Transformations of Montana Avenue

3-billings1883

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.

billings-map-1904

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.

HPIM0183.JPG

HPIM0178.JPG

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.

 

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

HPIM0177.JPG

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.

IMG_1566

HPIM0187.JPG

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.

HPIM0191.JPG

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.

HPIM0178.JPG

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.

HPIM0183.JPG

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

IMG_1242

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.

IMG_1240

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

The Yellowstone and Missouri Confluence

IMG_6054
IMG_6053
In the Montana survey work of 1984, there were few places I was more excited about visiting than the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, on the border between North Dakota and Richland County, Montana. I had been working with the Western Heritage Center of Billings for a year on an exhibit, “Yellowstone: River of Life,” that would finally (to my mind) begin to refocus attention on the largely ignored history of the Yellowstone Valley. The story had many beginning points, but certainly where the Yellowstone emptied into the Missouri was one of the most important. This area had long been a Native American landmark. For the early Canadian and American traders, it was a crucial crossroads for the northern plains fur trade. The American Fur Company established Fort Union as its largest post in the region–and the site of the fort was still there, but little else, as the images above from 1984 indicate. Paul Hedren of the National Park Service promised me there was more to come–that the post would be rebuilt and its significant story told.
IMG_6056
When I returned to this spot in 1988, I found that Paul’s promise had already met with success. The Bourgeoise House–the post headquarters and residence of the fort’s administrator (or Bourgeoise) had been rebuilt, finally suggesting the commanding size of the fort. The stockade and the rest of the site awaited a similar reconstruction.
IMG_7404
Twenty-five years later, I returned to Fort Union and explored a fully rebuilt site that finally was starting to receive the visitor count it always deserved: due to the Williston Basin oil boom. Williston, North Dakota, was gaining population as never before, and significant numbers of new residents were also reshaping Sidney, the seat of Richland County.
IMG_7391
The reconstructed fort included a strong physical presence for the Native Americans who were the crucial economic actors for the post’s success. Without the reciprocity in relations and trade between the northern plains peoples and the American traders, the post would not have survived nor prospered.
IMG_7384
More could be done with the size and massing of this Palladian inspired classical styled dwelling–actually a rather late example of this architectural style but somehow a sensible design considering how the post was really on the far edge of the American empire. It would be decades later, after the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1980s, that a dwelling with such architectural pretension would appear in the Yellowstone country.
IMG_7387
More could be said with additional reconstructed spaces and exhibits about the fur traders’ on Native Americans in the fur trade era from 1830 to 1868, but the fort as it exists in 2013 certainly conveys more to the public than the displays I found in 1984. Few places in the yellowstone Valley had changed more than Fort Union between 1984 and 2014.
IMG_7400
IMG_7389