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.

Cascade Co Belt school

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

VC gym, rear

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

Community Hall Sanders Treasure Co 2

Community Hall Sanders Treasure Co 4

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.

Meagher Co White Sulpjur Springs school 2

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.

Powell Co HS Gym

Powell County High School Gym, Deer Lodge.

Lake Co Polson gym

High School Gym, Polson, Lake County.

Phillips Co Malta old gym

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

 

 

Meagher County: Crossroads between East and West Montana

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Meagher County Courthouse, White Sulphur Springs, 2007. One of the best New Deal era courthouses in the state.

Meagher County has been a place that I drive through rather constantly.  If you take U.S. Highway 12 east/west or U.S. Highway 89 north/south–both are important historic roads–you pass through this county where the central plains meet the mountains of the west.  The county seat of White Sulphur Springs is near the crossroads of the two federal highways, and home to one of the great roadside cafes of the state, what we always called the Eat Cafe, since the only marker it had was a large sign saying “Eat.”

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And the old historic bar, the Bucka-Roo Bar , was not a bad place either to grab a beer on a hot, dry day.  It is not the only commercial building of note.  The town has both the

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classic Victorian era commercial block but also the 1960s modernist 1960s gas station.

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The Wellman Block, now home to Red Ants Pants, was built in 1911 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Red Ants Pants is the sponsor of an annual Americana music festival outside of the town that ranks as the highlight of the summer in this part of the state.  Next door to the Wellman Block is the historic Strand Theatre.

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The reason I came to White Sulphur Springs in 1984 was none of these places–it was to visit the local historic house museum, a granite stone Romanesque styled house known as The Castle.  It was rather amazing to everyone in preservation back then that a tiny town

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had tackled the tough task of preserving a historic house as a local museum–especially one so far away from the interstate visitor.  Byron Sherman had the house constructed in 1892, with rock taken from the nearby Castle Mountains.  This stockman wanted to show that livestock could pay, and pay well out in the wilds of central Montana.  It has been a tough go for The Castle over the last 30 years.  The local historical society built a new storage building adjacent to the house but the house itself doesn’t get enough visitors.  The town’s major landmark in 1984, it seems almost an afterthought today.

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That neglect is really no fault of the house, its story, or its keepers.  It is the reality after a nearby ranch house–famous in 1984 but closed to visitors, even someone as intrepid as me, back then.  Of course I am speaking of the Bair Ranch, east of White Sulphur Springs in Martinsdale.  Its story comes in the next post.

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