Montana’s Murals: Creating Identity, Telling Stories in Big Sky Country

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural homesteaders

A week ago a colleague from Tennessee told me of returning to Cut Bank–a family place that she had not been to in decades–and we talked of what a great, classic town it is, and how the town uses blank walls to tell their own story to the hordes of tourists who pass through on U.S. Highway 2 on their way to Glacier National Park. The homesteader-theme mural is just one of the several that enliven the streets and instruct those who wish to stop, look, think.

 

Montana’s art and history have always been closely linked as even those in the first generation of settlement commissioned artists, Charles M. Russell and Edgar Paxson, to paint historical murals for the new state capitol building in Helena.  Then came the public art commissions of the New Deal era, such as the work of J. K. Raulston (below),

Richland Co Sidney Ralston mural now at Mondak HCwhich once hung in the Richland County Courthouse in Sidney (and now displayed at the Mondak Heritage Center in Sidney) and the numerous murals that graced new post offices and federal buildings across Montana, the one below from Dillon demonstrates

Dillon P.O. Mural NR 1that the arts program of the 1930s stretched across Montana, from Sidney to Dillon.

helena muralWhen I lived in Helena in the first half of the 1980s, of course I noticed murals, such as one above on the state’s important women’s history on Last Chance Gulch, which itself had various installations of interpretive sculpture to tell the story of a place that had been so “renewed” as to lose all meaning.

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 033 sculpture

In my second shot at documenting the historic landscape of Montana, in the first half of this decade, I couldn’t help but notice how many places used murals to tell their story, or to hint about what mattered to those who traveled by–they truly were everywhere.  On the walls of cafe/bars like at Melrose:

Melrose bar, murals, US 91

Or they could be at old service stations at once important crossroads, like at Jordan:

Garfield Co Jordan gas station MT 200 deco dinosaur mural

Scenes of landscape and animals–the wild side of Montana are common:

Lincoln Co Libby mural 5

A grizzly at Libby, Montana.

Powder River Co Broadus  buffalo mural 25

A bison at the Western Chick Cafe in Broadus.

But many tell a story, perhaps no more elaborately than in Columbia Falls, where the historic Masonic Lodge is wrapped in a mural that links the town to its logging beginnings to the establishment of the town and merchants.

Flathead Co Columbia Falls muralAnother northwestern Montana town–the gateway town of Eureka on U.S. Highway 89. uses a mural to set the scene of a quiet, peaceful place no matter the season:

Flathead Co Eureka mural

Whereas at Troy–another gateway town at the western edge of Montana on U.S. Highway 2–the town name itself is emblazoned on a building–you can’t miss it.

Lincoln Co Troy mural

Many towns highlight their history with murals.  The one in Townsend (below), on U.S. Highway 12, reminds me of a common heritage-centered art piece found everywhere–a quilt with each square representing a different community or place name.

Townsend mural US 12

Others are more pointed in their message.  A lone tractor in a field stands out in Chester, the seat of Liberty County:

Liberty Co Chester tractor mural

Wilsall, on U.S. 89 north of Livingston, tells a rather elaborate story–of days when the town was vibrant and its railroad as an important link between the region and the state.

Park Co US 89 wilsall mural

In Fairview, at the North Dakota border, a mural depicts the historic Noyly bridge, an engineering marvel that sits now out of town, forgotten excepts by locals.

Richland Co Fairview 5 Noyly bridge mural

Butte perhaps has the most effective set of public art to tell its story–where there was so little 30 years ago there are interpretive settings throughout the town of past glory days and key events, topped by a monumental mural in the heart of Uptown.

As a trend in public interpretation, I love the generation of new public art in Montana as much as admire the art of the New Deal era that adorns and emboldens our post offices.  All of these creative expressions (the mural below is from Deer Lodge) remind anyone that the past is always present in the Big Sky Country.

New Deal mural, Deer Lodge MT post office.jpg

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.

 

Cut Bank’s Public Art

No doubt readers may doubt that public art and Cut Bank are used in the same sentence, but the use of historical murals to enliven the town’s historic commercial core was the biggest change I experienced from visiting Cut Bank in 1984 and 2015.

cut-bank-sign

This welcome sign on U.S. Highway 2 in 1984 touted the oil boom that so re-shaped the town and Glacier County generally in the second half of the twentieth century.  Then the town’s penguin, a roadside landmark on U.S. 2,  accepted the commonly heard observation that Cut Bank was the coldest place in all of Montana–its World War II air base always was reporting weather conditions, ensuring that many Americans equated Cut Bank with frozen temps.

2011-mt-glacier-county-cut-bank-028I am speaking instead of the wide range of images and themes that visually interpret the town’s and county’s history. Finding public art murals about the open landscape once dominated by the Blackfeet Indians and the buffalo is not surprising–communities often embrace the deep history of their land.

Glacier Co Cut Bank buffalo and indians mural ruralThat Cut Bank also has a large expressive mural about the Lewis and Clark Expedition is not surprising–murals about Lewis and Clark were installed across several towns during the bicentennial of the expedition in the first decade of this century. East of Cut Bank is Camp Disappointment, one of the more important sites associated with the Corps of Discovery.

Glacier Co Cut Bank L&C muralNor is it surprising to see communities commemorate their homesteading roots, and the importance of agriculture and cattle ranching.

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural homesteaders

Glacier Co Cut Bank cowboys murals 3But I was surprised, pleasantly, by the number of murals that also documented the town’s twentieth century history, whether it is the magnificent steel trestle of the Great Northern Railway just west of the commercial core, or a mural that reminded everyone of the days when the railroad dominated all traffic here.

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural trestle

2011-mt-glacier-county-cut-bank-009

The actual trestle along U.S. Highway 2.

img_9162It is this first half of the 20th century feel that the murals interpret–the era that actually built most of the historic buildings you find there today–that I find so impressive and memorable about Cut Bank, be it people on bicycles or what an old service station was like.

Glacier Co Cut Bank theater deco bike mural

img_9173Space matters when you interpret the built environment, and these various murals reflect not only a sense of town pride and identity they also give meaning to buildings and stories long forgotten.

img_9160

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.

img_8765

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.

img_8782

img_8770

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.

2011-mt-glacier-park-and-communities-134

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

img_0943

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.

img_8977

 

 

 

 

The Hot Springs of Sanders County

Lake Co Hot Springs 32Hot Springs, off from Montana Highway 28 on the eastern edge of Sanders County, was a place that received little attention in the survey work of 1984-1985.  Everyone knew it was there, and that hot springs had been in operation trying to lure automobile travelers since the 1920s–but at that time, that was too new.  The focus was elsewhere, especially on the late 19th century resorts like Chico Hot Springs (believe or not, Chico was not on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984). This section of what is now the reservation of the Consolidated Salish and Kootenai Tribes was opened to homesteaders in 1910 and first settlement came soon thereafter.  The development of the hot springs as an attraction began within a generation.

IMG_7888Due to the 21st century fascination from historic preservationists for the modern movement of the mid-20th century, however, Hot Springs is now squarely on the map as a fascinating example of a tourist destination at the height of the automobile age from the 1930s to 1960s.

Lake Co Hot Springs Symes Hotel NR 1

Lake Co Hot Springs Symes Hotel NR 4

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Symes Hotel and hot springs takes you back to the era of the Great Depression.  Fred Symes acquired the family property and opened the Mission-style hotel in 1930.  It has changed somewhat over the decades, but not much.  The narrow hallways of the baths, with their single tubs ready for a soak, are still in operation.

What the Symes did for Hot Springs was to make it a destination, and to give a vernacular Mission-style look to other buildings from that decade such as the old movie theater below and other storefronts on the town’s main street.

Lake Co Hot Springs 18

Lake Co Hot Springs 25

Lake Co Hot Springs 26Not everything fit into this mold, naturally.  There remains a representative set of gable-front shotgun-form “cabins” that housed visitors staying for several days and various one-story buildings served both visitors and year-round residents.

Lake Co Hot Springs 12

Then a few years after World War II the tribe decided to invest in the town through the creation of the modernist landmark known as the Camas Hot Springs, truly a bit of the International style on the high prairie of western Montana.

IMG_0911

From a photo in the lobby of the Symes Hotel.

This venture initially was successful and led to a population boom in the 1950s and 1960s but then as the interstates were built and the 1970s recession impacted travel choices, the Camas struggled and closed c. 1980.  For the last 30 years this grand modernist design has been slowly melting away.

Lake Co Hot Springs 10

Lake Co Hot Springs 9

Lake Co Hot Springs 17The loss would be significant because few mid-20th century buildings in Montana, especially rural Montana, are so expressive of the modernist ethos, with the flat roofs, the long, low wings and the prominent chimney as a design element.  Then there are the round steel stilts on which the building rests.

Lake Co Hot Springs 19As this mural suggests, today Hot Springs embraces its deep past as a place of sacred meaning to the Consolidated Salish and Kootenai.  And it continues to try to find a way to attract visitors as a 21st century, non-traditional hot springs resort.

 

Deer Lodge’s heritage development

New Deal mural, Deer Lodge P.O. 1938

Verona L. Burkhard’s 1939 mural for the Deer Lodge Post Office.

In the thirty years between my first visits in Deer Lodge and my most recent, the town’s population dropped almost 25%–nearly 1,000 residents.  But when I spent a day there in May 2012 I witnessed one of the most impressive community revitalization efforts in all of my years in historic preservation–the grand opening of the historic Rialto Theatre.

HPIM0653.JPG

Rialto Theatre in 2007.

My first digital image of the theatre dates to 2007–and I was happy to see this monumental 1921 Beaux Arts-styled theatre, designed by the Butte firm of Arnold and Van Hausen, was still in business.  With rural population decline, the rise of home movie viewing, and the impact of satellite television, so, so many small town movie theaters were closing across the country.  I was glad to see this one still operating.  Then a few years later came the news of a fire that severely damaged the building–and from my vantage point way back east I thought, well that’s it–the building will be gone the next time I get to Deer Lodge–and I wondered if that would not be the start of a general abandonment of Main Street.

Rialto Theater, Deer Lodge 13Imagine my pleasure to be there for the theatre’s grand opening May 19, 2012.  Not only had the community raised the funds to repair and reopen the business, they also took great pains to restore it to its earlier architectural glory.  Such an achievement for a town of just over 3,000 residents–when you consider that the next city south on Interstate I-90 is Anaconda with its monument Washoe Theatre, I immediately began to think of future “movie palace” trips.   What a treat, both for the experience and architecture.

Rialto Theater, Deer Lodge 10

IMG_1747

Re-energizing the Rialto to once again be an anchor for community, both in an economic sense but also a cultural sense, is an achievement not to be taken lightly.  In the spring of 2016 a team of experts got together to inventory, consider, and make recommendations for Deer Lodge’s 21st century future.  The report covers much ground, is well meaning, yet is devoid of the type of passion that the theatre project involved.  Experience tells me that heritage assets can do that–the sense of the past, identity, promise, and nostalgia that they represent are important building blocks for any committed community.

Kohrs Library, Missouri at 5th, 1902In that same trip to Deer Lodge, I noted how the community had recently enhanced the National Register-listed W. K. Kohrs Memorial Library (1902), one of the region’s great Classical Revival buildings by the Butte architectural firm of Link and Carter (J.G. Link would soon become one of the state’s most renowned classicists), by expanding the library

Kohrs Library and 1995with an addition to the side and behind the commanding entrance portico. Although it has proven to be difficult for such a small town to keep the library professionally staffed, the care they have shown the exterior and interior indicate they understand the value of this monument from the past.

The town’s New Deal era post office–a Colonial Revival design from the office of Louis A. Simon–is another National Register landmark that serves dual purposes as both a post office, but also community art museum with the wonderful mural by Verona L. Burkhard.

U.S. Post Office, 1938, Main St, Deer LodgeThen add in the impressive examples of turn of the 20th century church architecture, represented by the Cotswold Gothic stone work of St. James Episcopal Church, the more former Tudor Revival of the 1st Presbyterian Church, and the more vernacular yet

St. James Episcopal, 4th at Cottonwood, Deer Lodge

expressive Gothic spire, with fish-scale shingles, of the Latter-Day Saints Church.  The care and respect here also says much about Deer Lodge’s understanding of the value of the past, a pattern reflected in the community’s historic school buildings that range from the Victorian Gothic of Trask Hall to the 1960s modernism of the elementary school–and

then there is Powell County High School campus that moves from the Collegiate Gothic style of the early 20th century to the New Deal functionalism of the gym for the Fighting Wardens and onto the modernism of 1960s school design.  The Vo-Tech Building is one of my favorite examples of public school modernism in all of Montana.

Powell Co HS 1917 Deer Lodge

 

Vo Ed Building, Powell Co HS, 1960s

When you add the decades-long care manifested in the Deer Lodge Woman’s Club building, what do you learn:  Deer Lodge gets it, and while the road is not easy I look forward to this community charting its course in the 21st century.  Next post:  some of the challenges ahead.

HPIM0647.JPG

Photograph from 2007.

Ennis, a Madison County Gateway

IMG_0336Nestled where Montana Highway 287 encounters U.S. Highway 287 in the southern end of Madison County, Ennis has changed in significant ways in the last 30 years. Its earlier dependence on automobile tourism to Yellowstone National Park has shifted into the favor of population growth and development in this portion of the county.

IMG_0328The iconic Ennis Cafe, always a favorite place back in the day of the statewide work, remains, with a new false front emphasizing the wildlife and open spaces of this area.   That place, along with several classic watering holes, served not only locals but the

motoring public headed to Yellowstone.  The Riverside Motel is a classic piece of roadside architecture from the 1950s, and the place where I stayed in 2012 during the Ennis work.

Another great bit of contemporary style design comes in the mid-20th century U.S. Forest Service headquarters building at Ennis–Rustic style with a Ranch-style House look.

Madison Ranger Station, Beaverhead and Deer Lodge Ntl Forests, Ennis

But now Ennis abounds with signs of more recent prosperity.  A town of 660 residents in 1980 now has 838 and counting in 2015.  New, more architecturally distinctive buildings potmark the town.  The First Madison Valley Bank is a blending of Prairie and Rustic styles, with exposed log walls, updated for the 21st century.

While the local city hall may have only a recent faux paneling update to its exterior, the Madison Valley Public Library is another 21st century interpretation of Rustic style.

Most interesting is the amount of public sculpture found throughout the town.  Designed to delight the visitor, and to convey a sense of the long standing traditions of recreation and ranching in the community, the sculptures comes from such talented artists as Jim Dolan, Dave Clarke, and E.C. Lyon, among others.

 

IMG_0326

New bars, restaurants, and medical center have been established, again more architecturally distinct for the Yellowstone visitor, and fly fishing devotee, of today.

 

South of Ennis Jeffers, once a cross roads town for traffic to the park.  It is now just off of the highway, and it retains several worthy historic buildings, centered around the turn of the 20th century Trinity Episcopal Church and the Jeffers Inn. But the crossroads village

also has captivating Queen Anne-style houses, false front stores, enough of a physical history left to suggest that it was bubbling with activity over 100 years ago.

U.S. Highway 287 is the modern two-lane road that runs along the Madison River and it heads into the national park.  The route also passes along some of the finest fly fishing of the Madison River Valley.  The Old Kirby Place fishing lodge (c. 1885) was once a toll gate, lodge, and dwelling.  Adjacent is the historic Hutchins Bridge (1902), a steel truss bridge

that was once the primary river crossing for the increasing number of tourists coming down the valley to reach Yellowstone National Park.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Not only is the bridge a major landmark for those who fish, it is also part

IMG_0079 of a section of the highway where you will encounter magnificent views of the Madison River Valley and open ranch lands.

IMG_0072