Cupola repairs planned for Helena’s historic Bluestone House

Posted April 25, 2022

This article originally appeared in The Independent Record. It was written by Phil Drake.

 A cupola on a historic Helena landmark that towers over Last Chance Gulch will undergo some much-needed repair, thanks to its owner and a grant from the Montana Historical Foundation.

Wild Montana received an $8,000 grant in 2021 to restore the corner turret on the Bluestone House at 80 S. Warren St., which over the years has served as a restaurant and a law firm and is now home to the nonprofit which advocates for protecting and providing access to public land and protecting the wild.

The metal roof that caps the dome-like turret is failing, foundation officials said, adding the grant will preserve existing materials and replace the fasteners, reapply sealants and color-match existing paints.

“A watertight restoration will ensure the longevity of this iconic Helena building,” the foundation said.

Laura Parr, operations director for Wild Montana, said the cupola has undergone a lot of weathering over the years along with ice damage. She said fasteners are loose. The grant will also be used for cleanup and new sealants. She said the cupola will be spruced up with some color and will be more watertight. She said the building has a scenic façade easement which mandates that the renovations must be as historically accurate as possible. The cupola project is one of several renovations Wild Montana has done to the building since it took ownership in 2014, Parr said.

She said she plans on trying to match the dome’s original color. Parr said she hopes to work with the city someday to develop and improve some of the social trails around the Bluestone and Fire Tower Park.

Wild Montana had hoped to do the project last summer, but Parr said it was difficult to get a construction company because they were all busy. She said Core Construction Co. will do the work, along with repairs to an oriel window. She said work is expected to begin in May.

Parr said because of the logistics it made sense to do both projects at the same time. The window repair is not included in the grant. She said the window has increased the cost of the project to $15,000, noting the foundation grant is paying for a large portion of the overall project. She said a banner from the Montana History Foundation will hang on the building as the work is underway.

“It’s great,” Zachary Coe, community outreach manager for the Montana History Foundation, said of the restoration. “It’s such a local landmark for Helena.”

And the Montana History Foundation says the Bluestone is part of their Breweries & Brothels history walk for 2022. For more information, go to https://www.mthistory.org/.

The Bluestone, now on the National Register of Historic places, was built in 1889 of locally quarried stone for a notorious madam. The bluestone came out of Mount Helena, Coe said. He said bluestone is not common, but Mount Helena has much of it.

A 2013 article in the Helena Independent Record reported the building was designed and built by architect James F. Stranahan in 1889 for his bride, but that he died before it was completed.

But Montana historian Ellen Baumler said he built it for Lillie McGraw, a madam who later fell on hard times. The house is located close to the Helena’s historic red light district, where several brothels were located years ago.

McGraw, who owned the lot at the time the Bluestone was being constructed, had to mortgage a number of her properties around that time. The ownership of the property shifted several times within a few years from McGraw, to Stranahan’s wife, Leona, to a J.S.M. Neill, said Baumler.

One historical inventory reports it was heavily damaged in the 1935 earthquake. According to the Montana Historical Society website, for several decades the Bluestone was considered an “attractive ruin.” In the 1970s the Urban Renewal Historic Preservation Committee got funding that made restoration possible. Each stone was numbered, dismantled, and put back together again.

Baumler said Wednesday the home never fully served as a residence.

“It’s not really that clandestine, it is a beautiful home that was never fully occupied,” she said. “It’s very prominent and curious to visitors.

“I think the house is now in good hands.”

But she said there is nothing historic about the inside of the home as it has new plaster, woodwork and doors.

Parr said that as with any homeownership, something always needs to be done for the 133-year-old mansion.

She said the Bluestone’s front deck was in horrible disrepair when Wild Montana bought it and spent money to bring it up to code.

They redid the roof because of water damage and discovered the need of repair to the cupola. She said they are fortunate that as a nonprofit that they can apply for grant funding to help the Bluestone.

“We are proud to have it as our permanent home,” she said.