Deer Lodge’s heritage development

New Deal mural, Deer Lodge P.O. 1938

Verona L. Burkhard’s 1939 mural for the Deer Lodge Post Office.

In the thirty years between my first visits in Deer Lodge and my most recent, the town’s population dropped almost 25%–nearly 1,000 residents.  But when I spent a day there in May 2012 I witnessed one of the most impressive community revitalization efforts in all of my years in historic preservation–the grand opening of the historic Rialto Theatre.


Rialto Theatre in 2007.

My first digital image of the theatre dates to 2007–and I was happy to see this monumental 1921 Beaux Arts-styled theatre, designed by the Butte firm of Arnold and Van Hausen, was still in business.  With rural population decline, the rise of home movie viewing, and the impact of satellite television, so, so many small town movie theaters were closing across the country.  I was glad to see this one still operating.  Then a few years later came the news of a fire that severely damaged the building–and from my vantage point way back east I thought, well that’s it–the building will be gone the next time I get to Deer Lodge–and I wondered if that would not be the start of a general abandonment of Main Street.

Rialto Theater, Deer Lodge 13Imagine my pleasure to be there for the theatre’s grand opening May 19, 2012.  Not only had the community raised the funds to repair and reopen the business, they also took great pains to restore it to its earlier architectural glory.  Such an achievement for a town of just over 3,000 residents–when you consider that the next city south on Interstate I-90 is Anaconda with its monument Washoe Theatre, I immediately began to think of future “movie palace” trips.   What a treat, both for the experience and architecture.

Rialto Theater, Deer Lodge 10


Re-energizing the Rialto to once again be an anchor for community, both in an economic sense but also a cultural sense, is an achievement not to be taken lightly.  In the spring of 2016 a team of experts got together to inventory, consider, and make recommendations for Deer Lodge’s 21st century future.  The report covers much ground, is well meaning, yet is devoid of the type of passion that the theatre project involved.  Experience tells me that heritage assets can do that–the sense of the past, identity, promise, and nostalgia that they represent are important building blocks for any committed community.

Kohrs Library, Missouri at 5th, 1902In that same trip to Deer Lodge, I noted how the community had recently enhanced the National Register-listed W. K. Kohrs Memorial Library (1902), one of the region’s great Classical Revival buildings by the Butte architectural firm of Link and Carter (J.G. Link would soon become one of the state’s most renowned classicists), by expanding the library

Kohrs Library and 1995with an addition to the side and behind the commanding entrance portico. Although it has proven to be difficult for such a small town to keep the library professionally staffed, the care they have shown the exterior and interior indicate they understand the value of this monument from the past.

The town’s New Deal era post office–a Colonial Revival design from the office of Louis A. Simon–is another National Register landmark that serves dual purposes as both a post office, but also community art museum with the wonderful mural by Verona L. Burkhard.

U.S. Post Office, 1938, Main St, Deer LodgeThen add in the impressive examples of turn of the 20th century church architecture, represented by the Cotswold Gothic stone work of St. James Episcopal Church, the more former Tudor Revival of the 1st Presbyterian Church, and the more vernacular yet

St. James Episcopal, 4th at Cottonwood, Deer Lodge

expressive Gothic spire, with fish-scale shingles, of the Latter-Day Saints Church.  The care and respect here also says much about Deer Lodge’s understanding of the value of the past, a pattern reflected in the community’s historic school buildings that range from the Victorian Gothic of Trask Hall to the 1960s modernism of the elementary school–and

then there is Powell County High School campus that moves from the Collegiate Gothic style of the early 20th century to the New Deal functionalism of the gym for the Fighting Wardens and onto the modernism of 1960s school design.  The Vo-Tech Building is one of my favorite examples of public school modernism in all of Montana.

Powell Co HS 1917 Deer Lodge


Vo Ed Building, Powell Co HS, 1960s

When you add the decades-long care manifested in the Deer Lodge Woman’s Club building, what do you learn:  Deer Lodge gets it, and while the road is not easy I look forward to this community charting its course in the 21st century.  Next post:  some of the challenges ahead.


Photograph from 2007.

Women’s Club Buildings in Montana

Montana celebrates the sesquicentennial of Montana Territory in 2014.  This week the Montana Historical Society announced that one of its key themes would be women’s history and then pinpointed key individuals and places, including the East Glacier Women’s Club.  I could not agree more that new attention needs to be given to community institutions, established by and operated for women.  In my 1984-85 work on the Montana historic preservation plan, I did not ignore women’s clubs–the Deer Lodge club house, an attractive Bungalow from 1904 was included in the survey–but I did not systematically look for these buildings and think about what they meant to local women and to the community at large.


Woman’s Club in Deer Lodge, 1904

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Montana organized that same year, 1904, and the federation’s magazine, The Montana Woman, is a great way to trace the creation and expansion of clubs across the state, from the major cities to places as small as Sula in the southwest corner of Montana.  Once you make a commitment to locate extant historic club buildings, you find a range of building types.



The Moore Woman’s Club and Community Center in Fergus County dates to 1915, and so many existing rural club buildings belong to that decade of the homesteading boom of the early 20th century. In 2012 I spent two days is Wisdom, where the old woman’s club building of the 1910s has been converted into a lodge, one of the best examples I have encountered in rural America of finding a new, effective use for a community building.



The Wisdom club house is a small frame building, seemingly too small to be a community building but when placed into the overall context of the emerging built environment of the homesteading landscape, it was a substantial building–compared to the typical homesteading tar-paper shack. 


Women’s organizations also proved adept at adapting older buildings for their use. The Coalwood Ladies Aid Society, established 1915 in Powder River County north of Broadus, meets at the Coalwood School, built c. 1945.  A small rural population does not deter 21st century Montana club women from keeping the institution alive, witness the earlier post on the Wise River Women’s Club, dated to 1958, but with a recent expansion of the club house/community building.


One of my favorite club buildings in eastern Montana is a striking Rustic-styled clubhouse in Malta, Phillips County. Image  Image


The Malta Woman’s Club organized in 1903 but the clubhouse dates to the New Deal era of 1937. Construction of the building was part of a $40,000 Works Progress Administration project in Malta that included the construction of a new city hall, a resettlement administration building, and a “ladies community center.”  (Phillips County News, January 24, 2001). As in other Montana towns, the clubhouse served as a town’s de facto library, using books donated by club members, and the club undertook such community improvement projects as erecting a fence around the Malta cemetery and supporting the town’s first blood mobile.  

There’s more to come in this discussion of women’s club and Montana’s landscape, but this initial post certainly agrees with the MHS announcement that there’s a big, significant women’s history story to be found in the Treasure State–club buildings are a good place to start.