Monday, June 9, 2014

Mining Camp Architecture

Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena each had a turn as Montana’s territorial capital, but each was destined for a different future. Today Bannack is a state park whose empty buildings mostly date to the 1880s and later. Helena owes its survival beyond the mining phase to the Northern Pacific which linked the town to distant markets in 1883. Few 1860s gold camp remnants survive in Helena. But Virginia City has a remarkable fifty-one 1860s gold rush-era buildings. Virginia City’s buildings retain their antiquated storefronts. Only small panes of glass, packed in sawdust, could survive transport over rough terrain. So merchants used French doors that allowed maximum light into their stores. Helena once sported the same type of storefront, but with the advent of the railroad, storefronts were remodeled with big display windows. Lack of rail transportation is partly why most of Virginia City’s storefronts escaped remodeling. Virginia City’s 1860s buildings illustrate how frontier architecture was all about illusion. As the town transitioned from a temporary mining camp to a more permanent settlement, shop keepers began to add false fronts to the log cabins. False fronts were architecturally important to mining camps because they made buildings seem taller, larger, and grander than they really were. This offered residents a sense of security in remote places like Alder Gulch.  To the false fronts, shopkeepers began to add half-columns, arches, and medallions. These, crafted in wood on the frontier, mimicked the stone and brick ornamentation in the buildings of cities far away. Inside, muslin stretched smooth and tacked down over the rough log walls gave the illusion of plaster. Then, wallpaper applied over the muslin made primitive interiors seem like tastefully decorated rooms.

Muslin stretched smooth over log ceiling and walls, seen here in the McGovern Store,  made interiors seem like finished rooms.
Virginia City’s first substantial buildings, like Content’s Corner and the Kiskadden Barn, were of rubblestone. A layer of plaster scored to look like stone blocks covered the rough stones. The effect was dramatic. These survivors and historic photographs of them give us a real sense of early residents’ attempts at civilization.

The Kiskadden Barn sports a tall false front and a on the ground level, plaster  scored to look like cut stone.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 956-249

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