By Mira Brody
Two large metal light fixtures stand sentry on either side of the main entrance of the Armory Hotel in downtown Bozeman, Montana. At nine stories tall in the epicenter of the fastest growing county of its size in the country, the fixtures stand as one of the many decorative links to the building’s—and downtown’s—past. They’re the same light fixtures that were a part of the original building and carefully sketched in architect Fred Fielding Willson’s precise graphite lines in his blueprints for the Armory building drafted in 1940.
From the top of the hotel, now the tallest building in town, you’ll easily catch sight of more of Willson’s work, including one of the most iconic, taking up most of your western view: the Baxter Hotel, its 11 glowing red letters and the infamous Bridger Beacon nestled just below.
Other Willson designs include the Gallatin County Courthouse, the Emerson, Dokken- Nelson Funeral Home, Longfellow School, countless houses of varying elegance and style in the Historic District, and the first two floors of the Armory itself. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to stand anywhere within a two-mile radius of downtown and not spot a building designed by Willson.
When it first opened, the Armory at 24 W. Mendenhall Street housed the Charlie Company and the headquarters of the 163rd Infantry Regiment—a National Guard unit from across the state of Montana. The 163rd is recognized for their role in New Guinea, the Philippines and the occupation of Japan during and after World War II.
The Armory in 1941 was a modest, two-story concrete structure with distinct v-shaped chevrons and a soundproof band practice room, indoor rifle range and thick floors capable of accommodating military trucks and tanks. It was dedicated during a difficult time in the country’s history—Pearl Harbor had just been attacked, formally hurling the U.S. into the second world war.
In the 80 years since, the building has seen its share of occupants and uses. It stands as a living homage to the community’s history, one of Bozeman’s more prominent historical figures, the city’s role in war and its belief in protecting its past. The building’s adaptations over the decades reveal a timeline of Bozeman itself, from a gold-born township to the fast-growing Western destination it is today.
Most of all though, the Armory stands for the very reason so many people have moved here over the decades—the search for a sense of place.
WILLSON, A ‘HOMETOWN BOY’
In order to understand the Armory, it helps to know Fred F. Willson himself. Born in 1877 in Bozeman, the architect had a heritage worthy of any proud Montanan. He attended the town’s public schools as well as the Bozeman Academy and Montana State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts before earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Columbia University in New York in 1902.
Willson traveled Europe to further his architectural education, visiting several countries including France, Germany, Italy and Britain, and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. His diary entries during this time reveal his impressions of European architecture and lifestyle during the early 20th century, which he described as “eclectic” according to Bozeman Daily Chronicle article from 2014.
He left Europe for New York in 1906 to work for the architecture firm Visscher & Burley, but later that same year returned to Montana to take charge of the offices of architects Link & Haire in Butte where he worked until 1910.
It was then that Willson returned to his hometown for good, and still rests in the Sunset Hills Cemetery. He brought with him the inspiration collected from his travels that now mark the neighborhoods of Bozeman. These influences are revealed in his designs, which include multiple architectural styles: Georgian, Mission Revival, Art Deco and Craftsman.
While Willson believed in functionality, he was also a strong believer in the power that art and beauty in architecture can bring a community.
“There is a fundamental reason for every feature embodied in a structure,” Willson said in a 1954 address at Montana State University, two years before his death. “It must have refinement, simplicity, beauty and good taste. Thus, an architect’s business is to make the things of daily life beautiful.”
In 1927, Willson designed the three-story structure for Eagle’s Store on the site of the original shop built in West Yellowstone, Montana, in 1908. Willson donated his expertise in order to promote the rustic architectural style of the National Park Service as tourism into the park steadily grew.
The design was similar to that of Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, which features exposed logs as a key design element. When designing Eagle’s, Willson set fir logs measuring 18-36 feet long into a base of rhyolite and concrete. It remains the oldest operating business in West Yellowstone.
The Baxter Hotel, another of Willson’s crown jewels, was completed in March 1929 and has seen its share of renovations over the years, namely giving the historic Bacchus Pub a facelift along with the residences above. Erected when the building was completed in 1929, the infamous glowing red rooftop signage was intended to be seen from the top of mountain passes up to 70 miles away and serve as a beacon for travelers.
“I think of Fred Willson as an architect and as a hometown boy,” said Derek Strahn, who served as the Bozeman City History Preservation Officer from 1992-2001. “He grew up here and had a love for Bozeman and he was, over decades, able to give back to the community in ways that was sensitive to what already existed.”
Willson’s work, although adapted through the years, has gathered the community, educated youth, housed residents, informed rambunctious skiers and welcomed visitors for generations. The community in turn has found value in rallying around him and what he left behind.
‘A STRUCTURE OF FUNCTIONAL DESIGN’
If you visit the Bozeman Historic Preservation webpage on the city’s website and meander down to the historic architecture inventory map, you’ll notice it’s speckled with a key of rainbow dots, each indicating a site of importance. The Historic Preservation Board is responsible for mapping out Bozeman’s architectural history and bridging the gap between its past and future.
From the start, the Armory seemed destined to face its share of obstacles. In 1941, just before the building was slated to open, the Bozeman Courier reported on a series of litigations involving the city’s annual monetary allotment for it to remain under the ownership of the state Armory Board. On Friday, April 3, 1942, the Courier wrote that the final cornerstone was laid “touched with grim and serious times.” Pearl Harbor had been attacked, the country was at war and the building stood as a sign of hope and patriotism to the community of Bozeman.
“… not often in peace time and less often in war does a Montana community secure a complete new armory building,” the Courier stated. Another article, published just before the building was dedicated, spoke to the will of Bozemanites: “At least this spacious, $137,661 reinforced, monolithic, concrete structure of modern and functional design represents this community’s resolve that never again shall our nation be caught off-guard and ill-prepared to meet enemies of democracy.”
Spared from action during the Korean and Vietnam wars after the World War II, the 163rd drilled on West Mendenhall until the 1990s, keeping busy stateside with forest fires, natural disasters and the occasional prison riot.
The National Guard completed their new facility in Gallatin Field in 2003. In 2004, a developer had dreams of turning it into a $40 million performing art center—a project that fell through—then it briefly housed some artists, a band and a retail store. The developers who owned it at that time closed the building in 2006 and applied to have it demolished.
It was around this time, early in the new millennium, that Bozeman began experiencing its first pangs of growth and development. The city’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board was working on a few different projects: acquire the Story Mansion on which the construction of half a dozen homes was being proposed; prevent the destruction of the old railroad depot where the new library now stands; and the Armory.
On Feb. 25, 2008, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported that the city’s commission voted 4-1 to demolish the building in order to replace it with a four-story commercial and residential space. It’s a ruling that growing communities are all too familiar with—out with the old, in with the new.
“It does not have any economic viability remaining,” Commissioner Jeff Krauss told the Chronicle. “It might have a fine, heavy-duty concrete shell, but the demand for what we need downtown is not for a building with a firing range and not a building that can hold a Sherman tank.”
The Armory was written off during these deliberations because of the industrialized appearance that many commissioners felt didn’t fit with the rest of downtown. Many insinuated that it was an eyesore worthy of its ill fate.
“At the time a lot of people thought it was kind of an ugly building,” Strahn said. “I thought it was kind of a cool building and historically connected to a part of Bozeman’s history that we don’t have a lot of. There’s not a ton from that World War II era and I was really interested in seeing it preserved for that reason.”
Mark Hufstetler, an architectural historian and Bozeman Historic Preservation Advisory board member was quoted in an article from the Montana Standard dated Feb. 4, 2008, saying that more was at stake than the loss of an ugly building. “If that new construction ends up overshadowing the old stuff, then our historic character is irrevocably gone,” Hufstetler said.
It’s hard to imagine a wrecking ball permeate a wartime military building made predominantly of concrete, but needless to say, the ball never swung. The Armory is still standing as a testament to the wide array of citizens who stood up in her defense.
Following numerous community appeals and in lieu of foreclosure and an eventual sale, First Interstate Bank reclaimed the Armory from the developers in 2011 through a deed. Although there were multiple interested buyers, in 2012 it sold to Cory Lawrence, who owns Bozeman-based travel agency Off the Beaten Path and had dreams of building a hotel and music hall.
“For us, it has to carry the torch for Fred Willson’s legacy,” Lawrence, who still leads the hotel’s ownership group, told the Chronicle in March of 2012, “It has to illustrate the history that we’ve made and the history that we’re making.”
After a decade of paperwork, permits, meetings, construction, construction stoppages, redesigns and renames, construction on the hotel began in May of 2018, and the Armory started to breathe again.
Strahn says that preserving the core of a community is a key element to responsible growth. He believes that historic structures are not only a tool to educate and inspire, but also serve as economic value and that, despite the changing times, it is a town’s historic relics that provide a sense of connection.
“I think that first and foremost one of the things that really attracts people to Bozeman is its sense of place,” Strahn said. “People are here because they’ve been inspired by the environment and I think that that’s a value that’s always been here whether it was the initial pioneers because they saw the valley as a fertile place to stake a claim and establish homesteads, or more recently people coming here as trust-funders who are interested in a certain quality of life and are willing to sacrifice a few things for that.”
The art deco architecture Willson embraced for the Armory was a product of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a movement meant to provide relief after the Great Depression. The construction of the building was financed by Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, and in a twist of irony its style was meant to appear futuristic so viewers could gaze eagerly toward brighter prospects.
FILLING IN WILLSON’S SKETCHES
Today, walking through the hotel’s second floor on the mezzanine above the stage offers slices of its past, literally. The building’s designers opted to reveal pieces of the concrete walls as a tribute to the building beneath. The concrete used in the World War II era is speckled with pieces of stone, wood and rebar, making for a sort of industrialized mosaic.
The contractors and hotel, an operation of the Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group based in San Francisco, pay homage to the building’s legacy and the history of the area, as well as Willson’s artistic mind and the vision he had for the city of Bozeman.
“I’ve heard stories here from prom being hosted here, to a taco shop getting their start here, to jazzercise,” said Aaron Whitten, the Armory Hotel’s general manager. “This space has lived quite a few lives since that original 1941 Armory … Everyone that I’ve talked to in town has a story or connection or an experience with this particular building in one capacity or another.”
The dance floor below, the one on which the Sherman tanks would once waltz, looks onto a stage that will host performances for up to 600 people. The restaurant, appropriately named Fielding’s after Willson’s middle name, is a step back in time to traditional American cooking and dining.
Juxtaposing the Armory’s masculinity and bold art deco style are pieces of its female ancestry as well. After all, it was Etha Story, the daughter-in-law of another Bozeman pioneer Nelson Story, who raised the funds that were donated to procure the land where the Armory was built.
Armory staff worked alongside Susan Denson-Guy, executive director of the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture, to curate unique and custom fine art pieces for the interior. Among those artists are Vicki Fish, Will Hunter and DG House, who painted a one-of-a-kind “Armory Bear” for the hotel’s Green Room.
“It’s really, really special that we were able to connect with such passionate artists in the area,” Whitten told VIEWS. “The art and space were inspired by each other.”
On the ninth-floor rooftop, the rooftop pool and lounge chairs make the historical aspect of the building a bit foggy, but in the basement you get a stronger taste for what the original Armory was nearly 80 years ago. The underground whiskey bar, Tune Up, is in the old soundproof infantry band room, where the sound of drums, flutes and trumpets would fill the space in the ‘40s.
“I do think new development could take a lesson from the Armory project and pay respects to the historical fabric of our city,” Strahn said of the hotel’s development process. “Not that we need to freeze downtown Bozeman in time, but we need to reference it architecturally. It’s really awesome they’re built to last, made with materials that are made with craftsmanship not in modern construction.”
Towering over the other high-rises that seem to grow overnight in the downtown area, the building’s wartime modesty is barely recognizable today, but features still exist that reference its past.
Those two large, original metal light fixtures that hang on either side of the entrance weren’t part of the early building, but did actually appear in Willson’s early blueprints. According to historical inventory documents at the Gallatin History Museum, those components are thought to have been left off in part because of the time the building was erected. During World War II, building materials and capable workers were both hard to come by.
Finally, after a few iterations, the glowing sentries have found their place.