First Time for Everything: Touring the Moss Mansion

I have lived in Billings since 1989. I have covered the city of Billings as a reporter for more than 20 years. And a few days ago, I finally toured the Moss Mansion.

How can that be? Preston Boyd Moss, who built the imposing red-stone mansion at 914 Division St., had a hand in just about everything that mattered in early Billings. He and a partner built the original Northern Hotel, and he was instrumental in the creation of the BBWA Canal, a newspaper, a telephone company, the sugar factory, Rocky Mountain College and the original YMCA.

By the time of his death in 1947, he was hailed as “the man who built Billings.”

I don’t think my reluctance to tour the Moss Mansion, now maintained by the Billings Preservation Society, had anything to do with class envy, something that has been in the news in recent years.

I think, rather, that I have always felt a little put off by what I like to call the Onanistic style of architecture—self-erected monuments built by very rich men. But now that I have been to the Moss Mansion, I can recommend it with no qualms. It is nothing like William A. Clark’s Copper King Mansion in Butte (recently converted, I find, to a bed-and-breakfast!), built by a rapacious plutocrat from the sweat and blood of exploited miners.

The Moss Mansion, for all its staggering opulence, was truly a home, built for an apparently happy family, by a man who made his money mostly doing good things for his adopted community.

Crab

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

In the kitchen, a box of vacuum-packed deviled crab.

I chose to take the self-guided tour, the better to set my own pace while taking photographs and notes. A young woman—a volunteer, an employee?—discreetly hovered around the margins as another visitor and I strolled from room to room. Whoever she was, she was quite helpful whenever I had a question that went beyond the explanatory placards in each room.

The 60-by-60-foot square house has 28 rooms on three floors, but the third floor is now used for office space and is not open to the public. It used to contain two maids bedrooms, a sitting room and a ballroom.

Whether you take a guided tour or go on your own, you start by watching a short film in the basement, which tells the history of the Moss family and of the house, completed in 1903. A lot more history is given in displays on basement walls.

I was especially interested in an undated newspaper article describing the mansion. It was a very long article, and after reading the first paragraph you may well wonder whether anyone ever read the whole thing:

“The changes which have occurred in economic conditions in this country during the past fifty years, while producing many interesting results, have led to none more gratifying than the improvement which has been brought about in the homes of the people.”

In hopes of making my own piece somewhat shorter and not quite so dry as that one, I won’t attempt to describe every room. I’ll just hit some of the highlights, noting things that caught my eye or my fancy.

Let’s start in the French parlor, a large room just to the right of the main entrance, furnished with Louis XVI decor and featuring a grand piano and a full-size harp. Everything in the room is “touched” with 24-carat gold leaf and the walls are covered in rose silk.

The carpets, we are told, were made in France at $32 a yard, at a time when regular carpets cost 88 cents a yard. The drapes in the parlor cost $1,500, at a time when a fully furnished house cost $3,000. Not every room is quite so spectacular as the parlor, but it doesn’t appear that Moss or his wife, Martha, known as Mattie, cut any corners or denied themselves any whim.

The front entryway is, if anything, even more impressive than the parlor. It is not even described as an entryway but as the Moorish Hall, with elaborately decorated arches modeled after those in the Alahambra Palace in Spain. It’s hard to appreciate in the midst of our hot spell, but the cloakrooms flanking the Moorish Hall had their own radiators, so that winter guests of the Mosses could leave the house in heated coats.

Also on the first floor is the library, with dark oak paneling and three stained-glass windows—one of them bearing a portrait of Shakespeare—above the bookcases. P.B. Moss’ desk is covered in water buffalo hide, surely the most unusual, extravagant detail in the house.

As for the books, all part of P.B.’s library, I couldn’t help noticing that almost all of them were beautifully bound complete sets—the works of Dickens, a history of the world, etc.—made more for display than reading, and indeed most of the books looked untouched by human hands. But Moss was a busy man.

The conservatory, or solarium, is still full of flowers and must have been wonderfully restorative during a long winter. One of the Moss children, a daughter named Melville, was said to have kept chickens in the conservatory during World War II, for meat and eggs. Did anyone bring that up when the City Council was considering the ordinance allowing backyard chickens?

Melville, a visitor also learns, never married and lived in the mansion until her death at 88 in 1983, when the movement to preserve the mansion got underway.

The family dining room is almost oppressively ornate, with heavy oak paneling everywhere, coffered ceilings, a breakfront china cabinet hand-carved in Missouri and hauled to Montana, and a fireplace (nonfunctioning, as built) with ruby-red porcelain mosaic tiles and a bronze door.

Gowns

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

In the nursery, some wee sleeping gowns, apparently.

On the second floor, an expansive sitting room is surrounded by bedrooms. The master bedroom, for all its beautiful ornamentation, would be considered quite small by today’s standards. We are told that Mattie “spent hours and hours sitting in her room and praying,” perhaps contemplating Luke 18:24-27.

The nursery is quite touching, especially when you read that Virginia, the only Moss child born in the mansion (on Valentine’s Day, as it happened) died of diphtheria at the age of 5. It is sobering to think how many children, even the children of the very rich, used to die of diseases many people today have never even heard of.

The description of the nursery, by the way, included this wonderful non sequitur: “Mrs. Moss caused quite a stir in Paris, MO when she wed Mr. Moss in a dress with no sleeves.”

In the “Boy’s Apartment,” as it is called, there is a closet containing the grandiose hats and uniforms worn by P.B. and his sons as part of their duties with the Knights, the Shriners and the Masons. It is somehow consoling to think that people of such great wealth and power subjected themselves to so much silliness.

One of the bedrooms was reserved for Mattie’s parents, George and Iantha Woodson. Mattie was their only living child, and the Moss children were their only grandchildren, so living with them made perfect sense, and must have been a great joy to all concerned. The walls in this room are decorated with drawings of wisteria and swallows, both symbols of Missouri, from which the Woodson and Moss families both hailed.

Well, that should be enough to whet your appetite, along with the photo gallery at the start of this story. If you’ve lived here a long time and haven’t been to the Moss Mansion yet, get cracking. If you’re new here, don’t wait as long as I did.

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 First Time for Everything:

This is the second installment of an occasional series in which we visit places, in Billings and around the region, that we probably should have visited a long, long time ago, since everyone else seems to have done so already. Read the first one here.

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