It’s no secret that I have long admired the towns of the Yellowstone Valley. Thirty plus years ago, the attitude across much of Montana was dismissive of this region: I even was told by someone who should have known better that “outside of Custer, there’s really isn’t much history there.” Not only was their history in spades–chronologically deep, thematically rich–there was this tremendous built environment that I began to explore in 1982, and haven’t stopped since.
Admittedly I take an old school approach to the preservation of this landscape. Red Lodge has many exemplary preservation achievements but in the 21st century success may be leading to the community losing that edge, admittedly rough edge, that once characterized this region of Montana. Case in point: the Snag Bar. The image on the left is from the 1980s–on the right is an image from this summer. I was happy that the Snag was still with us–always a cozy watering hole in the past. But now its entrance spoke to a different audience, and the place had taken on the “Main Street Preservation” look that you can find across the country–and a bit of distinctiveness was gone.
Red Lodge was not tipped into that preservation fantasy land right out of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.” But new infill of modern false-fronts and even a heavy mountain-like Rustic feel doesn’t help, not to mention the northern California wine bar with its set-backs and sidewalk seating. It is just worrisome. As is the future of this once grand movie theater,
which has been hanging on, seemingly by a thread, for decades. The theater has one of the great Classical Revival facades found in the state, full of whimsy and wonderful detail.
Its conversion into a garage was kept it alive but a conversion into a new public use: well it is a huge building, that needs work, and Red Lodge is already blessed with a brilliant historic movie theater, the Roman. Multiple theaters in the early 20th century made sense: today not so much.
Red Lodge also has gotten it right in its residential historic districts. The “Hi-Bug” neighborhood–a designation 100 years ago that spoke to the merchant class that lived in the town’s most affluent neighborhood–has made a remarkable recovery in the last 30 years, and looks great as these few images attest.
Throughout town there are similar preservation success stories, ranging from a historic service station (that has a nifty exhibit about Yellowstone tour buses and their preservation lurking inside) and one of my new favorites, the Regis Grocery, now a neighborhood (meaning off the tourists’ beaten path of US 212) cafe worth a stop.
Red Lodge does have challenges–growth that can overwhelm historic character, too many tourism focused businesses–but the changes here over 30 years are impressive achievements, sure signs of how the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act has helped to change the face of Montana.