Montana State Capitol: update

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In 1982, two years before I began my survey of all 56 counties for the state historic preservation office, I took on a very meaningful and fun assignment—developing an interpretive tour of the recently restored Montana State Capitol.  Jim Mc Donald’s firm in Missoula had developed a comprehensive study nd they and the many partners and contractors restored the grand spaces of this turn of the twentieth century building.

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Designed by the firm of Bell and Kent, the Capitol is a jaw-dropping public space, which spoke of the state’s dreams and ambitions at its beginning. No matter how jaded you might be about politics and politicians today just a walk through the corridors of grandeur, and power, of the Capitol will remind you that democracy does matter and we the people continue down the demanding path of making ourselves rise up to democracy’s promise.

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Plus the 1982 project was just a great learning experience. I worked most closely with Jennifer Jeffries Thompson, then the education curator at the Montana Historical Society, plus it became a way to meet and learn from the SHPO staff then, led by Marcella Sherry, and the architect Lon Johnson and architectural historian Pat Bick.  Governor Ted  Schwinden and his staff were great and I always appreciated the interest shown by Senate Republican leader (and future governor) Stan Stephens.  Senator Stephens always wanted me to lead his groups through the building, but I never knew if that was because he thought I had something to say or that everyone always liked to hear me say it, with my southern accent echoing in the chambers and hallways.

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I learned so much because the Capitol was full of magnificent western art depicting pivitol moments in state history, as understood by state leaders one hundred years ago.  Everyone (my celebrities included actors Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall) wanted to see Charles M. Russell’s depiction of the Lewis and Clark expedition at Ross’s Hole in the House chamber.  My favorites however were the series of historical paintings by Edgar Paxton in the legislative lounge and office area.

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Paxson’s portrayal of Sacajawea showing the way at Three Forks—artistic license acknowledged—was always a favorite teaching opportunity for in a painting of 100 years ago Paxton depicted a reality—the presence and importance of a Native American woman and an African American slave, York—at a time when historians of the west had difficulty even acknowledging their existence in history.

I also liked the scope of Paxton’s narrative and the prominence of the Native American stor..u even to the surrender of Chief Joseph, which would have been fairly recent history when Paxton carried out his work.

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The Senate Chamber taught other stories, from the process of voting and government to the story of the three Georgians who left the South in the midst of the Civil War to find riches in Last Chance Gulch, now Helena, and on to the massive Sioux and Cheyenne victory over George Armstrong Custer’s Calvary at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

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While I had stopped in at the Capitol several times in the last decade, I did not really explore. My trip this summer found many more history lessons throughout the building.

The statue of the Mansfields were an effective complement to the earlier statues for Wilbur F. Sanders  and Jeanette Rankin, which had booth stood in the Capitol when I worked there in 1882 and 1983. I also really like the bronze bell added in honor of the state’s centennial.  Both the Mansfields and the bell allow you to take visitors into Montana’s late twentieth century history.

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Then the women history murals, titled Women Build Montana, are just delightful, and inspiring.  Installed in 2015 the murals by Hadley Ferguson add new layers of history and meaning to the grand old Capitol. Of course there is much more to the art and architecture of the State Capitol than what I have highlighted here. The Montana Historical Society maintains an excellent website that gives you all of the details you would ever need. But I hope that you do will visit the Capitol if you haven’t recently.  Some 36 years after I first discovered its history, art, and architecture it still has many lessons to teach.

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.