January 14, 2016

The Montana Club - an Architectural Gem

by Kate Hampton, Community Preservation Coordinator, SHPO

Designed by world-famous architect Cass Gilbert in 1904, the Montana Club stands as one of Helena’s most prominent buildings.  Beginning his career as an architect for the Northern Pacific Railway, Gilbert went on to design such masterpieces as the Minnesota Capitol, the Woolworth Building (once the tallest building in the world), and the U.S. Supreme Court building.  In Montana, his vision is responsible for the Metals Bank Building in Butte, Helena’s original Northern Pacific depot, and the Placer Hotel.

Montana architects Paulsen and LaValle oversaw the original Montana Club’s construction in 1893. Ten years later, however, a massive fire burned it to the ground.  A young boy, who worked as the elevator operator, set the blaze to “watch the horses from the fire station run.” The boy was the youngest son of the much beloved bartender at the club, Julian Anderson, who served the members for 60 years, retiring in 1953.  When asked the morning after the fire what they would do, the president of the club vowed to rebuild.

Ruins of Paulsen and LaValle's Montana Club
April 28, 1903.
Courtesy Montana Historical Society (PAc88-39 F1)
Paulsen and LaValle's Montana Club, northwest corner
of Sixth and Fuller Ave, Helena, 1893-1903
Courtesy Montana Historical Society (953-326)

Opened in 1905, the building is difficult to classify under one particular style. Instead it shows features associated with Classical, Elizabethan, Bavarian, and Swiss – and even has Italianate bracketing at the eaves –but it is best described as an American Renaissance building.  The Montana Club emblem – MC - is present in details throughout the building.  Medieval heraldry is a theme that carries throughout the interiors in the crown and shield motifs in the light fixtures, woodwork, switch plates, and wall coverings.  The swastika in the entry mosaic is used here as a symbol of good luck and success.  The ancient religious symbol welcomed members for decades before it assumed any negative connotations.

As you move from floor to floor, you notice that the interiors of the rooms at the basement, first, and sixth floor present a darker and heavier appearance, mirroring the exterior balance of stone arches at the bottom and dark, heavy bracketed eaves at the top.

The sixth floor hall, with its sweeping views of Helena, is patterned after a medieval Great Hall.  The MC emblem is prominent – most noticeable in the stained glass of every other window.  When you visit, take the time to look at the views from these wonderful windows – up the gulch to the south, across downtown to the firetower, and to the east, the beautiful Cathedral.

Montana Club Rathskellar
probably June 1905
Courtesy Montana Historical Society (PAc 88-39 F1)

One of the hidden secrets of the Montana Club is the Rathskellar.  If you haven’t gone to the basement level of the building, you should as you are in for a treat.  Rathskellers originated in Germany as restaurants in the basements of town halls. Many German rathskellers of the 19th century were decorated with painted mottoes and murals. Architect Cass Gilbert designed rathskellers in two of his other buildings: the Minnesota State Capitol and the Woolworth Building in New York City.

In the case of the Minnesota Capitol, a German theme was appropriate in 1905, because Minnesota's 361,000 Germans were the largest group of foreign-born immigrants. When it opened that year, the Capitol rathskeller served as a full-service restaurant, and true to the rathskeller tradition, the walls bore 29 painted mottoes in German.  Though a bit less elaborate, the rathskellar of the Montana Club certainly has that Bavarian, old world feel and I encourage you to visit.

Present Day Montana Club
Photo by Kate Hampton