Montana's Statehouse

Montana's Statehouse  
Montana's statehouse, pictured here circa 1918, assumed its present-day configuration with the addition of wings to the east and west ends of the original structure. The total cost of the building, including construction, furnishing, decorating, and landscaping, was approximately $1.2 million.

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 52 (Summer 2002), 62-65; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2002.

Montana's Crown Jewel of Architecture
The Montana State Capitol

by Kirby Lambert

            Speaking at the dedication of Montana’s new statehouse on July 4, 1902 Kennedy, secretary to the Capitol Commission, boasted, “There are larger, more elaborate and more costly structures in other parts of the Union, but for beauty and harmony there are none that excel the Capitol of Montana.”1 While some might argue with Kennedy’s assertion, no one can question his exuberance. A century later that feeling of pride remains as citizens of the Treasure State celebrate the hundredth anniversary of one of Montana’s most notable historic sites—a place where history has been both made and recorded in uniquely colorful ways.2

            To the celebrants gathered in 1902 the capitol’s completion symbolized the final step in a long, difficult quest for statehood. Addressing the assembled crowds, Senator William A. Clark reminded his audience of the occasion’s significance: “In the dedication of this magnificent structure there has been rounded out and completed all the requirements of full-fledged statehood. . . . [The Capitol] will stand here like the neighboring mountains for ages to come . . . as a symbol in the minds of every patriotic Montanian of the dignity and grandeur of the state.” 3 At last, Montanans had their own “ Temple of Democracy,” a tangible declaration of the values and aspirations that tied the state to the nation’s mainstream, both ideologically and culturally. It was also a testament to tenacity; the building represented almost forty years of effort aimed at gaining statehood and a befitting statehouse.

            Beginning in 1864 the gold camp of Bannack served for a brief period as Montana’s first territorial capital. In 1865, however, the seat of government moved to the booming mining camp of Virginia City, fifty miles to the east. Ten years later, following a heated referendum, accusations of corruption, and a favorable decision by the Territorial Supreme Court, Helena claimed the title of capital for its own. Throughout this period, Montana’s government occupied whatever space could be found and a variety of buildings served in the role of “capitol.” When Montana became a state in 1889, legislators—unwilling to risk the political consequences of deciding themselves—let the people choose the location of the permanent state capital. An inconclusive referendum in 1892 led to a vitriolic runoff two years later between the top two contenders in the initial contest, Helena and Anaconda. This time, Helena, backed by Butte Copper King (and future senator) William A. Clark, narrowly defeated Anaconda, Marcus Daly’s company town. The victory, according to the “ Queen City’s” supporters, delivered the state from the stranglehold of Daly and his Anaconda Copper Mining Company.

           With the capital question solved, Montanans turned to the task of erecting a genuine capitol—a grand public building that would express the
During the 1894 capital fight,Helena’s Social Supremacy, an anonymously produced pamphlet, satirized the Queen City’s reputation for snobbery in an effort to win support for rival Anaconda.
young “state’s ambitions and its commitment to democracy.” 4 With that goal in mind, in 1895 members of the Fourth Legislative Assembly appointed a Capitol Commission to oversee the project. Soon, however, charges of graft and corruption brought the work of the original commission to a halt, forcing the selection of a second set of commissioners in 1897. The following January the reorganized commission published a request for architectural bids that called for a sixty-five-room structure to be constructed for a cost of $350,000, a meager sum even by the standards of the day. After evaluating the bids, commissioners approved plans submitted by the Iowa firm of Charles E. Bell and John H. Kent who, before their selection was made public, relocated to Helena to meet the legislature’s demand that the capitol architect be a state resident.

           Four years later Bell and Kent delivered to Montanans a structure that fulfilled their desire for a capitol on par with those of more established states back east. On July 5, 1902—in covering the dedication ceremonies of the previous day—the Montana Daily Record decreed Montana’s new statehouse a “Triumph of Architect and Decorator.” The paper attributed this victory to the “severe dignity” of the capitol’s exterior combined with “its highly ornate, rich interior.” The building owed its stately exterior to an architectural movement known as the American Renaissance, a neoclassic revival that reinterpreted the aesthetics of ancient Greece and Rome in an effort to substantiate the United States’ role as “a powerful nation that would perpetuate the best of western civilization and culture.”5

            In sharp contrast the colorful decor inside followed the florid dictates of the French Renaissance, one of several European revival styles popular during the nineteenth century. At the urging of Governor Joseph K. Toole, the Cincinnati, Ohio, firm of F. Pedretti’s Sons—which oversaw all aspects of the interior decorating—chose the style for its symbolic connections to the Louisiana Purchase.

            Among the Pedrettis’ most notable contributions were seventeen large-scale history paintings that adorned the grandest public spaces of the new statehouse. While the rest of the building’s design and decoration followed national trends, the murals painted by the Pedretti firm stood apart as uniquely Montanan. Rather than the allegorical scenes and classical themes that typified the public art of the period, Governor Toole insisted that the capitol paintings tell Montana’s own story. As head of the Capitol Commission, Toole actively supervised the project, selecting most of the subjects himself and providing the Pedrettis with explicit instructions for recording significant characters and events from Montana’s past.

            While the new capitol met Montana’s symbolic need for a Temple of Democracy, its size proved inadequate in a relatively short period of time. The Capitol Commission had purposely approved a building that was smaller than needed to make it more affordable. Knowing this, however, they had also insisted upon a design that would facilitate future expansion. Consequently, in 1909 the legislature authorized the addition of wings to the east and west ends of the original structure. Frank M. Andrews, a promising New York architect, designed the wings, which blended architecturally with the original neoclassic façade, while John G. Link and Charles S. Haire of Butte served as supervising architects in charge of construction. Three years later, with the wings completed, the capitol assumed its present-day configuration.

In addition to the thirty-five history murals that grace the walls of the statehouse, Montana’s capitol is also home to bronze and marble sculptures that honor seven of the Treasure State’s most notable politicians. Here, crowds gather for the unveiling of an equestrian statue of Thomas F. Meagher—an Irish revolutionary, Civil War veteran, and twice acting territorial governor—on the capitol’s north lawn in 1905.

            As with the Pedretti murals, art for the new wings was one of the most highly touted aspects of the expansion project, and once again the Capitol Commission had to choose between more traditional allegorical themes and Montana-specific subjects. Vocal proponents argued on both sides, but the pro-Montana faction ultimately prevailed, commissioning three of the Treasure State’s most prominent painters— Charles M. Russell, Edgar S. Paxson, and Ralph E. DeCamp. The resulting paintings were so well received that in 1913 the legislature passed a joint resolution thanking the men for their work and declaring that the “three notable artists of our state . . . have adorned these walls with masterpieces, that will be enduring monuments to themselves, and a lasting source of pride for the people of this commonwealth.” 6

Over the years structural and aesthetic changes to the capitol’s interior resulted in the loss of many of its grandest historical features. In 1999–2000 a major renovation project restored much of the interior’s original splendor—most notably in the rotunda, pictured here in 1902—while also ensuring that the capitol remained functional for an ever-changing technological society.

            The words of that prescient resolution held true. Since 1912 the murals, combined with the earlier efforts of the Pedrettis, have formed an unequaled gallery of Montana art. That visual presence, coupled with the role that the building has played—and continues to play—in the state’s ongoing chronicle, places it at the forefront of Montana historic sites. And today, as the citizens of the Treasure State commemorate their capitol’s centennial, it is an especially fitting time to revisit the spirit with which Montana’s founders erected the building as a lasting monument to the principles and ideals they struggled so long to attain. 

KIRBY LAMBERT is curator of collections for the Montana Historical Society Museum, Helena.

            1.         E. B. Kennedy, “ Montana’s Capitol,” in Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, vol. 4 (Helena, Mont., 1903), 56.

            2.         For a good, all-around history of Montana’s state capitol, see Kirby Lambert, Patricia M. Burnham, and Susan R. Near, Montana’s State Capitol: The People’s House ( Helena, Mont., 2002).

            3.         W. A. Clark, “ Montana, Her Past, Present and Future,” in Contributions, 4:79.

            4.         Carroll Van West, “A Landscape of Statehood: The Montana State Capitol,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 37 (Autumn 1987), 73.

            5.         Ibid, 75.

            6.         Senate Joint Resolution No. 3, Laws, Resolutions, and Memorials of the State of Montana Passed by the Thirteenth Regular Session of the Legislative Assembly (Helena, Mont., 1913), 557.

All photographs courtesy MHS Photograph Archives, Helena