Thursday, August 27, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments

CANADA OR BUST, Day 20, part 2

Founded in 1864 as Last Chance Gulch, Helena (pronounced HELL-i-nuh) succeeded other gold rush towns of Bannack and Virginia City as territorial capital in 1875.  When Montana achieved statehood in 1889, Helena became the state capital.
In 1896, the state legislature authorized a $1 million budget and held an architectural competition for the state capitol design.  A capitol commission was appointed to select the winner.  However, before construction could begin, a conspiracy among commission members to enrich themselves was uncovered.  The scoundrels hastily saddled their horses and rode out of town.
The stunning barrel vault once hidden to make offices
A new commission was appointed and promptly slashed $350,000 off the budget and hired a Minnesota architectural firm to create a more frugal design.  The footprint of the building mimicked that of the South Dakota statehouse, designed by the same architects, but the interior was unique to Montana.  Construction finally began in 1899 and was completed in less than four years.  Despite a rain storm, thousands attended the dedication celebration on July 4, 1902.

Statehouse exterior with prominent statue of Thomas Francis Meagher, a territorial governor
The statehouse's exterior is clad in native Montana stone—Columbus sandstone on the original structure and Montana granite on the 1912 addition.  It was the first state capitol building designed and constructed with electric lights, rather than retrofitting this new development into an older building.
The statue Montana atop the dome
While the building was under construction, a 17-ft statue arrived at the Helena railroad station and went unclaimed.  Rail officials wondered whether it was meant for the new statehouse.  It seemed a likely conclusion, but since the first building commissioners had absconded with most of the original records, no one knew where the statue was intended to be placed.  A decision was made to place it atop the dome.  More than a century later, in 2006, a Pennsylvania woman reached out to state officials about the statue.  She identified it as the work of her Belgian-born grandfather based on his old records she had discovered.  Finally the mystery was solved.  
Senate chamber
As in some other states, misguided efforts to "modernize" the Montana statehouse in the 1950s and 60s led to the removal of the barrel vaulted ceiling to create a fourth floor for offices and meeting rooms.  By the end of the century, the capitol was being restored to its original design.  

The  rotunda restored to its original colorful decor
During the restoration process, officials were surprised to learn that red and green were the original prominent paint colors in the rotunda.  At the time of the original construction, the colors weren't so closely associated with Christmas but were utilized to introduce drama and excitement to this important space.

House chamber with oversized Russell painting behind speaker's podium
The Montana capitol is home to a masterpiece painting by nationally acclaimed artist Charles Russell.  Titled Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross' Hole, the painting is 24 feet long and 12 feet high on a single canvas.  The work depicts the two explorers negotiating with Salish Indians to secure horses for their trip over the Bitterroot Mountains.  The painting is displayed in the House chamber.
Historical scenes depicted on ceiling panels in Senate chamber
Other paintings and murals in the building tell the story of Montana, in particular the exploits and lives of its people.  Four portraits in each corner of the domed ceiling depict early Montanans:  a Native American, a fur trapper, a gold prospector and a cowboy.

Our guide for the tour was a volunteer from the local historical society.  Apparently he was not having the best day as he frequently complained about the 40-minute tour being too short and even that members of the tour group were insufficiently discriminating in our art appreciation.


Montana Capitol Stats
  • Construction period:  1899-1902
  • Cost:  $540,000
  • Architectural style:  American Renaissance
  • Addition built:  1909-1912
  • Cost of addition:  $650,000
  • Building height:  165 feet
  • Dome surface:  Copper