It’s easy to get caught up in the daily hustle and bustle of life in 2014, even here in Helena.
But, if one were to slow down a little bit, walk instead of drive and look up instead of down, Helena would greet its onlookers with a veritable minefield of subtle architectural gems.
As Helena celebrates its 150th anniversary, one former city planner has created a 37-page manual to the city’s iconic architecture.
Dennis McCahon, author of “The Sesquicentennial Project,” aims to highlight the unique and creative buildings and features of Helena’s past and present.
Excerpts range from profiles of buildings to in-depth details of specific features such as “The Library’s Bison,” “Missing Pieces” or “A Matter of Scale” parts one and two.
“If you look at the great cities of the world, whatever else they’ve got going for them, they’re fun to walk around in and look at things,” McCahon said. “That’s rare on this side of the pond.”
In the late 1800s, Helena’s gold industry had not only drawn many people westward, but it had also pumped the city full of capital just waiting to be spent.
“There’s old stories of this being the richest city in the world per capita,” McCahon said. “There was an awful lot of money to be spent.”
Much of that money was used to construct elaborate homes and storefronts throughout the corridor now known as Last Chance Gulch.
“A lot of the stuff they built was almost celebratory,” McCahon said. “They gave the public these really elaborate, fun buildings to walk by.”
Architects such as James Stranahan, who designed the still-standing Diamond Block, and John C. Paulsen, who designed the original Montana Club building, used colorful, locally quarried stone to create simultaneously dramatic and delicate structures in the city center.
“It’s a balanced pairing of a rugged stone supporting structure and a row of tall, glassy, lightly built oriels,” McCahon writes of the Diamond Block in “The Sesquicentennial Project.”
“The heft of the stonework shows in the thickness of the piers at street level and in the depth (the “reveal”) of the arched openings on all three stories,” he writes. “Those are deep and shady places behind those delicate little balconies, and up under those three-centered arches from whose shadow the oriels appear to emerge.”
The Power Block, at the corner of Sixth and Last Chance Gulch, is another fine example of the drama highly sought after by builders in the late 1800s.
Built in 1890, McCahon describes the building as “a composition of beautifully articulated stonemasonry.”
“For one thing, all that bulk stacks up in ways that are fun to look at,” he writes. “Compare those mighty first-story piers with the little arcade on top and it’s apparent that the place is showing us how to stack stone six stories high but while being graceful about it.”
Though the silver panic of 1893 nearly halted the construction boom consistent in the previous 10 years, Helena saw a second burst of design between 1903 and 1914.
During that time period, the current Montana Club building was erected in 1905, construction on the Cathedral of St. Helena began in 1908 and construction of Carroll College began in 1909.
“What we have is really the product of those two booms,” McCahon said.
While many of the buildings erected during that time period were demolished as part of an urban renewal project in the 1970s, those still standing remain coveted reminders of the city’s beginnings.
“The stuff that’s still there makes this a fun town to walk around in,” he said. “It’s because of the survival of our 19th century architecture.”
A solution to multiple problems
One of the most notable effects of urban renewal was the installation of the Last Chance Walking Mall.
According to the website Helena As She Was (www.helenahistory.org), “creating vehicle-free pedestrian malls in older downtown areas was trendy in U.S. planning circles,” at the time. But for Helena, the walking mall served as a solution to multiple problems, manifested as the city grew.
“It was a two-way street at one time,” Napoleon Campeau, project architect for the walking mall, said of the stretch.
Businesses with large storefronts were having trouble catering to potential patrons, he said. The street was too narrow to install parking and to accommodate pedestrians at the same time.
“It came to a realistic conclusion: If you can’t have pedestrians, parking and traffic, which ones do you remove?” Campeau said. “If you remove traffic, there’s no point in parking.
“It resolved itself,” he said.
That effort, combined with urban renewal, caused many of the buildings formerly occupying that stretch of road to either come down or receive upgrades in order to remain standing.
“Some of those buildings were destined to, by time and gravity, to come down,” Campeau said, noting the Pittsburgh and Penn Blocks. “Some of them … were crumbling as we spoke.
“Some of them were destined to be preserved,” he said.
For example, the New York Block, which stands just south of Big Dipper Ice Cream and Rialto Bar, still boasts its 1929 facades.
The likenesses of a seamstress and tailor that peer down at pedestrians from either corner of the building and three winged feet serve as an emblem for Hermann Fligelman, the founder of the original store, in the center sconce.
The Securities Building is another example of excellent preservation, Campeau said, noting not only its remarkable overall design, but the intricate details that make it unique.
In addition to a large fingerprint between the arches on the western side and below it, a dolphin downspout sits almost out of view to the average passerby, making the securities building an especially engaging work.
“The securities building was always the hallmark of anything we did,” Campeau said. “It’s a precious old building. It’s so delightful.”
Campeau admitted that urban renewal took down many buildings he cherished during his tenure as a Helena architect, but asserted that not all was lost.
“I think people that did buildings after the fact tried to emulate a little bit of the old building with arches and windows and sconces,” he said.
Pam Attardo, the Lewis and Clark County heritage preservation officer, shared a similar view on the matter.
“Socially there was a large improvement, and planning-wise there was a large improvement,” Attardo said of the walking mall and urban renewal. “Despite urban renewal, we do have a lot of really beautiful buildings left.”
For today’s developers, she said there is a tax abatement program that creates incentives for retaining historic design in modern buildings.
“There’s an incentive to tailor your building to fit in with the neighborhood,” she said. “So if you’re building in a historic district, you could make your building fit it.
“Also, retailers want to operate out of a unique building,” Attardo said. “For many people, the cachet of a historic storefront is a draw.”
However, Pete Brown, the historic architecture specialist for the State Historic Preservation Office, said he was disappointed with the buildings produced after urban renewal.
“I think a lot of people acknowledge the fact that the architecture that followed urban renewal is pretty understated and relatively monochromatic,” Brown said.
“You would likely have had a breakup of facades (before urban renewal),” Brown said. “Multiple facades that had a variety to them, different materials were used in them.
“Some might have been brick, some might have been stone, some might have even been wood,” he said. “They would have been multiple colors. Each would have had its own storefront.
“Now we have much more monolithic buildings,” he said.
One thing most everyone can agree on, though, is that Helena’s architectural past is full of rich history and colorful design.
“Among the people building in Helena, there was likely some real competition to have the most impressive, stylized building that they could afford,” Brown said.
“If you just kind of go slow and walk, you really see things.”