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Model of a man: Montana's most admired architect, A.J. Gibson, left his legacy across the state
Model of a man: Montana's most admired architect, A.J. Gibson, left his legacy across the state

It's not often a literary publication inspires a traveling art exhibit, but when the subject is A.J. Gibson, one of Montana's most admired architects, bringing to life his blueprints is the creative, if not obvious, thing to do.

To accompany University of Montana professor Rafael Chacon's newly published book "The Original Man: The Life and Work of A.J. Gibson," Montana architects have

re-created some of Gibson's most famous early 20th-century buildings, including a Gibson-designed home that was never built.

The result is a unique collection of architectural models that honor an unsung founding father who literally reshaped the state's frontier towns, transforming them into stylish urban centers.

"He was a very creative self-taught man who took classical traditions and developed them in his own way," said Jim McDonald of A&E Architects in Missoula. "We got involved with this project because we have worked on so many of his buildings - like the Daly Mansion and the Missoula County Courthouse. We felt it was important to do something like this and to help spread the importance of A.J. Gibson across the state."

Any concerns about how an exhibit of miniature Gibsons would play to a larger audience were quickly silenced earlier this month when A&E put its contribution - a model of the University of Montana's Main Hall - and displayed it in their front window on Higgins Avenue.

Because the multi-level building has so many internal quirks, such as a theater-style classroom, the firm created a model that shows off the exterior and the interior.

"It is just amazing how many people stop and look," said Dennis Johnson, an A&E architect-in-training and an associate director for the American Institute of Architects, Montana chapter. "Every time I look up or go out the door, somebody is there looking at it.

"We are excited about the response, and I think it speaks to the fact that models are a great way for people to relate to buildings and drawings."

A.J. Gibson moved to Missoula in 1889, the year Montana gained statehood, and during his 18-year career he designed 90 structures that were built and drafted 144 original designs.

Included in his noteworthy resume are dozens of homes in Missoula's university neighborhood, and commercial and government buildings such as Missoula's Atlantic Hotel, Hamilton City Hall, the Ravalli County Courthouse, Christopher Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, the U.S. Post Office in Plains, and the First National Bank of Browning.

Most of Gibson's creations stand today, still admired 100 years later, because he had an aesthetically pleasing utilitarian style that reflects Western sensibilities, Johnson said.

UM's Main Hall - originally called University Hall - is an example of those values and one of the reasons A&E chose that building for the upcoming exhibit, to be unveiled next month in Helena.

The commission was loaded with far more responsibility than creating a useful, sound structure: It was the first building designed for the fledgling campus, and therefore, it would have to make a statement, set a standard, and represent the values of the state and its academic mission.

"It was a huge assignment," Johnson said. "And what he created was a grand building for a grand space."

The past and present collided in unusual ways in the making of the model, said Jobe Bernier, the A&E architect who built the firm's Main Hall model.

Unlike Gibson's day when blueprints were drawn by hand, computer technology was used to

rework the original drawings for a smaller scale and laser tools cut out the building's delicate flourishes.

Despite modern-day advancements, some things in the business never change.

"Like nowadays what gets drawn doesn't always get built," Bernier said. "Some things in Main Hall are not exactly as Gibson detailed."

As always, cost and expenses were a factor when the Romanesque Revival showpiece was erected in 1898, but the arches, the great bell tower, the steeply pitched roof lines and the proportion are exactly as Gibson intended, Bernier said.

"I really got a better understanding of Gibson's sense of what a public building should be," he said. "He definitely pushed the envelope, and it is clear that with this building he was trying to make Missoula a metropolitan place.

"He was a visionary. At the time, he had nothing but all this open space to work with and to have the opportunity to build something so important for the community, for the state. And something so tall, I'm sure he was stoked."

When the cornerstone of Main Hall was laid on June 8, 1898, there was pomp and fanfare aplenty to celebrate the achievement, but no one mentioned the architect during the festivities, Chacon's research discovered.

Despite the curious lack of acknowledgement, Gibson's work was clearly respected - for he was in great demand in the years after Main Hall was built.

What Gibson may have thought about the lack of public recognition for his work on campus is anyone's guess, Chacon said, but he certainly did not welcome the criticism lobbed his way when he was awarded the bid to build the Missoula County Courthouse.

Last week, while trying to finish his model of the colossal structure, Bozeman architect Jeff Sandholm quipped: "I understand why this building went over budget. I'm trying to figure out how to model it without spending thousands and thousands of hours on it, which is tough because there is so much detail."

The courthouse was Gibson's most controversial public project and drove him from the practice of architecture altogether, Chacon explained.

Missoula ultimately received a beautiful public building, but the bidding and construction process was filled with so much controversy and mudslinging, it left the community - and Gibson - battered and bruised for years afterward.

After calling for bids, the Missoula County commissioners rejected all 13 submissions, three of which came from firms on the East Coast, and appointed Gibson to the project.

A suspicious public was outraged by the surprise announcement, suspecting cronyism. The Missoula Herald newspaper dogged the issue and reported three of the commissioners were friends of Gibson - and that Gibson had built homes for at least one of them.

During those tense days, the architect received hate mail threatening that "feathers and tar" awaited should he accept the project. Then came criticism from the architects who didn't get the bid, claiming the commissioners ordered Gibson to come up with a design using the best ideas from the plans they had submitted.

The criticism never died.

Even the Missoula Chamber of Commerce weighed in, protesting that Gibson was paid too much for the project and taxpayers weren't getting their money's worth.

Gibson prevailed, though, and despite numerous construction delays and faulty materials that had to be reordered the courthouse was an architectural gem - completed two years behind schedule.

"Perhaps there was no greater humiliation" for the architect, Chacon wrote in his book, "than seeing the optimistic date of 1908 carved over the building's main entrance at its inauguration in July 1910."

Although the scandal has long since died, the stunning building has withstood the test of time.

"It's a cool building," Sandholm said. "I thought it was one of his most impressive, if not most impressive projects, so we mistakenly thought it would be great for us to be the ones who built a model of it."

"We might be regretting it," Sandholm said, laughing at his own predicament. "I'm trying not to go broke on it."

As it was a challenge nearly a century ago, re-creating the flamboyant Neoclassic courthouse, with its arches, Ionic columns, dome and clock tower is a monumental effort today.

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Sandholm is awed that the original feat was accomplished at all.

"I don't know if what we build today that we could get the kind of community support Gibson had in his day," he said. "It took a lot of money and people to build these big buildings. And to get a community to invest that much of its resources now? It seems our values have shifted a little bit.

"Even if we do a public project, nationwide it seems clients are much more worried about budget and not so much about creating a visionary building that will last 200 years."

For Sandholm, Missoula's courthouse says so much about the people and the times in which it was built.

"It's a statement that Missoula is not a backwoods place, but a town to be reckoned with," Sandholm said. "It is definitely a building that required a lot of sophisticated design and a sophisticated builder to pull off at a time when not a whole lot of massive building was going on in Missoula."

Chacon's book tells the story of a complex man who lived by a set of clearly defined values.

Gibson didn't drink alcohol or smoke, he was deeply committed to his Presbyterian faith, he loved challenges and he thrived on breaking new ground.

It is largely because of Maud Gibson's extensive documentation of the couple's life and adventures that Chacon was able to piece together a larger picture of the architect whose legacy can be found all over Montana.

And what Chacon found in Gibson's personal life echoed loudly in the architectural work.

After spending hours deciphering a Gibson blueprint for a bungalow-style home that was never built, Shane Morrissey has a deeper appreciation for his professional predecessor.

"His attention to detail was amazing, and he expresses that through his drawings," said Morrissey, an architect at the Missoula firm of MacArthur Means and Wells.

Gibson's signature style for the homes he designed included low-pitched roofs, exposed rafter tails and unusually narrow lap-siding.

Now that he is tuned into Gibson's calling card, Morrissey said it makes driving around Missoula all the more interesting.

"One of the cool things for me is going through the university neighborhood and seeing his buildings - and if the buildings aren't his, they are absolutely influenced by him."

The unbuilt one-story, 1,500-square-foot home that Gibson envisioned included a covered porch, a trellis system designed to hold vines and keep shade in the summer, and carefully planned overhangs to provide shade for windows.

It's a lovely structure that would make a nice home, even by modern standards, Morrissey said.

"I think absolutely it would play well in today's housing market," he said.

Like the architect himself, Morrissey said, "it would be distinctive."

Reach reporter Betsy Cohen at (406) 523-5253 or by e-mail at bcohen@missoulian.com. Reach photographer Michael Gallacher at (406) 523-5270 or by e-mail at mgallacher@missoulian.com.

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