For a decade or more, our Montana Legislature has grappled with the increasing need to renovate both Romney Hall on the Montana State campus in Bozeman and the Montana Historical Society museum facility in Helena.
A compelling case has been made for both these projects, but they have repeatedly come up just short of final approval in the complicated legislative process.
Romney Hall is a great and imposing old structure constructed in 1922 during the administration of Warren G. Harding. There is nothing wrong with Romney structurally. It is a Bastille of a building. But it has no modern heating, air conditioning, ventilation or modern fire suppression systems. It is inaccessible to students, faculty and staff with disabilities.
Romney now contains only four viable classrooms with a maximum capacity for 141 students. Renovation would result in 19 safe and accessible classrooms seating more than 1,000 students. The urgency of making Romney a usable building is that enrollment on the Bozeman campus has increased from 12,369 in 2008 to a current enrollment of 16,902. That’s an increase of 37 percent in 10 years. MSU instructional facilities are bursting at the seams.
With its soaring grand arch, Romney is an iconic monument to a past era. Today’s students must continually walk around its fortress-like walls. The central location of Romney could be a major asset. Instead, the building is a huge obstruction. While it is too formidable for the wrecking ball, it could be readily converted into cost-effective educational space functional for many more decades.
As proposed in Governor Bullock’s budget, the Romney project can be authorized by the current session of the Legislature. It is a great idea that is long overdue. It will only become more expensive with more delay.
The Montana Historical Society is the oldest continually operating state historical society west of the Mississippi. It is currently housed in the 70-year-old Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building. Like Romney Hall, the Historical Society building is structurally strong, but woefully in need of renovation and significant expansion. Also like Romney, it is perfectly located. It is in the center of the Capitol complex where it is readily accessible to student groups and all Montanans visiting the Capitol. Like Romney, it is recommended in the governor’s budget.
Tragically, almost 90 percent of the museum’s nearly 50,000 wonderful artifacts and artworks are in storage for lack of exhibit space. This includes about a third of the 225 original Russell works which are owned by the Montana people but which they cannot see.
Most of the state museum facilities around the country have been converted into modern facilities. Montanans need to catch up with their history too. Our history is a great one. It is our Montana memory. Our generation has a civic duty to adequately preserve it and pass it on.
Bob Brown of Whitefish is a former Montana secretary of state and state senate president and currently serves as a member of the Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees.