Fans of historic preservation celebrated last week when the North Elevation Historic District became Billings’ first residential district to be accepted for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The distinction was a long time coming. Many other cities in Montana have at least one residential district on the national register, and some have several. (A statewide map showing all listings is available here.)
It might surprise people in Billings, population 110,000, to know that Forsyth, a railroad town 100 miles northeast of Billings, with a population of barely 2,000, established a residential historic district more than 25 years ago, in February 1990.
At the same time, the Forsyth community managed to obtain national register listing for its Main Street commercial district and to place several historic buildings and structures—including the abandoned Forsyth Bridge over the Yellowstone River—individually on the National Register.
Billings neighborhood belatedly makes the register
Interest in having portions of Billings’ North Elevation neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places goes back to the 1980s, when residents were worried about encroachments by the expanding medical corridor.
The effort didn’t begin in earnest until 2008, when 47 property owners in the neighborhood approached the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board and asked to get the process going.
Those efforts were rewarded last week when the National Register Keeper officially listed the North Elevation Historic District, an area bounded by Ninth and 12th avenues north, North 32nd Street and the alley between North 31st and 32nd streets.
The residential district joins two previously listed commercial districts—the Billings Townsite Historic District on Montana Avenue and the Old Town Historic District on Minnesota Avenue.
The boundaries of the original North Elevation Historic District were a bit larger, when documents were prepared on 150 houses. The final, smaller district has 104 houses in addition to outbuildings that contribute to the historic nature of the area—including three garages that still have their original stable doors.
Elisabeth DeGrenier, the volunteer and outreach coordinator at the Western Heritage Center, spent six months photographing and researching the history, architecture and significance of the houses, a painstaking process that took a day and half to two days per house, she said.
Kevin Kooistra, the center’s community historian, wrote the 70-page narrative that was part of the application submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office review board, which did the initial review.
In commercial districts listed on the National Register, property owners who want to change the facades on their buildings have to get approval from the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board.
Those restrictions don’t apply to properties in a residential historic district, unless a property owner has received federal funding for historic renovation, DeGrenier said.
“There’s not the level of preservation that people think is in place,” Kooistra said. “It’s more honorary than anything at this point.”
“I think it has been a benefit to the community, without question,” said Mark Hufstetler, the historian who did most of the research and writing needed to obtain the Forsyth listings.
Such projects sharpen an awareness of the past and make people proud of their city, Hufstetler said, “especially so for a place like Forsyth, which has gone through a history of fairly precarious times.”
The mix of houses in the Forsyth Residential Historic District, located near the downtown just north of the Rosebud County Courthouse, includes Queen Anne-style residences, American foursquare and cottage-style houses from the 1890s, Colonial Revival residences and Craftsman bungalows.
“The quiet, inviting avenues,” a one-page summary of the district reads, “personify the enthusiasm of hard-working citizens and early town boosters.”
For some people in Forsyth, the history runs deep.
Mike Blakesley owns Carquest Auto Parts at 980 Main St. He also owns the Roxy Theatre, which is right across Main from Carquest and which was built in 1930 in the Spanish Eclectic style. Within the historic residential district a few blocks away, at 1356 Park St., his mother still lives in the house Blakesley was born in.
The house has been remodeled too many times to be listed individually on the National Register, Blakesley said, but right across the street from it is a house that is on the register, a beautiful Colonial Revival that was built in 1905 and sold in 1936 to Frank Faust, the original owner of the Roxy Theatre.
Blakesley was impressed by Hufstetler’s work to chronicle the architecture and historical significance of houses and other structures in the two historic districts.
“I thought it was going to be more clinical than it turned out to be,” he said. “The historical survey really changed my outlook on the whole thing.”
In keeping with National Register standards, Hufstetler compiled detailed records on about 200 houses, buildings and outbuildings in the residential and commercial districts. Each “site form” included a brief history of the property and ownership, an architectural description and an “integrity evaluation,” saying how much historical character survived and whether the structure deserved National Register designation.
Hustetler, now a historical consultant in Bozeman, had recently earned a master’s degree in history from Montana State University when he was hired by the State Historic Preservation Office in 1988 to begin work in Forsyth.
The native of Utah had already done some work in Glacier National Park, a “dream job” that involved inventorying historic structures in the park’s alpine backcountry. Like a lot of people in the western part of the state, he said, he harbored stereotypes about Eastern Montana—“flat, conservative, uninteresting, terrible weather, all that stuff,” he said.
“Spending time in Forsyth disproved all those stereotypes for me,” he said. He remembers waking up and seeing the sun rising over the valley’s bluffs, and after work he often went down to the Yellowstone River to take in all the beauty.
“I found it tremendously evocative,” he said. “I also found the people to be an extraordinarily cool bunch of people. I honestly fell in love with the place.”
The push for getting local properties and districts on the National Register was led by the Forsyth Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, then headed by June MacConnel.
“She was quite a booster,” Hufstetler said. “She loved the history of the place. She put together a lot of legwork for it.”
Hufstetler worked on the project off and on for more than two years, and all told he spent about five months living in Forsyth. He was given office space at a farm implement dealership, and volunteers helped him with research and other chores.
“It was really a community-based effort,” he continued. “They were really excited about getting this done.” The community support made his job a lot easier, too: “When people saw me standing out in front of their house with a clipboard, they were certainly more receptive.”
The lack of community support killed a previous effort to establish a historic residential district in Billings. In the early 1980s, initial survey work was done on a neighborhood in the vicinity of the Moss Mansion, but for some reason the project was shelved. When those efforts were restarted in the early 1990s, not long after Forsyth established its own districts, too many people in the neighborhood were opposed.
The opposition was led by the late Bruce Simon, a state senator who lived in the proposed district and who doggedly campaigned against it, to the point of going door to door and warning people that a federal listing would come with heavy-handed rules and requirements.
Hufstetler and others involved in historic preservation say that has never been the case. The listing is mostly honorary and imposes no restrictions on property owners. Even if a house is listened individually on the National Register, he said, a homeowner can do anything he or she wants with the structure.
The only exception is that if a property owner accepts federal funds to do work on structure, there may be some restrictions on altering its appearance.
“This isn’t a government thing,” Hufstetler said. “It’s just something that tells the community how cool the buildings are.” And though a few people had doubts about the listing at first, he added, “in the end, I didn’t have any individual property owner who objected.”
Carol Klinker bought one of the finest houses in the Forsyth Residential Historic District in 1997, a house at 214 13th Ave. known as the McCuistion Residence, which is individually listed on the National Register.
It was built in 1914 for Joshua McCuistion, a businessman and rancher, and his wife, Grace. A walking tour brochure of the neighborhood said Grace had traveled to Asia and “had a great appreciation for eastern architecture.” That would explain the home’s deep eaves and flared roofline, “meant to evoke the Far East,” as the same brochure says.
Klinker said she was looking for an older home that she could use for a bed and breakfast, and she didn’t recall that the house’s listing on the National Register had any bearing on the sale. After she bought the house, a local women’s group helped her buy a National Register plaque, now displayed prominently in front of the residence.
Klinker said she once looked into the possibility of obtaining federal funding to help with repairs to the house, but the only aid available seemed to be tax credits offered to owners of historic properties.
“It looked like I had to jump through so many hoops that I just quit,” she said.
Blakesley had a somewhat similar experience when he looked into obtaining federal funds to replace all the seats in the Roxy Theatre years ago. He found out funds were available only for projects that enhanced the historical value of a property, like façade restoration.
Even so, the research Hustetler did on the building made Blakesley appreciate the building’s history, and instead of simply modernizing everything over the years, he has always made improvements with an eye toward preserving the building’s historical value.
Cal MacConnel, the son of former chamber president June MacConnel, is also the owner of a historical structure, originally a car dealership and now Clark Hardware, at 1195 Main St.
He said the push begun by his mother worked so well because Hustetler was liked by virtually everybody he came in contact with.
“Mark just became like a member of the community when he was here,” MacConnel said. “He fit in so well.”
Early hopes that creation of the historic districts would be a big boost to local tourism efforts never panned out, MacConnel said, but “it was successful to the people who are interested in community history.”
Six or seven years ago, Diane and Dan Murnion, owners of the Restwel Motel, along with others still interested in community history, helped put together the walking-tour brochure mentioned above.
The original intent was to have someone offer regular tours, but that didn’t come to pass. Instead, the brochures were handed out to people who asked for them at the library, the local museum and the Restwel.
The museum doesn’t carry them anymore, Diane Murnion said, and she wasn’t sure the library had any copies left. She’s down to just a few, so she doesn’t hand them out anymore. The good news is that the brochures’ scarcity means they were distributed and used. Murnion gave out more than a few over the years to visitors who asked her what there was to do in town.
“A lot of people really enjoyed it,” she said.