If you know anything about Missoula, you are probably familiar with the legacy of A.J. Gibson. Though he died way back in 1927 (and retired some years before that), Gibson's works still dominate Missoula's visual identity, even in this digital age.
Visit the University of Montana's main Web page, for example, and right up top you'll see one of Gibson's most recognizable buildings: Main Hall, the administrative and physical epicenter of the UM campus. Click over to the website for Missoula County, and dead center on the page you'll see another Gibson building: the county courthouse on West Broadway.
First Presbyterian Church, the St. Francis Xavier Parish, the oldwing of the Missoula Art Museum (originally the Missoula Public Library), Hellgate High School, Lowell School, Hawthorne School: If it was a big building constructed in Missoula during the first two decades of the 20th century, chances are it was designed by Gibson, whose architectural designs also include recognizable buildings in Hamilton (the Daly Mansion and the Ravalli County Courthouse) and elsewhere. All told, Gibson was responsible for the design of some 90 buildings and residences around this region during the four decades of his professional career.
So when UM art history professor Rafael Chacón began noticing Gibson's contributions to western Montana's built landscape, he was surprised to discover how little had been documented about the influential architect.
"I was reading a lot about the architectural history of Montana, and I was a little disappointed and curious about why so little had been written about Montana architecture and Gibson in particular," recalled Chacón. "What I did run across about Gibson, a lot of it was inaccurate, there were competing lists of the buildings he'd designed, misattributions, buildings that were attributed to him long after he'd died. So the lineage wasn't clear to me; and even though Gibson was acknowledged in the media and colloquially known as a great architect, there was little in print about him. That's where my interest started."
That seed of interest ultimately blossomed into a book, "The Original Man: The Life and Work of Montana Architect A.J. Gibson," published in 2008 by UM's Montana Museum of Art and Culture.
And as he worked on the book, the idea of a companion exhibition began to form in Chacón's mind.
That exhibition, presented under the same title as the book and co-curated by the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, debuted at the Holter Museum in Helena in the fall of 2008. Since then, it has traveled to the Daly Mansion in Hamilton, and now comes home to Missoula for a show that opens Friday and runs through Oct. 23.
Featuring original architectural drawings, scale models of some of Gibson's landmark buildings, and photographs and other memorabilia from Gibson's life, the exhibit offers a glimpse into the fascinating life and inspired mind of one of western Montana's most influential figures.
"We have in Gibson an individual who was self-taught and, in spite of that, managed to handle the language of architecture quite confidently and with a certain amount of bravado," said Chacón. "What fascinates me about him is really that this is the kind of story we identify with westerners and Montana in particular: individuals who were able to overcome enormous odds and took what was essentially a very young, fresh place and literally transformed it. Gibson did that with a certain amount of aplomb and gusto, and that's an interesting story in and of itself."
Brandon Reintjes, curator of art at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, said that the exhibit brings out not only Gibson's historical significance, but also a sense of this civilized yet adventurous man who owned the first automobile in Missoula and was the first man to cross the Flathead Indian Reservation by car.
"You get to know him a little bit in the exhibit and you can't but help be struck by how much fun they're having," said Reintjes. "You look at the photo albums of him and (his wife) Maud Gibson, they're picnicking with the Macleans, with young Norman and his brother in the foreground; it's this grand lifestyle, and it really relates to his architecture. It's amazing he managed to have such a significant career and he really reflects the attitudes of the day - a civility, a sense of order, an emphasis on enjoying the pleasures of life - and you can get that in his buildings as well."