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Main Hall: the History

UMW News Bureau

A look back into Main Hall’s 104-year history reveals four eras of construction, all of which are now being bridged by a major renovation. Main Hall ComplexA look back into Main Hall’s 104-year history reveals four eras of construction, all of which are now being bridged by a major renovation. “Old Main,” as it is affectionately known, is the University of Montana Western’s iconic original building. Originally one structure, Main Hall eventually grew with the university with three additions in 1907, 1924 and 1951. Montana’s third Legislative assembly provided the establishment of the Montana Normal School and three other institutions in 1893. However, the legislative assembly did not approve an appropriation until two years later when construction began. The cornerstone to Main Hall was placed on April 7, 1896. The building was completed the next year at a cost of $50,000 including furnishings. Main Hall’s gothic structure was designed by German-born Helena architect John C. Paulsen. Educated in Europe, Paulsen also designed the Jefferson County Courthouse, Main Hall at Montana Tech University, the Broadwater Natatorium and the Boise, Idaho city hall. Unfortunately, Paulsen died in March of 1897 and did not live to see Main Hall completed. Until 1907, Main Hall was the only building on campus. It housed administrative, faculty and support offices, and classrooms. There were 14 rooms, eight of which were labeled as recitation rooms (classrooms or lecture halls). On the first floor (basement), there were three recitation rooms and a laboratory. Today, there is an art studio and two art-specific classrooms. In 1896, the second floor featured three recitation rooms and the president’s office. The president’s office also served as a registration area for students. Over time, the second floor went through several remodeling projects. Today, the advising center takes the place of the recitation room. The president’s office is now the provost’s office. The School of Outreach, faculty offices and the assistant provost office have replaced two recitation rooms. In 1896, the third floor was occupied by the school’s assembly hall, library (roughly 1,000 volumes) and two recitation rooms. Two classrooms and a hallway have replaced the assembly hall. Experitas (formerly Elderhostel) occupies the former library space and part of one recitation room. English faculty offices occupy the remaining space. The 1907 addition to Main Hall was designed by C.S. Haire and John Gustave Link. The pair designed over 1,000 buildings across Montana including 18 of the 56 county courthouses. Link was also involved in the design of the Dillon Public Library. The new addition, built at a cost of $90,000, added two science labs, a science lecture room, an exercise gymnasium, five classrooms, a larger library and an auditorium. The first floor (basement) featured a physics lab, a chemistry lab, a science lecture room and an exercise gymnasium with two locker rooms. Today, the science labs and lecture room are three fine arts classrooms. The gym is now a drawing studio and art faculty offices. The second floor originally featured five new classrooms. There are now four classrooms and the TRIO Student Support Service office. The third floor originally featured a two-story 5,000-volume library and a new auditorium with a 300-person capacity. The former library space is now two large classrooms. The auditorium was reduced in size adding space for faculty offices. The auditorium, commonly called the “Small Auditorium,” has undergone technological improvements over the years and is used for student drama and musical productions, classes and university presentations. The fourth floor was balcony space initially, but was changed to a music conservatory in later years. As the college grew, so did the library with over 11,000 volumes in its collection. The library addition to Main Hall was designed in 1924 by Angus Vaughn McIver and Chandler C. Cohagen. McIver helped design the Montana Historical Society building and a Montana State University building. Cohagen designed the Governor’s Mansion in Helena, Mont. and the University of Montana Natural Science building. The new library was built at a cost of $140,000. The first floor featured five classrooms, three faculty offices and restrooms. Now, the first floor features the Emeriti Room, Corr Gallery, Seidensticker Wildlife Gallery, Walton Gallery, Early Childhood Education offices, faculty offices and restrooms. The second level of the library was originally the entrance to the two-story library reading room along with the collection stacks, catalog room and several miscellaneous offices. Faculty offices, a classroom, conference room and office simulation and computer labs now comprise the second floor. The third level was the upper part of the library reading room, a lecture room and three seminar rooms. The current use is faculty offices and one classroom. The auditorium (now the Beier Auditorium) was the final piece of the present Main Hall building complex. It was designed by Norman J. Hamill and Walter Arnold of Butte, Mont. Hamill also designed Butte Central High School and the main post office in Bozeman, Mont.. Arnold was also the designer of the Rialto Theater in Deer Lodge, Mont. The auditorium was built in 1951 at a cost of $160,000. Seating capacity was listed at 650. The front portion of the first floor of the auditorium building was used for classrooms and shops. The rear portion was used for staging, dressing rooms and a restroom. Today, pottery instruction complete with kilns dominates the rooms. The back portion remains devoted to drama with stage support and dressing rooms. The second floor of the auditorium building was the theater and lobby, which remains the same. A state-of-the-art sound system was recently added. In 1980, Main Hall was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over 100 years from its groundbreaking, the Main Hall complex continues to be the hub of the campus maintaining the original intent of the legislature that created the university in 1893.
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