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.

Rialto Theater, Bozeman: success!

Gallatin Co Bozeman Main St historic district 32

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.

Lake McDonald and its boats

Flathead Co GNP Lake McDonald

The second week of January 2018 was one of both good and bad news for historic preservation in the Big Sky Country.  First came the good news out of the State Historic Preservation Office in Helena about the National Register of Historic Places listing of two more Lake McDonald boats at Glacier National Park.  The DeSmet, shown above, has long been my favorite.  It has navigated the calm waves of the lake since 1930.  Designed and built by John Swanson of Kalispell, the boat became an important way that the increasing numbers of automobile visitors to Glacier could experience the lake and it helped make the Lake McDonald Lodge a stronger resort experience.  Quite an amazing piece of craftsmanship from Swanson, and so few of his creations remain today.  And as the photo above documents, the boat visually complements the setting–a reminder that the human presence is so small and insignificant compared to the majesty of the mountains.

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The bad news also came from Northwest Montana:  the demolition of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Lockridge Medical Clinic in Whitefish.  Now there is no way in Montana to have a direct experience with a work from America’s best known and greatest architect. I have spoken about the preservation needs of this architectural jewel earlier in this blog–and like the loss of the Mercantile Building in Missoula last year, development pressures lacked the patience, and the vision, to see anything but a possible empty lot, where a modern “historic” take–the fake past in other words–could stand.

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Such an attitude in Whitefish is doubly disappointing because in the 35 years I have visited this great mountain railroad town, the real history continues to disappear in favor of a fake, quasi-western feel past, as above. Call this progress if you will but in reality it is just another step into the abyss where Whitefish will longer be distinctive but just a place, like hundreds of others, trying to create a sense of identity and capture again what they once had.

The Big Sky’s Bowling Alleys

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The Bar and Bowling Alley, Rudyard

During the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan I gave little thought to mid-20th century recreational buildings.  Parks were on my mind, as well as my colleagues at the State Historic Preservation Office, but everyday, plain Jane architecture buildings for bowling and roller skating–not so much.  I didn’t even give much attention to public swimming pools, even though I knew that they were often a large component of New Deal building projects.

The photo above from Rudyard, a small railroad town along the Hi-Line in Hill County, tells you why I “missed” on these buildings 30 years ago.  Nothing National Register-quality there–or not?  When you think of the National Register criteria and the themes of recreation and social history such community gathering spots take on added significance, which extends well beyond the architecture.

Community Bowl 2 BH County HardinCommunity Center Bowl in Hardin, Big Horn County, is a wonderful recreational space, with its bays defined by c. 1960 styled “picture windows” framed in glass blocks.  The owners have refurbished the lanes two years ago–this institution still has years left in it.

Chouteau Co Ft Benton Front St 13 Jack's Bar bowling

Another great mid-20th century building is Jack’s Bar and Lanes–one historic building in Fort Benton that doesn’t get much attention that way I bet.  Gotta love the dual glass block entrances with neon signs. Since my visit in 2013 the owners have added a flat metal awning over the dual entrances–a poor choice in my humble opinion.  But don’t let that keep you from going insider–where a “see them dead” zoo of hunting trophies awaits.

Lincoln Co Troy bowling lanesFrom the southeast corner of the state to its northwest corner–the Trojan Lanes (so named for the school mascot) in Troy, Montana.  Here you find the type of alley that is common throughout the small towns of Big Sky Country.  Not only do you have a recreational center but you often have the best family restaurant in town.  That’s the

Powder River Co Broadus 18 bowlingcase where at Troy’s Trojan as well as–returning to the southeast corner–the Powder River Lanes in Broadus.  This tiny county seat has lost several of its classic cafes from the 1980s–the Montana Bar and Cafe on the opposite side of the town square being my favorite in 1984–but Powder River Lanes makes up for it.

Lake Co Ronan bowling theaterI am sorta partial to the small-town lanes, like the Lucky Strike above in Ronan, Lake County.  Located next door to “Entertainer Theatre,” this corner of the town is clearly its center for pop culture experience.

Whitehall bowling and barAnother fav–admittedly in a beat-up turn of the 20th century building–is Roper Lanes and Lounge in Whitehall, Jefferson county, in the southwest corner of the state. Gotta love the painted sign over the entrance–emojis before they were called emojis.

Copper Bowl, E. Park, Anaconda roadside

Cedar Park Bowling Lanes, N side

Anaconda might be the small town bowling champ in Montana, with two excellent alleys, the Copper Bowl, from the mid-20th century and the more recent Cedar Park Lanes.  The alleys are located on the edge of town, between the business district and smelter–a great location to keep the bowling tradition alive.  Copper Bowl can also boast of the state’s best bowling sign–along Montana 1 and U.S. 10A, the Pintlar Route, a good place to catch commercial, roadside architecture.  If this bit of flash doesn’t catch your attention, you staring too much at the road in front.

Copper Bowl sign, E. Park, Anaconda roadside

These images do not capture all of the alleys across the big Sky–but they are enough to remind us that the bowling tradition is alive and kicking, and worthy of a closer look.

 

Montana’s Community Gymnasiums

The state basketball tournaments have been all of the talk in Montana newspapers and communities over the last three weeks, and in places like Belt, in Cascade County, they are celebrating state championships this March morning.

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Gyms were not on my mind particularly when I carried out the 1984-1985 historic preservation plan survey for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, but even then I picked up on some of the community gyms created by the WPA during the New Deal, such as the one in Virginia City, an unassuming building if there ever was one, and then

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VA City WPA gym, community center

the tiny log construction gym for Sanders, a tiny community in Treasure County, seen below.  Both the Virginia City and the Sanders gyms are listed in the National Register of

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Historic Places, but the state has dozens of other worthy community gyms, that are very much at the center of recreational, sports, and social life in these towns and counties. Some await new fates and new futures, such as the gyms in Pony, Madison County, also on

Pony school gym

the National Register, and the more architecturally distinct Craftsman-styled community gym built for Whitehall in Jefferson County.

Gym, facade, Whitehall

Others date to mid-century and their more modern styles reflect their function–the half-barrels roofs–but they also dominate the one buildings around them, such as the high school gym in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, seen below.

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Then there is the frankly spectacular modern-style gym of Twin Bridges, in the state’s southwest corner, with its sweeping overhanging roof.

Twin bridges gym

But wherever you encounter community gyms, you can tell from their location and maintenance, these are buildings of local pride and achievement, and places necessary to community life when so much else is scattered and disconnected.

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Gymnasium in Circle, McCone County.

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Powell County High School Gym, Deer Lodge.

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High School Gym, Polson, Lake County.

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The “Old Gym” in Malta, Phillips County

Communities across Montana are clearly proud of their gyms, and even when new ones come along, they find new uses for the stately buildings, like the conversion of the old gymnasium below, located in Boulder, into a fine arts theater, which is just one example of this type of adaptive reuse project in the state.

Gym facade, Jefferson County high school, Boulder

Here’s to new futures, grounded in meaningful pasts, for these community, and often times architectural, landmarks across the Big Sky Country. As a group, they are powerful reminders of the importance of community spaces in the counties, both urban and rural, of Montana.

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Art Deco styled gymnasium, Kalispell, Flathead County

 

 

Transformations of Montana Avenue

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Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

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Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

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No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

Billings 2006 002 NPRR depot

Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.

 

Ranches and the Montana landscape

 

Hirschy Ranch, Big Hole Valley, MT 278, 45 mmHere is a property category that could be, probably should be, a blog of its own–the ranching landscape of Big Sky Country.  Historic family ranches are everywhere in the state, and being of rural roots myself, and a Tennessee Century Farm owner, the ways families have crafted their lives and livelihood out of the land and its resources is always of interest.

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Wibaux ranch house, 1985.

When I carried out the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the Montana state historic preservation plan, a handful of ranches had been preserved as museums.  On the eastern end of the state in Wibaux was the preserved ranch house of Pierre Wibaux, one of the 1880s cattle barons of eastern Montana and western North Dakota.  The ranch house today remains as a historic site, and a state welcome center for interstate travelers–although you wish someone in charge would remove the rather silly awning from the gable end window.

Wibaux Co Wibaux Pierre Wibaux ranch NR 1Preserving merely the ranch house, and adding other period buildings, is one thing.  The massive preserved landscape of hundreds of acres of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in the western end of Montana is a totally different experience. This National Park Service site

not only preserves one of the earliest settlement landscapes in the state it also shows how successful ranches change over time. John Grant began the place before the Civil War: he was as much an Indian trader than ranch man.  Grant Kohrs however looked at the rich land, the railroad line that ran through the place, and saw the potential for becoming a cattle baron in the late 19th century.  To reflect his prestige and for his family’s comfort, the old ranch house was even updated with a stylish Victorian brick addition. The layers of history within this landscape are everywhere–not surprisingly. There is a mix of 19th and 20th century buildings here that you often find at any historic ranch.

When I was working with the Montana Historical Society in 1984-1985 there were two additional grand ranches that we thought could be added to the earlier preservation achievements.  Both are now landmarks, important achievements of the last 30 years.

Bitterroot Stock Farm painting at Ravalli Co Courthouse 1The Bitter Root Stock Farm, established in 1886 by soon-to-be copper magnate Marcus Daly outside of Hamilton, came first.  I can recall early site visits in 1985–that started the ball rolling but the deal wasn’t finalized for several years.  All of the work was worth it.

Here was one of the grand showplace ranches of the American West, with its own layers of a grand Queen Anne ranch house (still marked by the Shingle-style laundry house) of Daly’s time that was transformed into an even greater Classical Revival mansion by his Margaret Daly after her husband’s death.  It is with us today largely due to the efforts of a determined local group, with support from local, state, and federal governments, a group of preservation non-profits, and the timely partnership of the University of Montana.

Daly Mansion by A.J. Gibson

 

The second possibility was also of the grand scale but from more recent times–the Bair Ranch in Martinsdale, almost in the center of the state. Charles Bair had made his money in sheep and wise investments.  His daughters traveled the world and brought treasures home to their Colonial Revival styled ranch house.  To get a chance to visit with Alberta Bair here in the mid-1980s was a treat indeed.

Once again, local initiative preserved the ranch house and surrounding buildings and a local board operates both a house museum and a museum that highlights items from the family’s collections.

The success of the Bitter Root Stock Farm and the Bair Ranch was long in the making, and you hope that both can weather the many challenges faced by our public historic sites and museums today.  We praise our past but far too often we don’t want to pay for it.

Tash Ranch, 1200 MT 278 Hwy, Dillon

That is why family stewardship of the landscape is so important.  Here are two examples from Beayerhead County.  The Tash Ranch (above and below) is just outside of Dillon and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  But is also still a thriving family ranch.

The same is true for the Bremmer Ranch, on the way to Lemhi Pass.  Here is a family still using the past to forge their future and their own stories of how to use the land and its resources to maintain a life and a culture.

MT 324, mm 23, log ranch later visited with group

One family ranch that I highlighted in my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986), was the Simms-Garfield Ranch, located along the Musselshell River Valley in Golden Valley County, along U.S. Highway 12.  This National Register-property was not, at

Golden Valley Co Ryegate Simms-Garfield Ranch NR 3first glance, architecturally magnificent as the properties above.  But in its use of local materials–the timber, the rocks from the river bluffs–and its setting along a historic road, this ranch is far more typical of the Montana experience.

Similar traditions are expressed in another way at a more recent National Register-listed ranch, the Vogt-Nunberg Ranch south of Wibaux on Montana Highway 7. Actively farmed from 1911 to 1995, the property documents the changes large and small that happened in Montana agriculture throughout the 20th century.

Wibaux Co Vogt-Nunberg Ranch NR MT 7 4

The stories of these ranches are only a beginning.  The Montana Preservation Alliance has done an admirable job of documenting the state’s historic barns, and the state historic preservation office has listed many other ranches to the National Register.  But still the rural landscape of the Big Sky Country awaits more exploration and understanding.