One of the most distinctive old houses in Billings is on the market for the first time in nearly 40 years.
The white stucco house with a red tile roof, at 2306 Virginia Lane, is being sold by two sisters, Carmen Forsman of Seattle and Lou Hegwer of Billings.
It is notable not only as a splendid example of Spanish Revival architecture. It was also among the earliest private residences designed by Ralph Cushing and Everett Terrell, the founders of CTA Architects. They formed a partnership in 1938 and designed the house on Virginia Lane in 1939. CTA Architects Engineers is now the biggest architectural and engineering firm in Montana, with offices in nine states.
Another of the house’s distinctions is that the late LeRoy Greene, a prominent Billings artist, painted a mural on the wall of the curved stairwell just inside its front entrance.
Forsman and Hegwer, daughters of the woman who bought the house in 1978, said that as far as they have been able to determine, the painting may have been the only residential mural Greene ever painted.
The house, according to their researches, was commissioned by Charles O. Campbell, who owned Northwestern Auto Supply and was the owner of KGHL Radio when it went on the air for the first time on June 8, 1928. It had several other owners—the founder of KULR TV, an oil-and-gas man and a lawyer—before it went up for sale in 1978.
Hegwer and Forsman’s mother, Bettie Forsman, had had her eye on the house, and the day after she saw that it was for sale she went to several banks in Billings in search of a mortgage. She was a single, divorced woman at the time, Carmen said, and it was difficult to deal with banks under the circumstances. Finally, however, she obtained a mortgage through Western Federal Savings and bought the house.
Bettie was born in Florida and her family moved to Billings after her father, a wildcatter, struck oil in the Badger Basin of Wyoming. He left his daughter some money, Carmen said, and she bought the house on Virginia Lane partly as an investment.
When Bettie died in 2012, her only son, Richard Hegwer, decided he wanted to live in the house. He and his sisters had equal shares in the property, so he bought them out and moved in.
“He loved the house,” Carmen said. “When he moved in, he didn’t change a thing. He left it as a kind of shrine to our mother.”
Richard had recently retired from BNSF Railway, but 18 months after his mother died, he contracted pancreatic cancer and died a short time later, in April 2014. The two surviving sisters decided to sell the house, and after nearly a year of cleaning it out and preparing it for sale, it recently went on the market.
Lou Hegwer discovered the CTA connection when she was cleaning out one of her mother’s closets and found Cushing and Terrell’s original blueprints, the earliest portions of which were dated November 1939.
After doing more research, Carmen got in touch with CTA and suggested having a reception at the house for anyone from CTA who was interested in seeing it. Fifty or 60 people turned out for the reception earlier this month, including Lesley Gilmore, director of historic preservation services for CTA in Bozeman.
“I was thrilled with how little they’d changed the building, and how little the other owners had,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore also said that many of the architects were “blown away by the detail” in the house. As Carmen put it, “When it was designed, every single thing was designed for that house. All the door knobs were designed, even the toothbrush holder. Nothing was taken off the shelf.”
Mike Tuss, a principal with CTA in Billings, who has been with the firm since 1984, happens to live just a few blocks from the house. He said what struck him was thinking what the house must have looked like when it was built.
Virginia Lane might have been a dirt road in 1940, and since there were so few trees on the north end of Billings then, the house must have really stood out.
“The house was probably out in the country, at least by a few blocks,” he said. “It was really quite an estate there.”
He was also impressed that Cushing and Terrell, and the owners of the house, took the trouble and went to the expense of making the exterior walls more than a foot thick, so they looked like the adobe walls of houses in Spain and Mexico.
“They carried through on those details, even though it wasn’t made out of adobe,” he said.
Gilmore was impressed with basement tunnels that apparently were built in order to have “conditioned space” under the tile flooring of the house’s outdoor patios, which prevented damage caused by freezing and thawing.
“I just thought that was a really fine design feature,” she said.
Lou Hegwer said they haven’t learned why Campbell chose Spanish Revival for his house, or why Greene painted a scene from Mexico on the stairwell wall. It shows a young Mexican guitarist sitting on a low wall, with the colonial city of Taxco in the background.
They do know why their mother loved the house. Bettie and her father both loved Mexico, and Bettie was an exchange student there during high school. As an adult, she spent six years in Mexico and married a Mexican man. Carmen was born in Mexico.
Bettie’s obituary in the Gazette said she also lived in North Africa, Spain and other parts of Europe. She was married four times and was a published author. Her daughters said she loved to throw parties for as many as 100 people, which was another reason she liked the big house on Virginia Lane.
The sisters have already had several open houses and plan to continue having them on Sundays from 1 to 3 p.m., possibly through the end of July. They don’t mind if people just stop by to see the place.
“I love the open houses because somebody will come by and tell me something interesting,” Lou said, including details about the construction of the house or something having to do with the house’s history.
Among the house’s many unusual or exceptionally fine features are a terra cotta fireplace and mantel in the expansive sunken living room; little switches built into the door frame of each closet, so that a light comes on when the door is opened; double-pane windows with steel casements; grass-cloth wallpaper made of woven flax in one of the two main bedrooms on the second floor; and a little covered veranda just outside that same bedroom.
“We used to do Romeo and Juliet up here,” Lou said, standing on the porch.
Bettie built an addition to the house, a sun room off the kitchen, containing a sunken Jacuzzi tub. That brought the size of the house to 4,742 square feet. The house sits on just under half an acre of land and is mostly shrouded by trees.
Carmen found an article in the Autumn 2001 issue of Montana: The Magazine of Western History, in which H. Rafael Chacon, a professor of art history and criticism at the University of Montana, wrote about Spanish-style architecture in Montana. The house on Virginia Lane wasn’t mentioned in the article, but Chacon said in an email to Carmen that he was familiar with the house.
He also gave her permission to use this quote of his: “It is a marvelous historic house that reflects the American craze for all things related to the Spanish colonial missions in California, the Southwest, Florida, and elsewhere in the country.”
Details: For more information on the house, plus lots of pictures, go to the website created by Forsman and Hegwer.