Several months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the old flagpole in front of the Missoula Federal Building came crashing down in a violent wind.
On Oct. 30, the Missoulian reported that work had started on a concrete foundation for a 60-foot steel replacement.
It would be “one of the most ornate and modern poles that can be provided,” vowed Postmaster Ralph Brown.
While far from the most significant thing that has happened to the monolithic Italian Renaissance Revival office building on East Broadway, it’s one of the most symbolic.
Through the oncoming world war, the one that preceded it, and the half a dozen or so since; through 100 years as the administrative seat of the Forest Service’s Region 1; from the first letter that slipped through the post office slot in 1913 with a 2-cent stamp, to one today that bears the new 50-cent stamp, the Garden City's federal building has been as rock-solid a government fortress as its first boosters said it would be.
“In its architectural design there has been no attempt to make an elaborate or overbearing show of the building on the outside,” the Missoulian gushed on Sunday, Feb. 16, 1913. “Its exterior is modest but at the same time it is rich and artistic. Above all it suggests the idea of stability.”
There’s no imminent threat to that stability, though the Forest Service abandoned its regional offices a few years ago for new digs at Fort Missoula. Last week, Missoula city and county officials proposed to the federal General Service Administration in Denver that they inhabit the building for free under the GSA’s Good Neighbor program.
“In exchange, the two entities would assume responsibility for an estimated $10 million in repairs and maintenance,” the Missoulian’s Eve Byron reported on March 5.
“As completed, the federal building, including the site, cost the government a little more than $180,000,” that 1913 article said.
A quick spin through the missoulian.newspapers.com archives calls up echoes of those (for now) empty halls and rooms, as well as the post office that will keep on keeping on as the Hellgate Station.
Launch date was mid-February 1913, and the Missoulian, owned and published by ex-Sen. Joseph Dixon, was all over it with architectural drawings and then actual photos of the building, inside and out.
Jump to Jan. 18, 1952, when the Hollywood motion picture “Red Skies Of Montana,” was coming to town for its world premiere. Filmed hereabouts, “Missoulians will be able to find themselves in one or another of group scenes of the picture,” the Missoulian reported. “Some are in the crowd outside the federal building as the picture's star, Richard Widmark, comes down the steps.”
“We want to keep it old,” Marcy Abling of the GSA told reporter Gayle Shirley in January 1981.
They were discussing the Nov. 30, 1979, listing of the federal building on the National Register of Historic Places. It was cited for its significance not only to the Forest Service and the postal service but for the U.S. District Court that opened in a new addition in December 1929.
Fifty years later it was still holding sessions there under Judge Russell E. Smith. In 1996 the federal district court moved across Broadway to the courthouse that bears Smith’s name.
On May 24, 1979, the old court was the scene of a hearing for nine anti-nuclear protesters who turned themselves in to Missoula authorities when they learned they were charged with criminal trespass at Rocky Flats Arsenal near Denver on April 29.
It was part of a significant chapter of the building’s history, one that included candlelight vigils for peace and a steady string of demonstrations through the last few decades of the 20th century.
“This is not a protest,” Bill Cunningham of the Wilderness Society said from the front steps on May 8, 1981. “This is a march in support of protecting the Bob Marshall ecosystem.”
Five hundred “marchers” were outside Northern Region Forester Tom Coston’s office building, trying to put a stop to a Denver oil company’s plans to detonate 5,400 charges along 207 miles of seismic line in the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear wildernesses.
The scene, as described by reporter Sherry Devlin, included a howling wolf, leashed and wearing a sign that read “Wolves for Wilderness.”
“Dogs barked, one of them toting a placard that said, ‘Bark for the Bob,’” Devlin reported.
Three years later, wilderness activists “using a '60s-era tactic,” camped out overnight in U.S. Sen. John Melcher’s office in the federal building. They were staging “a friendly but fervent protest against the Montana congressional delegation’s new wilderness bill,” reported David Roach in the July 11, 1984, Missoulian.
A picture by Missoulian photographer Jeff Taylor showed protester Linda Howard peeking out the office door on which had been scrawled “Earth First! Missoula Office” above the nameplate “John Melcher, United States Senator."
“I thought our office has been under-utilized for a long time,” Melcher chuckled in a phone interview from Three Forks. “They’re welcome to stay.”
And stay they did — for 2½ days. The Earth Firsters finally packed up sleeping bags and signs after what Roach termed a “combative meeting” with Melcher.