Missoula’s newest county courthouse didn’t go up without a fight.
It’s 100 years old now, and the county is throwing a centennial bash Monday at noon on the front lawn.
The July 19 date coincides with the Tuesday evening in 1910 when the county’s three commissioners met in the lobby of the Florence Hotel with contractor William Oliver of Spokane. They formally accepted the courthouse as complete, the absence of the bell tower clock notwithstanding. It would be in place by the end of August.
For most practical purposes, the building had been finished since May, when commissioners D.T. Curran, Frank Nelson and Tyler Worden authorized Oliver to be paid all but $1,200 of the contract price “pending the completion of a few minor details,” the Missoulian reported.
That was two years after the whole thing should have been done. Even today “19” and “08” are inscribed in corners above the arch on the front doorway facing Broadway. The project was delayed by the delivery from eastern Washington of bad batches of the glazed terra cotta that still graces the exterior.
But the fighting really began almost a year before that, and it tainted the end of an otherwise-illustrious career of courthouse architect A.J. Gibson, who would retire from full-time work in the midst of construction.
“The problems really started for Gibson when the county commissioners selected him,” said H. Rafael Chacon of the University of Montana School of Art, author of “The Original Man: The Life and Work of Montana Architect A.J. Gibson.”
Chacon will on hand Monday for what he called “a few brief remarks” and there’ll be a special preview of an exhibition based on his book that opens this fall at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.
“I have no proof of this,” Chacon said of Gibson, “but it seems like given his prominence as Missoula’s best-known architect and his ties with the powers in town that he was a shoo-in to get this commission.”
But the commissioners put the job out to bid and received responses from 12 other firms, six from out of state. On Feb. 11, 1908, all, including Gibson’s, were rejected on what Chacon terms “a technicality.” None of the architects had followed the instruction to draw plans in one-eighth-inch scale rather than one-half-inch.
One week later, the commissioners voted to appoint Gibson to draw up the plans, under their direction.
“That obviously didn’t sit well with the other competitors, and that’s where the brouhaha really started,” Chacon said.
It got personal.
Gibson received a letter signed by “Some taxpayers” that advised him to refuse the courthouse commission. If he didn’t, it warned, “feathers and tarr (sic) are just waiting for you.”
It got political.
Gibson served on the City Council and the three commissioners were friends of his. Two were fellow Republicans, as was Joseph Dixon, the former U.S. senator and future governor who owned the Missoulian, which didn’t closely cover the sordid twists and turns of the courthouse debacle.
A competing architect from Butte wrote, and the Democratic-leaning Missoula Herald published, a letter that said Gibson had marching orders to incorporate the best ideas from the other projects into his own.
Gibson and the commissioners got it from all sides. Even the Missoula Chamber of Commerce threatened to sue.
“A man who’d had a relatively sterling reputation up to that point began to suffer pretty publicly for whatever problems were apparent in the courthouse,” Chacon said.
The controversy was a far cry from what Gibson encountered a decade earlier designing the Ravalli County Courthouse in Hamilton. It was orchestrated and funded by Marcus Daly, the copper king who founded Hamilton, and Daly wanted Gibson.
Chacon speculated that as Missoula and western Montana boomed in the first decade of the 20th century, expectations of public officials and how they spent taxpayer money rose, too.
“There are just enough indications in the history that people were concerned with the design and the aesthetics of the courthouse, but also the process,” he said. “They wanted openness and a fair, transparent process, and were ready to squawk when it didn’t occur.”
The controversy wore on Gibson.
Any delay in Missoula, any budget overrun, any problem at all became his problem, Chacon said. His practice suffered, and by 1909 he’d had enough. Gibson turned over the business to his groomed successor, Ole Bakke, who would enjoy a locally celebrated career of his own.
“The records show that even though he was a public personality, Gibson was a relatively private individual,” said Chacon. “What I think is interesting is how public the arguments were, and how his persona became this public entity. I’m not sure he was comfortable with that.”
To be sure, Gibson kept his hand in Missoula architecture. He stayed on retainer with his old firm. There’s evidence he helped Bakke design the buildings for the new county fairgrounds in 1914 and collaborated with both Bakke and Bakke’s successor, H.E. Kirkemo, on the Wilma Theater in 1920.
Meanwhile, Missoula had itself a grand courthouse that quickly took on iconic status.
“It’s important to remember that this big, solid building was built essentially as the hall of justice, but also with the intent of permanence,” said Philip Maechling, Missoula’s historic preservation officer. “It was to say we’re not just a transient mining and logging town. We’re here, we’re serious. We’re going to be here for the long run.”
The neoclassical style harkened back to ancient Greece or Rome, but it was lauded for, among other things, a state-of-the-art electrical system controlled by two switchboards.
“The lights in any room can be cut off without affecting the lights in the other,” the Herald marveled.
Though the Herald took its shots during the construction phase, when the courthouse was complete the paper hailed Gibson’s building as “one of the finest buildings of its kind in the entire west.”
Oliver, the contractor, told the Herald he “was subjected to much criticism at first on account of the slow process of construction, but anyone going through the building now will see the wisdom of not hurrying its completion.”
The marble, he pointed out, came from Italy and was shaped in St. Paul.
“The critics forget the amount of time it takes to assemble materials for such a building,” Oliver said.
Though smaller than typical courthouses in the East and Midwest, as befitted the population, the Missoula courthouse was “fairly sumptuous and ornate,” Chacon said.
“In its time, it was one of the most dramatic buildings in the entire state. Probably its nearest rival would be the Helena Capitol, and in some ways, to me, (the courthouse) is aesthetically more interesting than the state Capitol building.”
Chacon pointed to the huge portals with large columns on each side of the building.
“I think you really see Gibson in his mature style,” he said. “He was fairly confident with all classical orders, but there’s a kind of florid quality to that building, a showiness to it.”
Curiously, no record can be found of a courthouse dedication in 1910.
“It was way past the time it scheduled to open, so maybe they didn’t want to make a big deal of it,” Chacon speculated. “But certainly the building was worth noting, and I think it was universally praised.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.