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Copper cornices indicated opulence
Photo courtesy of Dick Gibson The Hamilton Block, built in 1892, carries one of the longest tin cornices in Butte. It's located the Broadway and Hamilton streets, Uptown Butte.

Editor's note: The following is one of a series of columns to run throughout the summer from the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization.

Even though Butte was producing a third of the world's copper in 1906 when the Metals Bank building was erected, the abundant use of architectural copper on that prestigious structure was a mark of real opulence.

Only a few buildings in Butte can boast copper cornices. Only a few could afford to. Copper was much more expensive, heavier, and difficult to work than the more common tin, masonry and wood cornices most Uptown businesses carry.

A cornice is the over-hanging crown of an architectural element, especially the simple or ornate features at the top of a wall near its joining with a roof. Cornices have evolved from simple eaves that guarded walls against dripping water to highly decorative features contributing significantly to a building's visual impact.

Butte's cornices are as eclectic and diverse as the buildings themselves. Complex and beautiful ornamentation was created by Butte's early 20th Century tinsmiths, notably the Butte Tin Shop, on Galena Street, and Tony's Tin Shop, on Arizona Street. Butte Tin is still in business, and Tony Canonica's shop is preserved as a museum.

Ironically, in a mining camp rich in diverse minerals, Butte was poor in tin, and most of Butte's tin ceilings, cornices, stove pipes, stills and coffin linings were made with tin from Bolivian mines.

Today, except for recycled material, the United States is entirely dependent on imports for tin, mostly from Peru, Bolivia, and China. China produced nearly half the world's tin in 2007.

Some cornices sport pressed tin, including the floral designs on the 1891 Stephens Hotel at Park and Montana, but most tin cornices are folded and soldered tin sheets or box elements, combined to produce details that make each structure unique.

Dick Gibson is secretary and webmaster for Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization. For more information about CPR, visit www.buttecpr.org or stop by the office on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 405 W. Park St., Suite 200.

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