in 1984-1985 are long gone–but ones like the Lazy J Motel in Big Timber remain.  In this post I am merely sharing a range of historic motels from across Big Sky Country.

ohaire signI began the fieldwork in February 1984 and the first stop was a public meeting at the Toole County Courthouse in Shelby.  My first overnight was just as memorable–for good reasons–at the O’Haire Manor Motel.  Its huge neon sign on the town’s main street, which was U.S. Highway 2, could not be missed, and actually the sign replaced a building that once stood along the commercial district, knocking it down so travelers would have a clear shot to the motel itself.

Toole Co Shelby OHaire Motel

Motels along U.S. Highway 2 often had the grand statement to catch attention of those traveling at 80 miles a hour down the highway.  Galata, which billed itself as a gateway to the Whitlash port of entry on the Canadian border to the north, had the tallest cowboy in the region to greet visitors.

Toole Co Galata roadsideCut Bank’s Glacier Gateway, on the other hand, reminded visitors that it was that “coldest place” in the United States that they had heard about in weather forecasts.

The Circle Inn Motel outside of Havre on U.S. Highway 2 reflected the classic design of separate duplexes–cabins–for guests while the gleaming white horse statue reminded them, if they needed the prod, that they were in the wild west.

Hill Co Havre roadside

Similar mid-20th century motels are found along Montana’s historic federal highways.  Some, like the La Hood Motel, are now forgotten as the highway, once known as the Yellowstone Trail and then U.S. Highway 10, has been relegated to secondary use.

LaHood motel, Montana 2 roadsideAnother example from the old Yellowstone Trail and U.S. Highway 10 is the Shade Tree Inn Motel in Forsyth–although coal and railroad workers help somewhat to keep it going in the 21st century.

Forsyth Rosebud Co 5Just a block west of another historic section of U.S. Highway 10 in Deer Lodge is the Downtowner Motel, with its sloping roof and extended rafters representing the best in “contemporary” style from the 1960s. This place too was clean, cheap, and well located for a day of walking the town back in 1984.

Downtowner Motel, Deer Lodge

Other motels have carried on, in a diminished role, dependent more on workers needing temporary quarters than on travelers.  In Malta, on U.S. Highway 2, I expected easy to acquire and cheap lodging at the Maltana Motel–a favorite of mine from the 1980s–but even though the town was over 200 miles from Williston, North Dakota, demands for its rooms had risen with the oil boom of the early 2010s.

Phillips Co Malta Maltana Motel roadside

The Country Side Inn Motel in Harlowton once buzzed with travelers along either U.S. Highway 12 or U.S. Highway 191 but as interstate routes have become so dominant, these motels have struggled to attract customers.

Wheatland Co Harlowton motel US 12 roadsideNot only have the changes in traffic patterns been important, the present generation’s preference for chain motels–and the proliferation of chains across the state–have shaped the future of the mid-20th century motel.  A good example is the challenges facing the continuation of the Cherry Hill Motel in Polson, located along U.S. Highway 93.  Here was a favorite spot in 1984–near a killer drive-in–a bit out of the noise of the town, and sorta fun surroundings with a great view of Flathead Lake.

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Lake Co Polson motel roadsideThe place was up for sale in 2015–and the internet today tells me that it is “permanently closed.”  I hope it can find a new owner and is still there when I next return to Polson but with the general boom in the Flathead Lake region, one assumes its days are numbered.

Lake Co Polson motel roadside 1The bear might be hugging the tree but does anyone else care enough–or want this type of lodging, complete with the “picture window” of the 1950s and 1960s, in the comfort obsessed 21st century?

I began this brief overview with the first place I stayed during the 1984-1985 fieldwork, and I will close with the last place I stayed as I finished the new statewide survey in May 2016:  the Yodeler Inn in Red Lodge.  Built in 1964 this wonder chalet-style property is listed in the National Register–of course in 1984 I never gave a thought about the motel as National Register worthy, I just loved the location, and thought it was cool.

It is still that–good rooms, great lobby, and a self-proclaimed “groovy” place.  To the north of the historic downtown are all of the chains you might want–stay there if you must, and leave the Yodeler Motel to me!

The Public Landscape of Statehood

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 126 State CapitolThe Montana State Capitol was my first heritage project in the state–the Montana Department of General Services worked with the Montana Historical Society to have me prepare an interpretive guide to the capitol, and then set up the interpretation program, following an excellent historic structures report prepared by the firm of Jim McDonald, a preservation architect based in Missoula.

The capitol was designed by the firm of Charles Bell and John Kent of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who moved to Helena to supervise the project.  The first phase of construction dates from 1899 to 1902 and then between 1909 and 1912 the building was largely completed to its present form with additions from the Billings firm of Link and Haire.  It was a splendid building and a joy to work with, and clearly a point of pride of the thousands of Montanans who would visit in a given year.

HPIM0825.JPGWhen I worked at the capitol, of course I passed daily by other state government buildings, and rarely gave those “modern” buildings another thought, except perhaps for the museum exhibits and archival collections at the Montana Historical Society.  Years later, however, what seemed unbearably recent in the early 1980s were now clearly historic.  One of my MTSU graduate assistants, Sarah Jane Murray, spent part of a summer last decade helping develop a inventory of the buildings and then, finally, in 2016 the Montana State Capitol Campus historic district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

It is really a splendid grouping of buildings, reflecting both the growth of Montana in the middle decades of the 20th century and how state government has expanded its services to  the citizens.  The Scott Hart Building dates to 1958, an impressive bit of Montana modernism by the firm of Bordeleau, Pannell, and Amundsen.  it was an addition to the original Montana Highway Building (1936), a New Deal project in PWA Moderne style from

the Great Falls architect George Shanley. The initial highway building now houses the departments of livestock and agriculture.

HPIM0839.JPGThe Capitol Annex (1910) was the first building added to the capitol campus, and its restrained classicism came from the firm of Link and Haire.

HPIM0836.JPGThe nearby Livestock Building (1918) is like the annex, complimentary of the capitol’s classicism but also distinguished in its own Renaissance Revival skin.  Link and Haire were the architects.

HPIM0826.JPGThe mammoth Sam W. Mitchell Building (1948-50) reflected the post-World War II interpretation of institutional modernism and its mammoth scale challenged the capitol itself, especially once a large addition was completed at the rear of the building in 1977. The architect was Vincent H. Walsh of Helena.

HPIM0841.JPGAnother Link and Haire building on the campus is the Board of Health Building (1919-1920), which continues the pattern of more restrained architectural embellishment that shaped the look of the government buildings in the middle decades of the century.  HPIM0832.JPGThe Cogswell Building (1954-55, 1981) is another Vincent H. Walsh design, again reflecting the stripped classicism institution style often found in Cold War era public buildings.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-003While the capitol campus took form on a hill about a mile east of Last Chance Gulch, the state’s governor still lived downtown, in the Queen Anne-style “mansion” originally built by miner and entrepreneur William Chessman and designed by the St. Paul firm of Hodgson, Stem and Welter.  The state acquired the house in 1913 to serve as the residence for the governor and his family, and it remained the governor’s “mansion” until 1959.

Helena MT Governor Mansion 2006 003It was the opportunity to be the curator of this house museum that attracted my newlywed wife Mary Hoffschwelle that led me to come with her to Montana.  She was born in Billings; I had never been west of Dallas.  But then over 25,000 miles of driving, visiting, and looking in Montana transformed me, and led not only to the 1986 book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History but now this Montana historic landscape blog.  Fate, perhaps.  Luck–I will take it any day.

 

Dutton, a country town with modern monuments

2011 MT Pondera County Dutton Mike's tavern 017At first glance, Dutton is like many northern plains railroad towns, located on the Great Northern Railway spur line between Shelby and Great Falls.  The false front of Mike’s Tavern, then other plain, functional one-story buildings–we have seen hundreds of similar scenes across the Big Sky Country.

2011 MT Pondera County Dutton modern school 023Then, suddenly, there is the cool mid-century modernism of the Dutton-Brady School (Brady is another neighboring railroad town), a style also embraced by the Bethany Lutheran Church.

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But neither of these buildings prepare you for the Dutton State Bank, perhaps the best small town modernist buildings in Montana.

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Anytime I have been in this part of Montana over the last 30 years, I have stopped to see if the Dutton bank was (1) still in business (times have been difficult for small banks to say the least) and (2) if the building had changed in a major way.  In the last 30 years, a small addition has been made to the rear of the building, but all other character defining features remain, especially the “wheat-themed” sign.  It lets anyone know that while the railroad provides the transportation, it is wheat that drives the local economy,  What a wonderful, fun commercial building.

 

Number 300: The west side of Glacier National Park

img_8860Somehow it is most appropriate that my 300th post for Revisiting the Montana Landscape would find me back at Glacier National Park, especially the west side or Flathead County part of the park. From the first visit in 1982, Glacier always intrigued me–at first because of the tie between park creation and railroad development, then the Arts and Crafts/Chalet architecture associated with the park, and then high mountain Alpine environment. In the years since, I have eagerly grabbed a chance to get a cabin by Lake McDonald and just re-charge for a few days.

img_4383For the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work, however, I did not visit the west side of the park–the bulk of the travel took place between mid-February to mid-May 1984, meaning only the lower elevations such as Apgar Village were accessible.  But already the state historic preservation office was aware that a major effort was underway to identify and nominate key properties within the park to the National Register of Historic Places, and by the end of the decade that process was largely complete.  The National Park Service identified a range of historic resources from the turn of the 20th century to the Mission 66 program of the National Park Service during the 1960s–Glacier became one of the best studied historic landscapes in all of Montana.

Going-t0-the-Sun Road is an engineering marvel from the early automobile age in the park, straight and safe in the lower reaches but as you climb into the mountains it is narrow and dangerous–for those who refuse to follow the rules of the road.

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View of Lake Shelburne, east side of park, Glacier County, from Going-to-the-Sun Road.

On the west side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald Lodge is listed as a National Historic Landmark for its significance in and influence on the Arts and Crafts/Chalet style within the national park.

Flathead Co GNP Lake McDonald Lodge

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Built initially as the Lewis Glacier Hotel for Great Falls businessman John Lewis in 1913, architect Kirkland Cutter’s design reflected his earlier work at the Belton Chalet, but his interior design was a step above, especially in how he incorporated local materials, the mountain goat symbol of the Great Northern Railway, and Native American motifs to create an environment that was both of the outdoors but also of the deep cultural meaning of the mountains. The hanging lanterns are more recent, being reproductions added in the 1960s from originals at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada.  Their original designs are attributed to Kanai artists.

In 1957, the property changed its name to the Lake McDonald Lodge and soon various new buildings were added, in part to meet the demand for increased visitation but also to meet the tastes and expectations of suburban Americans who came to park not by train but by automobile. The Lake McDonald Lodge Coffee Shop (1965) has been listed in the National

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img_8916Register as an excellent example of Mission 66-associated architecture within the park.  Burt L. Gewalt of the Kalispell firm Brinkman and Lenon was the architect.

img_9268Great Northern officials considered the lodge to be the center of the mountain experience on the park’s west side.  From there visitors could take overnight hikes to two other facilities, shown below, the Granite Park Chalet to the northeast or the Sperry Chalet to the southeast of Lake McDonald, both of which are also listed in the National Register.

When I knew of my new position at the recently created MTSU Center for Historic Preservation in the summer of 1985, my wife and I made a quick last trip to the chalets, the lodge, and Glacier National Park.  Perhaps that decision, moreso than my words, show what the park and its built environment has meant to my understanding of landscape, design, and escape in the Big Sky Country.

 

Flathead County’s Gateway Communities to Glacier

Flathead Co Columbia Falls mural

U.S. Highway 2 east of Kalispell has grown into a four-lane highway (mostly–topography thus far has kept it as a two-lane stretch west of Hungry Horse) designed to move travelers back and forth from Kalispell to Glacier National Park.  In my 1984-85 state historic preservation plan work, I thought of Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, and Martin

Flathead Co Hungry Horse HuckleberryCity as one large tourism funnel.  After spending a good part of 2006-2007 working with local residents and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park about the heritage and preservation of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–one of the most notorious gateways into any national park–I learned to look deeper than the highway landscape and find some real jewels in each of these Glacier National Park gateway communities.

There is much more than the highway to Columbia Falls, as the three building blocks above indicate, not to mention the lead image of this blog, the town’s Masonic Lodge which has been turned into one huge public art mural about the town’s history as well as its surrounding landscape.  Go to the red brick Bandit’s Bar above, and you soon discover that Columbia Falls has a good sense of itself, and even confidence that it can survive new challenges as its population has soared by over 2,000 residents since the 1980s, totaling over 5,000 today.

Once solely dependent on the Montana Veterans’ Home (1896), which is now a historic district, and then relying on the Weyerhaeuser sawmill for year round employment, Columbia Falls faces a different future now once the mill closed in the summer of 2016, taking away 200 jobs. As the historic business buildings above indicate, historic preservation could be part of that future, as the downtown’s mix of classic Western Commercial blocks mesh with modern takes on Rustic and Contemporary design and are complemented, in turn, by historic churches and the Art Deco-influenced school.

Once you leave the highway, in other words, real jewels of turn of the 20th century to mid-20th century design are in the offing.  In 1984–I never looked that deep.

Flathead Co Hungry Horse 1At Hungry Horse, however, I did leave the highway and explored the marvelous landscape created by the Hungry Horse Dam and Reservoir, a mid-20th century project by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency justified the dam as a hydroelectric power project for a growing Flathead County and as a boost to local irrigation.  The irrigation side of the project–the real reason the agency exists–never happened and Hungry Horse today is an electric power and recreational project.

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Flathead Co Hungry Horse Dam 10I appreciated the vastness of the concrete arch dam–the 11th largest concrete dam in the United States–as well as the beauty of Hungry Horse Reservoir, an under-appreciated tourism asset as anyone in Flathead County will tell you.  But again, I let just the size and impact of the dam distract me from some of the details of its construction that, today, are so striking.

Here I am thinking primarily of the contemporary design of the Visitors Center–its stone facade suggesting its connection to the now covered river bluffs but the openness of its interior conveying the ideas of space associated with 1950s design.

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img_8779I am concerned, however, about news in September 2015 that Reclamation has contracted for updates and renovation at the Visitor Center–let’s hope that the classic 1950s look of the property is not sacrificed.

Flathead Co Martin City

 

Martin City is just enough off of U.S. Highway 2–it is situated more on the historic Great Northern Railroad corridor–to miss out on the gateway boom of the last 30 years, although with both the Southfork Saloon and the Deer Lick Saloon it retains its old reputation as a rough-edged place for locals.

For railroad travelers in the first half of the 20th century, West Glacier was THE west gateway into Glacier National Park.  The Great Northern Railway developed both the classic Rustic-styled passenger station and the adjacent Arts and Crafts/Chalet styled Belton Chalet Hotel in 1909-1910, a year before Congress created Glacier National Park.

img_8785Architect Kirtland Cutter of Spokane was the architect and the chalet design was actually just a smaller scale and less adorned version of the Idaho State Exhibition Building that he had designed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Cutter is one of the major figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Northwest and we will look at another of his buildings for the railroad and Glacier in the next post about Lake McDonald Lodge.

The Cutter buildings for the railroad between 1909-1913 set a design standard for West Glacier to follow, be it through a modern-day visitor center and a post office to the earlier mid-20th century era of the local school and then gas stations and general stores for tourists entering the national park by automobile.

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This blog has never hidden the fact, however, that my favorite Glacier gateway in Flathead County is miles to the east along U.S. Highway 2 at the old railroad town of Essex, where the railroad still maintains facilities to help push freight trains over the Continental Divide.  The Izaak Walton Inn was one of the first National Register assignments given to

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me by State Historic Preservation Officer Marcella Sherfy–find the facts, she asked, to show that this three story bunk house, railroad offices, and local post merited exceptional significance for the National Register.  Luckily I did find those facts and shaped that argument–the owners then converted a forgotten building into a memorable historical experience. Rarely do I miss a chance to spend even a few minutes here, to watch and hear the noise of the passing trains coming from the east or from the west and to catch a sunset high in the mountains of Flathead County.

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Whitefish: Transformations and Persistence

I arrived in Whitefish in May 2015 with my eyes wide open.  I had not been there since 1988, and I knew that growth had enveloped and transformed the town, with a population that doubled, lots of west coast and east coast escapees having arrived, the ski lodge business booming, and “lone eagles” having nested here for two decades.  The phrase

Flathead Co Whitefish Grouse Mountain Lodge US 93 N“lone eagles” was local–an attempt to describe those professionals “who fly to work as comfortably as most Americans drive, and whose use of computers in business lets them indulge their preference for life in the great outdoors,” as a June 19, 1994 story in the New York Times explained.

Flathead Co Whitefish Great Northern depot

During my 1984-1985 survey for the state historic preservation plan, everyone probably tired of me touting the wonders of Whitefish, especially its mid-1920s Arts and Crafts/Chalet-styled Great Northern passenger depot and offices, designed by the railroad’s Thomas McMahon.  If any building needed to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, it was this one, and not just for its impressive architectural statement.img_8128

img_8122The station along with the railroad tracks defined everything you saw in Whitefish–here in the classic Great Northern T-plan landscape was a classic railroad town–one that old-timers even called the best along the entire line.  Whitefish developed and then prospered as a division point on the mainline from 1904 to 1955–and that corporate imprint was still there to be experienced, in 1984.

img_8107Thankfully in 2015, I still found all of my favorite landmarks from 30 years earlier, even though there was little doubt that the business district had been altered, sometimes in ways that left little original fabric in place but still some two-story brick blocks stood.

The Buffalo Cafe remained in business–a mainstay when I worked in the region in the 1980s as was the Palace Bar right around the corner.  The Palace dated to c. 1915 and has a wonderful dark wood carved bar from that time–it began as a brewing company and has remained that throughout all of the recent changes.

The town still had its historic residential neighborhoods at the foot of Main Street and then both to the east and west. comprising one of the state’s best collections of bungalows, often found in railroad towns of the early 20th century.Flathead Co Whitefish Main street 24

Perhaps more importantly it still retained some of its distinctive domestic architecture–the railroad tie house (a log house made of railroad ties) and a row of shotgun houses for railroad workers.  To all architectural historians who believe that the “shotgun” house is purely a southern thing–look closely:  these houses were built quickly and cheaply to serve industrial laborers and can be found throughout the country.

Flathead Co Whitefish railroad tie house

Whitefish’s historic Lockridge medical center (1958) designed by Frank Lloyd Wright remains a distinctive modernist landmark within the business district, although now it houses professional offices.  It was listed in the National Register in 2012.

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Flathead Co Whitefish Main street FLW 7A much earlier landmark, the Classical Revival Masonic Temple from the town’s first decade still stood, and it too found a new use through adaptive reuse.

img_8171Despite the population boom over the last 30 years, Whitefish still uses its Art Deco-styled school from the New Deal decade of the 1930s, although the auditorium has been restored and updated into a community performing arts center.

Certainly my favorite landmark was the Great Northern Railway station, which provided passenger service on the first floor and administrative offices on the second floor.  In the last 30 years, the town has significantly enhanced the setting with a city park, various statues and interpretive signage, along with a historic bus that once moved passengers to Kalispell and environs and historic railroad engines.

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The enhanced railroad station is clearly interested in drawing the attention of travelers who stop here for the nearby ski lodges or for a quick stop before entering Glacier National Park.  It is viewed as the town’s center point, its primary attraction–which is as it should be because there are few more compelling Great Northern Railway towns than Whitefish.

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Kalispell’s historic neighborhoods

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Designed by Kirkland Cutter in 1895, the Conrad Mansion, with its beautiful Shingle-style architecture making it an instant design statement for one of Kalispell’s most prominent founding families–was THE domestic architecture landmark when I surveyed the town during the state historic preservation plan of 1984-1985. I really did not look further. As the collage below shows, that was a mistake.

Kalispell has a wide range of domestic architecture, from turn of the 20th century American Four Squares to the Revival styles of the 1920s-1940s, that was captured in its 1994 multiple property nomination to the National Register of Historic Places that led to the creation of the East Side, the West Side, and the Courthouse historic districts.  Defined by tree-lined streets, the variety of house types within the district makes every step along the way worthwhile.

Flathead Co Kalispell east side historic district 2The images above and those below come from those well maintained neighborhoods, where the sense of place and pride is so strongly stated.

But in this quick overview of some of the most impressive Montana neighborhoods–despite overwhelming growth Kalispell has not left its older homes behind–let me re-emphasize a theme of my recent re-survey of the state:  contemporary design and the homes of the 1950s to early 1970s that were not considered closely in either 1984 or 1994.

Flathead Co Kalispell East Side HD ranch house Flathead Co Kalispell contemporary ranch

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Hats off to Kalispell:  a town that had changed so much from 1985 to 2015–let me tell you it didn’t take long to pass through town 30 years ago.  But through historic preservation, its roots are still there, serving as the foundation for the future.