Historic preservation award winners to be honored next week

Special to The Electric

By Richard Ecke

Historic Preservation Commission

Windows, floors, doors, gleaming copper and elegant, high ceilings were carefully renovated, restored or duplicated by winners of historic preservation awards to be given out from 6-8 p.m. May 24, at the Belt Theater by the Cascade County-Great Falls Historic Preservation Advisory Commission.

Prism glass in the former movie theater structure in Belt decorated a 15-foot-wide transom in the part of the building that housed a billiard parlor. The huge transom window is still being restored this month as the decades-old project comes to a close and the theater has opened for performances.

It’s hard not to notice copper gleaming from the dome and roof of the Cascade County Courthouse. This $4 million project by the county was completed this spring, maintaining the historic integrity of the much-admired structure and giving the roof system many decades more of protection for the county’s court building.

High ceilings had been obscured and covered over for years in the Pennant building, just a block away from the courthouse. Owner Jason Madill gave the interior a boost and helped return the Pennant to some of its earlier elegance.

One award this year is a posthumous one, to preservation commission member Ruthann Knudson, who passed away earlier this year.

This is the first time in the history of the commission’s awards that the ceremony is being held away from Great Falls, the county seat. Officials decided people should see the Belt project close-up, so the event will be held in the lodge meeting area above the theater space. Food and refreshments will be served during the free event.

The commission’s awards are given annually to projects that have been substantially completed within the past year, and which largely follow U.S. Department of the Interior guidelines for restoring historic structures.   

Here is a look at the four award winners:

Belt Theater

Once a movie theater, the brick building in Belt fell into disrepair, but residents weren’t ready to give up on it.

Helped by volunteers and construction workers mostly from the Belt area, the project began more than two decades ago. Once home to films, the Knights of Pythias and Masonic groups, the building was eventually donated by the Masons to community volunteers to take a crack at saving it.

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Belt Theater exterior work on the windows. Courtesy Ellen Sievert

It’s taken a long time, but it was worth it.

“They really did it right,” said Ellen Sievert of Great Falls, retired city-county historic preservation officer.

Gray said a fundraising effort launched more than two years ago gave the project a final push forward. The original building featured a ticket window on the left side; a central entrance to the upstairs where Masonic meetings were held; and a billiard parlor on the right.

Among the gems uncovered during the restoration:

A transom window in the billiard parlor portion that’s about 15 feet long and three feet high containing decorative prism glass that Gary Gray calls “crazy beautiful.” Restoration of the window is  expected to be completed in the coming weeks. The glass had been painted over and covered with plywood. Gray is board president for the Belt Theater Company.

A hardwood maple floor that had been covered by ugly mid-century green carpeting in the Lodge area is now exposed and finished.

“We re-used the original windows,” Gray said. Dressing rooms and restrooms were added during the renovation work.

Gray can’t say which part of the project is his favorite.

“It’s all my favorite now,” he said. 

Steve Keaster of Keaster Construction in Belt was the general contractor, and Dave Urick Construction was the builder. The new name for the building is the Belt Performing Arts Center.

Cascade County Courthouse roof and dome

Cascade County government was troubled off and on by a leaky courthouse roof for decades, and it wasn’t easy to try to repair the elaborate copper roof.

County commissioners, who will receive the award, in recent years bit the bullet and authorized a roughly $4 million project to replace the copper roof with new and recycled copper similar to the original copper coverings. The project recently wrapped up, attracting plenty of attention from passersby who noticed the shining copper dome.

Copper railings installed in courthouse roof replacement project

What people on the ground might not realize is the entire courthouse roof is covered with copper, as aerial photographs demonstrate.

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Copper railings shine on the Cascade County Courthouse roof, which is expected to last 80 to 100 years. Courtesy Brad Eatherly

Architect Paul Filicetti of Missoula, the historic preservation architect on the project, said officials a few years ago had to decide whether to repair the roof, or replace the roof with similar copper coverings. County commissioners voted to replace it.

“That was a tremendous, forward-thinking vision,” Filicetti said. “It’s been a great project.”

Design Team lead engineers were Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. of Chicago Ill., and Renaissance Roofing of Belvidere, Ill., performed the arduous work, high above the courthouse grounds.

While the project wasn’t easy for the county budget in the short term, it’s expected to look good and serve its functions over the long haul.

“The copper roof should be an 80- to 100-year roof,” Filicetti predicted. The courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Cascade County courthouse roof. Courtesy photo

“It’s such an amazing building,” Filicetti added. “It’s beautiful. What’s unique about this building is there’s no addition.” He felt honored to be involved in the work.

“This is definitely one of the highlights of my career,” Filicetti said.

As for folks who don’t care for the glint from all that copper atop the courthouse, it won’t be long before the copper darkens with age to create a natural patina.

Interior renovation of the Pennant Building

Jason Madill of Madill Enterprises bought the Pennant Building at 104 4th St. N. in 2014, in part to give Madill and his wife an office for the family business.

Madill toured the Pennant, once home to the Pennant tavern, and noticed attractive architectural nuggets that had been obscured over the years by drop ceilings and other changes to the original  building.

Madill forged ahead by reversing some of that work, revealing spectacular spaces including higher ceilings, skylights, historic fixtures and other dramatic features.

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The renovated interior of the Pennant Building features elegant, colorful ceilings and fixtures. Courtesy Peter Jennings

Ground-floor space is occupied by a title company, where a tin ceiling attracts attention. He also gained tenants including an attorney and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

After welcoming the new tenants, Madill then got to work creating office space for his family where the Ancient Order of the Odd Fellows once were located in the building.

“We’re just  loving the space,” Madill said. The office where the Odd Fellows had been features a spectacular, ornate ceiling and murals created for the fraternal order.

Finding those architectural gems was rewarding, but Madill is also familiar with films such as “National Treasure,” in which adventurers try to find treasure hidden away in the past by Masonic members.

“I was kind of like, ‘Maybe I’ll find a block of gold somewhere,’” Madill said jokingly. He did not find any hidden gold or jewels, but he will collect his award soon for his historic preservation work.

Preservationist Ruthann Knudson

Ruthann Knudson, a member of the Commission who died earlier this year, will be honored for her dedicated service to historic preservation and the study of area native American history culture, said Tom Micuda, deputy director for the city’s Planning and Community Development office.

“Her specialty, and her passion, was in Native American cultures, particularly in Plains Indian archeology and anthropology,” Micuda explained. Before eventually moving to Great Falls, Knudson had a very successful career as a professor of anthropology at several universities as well as serving the National Park Service as an archeologist. Knudson served on the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission since 2014 and was a board member for the Upper Missouri Heritage Area Planning Corp. On the commission, she created a special committee to look at archeological sites in the area, including Wadsworth Park and the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park area.