Who Lives In These Historic Montana Houses?
There are 7 buildings on Fort Missoula Road that look oddly similar, and very different than any others in the city. The red roofs, the huge columns out front, the white concrete siding...who lives in these houses?
By looking at them, you'd think they were occupied by Missoula residents. There's even swing sets, storage sheds, backyards and vehicles parked out back.
Well, it's not exactly the right question. It turns out nobody "lives" in these houses, at least not any more. They make up what is known as "Officer's Row" now owned and operated by the Northern Rockies Heritage Center. The NRHC invited me to take a tour of the grounds and give us an inside look at these structures, an interesting part of Montana history.
Northern Rockies Heritage Center Executive Director Amy Andrews and Vice President Tate Jones, who also serves as director of the NRHC Museum of Military History.
Jones, who has written two books on the history of Fort Missoula, explained why the houses were built and why they're still here:
As local lore has it, we had a powerful Senator, Joseph Dixon who had been fighting attempts to close Fort Missoula down because the frontier era was over (early 1900s) and Senator Dixon decided the best way to keep Fort Missoula here was to largely rebuild it; make the Army invest so much in here that they would be here for years and years to come.
So that's why we have all this elaborate Spanish mission revival architecture at Fort Missoula, it cost so much to build that it became known as the "Million Dollar Post."
Officer's Row became the result of Dixon's efforts, which in 1914 replaced the old wooden barracks which used to be where Heritage Hall now is and moved soldiers into the new buildings.
The largest building is where the enlisted barracks where, while the officers had the fancy homes up the street. The NRHC now leases this space to the USDA, where it is the office of the Lolo National Park ranger station.
The NHRC leases space to non profit organizations in all 7 Officer's Row buildings.
Jones also tells us the story of why Officer's Row and several other buildings on Fort Missoula grounds are now operated by NRHC. The fort used to be an active Army base, after all:
In the early 1990s the Army was pulling out of a lot of its bases, they were restructuring after the Cold War. Fort Missoula was on their list and the local historical preservation community was very concerned about what would happen to these buildings, they wanted them preserved.
So they went to Senator Conrad Burns and got special legislation for this part of Fort Missoula. It was agreed that Joseph Dixon-era construction would go to a local non profit group free of charge (the Northern Rockies Heritage Center) in exchange for maintaining them and keeping up the buildings in good condition and using them to promote social, political and cultural history; the heritage of the northern Rockies.
The first floor of Officer's Row building #30, a therapist leases this space.
The view down the staircase from the third floor of building #30. This floor was the quarters of servants to officers in the late 1910s.
The NHRC also showed me this huge collection of vintage Montana photograph postcards, all labeled by area. One day they will all be on display in a new NRHC building.
The downstairs tenants enjoy modern amenities, even though the buildings are over 100 years old. The most recent upgrade to the buildings was the addition of wifi internet in 2016.
We encourage visitors and Montanans alike to visit the Northern Rockies Heritage Center and Fort Missoula, as preservation and conservation are just as important now as they have been for over a century.
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