Other travel stories
Butte Lunches
Going for the Gold in Montana
Montana's Hot Spring Resorts
A Trip to Lewis & Clark Caverns
Ramblin' Around the World Museum of Mining
Retracing the Nez Perce National Historic Trail

Your Day in the Butte-Silver Bow County Courthouse
by George Everett
 
Unless you arrive handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit for arraignment, or you are stopping by to pay property taxes, you might enjoy a visit to the Butte Silver Bow County Courthouse, one of the West's most beautiful public buildings.

The Silver Bow County Courthouse may be the state's most accessible example of the elegant and ornate approach to public buildings that was the model when Montana was young and rich at the beginning of the last century.

In fact at a time when the real political power in Montana was centered in Butte, the cost of the Silver Bow County Courthouse rivaled the cost of construction for the state Capitol Building. Like other buildings in Butte's Historic Uptown district, the Courthouse was designed by the Montana architecture firm of J.G. Link & C.S. Haire in the Beaux Arts (pronounced Bozar) style.

Common features of the Beaux Arts style include pilasters and tall columns that echo the grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome, and a uniformity of materials, design and height for the cornice line. The Beaux Arts style became popular and widely incorporated in civic buildings throughout the country after the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago where it was introduced. It became the model for the design of Washington, D.C.'s distinctive and enduring public buildings at the turn of the century.

The Beaux Arts style was popular in Butte's public buildings constructed during this time and it resonated throughout Butte's residential structures as well. Homes built during this period reflect a preference for columns and pilasters. Ionic columns, Doric columns, and Corinthian columns grace the front porches and facades of homes all over Butte's upper west side.

The Silver Bow County Courthouse is Link & Haire's Butte masterpiece. Construction began on the building to replace a dilapidated older courthouse in 1910. The new courthouse cost $482,600 and was financed by public bonds. It was completed and dedicated on the 4th of July in 1912. By comparison, the original state capitol building, according to the Montana Historical Society, cost $485,000 to build.

D.J. Charles of the Butte Chamber of Commerce spoke at the dedication and said," We can boast of one of the best, if not the best, and the most beautiful county buildings in the state of Montana or throughout the entire Northwest."

The heavy front doors are copper as is the roof except for the stained glass dome that allows light to enter from above.

The 1,000-pound bronze capstan of the USS Maine, a gift to Butte and its veterans of the Spanish-American War, is displayed in the lobby near the entrance. Through the efforts of Senator Thomas Walsh and Judge J.J. Lynch, the largest salvaged remnant of the U.S.S. Maine ended up in Butte as a gift from the federal government to the Henry W. Lawton Camp No. 1 troop of Spanish-American War veterans. The capstan was unveiled in a Memorial Day ceremony on May 30, 1914 and was donated to the Courthouse and the people of Butte on June 14, 1914 where it has remained ever since.

On the west side of the lobby is a small exhibit of mineral specimens taken from the Butte Hill and elsewhere around Montana next to a large relief map of the state of Montana. A scale cutaway model of a working underground mine sits in a cabinet next to the mineral exhibits. This working display modeled after the Belmont Mine was built over 38 years as a labor of love by Bill Burns. It swallows a pair of quarters and in return lights come on underground illuminating an ore train, hoists, headframe and stopes all operating at a scale where you can take in the whole operation at work.

The rotunda walls are decorated with golden mosaic murals of personified muses -- Justice, Geography, History and Philosophy. Above them, Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, Washington, and Wilson reside on the corners of the dome. Large pillars of Montana-quarried Travertine draw the eye upward toward the mosaics and stained glass dome.

The closer you look the more detail catches your eye. For example, look down as you climb the stairs to the upper floors to notice the Celtic symbols that decorate the risers of the steps.

The reward for climbing all the stairs is the contemporary painting by Mike Hamblin that graces the stairwell on the top floor. The painting depicts Butte's three copper kings in their prime -- Marcus Daly, Augustus F.Heinze and William Andrews Clark.

The paint was barely dry on the new building when the courthouse was called into service during the labor unrest of 1914, serving as a barracks for militia brought to Butte to suppress labor unrest that followed the dynamiting of the Miner's Union Hall.

Crowds of thousands have gathered at the courthouse to listen to political candidates and presidents over the years. A crowd of nearly 10,000 crowded the street to hear an address by Franklin Delano Roosevelt from a makeshift podium on the steps of the Courthouse in 1932. He had spoken to a large crowd from the same steps in 1920 as a Vice Presidential candidate.

Ironically, during the reign of the Anaconda Mining Company and the rule of the "copper collar," the Courthouse building was never the true seat of power in Butte or Silver Bow County. The decisions that shaped the lives of most Montanans were made on the corner of Main and Granite streets two blocks to the east on the 6th floor of the Hennessey building, which was the headquarters of the Anaconda Mining Company.

Although the Courthouse remains in full use as office space for county government employees and officials, the building is open to all, and visitors are welcome to take self-guided tours of the building. The large copper doors of the Courthouse are open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 am to 5 pm. To contact any local government office within the courthouse, visit their web site at http://www.co.silverbow.mt.us/.
 
Where to stay, where to eat

The Courthouse is located in Butte's Historic Uptown District at 155 W. Granite Street. Take exit 126 and follow Montana Street all the way up the Hill. Modern lodging and amenities in a historic setting are available nearby. An elegant bed and breakfasts is within one block of the courthouse. The Copper King Mansion, once home to William Andrews Clark, one of the richest men on earth, is one block west of the courthouse at 219 W. Granite (406-782-7580).

The Finlen Hotel at the corner of Broadway and Wyoming Streets (1-800-729-546) offers modern rooms and also sits within a short walk of the Courthouse and the rest of Butte's historic district.

Fine restaurants within a short walk of the Courthouse include the Acoma Lounge and Restaurant at 60 E. Broadway (406-782-7001), the Uptown Café at 47 E. Broadway (406-723-4735), the Broadway Café at 302 E. Broadway (406-723-8711) and La Hacienda a Taqueria at 116 W. Park St. (406-782-8226). Other nearby examples of beautifully restored buildings from the same period include the Mother Lode Theatre (315 W. Park) and the Arts Chateau (321 W. Broadway).
This site is designed and maintained by George Everett.
© 2005 by George Everett. All rights reserved.
 
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