An end of the century trip to Central Montana

The vast majority of my effort to document and think about the historic landscapes of Montana lie with two time periods, 1984-85 and 2012-16. But in between those two focused periods, other projects at the Western Heritage Center in Billings brought me back to the Big Sky Country. Almost always I found a way to carve out a couple of additional days to get away from the museum and study the many layers of history, and change, in the landscape by taking black and white images as I had in 1984-85. One such trip came in 1999, at the end of the 20th century.

In Billings itself I marveled at the changes that historic preservation was bringing to the Minnesota Avenue district. The creation of an “Internet cafe” (remember those?) in the McCormick Block was a guaranteed stop.

But my real goal was to jet up highways 191 and 80 to end up in Fort Benton. Along the way I had to stop at Moore, one of my favorite Central Montana railroad towns, and home to a evocative set of grain elevators.

Then a stop for lunch at the Geraldine bar and the recently restored Geraldine depot, along a historic spur of the Milwaukee Road. I have always loved a stop in this plains country town and this day was especially memorable as residents showed off what they had accomplished in the restoration. Another historic preservation plus!

Then it was Fort Benton, a National jewel seemingly only appreciated by locals, who faced an often overwhelming task for preserving and finding sustainable new uses for the riverfront buildings.

It was exciting to see the recent goal that the community eagerly discussed in 1984–rebuilding the historic fort.

A new era for public interpretation of the northern fur trade would soon open in the new century: what a change from 1984.

I beat a quick retreat back to the south, following the old Manitoba Road route along the Missouri and US Highway 87 and back via highway 89 to the Yellowstone Valley. I had to pay a quick tribute to Big Timber, and grab a brew at the Big Timber

Bar. The long Main Street in Big Timber was obviously changing–new residents and new businesses. Little did I know how much change would come in the new century.

One last detour came on the drive to see if the absolutely spectacular stone craftsmanship of the Absarokee school remained in place–it did, and still does.

My work in Tennessee had really focused in the late 1990s on historic schools: few matched the distinctive design of Absarokee. I had to see it again.

Like most trips in the 1990s to Billings I ended up in Laurel–I always felt this railroad town had a bigger part in the history of Yellowstone County than

generally accepted. The photos I took in 1999 are now striking– had any place in the valley changed more than Laurel in the 21st century?

Helena’s Archie Bray Foundation, 1988

Over the last few years, several colleagues have asked–what images from the 1980s do you have of the old western clay works where the Archie Bray Foundation set up shop?

I have just recently rediscovered these three images. Over the next weeks I hope to dig out more. The Bray has had such a major impact on the arts not just in Montana but in the world. But in its early decades the Bray worked from these decaying industrial ruins. Perhaps its story is the state’s best example of adaptive reuse.

Helena’s Historic Cemeteries: Home of Peace Cemetery (1867)

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As discussed at several places in this blog, I have given careful consideration to the historic cemeteries of Montana in the fieldwork of 2012-2016.  When the initial survey for the state historic preservation plan took place in 1984 to 1985, cemeteries rarely registered with anyone–the professionals were not looking that way nor were communities.  That is no longer the case in historic preservation–cemeteries are an increasing area of interest.

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Home of Peace was established in 1867 and the cast iron fence around its boundaries dates to that time.  The earliest identified grave marker is 1873 but the Hebrew Benevolent Society (or Association), which established the cemetery originally, believes that Home of Peace includes burials from the 1860s.  The beautiful arched gateway to the cemetery dates c. 1910, the same time that the cottonwoods were planted and most of the existing ornamental plants in the cemetery were added.  Most of the burials are arranged in family groups, outlined by low stone or concrete walls.  Some are individuals, or couples.  A few are non-Jewish since at one time the association, which still owns the cemetery, allowed for their burials.

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IMG_4309The date of most markers are from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.  Mostly made of granite and sandstone, with some marble as well, the grave markers reflect Victorian styles and Classical influences.  Herman Gans’ marker from 1901, seen below, is a mixture of both.

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The cemetery contains several veterans markers in the standardized tablet design provided by the War Department and later the Veterans Administration. The grouping in the forefront, below, identifies two veterans from the Spanish-American War of 1898.

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In the mid-1970s the association transferred some of its land for the construction of Capitol High School, which now almost surrounds the cemetery, which had once stood faraway from the center of Helena’s population.

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IMG_4312The looming presence of the school grounds is a worry for future preservation of the cemetery–could it be possibly overlooked, ignored, and abandoned?   One online resource about the cemetery remarks that there are more Jews buried in the cemetery than live in Helena today.  But this sacred place is a powerful reminder of the contributions of the Jewish community to Helena’s growth and permanence.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery should be valued as one of the city’s oldest and most significant historic properties.

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Stevensville’s Fort Owen: 2018 Update

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Fort Owen is one of Montana’s most significant historic places—where interaction between American traders and Native Americans date before the Civil War—and it is one of my favorite places, for both its layered history and the beauty of its location. I rarely pass on an opportunity to see how this little place is hanging on in a rapidly suburbanizing part of the state.

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From my visit in May 2018, the news is still good.  All of Ravalli County is growing like gangbusters (we knew that the recent four-lane US Highway 93 would have that type of impact), but the fort retains a strong sense of place.

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The buildings and structures are well maintained, aided immeasurably by the neighboring ranch family who constantly keeps an eye on the place.

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The interior of the fort building is solid enough and conveys in its material and design a mid-19th century feel.  What needs help, though, are the exhibit panels. They are what I encountered in the mid 1980s, meaning that new research is not reflected in the content nor are they as graphically compelling as, for example, the exhibits at First Nation outside of Great Falls.

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Montana State Parks are jewels, but even the most sparkling jewel needs polishing every now and then.  It is time to give that new look and due justice to Fort Owen.

 

 

 

 

Back on the Hi-Line at Havre

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This week’s Great Falls Tribune featured a story about the heavy snowfall this here in Havre, the largest town along Montana’s Hi-Line.  The story got me thinking about this classic late nineteenth century railroad town, one of my favorite places to visit in Big Sky Country.  In past posts, I have talked about how residents moved their historic preservation agendas form a focus on the buffalo jump west of town along the Milk River to the old residential neighborhoods themselves.  I gave a particular focus to Havre’s wonderful array of domestic architecture, especially its many variations on the

Hill Co Havre residential historic district 1 Arts and CraftsCraftsman style popular in the early 20th century. It is a place where the pages of the famous Craftsman Magazine seem to come alive as you walk the tree-lined streets. But there is more to Havre’s historic districts than the homes–there are the churches, about which more needs to be said.

Hill Co Havre 1st LutheranAs my first two images of the First Lutheran Church show, Gothic Revival style is a major theme in the church architecture of Havre, even extending into the mid-20th century.  First Lutheran Church is a congregation with roots in Havre’s boom during the homesteading era.  As the congregation grew, members decided to build the present building in 1050-51, adding an educational wing by the end of the decade.

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An earlier example of Gothic Revival style is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, built in 1911 by architect Mario Riffo of Kalispell.  Noted havre architect and builder Frank F. Bossout worked for Riffo at the time and this commission may have been Bossout’s introduction to a city that his designs would so shape in the years to come.

Hill Co Havre residential historic district 1st baptist The earliest Gothic Revival styled church is First Baptist Church, constructed c. 1901, shown above.  The unidentified architect combined Gothic windows into his or her own interpretation of Victorian Gothic, with its distinctive asymmetrical roof line.

Hill Co Havre 539 3rd St-AME church 1A more vernacular interpretation of Gothic style can be found in the town’s original AME Church, built c. 1916 to serve African American railroad workers and their families, and later converted and remodeled into the New Hope Apostolic Church.

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The First Presbyterian Church represents the Classical Revival in Havre church architecture.  Built in 1917-1919 and designed by Frank F. Bossuot, the church’s style reflected that of the nearby courthouse, which Bossuot had designed in 1915, and the town’s Carnegie Library, also from Bossuot’s hand in 1914.

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Hill Co Havre St Jude catholic church 1 Spanish RevivalThe Spanish Colonial Revival style of St. Jude’s Catholic Church, however, shows us that architect Frank F. Bossuot was more than a classicist.  The church’s distinctive style sets it apart from other church buildings in Havre.

Hill Co Havre Van Orsdel MethodistThe same can be said for a church building that comes a generation later, the Van Orsdel United Methodist Church.  When the Havre historic district was established, this mid-century modernist designed building was not yet 50 years old, thus it was not considered for the district.  But certainly now, in 2018, the contemporary styling of the sanctuary has merit, and the church has a long history of service.  It started just over one hundred years ago with a brick building named in honor of the Montana Methodist circuit rider W. W. Van Orsdel who introduced the faith to Havre in 1891.  A fire in late 1957 destroyed that building, and the congregation immediately began construction on its replacement, dedicating it in 1958.

From Gothic to modern, the architecture of Havre’s historic churches reflects the town’s robust history in the first half of the twentieth century–and this is just a taste of the many interesting places to be found along the Montana Hi-Line.

Lake McDonald and its boats

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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.

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 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