Adaptive Reuse and Montana’s Depots

When I carried out the 1984-1985 survey of Montana as part of the state historic preservation planning process, one resource was at the forefront of my mind–railroad passenger stations.  Not only had recent scholarship by John Hudson and John Stilgoe brought new interest to the topic, there had been the recent bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road, and the end of passenger service in large parts of the state, except along the Hi-Line of the old Great Northern Railway (where Amtrak still runs today.)

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The mid-20th century standardized design for Great Northern stations at Chester on US 2.

Some of the passenger stations in the major cities had already been converted into new uses, such as restaurants, offices, and various downtown commercial uses. The lovely turn of the twentieth century stations for the Great Northern (left) and the Milwaukee Road (right) in Great Falls showed how the location of the buildings, plus their

architectural quality and the amount of available space made them perfect candidates for adaptive reuse.  While the tenants have changed over the past 30 plus years, both buildings still serve as heritage anchors for the city. While success marked early adaptive reuse projects in Great Falls and Missoula, for instance, it was slow to come to Montana’s largest city–the neoclassical styled Northern Pacific depot was abandoned and

Billings 2006 002deteriorating in the mid-1980s but a determined effort to save the building and use it as an anchor for the Montana Avenue historic district has proven to be a great success in the 21st century.

In the 1984-1985 I documented hundreds of railroad depots across Big Sky Country.  From 2012-2015 I noted how many had disappeared–an opportunity to preserve heritage and put a well-located substantial building for the building back to work had been wasted.  But I also came away with a deep appreciation of just how many types of new lives train stations could have.

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Turning iconic buildings into community museums is a time-honored tradition, as you can find at the magnificent Northern Pacific station at Livingston, shown above.  A handful of Montana communities have followed that tradition–I am especially glad that people in Harlowton and Wheatland County banded together to preserve the

IMG_9725.JPGMilwaukee Road depot there, since Harlowtown was such an important place in the railroad’s history as an electric line.

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But there are so many other uses–as they know in Lewistown.  Already in the mid-1980s investors in Lewistown had turned the old Milwaukee Road station, shown above, into a hotel and conference center, the Yogo Inn.  When I visited Lewistown in 2013 the Yogo was undergoing a facelift after 30 years as a commercial business. The town’s other

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historic depot, a substantial brick building (above) from the Great Northern Railway, was a gas station, convenience mart, office building, and store, all in one.

 

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Deer Lodge MT 2006 002

Deer Lodge is blessed with both of its historic depots.  The Milwaukee Road depot has become a church while the Northern Pacific depot became the Powell County Senior Citizens Center.  Indeed, converting such a community landmark into a community center is popular in other Montana towns, such as the National Register-listed passenger station shown below in Kevin, Toole County, near the border with Canada.

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One of the most encouraging trends of this century is how many families have turned depots into their homes–you can’t beat the location and the long, horizontal nature of the often-found combination depot (passenger station and luggage warehouse in same building) means that these dwellings have much in common with the later Ranch-style houses of the 1950s and 1960s.

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A former Great Northern depot in Windham.

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A Milwaukee Road depot turned into a home in Rosebud County.

But in my work from 2012-15 I found more and more examples of how local entrepreneurs have turned these historic buildings into businesses–from a very simple, direct conversion from depot to warehouse in Grassrange to the use of the Milwaukee Road depot in Roundup as the local electric company office.

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As these last examples attest–old buildings can still serve communities, economically and gracefully.  Not all historic preservation means the creation of a museum–that is the best course in only a few cases.  But well-built and maintained historic buildings can be almost anything else–the enduring lesson of adaptive reuse

Libby: Disaster and Persistence

Lincoln Co Libby stem of T planLibby is the seat of Lincoln County, a typical railroad town along the historic Great Northern Railway corridor.  The image above is from the town’s railroad depot, the symbolic beginning of town, from which runs a long main street of businesses, reflecting the T-plan town design, where the long railroad corridor defines the top of the T and the main street forms the stem of the T.

The depot is a good example of the railway’s “Chalet” style that it used in many of its Rocky Mountain properties, reflecting the influence of the early resorts in Glacier National Park and the railroad’s wish to connect such rural outposts as Libby with the tourism traffic it wished to generate along the line.

Libby was much like I remembered it from 1984.  The town’s population had dropped by about 100, and some historic store buildings had been leveled, but a new brew pub was in operation and the historic Dome Theater was still going strong.

Lincoln Co Libby old city hall police station

And I liked the New Deal impact on Libby’s public buildings, such as the WPA Deco City Hall, which is now solely the domain of the police department.  Then there is the Lincoln County Courthouse, truly a story of two buildings in one as the mid-1930s Art Deco-styled

Lincoln Co Libby New Deal courthouse 1

img_8345courthouse received a totally new front, in a contemporary style, in the 1970s as the town and county expanded in the wake of the federal spending in constructing Libby Dam. The rectangular blockiness, flat roof, and band of windows set within a symmetrical facade makes the courthouse one of the state’s best designs for a rural public building in the late 20th century.

img_8348 I liked all of those things about Libby in 1984. Imagine my shock and disappointment to learn, as everyone else did, that Libby was one of the poisoned places in the west.  In 1919, vermiculite, a natural material that contains asbestos, had been discovered outside of town, and the mines were still operating, producing 80 percent of the vermiculite in the world, under the control of the W.R. Grace company. Residue from the mines had been used in local yards and buildings for decades, a fact that was not known  when I visited the town for the state historic preservation plan.  When the discovery of the danger became public, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency entered into the fray in 1999, it was already too late for many residents.  A federal Superfund project began, and did not conclude its work until 2015, spending some $425 million. Then in 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency announced a public health emergency, spending another $130 million to help residents and to leave a new health infrastructure in place.  In a generation, Libby had been turned inside out.  EPA announced in 2016 that the cleanup would continue to 2018, and that the project was the longest in the agency’s history.

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The Cabinet Peak Medical Center (2014), designed by CTA Architects, represents the beginning of a new chapter in Libby’s history, as it starts its second century. It extends the city’s earlier healthcare history, represented by the historic St. John Lutheran Hospital, which opened in the 1952 and operated until 2014 when it was closed in favor of the new Cabinet Peaks center.

Lincoln Co Libby hospitalDespite the disaster, I saw many signs that Libby residents were determined to remain and rebuild their community.  One of the most powerful examples is the conversion of one of  the town’s historic schools into a new community arts center as well as school administration offices.

 

Then the public library–home to an active and lively genealogy group and collection–is still a point of pride and activity.  The same is true for the mid-1970s Lincoln County Museum–a wonderful modern log building designed and built by the community during the American Bicentennial just outside of Libby–which remains an active part of the town’s heritage tourism offerings.

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Lincoln Co Libby museum 5The asbestos crisis was a terrible disaster for Libby–yet residents refused to let it define their future.  There are past accomplishments to acknowledge, an active railroad depot to cherish, a beautiful river and lake, the mountains all around, as celebrated in this public art mural on a downtown building. This place is here to stay, and the historic built environment is a large part of it.

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Dillon: Union Pacific Railroad Town

West Yellowstone and Dillon are Montana’s best examples of railroad towns developed by the Union Pacific.  Dillon is the oldest, established as the company’s spur line, the Utah and Northern, pushed north from the main line and headed into the rich mining country of Silver Bow County and environs.  Not only is the historic Union Pacific depot–part of the railroad’s Oregon Short Line–extant, and used as a county museum and theater, so too is the symmetrical town plan of the early 1880s, with the town’s primary commercial blocks facing the tracks.

Beaverhead County Museum Dillon 9This birds-eye view of the town is at the Beaverhead County Museum at the railroad depot.  It shows the symmetrical plan well, with two-story commercial blocks facing the tracks and depot, which was then just a frame building.  To the opposite side of the tracks with more laborer cottages and one outstanding landmark, the Second Empire-style Hotel Metlen.  The Metlen, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, remains today, one

IMG_3183of the state’s best examples of a railroad hotel.  I recognized the building as such in the 1984 state historic preservation plan and my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, included the image below of the hotel.

Hotel Metlen, Dillon (p84 54-35) This three-story hotel served not only tourists but especially traveling businessmen–called drummers because they were out “drumming up” business for their companies.  The interior has received some restoration work in the last 30 years but little has changed in the facade, as they two images, one from 1990 and the other from 2012, indicate.

The same can be said for the ornate cast-iron Victorian-styled cornices on the commercial buildings directly across from the depot.  First is a black and white image, c. 1990: note the middle cornice.  The next image, from 2012, shows that the details have been lost in the last 30 years although most of the cornice is intact.

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Dillon cornice detail

The Dingley and Morse Block from 1888–seen in the historic image of the town at the museum above–has been well preserved and is a significant example of how cast-iron facades defined the look of businesses in Montana’s late 19th century railroad era.

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Dillon, cast-iron storefronts, Montana St

This brief look at Dillon as a railroad town is just the beginning of our exploration of this southwest Montana county seat.  Today Dillon is known as the home of the Patagonia outlet–certainly a key business development here in the 21st century.  But the town’s

IMG_3518built environment has many stories to tell.

Billings: a few more words, for now

HPIM0190.JPGI always have more to say about Billings, the centerpiece of the Yellowstone valley and Montana’s largest city.  I have been thinking about it, and exploring its history, since 1982, a time when hardly anyone in the history field (except for Dr. Lawrence Small at Rocky Mountain College) was paying attention. But for now–until I get back in May for new fieldwork–I want to place Billings aside, but offer some words about how historic preservation and adaptive reuse–at least what I have witnessed since 1982–have impacted the city.

Dedication plaque at Parmly Billings Library (now Western Heritage Center), Billings

Dedication plaque at Parmly Billings Library (now Western Heritage Center), Billings

When I began my first project at the Western Heritage Center, that historic library building and the old county jail, turned into the Yellowstone Art Center, was about it, for historic preservation, in Billings.  There also was the county museum, which was early resident Paul McCormick’s “town” cabin since moved to the airport and used as the county museum, and The Castle, Austin North’s downtown residence turned into a store. Many thought that was plenty–few thought that even the Classical Revival landmark of the

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Northern Pacific Railway depot deserved much attention.  Luckily, three women that I met in those days, Senia Hart, Ruth Towe, and Lynda Moss, thought otherwise.

Former Hart-Alpin department store, Billings

Former Hart-Alpin department store, Billings

Hart, whose husband had built the Hart-Albin store into a regional brand name, was distressed by the apparent death of downtown Billings.  Everyone, and many businesses, wanted to relocate to either the Heights or at Rimrock Mall.  Traffic shifted away from downtown into the suburbs and interstate.  Hart saw a robust still viable building stock, and thought otherwise.  I heartily agreed.  Everyone back then liked to show off the Rex Hotel as a sign of the future.  The old flea bag railroad hotel had been transformed in downtown’s best restaurant by the early 1980s.

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Hart was not the only business woman or man devoted to downtown–it took many to keep it alive, such as Alberta Bair.  Her donation for the conversion of a historic Art Deco theater into a modern performing arts center interjected new life into downtown.

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In the 1990s the first historic district was created along Montana Avenue, with the Rex Hotel as a real anchor to encourage other new investment.  To say that Montana Avenue has worked in the decades since would be a major understatement.

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Success didn’t come immediately–for a long time, the Rex stood alone, but the depot got new life, most buildings were repaired, or restored, and by the 21st century a new wave of adaptive reuse gave new opportunities to once forgotten industrial buildings around the district.  Montana Avenue, and downtown Billings, once again became a destination.

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Montana Avenue in 2006

CTA Architects building, 2006

CTA Architects building, 2006

Encouraging CTA and others to see downtown in new ways back then was State Senator Lynda Moss (who served 2005-2013)–she got introduced to the potential of downtown as the director of the Western Heritage Center, in some ways bringing the story full circle.  Moss though pushed investors and residents to think about the south side of the tracks downtown, and the potential of Minnesota Avenue.

Previously neglected building south of tracks in Billings

Previously neglected building south of tracks in Billings

Minnesota Avenue, Billings

Minnesota Avenue, Billings

And then came the news that the once lap of luxury hotel–but closed for some years– in downtown Billings was also receiving a new life.  The 2011-2012 restoration of the Northern Hotel–I haven’t had a chance to visit the final result yet–marked the close of a decade of real, sustainable change in downtown Billings.

Northern Hotel, Billings, 2011

Northern Hotel, Billings, 2011

Yet, at the same time, it took us back to the city’s roots.  Banker Preston W. Moss had championed the need for a luxury hotel, to attract business and further investment.  More than anyone, Ruth Towe, made the preservation of Moss’s story, and his mansion, to be a life task.  I had the chance to listen to many of the Moss Mansion group’s plans and

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dreams back in the 1980s.  Their legacy today is not just the city’s primary historic house museum, but also a renewed interest in the historic downtown residential neighborhoods.  Billings has a rich collection of domestic architecture, and the good condition of those places today, like the ongoing renovation and expansion of the McKinley School, tells anyone that downtown Billings is alive and well.  Individuals like Ruth Towe willing to work with others can make a difference in historic preservation.  I have seen it in my professional career in Billings.  There will be much more to be said about this place in future postings.

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The Art Deco style of the Babcock Theatre is yet another downtown historic preservation anchor.

Miles City as a Two-Railroad Town

Northern Pacific Railway depot, c. 1924, Miles City.  It has been listed in the National Register but it needs a preservation hero.

Northern Pacific Railway depot, c. 1924, Miles City. It has been listed in the National Register but it needs a preservation hero.

Miles City has a distinct look and feel due to how historic transportation links have impacted the town. First, certainly, was the Yellowstone River and Tongue River: as discussed in previous posts the military positioned itself here in 1876 because it is where the Tongue River met the Yellowstone. By the end of that decade a rough wagon road connected this place to other early towns along the Yellowstone. Then in 1881-1882 came the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Soon Main Street boasted new two and three-story brick buildings to signify its arrival as a key transportation crossroads for the northern plains cattle industry.

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Historic stockyards remain a prominent landmark on the west side of Miles City.

Historic stockyards remain a prominent landmark on the west side of Miles City.

The early arrival and commercial dominance of the Northern Pacific left a lasting mark on Miles City.  Main Street, which is listed as a National Register historic district, was the town’s primary commercial artery until the late 20th century.  But so much of the historic built environment you find in Miles City today is due, in large part, to the impact of the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad–better known as the Milwaukee Road–in 1907.

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

The Milwaukee Road was the last transcontinental to stretch across Montana. It came into eastern Montana at Baker and angled sharply to the northwest, heading to the Yellowstone Valley, sharing the valley landscape with the dominant Northern Pacific, and typically building its tracks north of those of the Northern Pacific between Terry and Forsyth, where the Milwaukee left the Yellowstone and headed into central Montana.

Milwaukee Road corridor in Miles City

Milwaukee Road corridor in Miles City

The Milwaukee made Miles City its primary division point for eastern Montana, locating offices, machine shops, and a roundhouse in an entirely new section of the town, northeast of Main Street.  Several of the historic buildings associated with the Milwaukee remain, although there have been many lost buildings in the last 30 years.  One remnant, quite unkempt in 2013 but still in use, was the Milwaukee Park,

Remnants of the Milwaukee Road works, Miles City, 2013

Remnants of the Milwaukee Road works, Miles City, 2013

a parcel of land located between the railroad shops and adjacent working-class neighborhoods.  The park is now a recreation area and playground and provides one of the best ways to look at these historic railroad buildings today.

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The Milwaukee Road combined with the homesteading boom of the 1910s to spur new construction and investment as nothing else had, either before or since.  Some of the new landmarks were unassuming, such as the Wool Warehouse, built just west of the depot, and now converted into a successful Arts and Antiques business.

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Many others were much more purposeful statements of growth, and the promise of prosperity.  The 1914 City Hall, which is listed in the National Register, gave Miles City not only modern civic space but made an architectural statement that the town was no longer just a cow-puncher’s place.

IMG_7040Downtown received new buildings, and an architectural upgrade, with such imposing edifices as the Professional Building (c. 1910) and the Masonic Temple.

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The arrival of the Milwaukee Road, and the thousands of homesteaders in the following decade, charted a new course for Miles City, evident in the new facades of Main Street but perhaps best shown in the new neighborhoods, churches, and schools that redefined the city in the 1910s and into the 1920s.  Those places will be our next post.