Situated against a backdrop of the hills of Helena, the Montana State Capital commands a panoramic view of the Helena Valley. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark called this area “Prickly Pear Valley” when they traversed it in 1805. A century of exploration, trapping, prospecting, mining, settlement, and development occurred in what became Montana before the construction of a State Capital was achieved.
The mining camp of Last Chance Gulch was born with the discovery of placer gold by the “Four Georgians” in 1864. The fledgling camp soon changed to Helena. Surprisingly, the community did not die when the gold ran out because the merchants turned it into a banking and supply center. By 1875 Helena had wrested the Montana Territorial capital from Virginia City.
When Montana joined the Union in 1889, a battle for the permanent state capital ensued. In 1894 Helena (backed by Copper King William A. Clark) opposed Anaconda (supported by Copper King Marcus Daly) for this honor. Helena’s victory assured it a state capitol building, yet the National Crash of 1893 initially delayed construction.
Finally, optimism about the state’s future led the 1895 legislature to enact laws authorizing a $1 million Capital, its design to be chosen in a nationwide architectural competition. Cash prizes were awarded and a design selected before funding problems were understood to be insurmountable. To make matters worse, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that the Capital commissioners themselves planned to defraud the state of substantial portions of the building’s cost. Investigations were conducted in time to prevent the graft, replace the commissioners, and begin anew.
The 1897 legislature then authorized a more modest statehouse. The completed, furnished building, located on its donated parcel of land, cost approximately $485,000—less than one-half the price of the abandoned design.
In 1898 Charles Emlen Bell and John Hackett Kent of Council Bluffs, Iowa, were selected as the Capital architects, on the condition that they would relocate to Helena to fulfill a legislative provision requiring selection of a Montana architect. Although denounced by the state’s resident architects, the selection proved to be a fortunate one, resulting in a handsome design that was promptly realized. After a festive cornerstone-laying ceremony on Independence Day, 1899, Bell and Kent’s “Greek Ionic” neoclassical Capital was constructed, faced in sandstone from a Columbus, Montana Quarry. The building was dedicated with much appreciative fanfare on July 4, 1902.
After its first decade, the Capital was enlarged (1909-1912) to accommodate the growing executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. East-and West-wing additions were designed by New York architect Frank M. Andrews in association with Montanans John G. Link and Charles S. Haire. The much-debated selection of stone for facing the wings required a special session of the legislature, which chose Jefferson County granite. A good match for the Columbus sandstone used in the original building, the granite held the added advantage of durability.
The State Capital is a structure with several historical dimensions. Interwoven with Montana’s development as a state, the building’s origins recall people and practices from another age. These turn-of-the-century Montanans, conscious of their place in the progression of time, chose architecture and art that described a remote classical past as well as the passing era of the frontier. Yet they focused optimistically on the future as well. Today the Capital is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to be associated with events significant to the citizens and government of Montana.
Excerpted from “Montana’s Capital Building”, a publication of the Montana Historical Society
Note: A two-year renovation project of Capital was completed in early 2001. The building was restored to its original elegant charm. Years ago many of the buildings treasures were removed as attempts were made to earthquake-proof the structure. Many of those items had been purchased by Charles Bovey of Nevada and Virginia City fame. The items were in storage and once again became the property of the state and were reinstalled during the project. Items that couldn’t be salvaged were replicated. The entire restoration was done at a cost of $26 million. Tours of the Capital are hourly weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends noon to 4 p.m. There is no charge for tours which are led by members of the Montana Historical Society.