During his long tenure as the 16th president of the University of Montana, George Dennison used to joke rightfully that he had an "edifice complex." No president has changed the campus as dramatically nor paid greater attention to its physical integrity since President Carl McFarland closed the Oval to street traffic and completed the post-World War II building boom in the 1950s. The Dennison administration's 20-year architectural legacy is significant.
Dennison's relationship to the historic preservation community began on a positive note with the creation of the UM Historic District in 1992. Free-standing buildings, starting with Panzer Hall in 1995 and the Gallagher School of Business the following year, set forth a new paradigm for the integration of the modern into the historical fabric of the campus. That legacy continued until recently with the construction of Anderson Hall (the new journalism building), and the Interdisciplinary Science Building.
However, the construction of the pedestrian Davidson Honors College in 1996 to replace the Venture Center was a questionable choice. It was a poor stand-in for A.J. Gibson's original Science Building on the sacrosanct Oval, razed in 1983, and it raised concerns about the fate of UM's historic properties on campus and at Fort Missoula.
An opportunity emerged with the preservation of the Prescott House, an early homestead below Mount Sentinel. Its detractors quibbled over the integrity of the restoration and mourned the loss of its gardens in favor of more commercial plantings, but the historic home survived.
There were minor missteps, bunker-like additions to the underground lecture halls off the Oval and stylistic confusion in the addition of historicist gables to the modernist Miller Hall. However, the administration was on a mission that ultimately proved successful, courting private and public dollars to modernize and expand the campus.
Additions to pre-existing buildings followed consistently over the next two decades: the University Theater, University Center, Adams Center, Student Recreation Center, Washington-Grizzly Stadium, and Skaggs Building. Compatible, sensitive and sometimes award-winning additions were built for: the Curry Health Center, Emma B. Lommasson Center (formerly the Lodge), the Chemistry and Math buildings, and most recently the Law School and Education.
The administration was on a roll. Each building project was an improvement over the last and although some argued that the campus was being dangerously overbuilt (charges that go back to the 1930s), the administration kept its focus on the university's infrastructure; charting a course for smart classrooms, energy efficiency, and LEED certification on all new construction, more open and representative building committees, and a proactive Arboretum Committee to safeguard the grounds.
Most recently, federal stimulus dollars were spent on upgrading older facilities. Although it turned the campus into a war zone-like maze of construction, the project to rebuild and expand the steam tunnel network will ensure the university's survival for generations.
When alumni return to the campus a century from now they will seek out two buildings: Main Hall and the Payne Family Native American Center. A.J. Gibson's University Hall is the UM's signature landmark and its best building. Although it can stand a thorough review of its muddled internal spaces, Main Hall has never looked better with its restored roof and brick walls.
In the works since the 1940s, the recently inaugurated Native American Studies building was Dennison's swan song. It is a stunning work of art and the product of much deliberation. It now stands on an honored corner of the Oval, in dialogue and in contrast with A.J. Gibson's neo-Romanesque gem. The conversation between the past and the future, between the values that these two structures evoke is rich, a credit to the university, a visionary president, and the Native community that adopted him.
One off-campus project, the Daly Mansion near Hamilton, deserves note. Under Dennison's oversight, UM took the lead in fundraising the restoration of the largest private home in the state. As a result, A.J. Gibson's masterpiece is now almost entirely restored to its 1910 state.
Left undone for the next administration: a new building for the Montana Museum of Art & Culture to house the state's largest collection of art, expanded facilities on the main campus, and the development of the South Campus.
H. Rafael Chacón is a professor of art history and criticism in the School of Art at the University of Montana.