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Federal building in Butte slated for multi-million dollar upgrades

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One bullet narrowly missed the judge, burrowing into his bench. Another bored a hole in a rear courtroom door.

The date was May 21, 1924, and Prohibition reigned somewhat haphazardly in rowdy Butte. Bootlegger John O’Leary pulled a gun (or two) and fired wildly about the crowded federal courtroom before turning the firearm on himself (or being shot). He survived. No else was injured.

News stories reported that O’Leary had been convicted at trial two days before of possessing and selling intoxicating liquors at his cigar store and was facing a short jail term.

Decades later, in 2002, the handsome federal building in Butte was renamed to honor Mike Mansfield, a Montana statesman who once worked as a “mucker” underground in Butte’s copper mines.

Now, roughly 118 years after the building’s dedication on 400 N. Main St. in Uptown Butte, the Mike Mansfield Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is slated to receive about $25.8 million in Capital Investment Funding.

The work will include façade repairs, seismic upgrades, structural repairs and roof replacement, according to the General Services Administration. In addition, there will be upgrades of various building systems, including HVAC, plumbing, water heaters and electrical, the GSA said.

The building was dedicated Dec. 8, 1904, and designed originally to serve also as a post office. The new federal building helped process Butte’s immigrants as people arrived from other countries to labor in the mines.

An official history of the building reports “Architect James Knox Taylor expertly adapted the building design to the sloping terrain.” The edifice is described as an excellent example of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture, popular during the Victorian era, but also with elements of the Beaux-Arts style with neoclassical embellishments and an ornately appointed interior.  

“The architect chose the Renaissance Revival Style to display the government’s taste and refinement; the massing and materials lend a sense of permanence to the structure and assert the federal government’s presence in Butte,” the official history reports.

The $25.8 million seems destined to continue that presence for some time.

The stately courtroom housing the U.S. Bankruptcy and District Court features a soaring vaulted ceiling and tall windows topped with round arches and flanked by marble pilasters.

Other areas of the building include terrazzo flooring, polished white Vermont marble baseboards, wainscot and pilasters.

In addition to the court staff and court security officers, building tenants include the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, an Air Force recruiting office, a federal probation office and the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Station.

Dan Hill is the GSA’s property manager for the Mike Mansfield Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.

“My tenants all consider this building a treasure,” Hill said.

He said his favorite events in the building are naturalization ceremonies. He said he can even embrace the occasional messes that accompany the celebrations.

“I smile when we see the cake rubbed into the carpet,” Hill said.

As for the fate of Butte bootlegger John O’Leary…

Newspaper accounts report he was acquitted in 1925 of a charge of firing a gun with the intent to commit murder. The judge chewed out the jury for that verdict, but O’Leary walked free.


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