This article originally appeared on U.S. News. It was written by Phil Drake.
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — It may not have felt like it, but there are some folks who will swear that March 21, 2022 was a very historic day for Montana.
The State Land Board took action that day to support efforts to restore Stonewall Hall in VirginiaCity, a crumbling structure that advocates of the plan say is the most important building in Montana’s history.
The board voted 5-0 to accept the donation of the building at 300 Wallace St. that served as the territorial Capitol building from 1865-1875, the Independent Record reported.
The backyard of the building is believed to be an area where lawmakers may have settled disputes with their fists.
Justin Gatewood, Virginia City’s mayor, told the land board members their approval would make it a monumental day for the history books.
“It is not hyperbole to say the transfer of Stonewall Hall from private hands into public hands and the subsequent restoration would mark the most important and significant preservation project in Virginia City’s — and arguably Montana’s — history,” he said.
Elijah Allen, executive director of the Montana Heritage Commission, said the building was being donated to the state by the Neal C. LaFever Trust and contingent upon the heritage commission having full ownership.
He said the commission intends to make the building an interpretive center and convention center for social gatherings, weddings and family reunions.
According to a 1989 Montana Historical and Architectural Survey Form, the hall was built in 1864 and is two stories. It is made of rubble stone and has a brick facade that faces Wallace Street. The original front of the building was stone and had three semi-circular headed arches with key stones over three pairs of French doors on the first floor.
“It is unfortunate that the original stone front was removed,” the survey states.
“The rest of the building, however, retains its historic character,” the survey states. “This structure served as the first Territorial Capital. It is a significant part of the National Landmark.”
It notes that Gem Saloon, operated by Hynson and Harper, was on the site in 1862. Excavation for a new stone building started in 1864. The building also served as the Stonewall House Saloon, the Virginia City Lyceum, where young men could read magazines and “enjoy the use of a small library” for $5 a month. It also served as a dry goods, grocery and liquor store. When Virginia City became the Territorial Capital in 1865, the second floor of the hall was chosen as a meeting place for the Legislature and the “Council and the House met here at various times.”
It also served as a clothing store as well, first known as Greenhodd, Bohm and Co.
However, time has not been kind.
“The building needs renovation,” the report states, citing cracks in walls, water damage and an “unevenness” on the second floor.
Allen said studies have found that Virginia City, which he said was the No. 1 state-owned tourist destination, has nearly 1 million tourists a year and has a $75 million economic footprint. It also helps support 1,200 jobs.
He also said the proposal would not be of any cost to Montana taxpayers. However, there are fundraising efforts underway and the commission has raised nearly $500,000. He said $350,000 was needed to stabilize the building and $900,000 was needed to make it operational for the public.
The fundraising efforts are being done through the Montana Heritage Commission and its nonprofit, the Montana History Foundation. The commission voted March 4 to acquire Stonewall.
Gov. Greg Gianforte thanked the parties involved for their efforts.
“This donation is incredibly generous,” he said, adding the building is not in the best shape now.
“It’s about one stiff breeze from being a pile of bricks,” Gianforte said. “So we need to get after it and hopefully get this money raised and get it fixed up this summer, or as soon as possible.”
“It’s incredible that the Montana Legislature met there for 10 years,” Gianforte said, adding he was moved by the photograph of the Legislature meeting in that hall.
“There were some wily characters back then,” Gianforte said. “The only difference is there’s less facial hair today.”
Alison LaFever, a representative of the trust that owned the building, reiterated her family’s intent to donate the building and support the restoration project. She said they acquired the building in 2010 and it was in an advanced state of disrepair then.
They tried to do shoring and stabilization “but it became clear we were in over our heads.”
LaFever said they began looking for other solutions to restore the building, but found as private owners there was limited grant funding available.
They wanted to find a solution to benefit the community and save the building. They approached the heritage commission in 2017.
“I am very happy to be standing here today finally getting to a solution that most importantly is the best thing for the building,” LaFever said.
Allen said Gianforte became aware of the building several months ago and threw his support behind it with the salvo that no tax dollars be used. He said Gianforte was confident funds could be raised elsewhere.
“It was mostly him calling people to donate,” Allen said, adding there was $660,000 in private donations raised in the past month.
The Gianforte Family Foundation, a charitable nonprofit started by the governor and his family in 2004, did commit to $100,000, Allen said.
Renovation costs are estimated to be $1 million and Allen said they hope to have the money raised by June.
Allen said there was some support for the governor’s comments about the territorial Legislature having wily characters.
He said they did an archaeological dig behind the building, and a couple things struck them as odd: They found pairs of cleated shoes and people’s teeth.
Allen said they thought that was weird and took the teeth to a dentist, who told them the teeth had been knocked out.
Allen said apparently the lawmakers would settle political battles by strapping on cleated shoes and stepping behind the building for a bare-knuckled fight.
Chere Jiusto of Preserve Montana — a nonprofit which works to save Montana’s historic places, traditional landscapes, and cultural heritage — told the land board this proposal is sound and they could be assured there is a good path to success.
“This is a legacy project, this vote today will ensure that one of the most significant buildings in Montana history can be saved for the people of tomorrow” she said, adding that people would cheer them on.
Gatewood, the Virginia City mayor, told the board — which consists of the governor, the attorney general, the state auditor, the secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction — that the parties involved realize that this opportunity to save Stonewall Hall will not come around again.
He said the progress made so far has been remarkable.
“Let‘s keep Montana’s oldest courthouse standing,” Gatewood said.
To donate to save Stonewall Hall and other historic Montana buildings, go to savemontanashistory.com.