Rialto Theater, Bozeman: success!

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As I traveled the Big Sky Country in the first half of this decade and revisited its many historic places and landscapes, one place I worried about was the Rialto Theater in Bozeman.  In the early 1984, when I was carrying out the statewide survey for the state historic preservation plan, residents and officials in Bozeman proudly showed off one of the city’s first significant preservation renovations.  The Rialto, which was once a 1908 post office from the town’s homesteading boom transformed into a movie theater in 1924, was renovated and updated in 1982.  That successful project, we all thought in the early 1980s, proved the power of historic preservation.  Then I heard twenty years later, in 2005, that the theater closed.  I visited Bozeman in 2006 and looked at the shuttered building but everyone then thought the reopening was just around the corner.  I was surprised, and concerned, in 2014 when I returned to Bozeman, and found the theater still closed, but a campaign to save it was underway (see the image above).

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I am happy to report that the campaign proved successful.  When I returned yet again to Bozeman in May 2018, the theater had reopened earlier in the year.  The return of its flashy Art Deco-influenced marquee adds immeasurably to the architecture of downtown Bozeman and its many events help to keep the city’s downtown vibe going strong.  Once again, the Rialto is showing residents and visitors how historic preservation makes a difference in one of Montana’s most rapidly changing places.

Lewistown: at the heart of Eastern Montana

IMG_9389Lewistown, the seat of Fergus County, has been a hub for trade and government for eastern Montana since the 1880s.  Beginning as a trading post, the town next served as a crossroads for traffic going to short-lived precious metal mines at Kendall, Maiden, Giltedge, and other places.  Cattle ranches, such as the famous DHS Ranch and the N-Bar Ranch, also surrounded the place.  By the turn of the 20th century, the town had over 1,000 residents.  But by this time, railroad companies eyed the area for possible agricultural development, and within 20 years Lewistown had boomed–gaining six times its population–and a fascinating array of commercial and public buildings in the wake of the population growth.

IMG_9381The Great Northern Railway not only an understated Classical Revival depot on one end of the town, it also expanded lines throughout Fergus County like tentacles desperate to grab as many wheat crops as possible.  The depot remains today, converted into a convenience mart and gas station (an adaptive reuse you do not commonly find for railroad depots).  On the other end of town stands the other major line–the Milwaukee Road–devoted to the homesteading rush in Fergus County.  It built an even grander

IMG_0004complex as a statement to its wishful dominance of the agricultural trade.  Shortly after the closure and bankruptcy of the line in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the depot became a large adaptive reuse project, turning the Milwaukee Road complex into the Yogo Inn and convention center, where, in 1984, I attended the Montana Historical Society statewide history conference.

IMG_9400The bloom grew stale over the decades and when I visited in 2013, the Yogo was clearly on life support; I was encouraged in May 2015 to find renovations underway–maybe there will be a third life for this Milwaukee Road landmark in Lewistown.

The Great Northern and the Milwaukee created the transportation network that brought homesteaders to central Montana by the thousands. Merchants, bankers, and craftsmen then rebuilt the downtown from 1904 to 1916, and much of that flurry of construction still serves residents today in the central business historic district, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

IMG_9973Classical Revival was the architectural statement of choice to this new Lewistown taking shape along Main Street.  The architects of the Montana State Capitol, Bell and Kent, designed a new Bank of Fergus County (above, on the right) in 1904.  It received another layer of classicism in the pilasters a decade later when owners wanted to match the flashy Judith Theater (1914), certainly one of the great examples of Beaux Arts design in a small Montana town movie palace.

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By 1916, however, bank officials were ready to support the town’s most complete interpretation of Classical Revival design in the new Montana Building, designed by the firm of Link and Haire.  The bank seemingly had few limits in front of it–homesteaders still arriving and agricultural prices were high.  But the boom went bust in the early 1920s and by 1924 the building had new owners, the First National Bank.  It has remained home to financial institutions ever since.

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IMG_9951The splashy Beaux Arts classicism of the banks and theater catch your eye but much more common are two-story commercial blocks, often with a more understated classicism, where retail businesses used the first floor and professionals occupied the second.  The town had a several gifted craftsmen who left their mark in these buildings and others.

Detail Masonic Temple Lewistown Fergus Co IMG_9955Croatian stonemasons left impressive stone Romanesque arches at the Masonic Lodge, a detail I photographed in 1984 (left) and 2013 (right).  The building itself is a dignified statement of both craftsmanship and purpose, combining both classical and Romanesque elements using locally available stone.  It’s one of my favorite buildings in town.

Fergus Co Lewistown masonic temple downtown commercial HD 13 - Version 2Not far away is the I.O.O.F. Hall, from 1914.  Here is an even later example of Romanesque arches highlighting a building that is both a fraternal lodge but also valuable retail space.

IMG_9966Be they multi-story or just one-story commercial businesses, this set of commercial designs convey so strongly the promise of early 1900s to thousands of Montanans.  Lewistown’s population had reached 6,000 by 1920–that generation would be shocked to know that remains the population today. Much more on Lewistown to come.

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Flaxville’s disappearing act

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A generation after its first settlement in 1913-1914, over 500 people lived in Flaxville, a Great Northern spur line town in Daniels County. When I visited in 1984, I found a declining railroad town, very common in the region, but I also liked how an old one-story brick bank still served the town’s 142 residents as a post office. Adaptive reuse at its best.
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Almost 30 years later the post office remained but one-half of the residents had gone. The census taker in 2010 counted 71 people in Flaxville. Despite the disappearing numbers, Flaxville has many worthy landmarks beyond the historic bank. Let’s start with the R-Y Bar, one of the few reminders in all of Montana of a historic trail that once connected Regina, Saskatchewan, to Miles City, far to the south.
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Then there is the Flaxville school, actually a marvel of contemporary design that you would never expect to find in such an out-of-the-way place. Once again we find Montana modernism is not just in the cities.
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The Barn, once a movie theater now a community theater and center, is a true rarity–a vernacular design for a popular culture purpose that seems almost crazily out of place. Its size speaks to time when whole towns gathered in one place for the movies. Its empty marquee today records a much more unpleasant truth: the
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reality of what happens when everyone begins to leave: the lights do go out. Yet the remaining local Catholic and Lutheran churches also speak loudly, to the quiet determination of those who remain here in Daniels County.
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Naturally the grain elevators remain as sentinels overlooking Flaxville but few other commercial enterprises are open. The starkness of the town’s cemetery records both the past and future of this tiny place in Montana’s northern plains.
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Building Zoos on the Northern Plains

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Building zoos are among the most interesting parts of the western historical landscape. At an isolated outpost on the northern plains like Scobey, Montana, these deliberate creations of history, identity, and memory tell residents, much more so than tourists (who come by in dwindling numbers), that once there were people, vitality, and interest here, and what happened in the past could happen again in the future.

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They also are demonstrations of the challenges of early days when tiny homestead shacks were home, and families stood in stark contrast to the seemingly endless flat prairie. As such building zoos are also marks of achievement, that the settlements of today show that the pioneers’ sacrifice was not in vein.

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The Daniels County Museum in Scobey is one of my favorite building zoos due to its fascinating array of buildings plus the obvious care that the facility has received over the decades. When I encountered it in 1984 frankly I was amazed. Here were large buildings moved to a spot in the middle of nowhere. They did “they” hope to achieve? Of course “they” were what they were doing–and they told their story with the same verve shown by the original owners of the Rex Theater, a false front in log rustic style for a land that had so few trees.

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Then were were the multiple churches marking a diversity of faiths from St. Michaels Ukranian Greek Orthodox Church, St. Thomas Catholic Church, and the more stylish in an Arts and Crafts way All Saints Episcopal Church. All were from the second decade of the 20th century when the homesteading boom across Daniels County was at its height.

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A building zoo is not really a building zoo unless it has moved mercantile buildings, which, in turn, are full of artifacts of the past. The Daniels County Museum has excellent examples of the early 20th century commercial aesthetic of the northern plains–a look not different than that of any western instant town of the era between the Civil War and World War I.

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When I visited this place in 1984 the museum proper was in an old quonset hunt, and it was more of a community attic than anything else.

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But in the 21st century, the community has invested in a new museum/community hall where new exhibits were being installed as I visited. The Daniels County Museum is one of the region’s most compelling heritage institutions, and despite the population decline in this corner of Montana, the museum volunteers look forward into the future.
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Harlem on the Hi-Line

 

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Whenever travelers or residents for that matter talk about Hi-Line towns, Havre, Shelby, Glasgow, Wolf Point always enter the conversation. Some places, inexplicably to my mind, never do: Harlem is a case in point.

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A gateway to the Fort Belknap Reservation, Harlem is one of the early Great Northern Railway towns, dating to 1889, and was established to serve as a commercial center on the northern border of the reservation.When the homesteading boom swept through the Hi-Line during the early 20th century, Harlem quickly expanded and most of the historic buildings found there today date between 1910 and 1940.

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What struck me powerfully when I visited in 2013, compared to my last visit in 1984, was dual themes of growth and decline. The Aaniiih Nadoka College, established in 1884, had left its initial spartan quarters on the edge of the reservation into new modern-styled buildings, that still reflected the spirit of earlier vernacular styled buildings.

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The 30-year growth of the college certainly underscored new opportunities as the flashy facade of the Ft Belknap Casino, facing U.S. Highway 2, showed a new revenue source. Standardized designs for federal housing also indicated the growth of a large neighborhood just south of the U.S. 2 and Montana 66 junction.

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The theme of decline, however, marked the historic business district of Harlem. When I visited in 1984, Harlem had over 1000 residents–now that number is close to 800. Classic roadside gas stations, even at prominent corners, had closed.

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The Art Deco-ish Brekke Block (1941) only had a few going businesses; the early 20th century commercial block at Central and Main streets had even fewer signs of life. The Grand Theatre no longer showed movies. The imposing classical facade of the old state bank had broken windows and decaying architectural details.  These historic buildings retain their potential to impress, and could be heritage assets in multiple ways.  They need attention before it is too late.

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While life and commerce enlivened the railroad and highway corridor, the downtown had a shuttered, tired look. But pride was there too. The Harlem Centennial Park, established in 1987, featured an memorial to the thirteen airmen who lost their lives when Air Force cargo planes collided north of town in 1992. The dedication and commitment to raise the funds and build such an appropriate monument impresses–and for travelers like me, I had no idea that this terrible air accident took place, and was glad that Harlem understood its obligation to the airmen and to history to record the event, permanently, with the memorial.  It was one of several surprises I encountered during my visit to Blaine County in 2013.

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