For 83 years the Civic Center in downtown Great Falls has been a community gathering space. It was built in 1939, a time where Great Falls was growing and there were few such facilities for large events.
Designed by Johannes J. Van Teylingen and George Shanley, the civic center was an architectural wonder for the State of Montana.
“While the building is really a product of its time, in ‘39, you had the popularity of the art deco, really beautiful, ornate buildings of the 20s. Also, you're in the middle of the Depression, and so there was a need for a sort of austerity, both practically and it was more in taste, you know, to be a little bit more subdued,” said Samantha Long, a Historic Preservation Officer with Cascade County.
Work began in 1939 during, and it cost $685,000 to complete. Yet it caused some division in the community.
Long explained, “Well, there was Circle Park here, and so when it was decided to put a building here, there was a lot of controversy because people loved the park and thought it was an important part of the downtown streetscape. And they said, you know, Paris Gibson would not have wanted a public park to be used for development.”
Circle Park separated the train depot from the rest of town, and Long says it was a beautiful feature of the downtown landscape. Whittier Park furthest to the south, Circle Park connected to Central Avenue, and Gibson Park sits where it is currently. The founder of the town - Paris Gibson - was a believer in the power of city planning, and although he may not have agreed with the site of the building, he valued having the community come together.
The building still represents many of the art deco themes we see in other regions. Long said, “Especially on this sort of monumental public building scale.”
Art deco on the inside, but the architects used local materials to build the entire building. Local sandstone for the east facing façade and it’s unfair to say they cut corners but took the affordable route to stay under budget. Inside the foyer behind the main entrance to the center, you’ll find concrete that is made to mimic the sandstone on the front of the structure. It appears to thick and sturdy, but it was a somewhat revolutionary architectural experiment.
Using concrete, a couple of inches thick on the visible side, paired with a drywall/plaster to give the walls density.
Shortcuts aside, glance at the ceilings and find hand-etched carvings that take you to a different era; walk up the curved staircase made of marble, or visit the Missouri Room that overlooks Gibson Park - a portal into the vision of the founder himself.
In addition to the architectural design and ornate fixtures of the Civic Center, it’s home to more than meets the eye - beginning with the 1,800 seat Mansfield Theatre, a wonder in its own way.
Sitting in its center, the high ceilings painted with beige paint with faint reds and orange accents along its curves. Stand on the stage and let your mind wonder who performed in the very spot you stand in. While you’re at it, open your eyes and picture a theatre full of peers from your town enjoying a performance.
Behind the theatre is the newer Mansfield Convention center and a large banquet room, big enough for the finest parties - so large that at one point in its lifespan, it housed an ice rink, 20 feet short from hosting a regulation hockey rink. Although it fell short of its NHL dreams, the Mansfield Convention Center is home to similar architectural designs in its ceiling, lined with gold.
It's also home to municipal offices including commission chambers, where county and city commissioners conduct business.
It may be home to some of the communities most important gathering spots, and the Civic Center remains important to the future of Great Falls.
Long said, “It's important to keep a place like this relevant. We'll always need places to get together and enjoy arts and community.”
The building is currently under renovations to the front façade, which have been put on hold for the winter season. They should be complete in the latter half of 2023.
The Civic Center gave Great Falls relevance in the past, and the renovations give it relevance for the future.