Montana's Crown Jewel of Architecture
The Montana State Capitol
by Kirby Lambert
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
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.
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
backed by Butte Copper King (and future senator) William
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.
the capital question solved, Montanans turned to the task of erecting
a genuine capitol—a grand public building that would express the
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
who, before their selection was made public, relocated to
to meet the legislature’s demand that the capitol architect be a state
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.
Four years later Bell
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
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
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.
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.
Andrews, a promising
New York architect, designed
the wings, which blended architecturally with the original neoclassic
façade, while John
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
|In addition to the
thirty-five history murals that grace the walls of the statehouse,
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
Irish revolutionary, Civil War veteran, and twice acting territorial
governor—on the capitol’s north lawn in 1905.
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
Paxson, and Ralph
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
|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
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
E. B. Kennedy, “ Montana’s
Capitol,” in Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana,
vol. 4 (Helena, Mont., 1903), 56.
For a good, all-around history of Montana’s
state capitol, see Kirby Lambert, Patricia
and Susan R. Near, Montana’s State Capitol:
The People’s House ( Helena, Mont.,
Clark, “ Montana,
Her Past, Present and Future,” in Contributions, 4:79.
Carroll Van West,
“A Landscape of Statehood: The Montana
State Capitol,” Montana
The Magazine of Western History, 37 (Autumn 1987), 73.
5. Ibid, 75.
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