Great Falls’s Northern Montana State Fairgrounds

Too often we think that New Deal agencies always built in rustic style–that is what you find at the national parks, the often iconic log structures from the Civilian Conservation Corps.  But just as common—just not recognized as such–were modernist designs.  I close this month’s look at historic fairgrounds with one of the state’s best groupings of modernist buildings from the historic Northern Montana State Fairgrounds (now Expo Park) in Great Falls.  

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The Works Progress Administration added these buildings in 1937.  The Mercantile Building is Art Deco design at its best–linear, hard edged, and projecting elevations.  It spoke to the modern age of machinery and technology and new tools for farmers both on the ranch and in the home.

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Compare that to the Fine Arts Building with its sweeping curvilinear facade and projecting entrance, almost like an automobile grille from the 1930s.  The design laid claim to urban sophistication and trendy design–an appropriate statement for the “fine arts” to say in Great Falls.

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The Administration Building blends both Art Deco and Moderne elements into a classic International Style statement of domestic architecture.  ExpoPark is to be congratulated for its stewardship of these three buildings.  They are not typical of fairgrounds found throughout the northern counties–and differ markedly from the WPA designs for the Musselshell County Fairgrounds in Roundup, for instance.  But the three buildings speak to Great Falls’ context as a city within the plains, dependent in so many ways on the agriculture that surrounded it but still an oasis of urban life in the Depression era.

 

 

Twin Bridges’ Madison County Fairgrounds

This August, I have introduced several historic fairgrounds from the Hi-Line counties and eastern Montana to emphasize the historical importance of this community gathering spots.  I want to close this look at Montana fairgrounds with two of the best known–at Twin Bridges and in Great Falls.

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The Montana Historical Society has placed interpretive tablets across the state at many National Register of Historic Places properties.  For a quick overview of Madison County Fairgrounds, I am including the text of its marker:

“Early Twin Bridges offered few public gathering places, and so these fifty acres, once part of the Lott and Seidensticker homesteads, were developed as “The Park” in 1887. A “harvest home barbecue” was held that year, and two years later the event had blossomed into the first annual county fair. Early fairs were privately run and later partially supported by the county. Then, as now, the fair gave ranchers and farmers a chance to show their best produce and livestock while promoting local pride and friendly rivalry. In 1928, a depressed economy curtailed the event and in 1930 Madison County purchased the fairground property. The economy worsened during the Great Depression until 1934, when more than half Madison County’s workforce was unemployed. In 1935, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) approved funding assistance for the rebuilding of the unused fairground. Construction began in 1936, putting a great number of unemployed residents back to work.”

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“WPA engineer C. D. Paxton drew the plans and Tosten Stenberg, well known for his log structures in Yellowstone Park, directed construction. Local foreman Fred Sommers was brought out of retirement with a special waiver from Washington to supervise the project. Lodgepole pine, fir logs, and other building materials were gathered locally and prepared by workers on site. When the project was completed in 1937, seven masterfully crafted new buildings and one remodeled 1890s structure lent new significance to the traditional fairground. Today the collection of buildings is architecturally significant for its fine design as well as historically important for its WPA construction using entirely local materials and labor.”

The interior spaces of these buildings remain awesome public spaces, and were in use for a local auction the day I visited in May 2012.

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The fairgrounds also includes a memorial and interpretive markers about Sacajawea and the Lewis and Clark Expedition that were installed in honor of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2033-2006.

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