Butte architecture ‘makes the place’

Butte architecture ‘makes the place’

Brick by Brick

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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.

When I moved to Butte five years ago, and bought an angular flat-topped house built in 1898, my friends invariably asked, “What about all the snow on that flat roof?” I just said if it has stood for 105 years, that’s good enough for me.

Little did I know that a flat roof is one of the typical elements of the Italianate architectural style, one of the most common in Butte.

As a geologist, the only architect I had ever heard of was Frank Lloyd Wright. Then I came to Butte. Now I tell people on my historic walking tours about world-famous Cass Gilbert. He designed the Metals Bank building, Park and Main, four years before erecting the Woolworth building in New York — the tallest building in the world at that time.

Butte’s architecture gets entwined with its history. I met folks who told me, “Oh, you live in the clown house” — home for 50 years to the Panisko family, headed by Frank. He was a professional clown with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, a founding member of a national clown association, and a pump operator at the Leonard Mine.

In the 1920s, two families — the Taylors and the Hollidays — occupied the house I now share with my dog.

I have learned it was designed by Charles Prentice, a local architect known for his interesting window arrangements. He modified the typical rectangular Italianate floor plan by knocking off all corners. Needless to say, not one room in my house has all square corners, and most have a couple of angled walls.

In deep winter I thank Mr. Prentice for seemingly orienting two of my tall windows to best catch a morning’s warming sunlight.

When I came to Butte I didn’t know a Queen Anne mansion from Queen Anne’s lace — in fact, I was more familiar with the plant. But in the past five years I’ve come to realize that Butte’s architecture is what makes this place. Nowhere else do you find a miner’s cottage cheek-by-jowl with a mini-mansion or a residential hotel, and the remnants of slum housing a couple of blocks from a brothel and a spectacular Art Deco hotel.

It’s that remarkable diversity that is bringing the national Vernacular Architecture Forum to Butte in 2009 — and I hope they find my angular flat-roofed Italianate with funky window patterns, set into the tailings of a mine (visible in the basement), interesting.

Dick Gibson is secretary and webmaster for Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization. For more information about CPR, visit http://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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