Editor's note: The following is one of a series of columns from the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization.
When I tell tourists that the Hirbour Tower at Main and Broadway is Butte's first skyscraper, the usual reaction is a condescending chuckle. After all, it's only eight stories tall.
But the definition of a skyscraper isn't how tall it is — a skyscraper is defined by how it's made. And the Hirbour, like the Empire State Building, has an internal construction of vertical steel girders that allows for extra height. Brick walls that high would collapse under their own weight.
Henry Bessemer's invention of an inexpensive way to mass-produce steel in 1855 paved the way for long steel girders that ultimately came to support thousands of tall buildings around the world. Modern steel-making techniques are based on Bessemer's process.
Bragging rights for the world's first skyscraper led to various claims, but most agree that the 10-story Home Insurance Building completed in 1885 in Chicago was the first. Just 16 years later, in 1901, Butte's Hirbour Tower joined a growing list.
The Bank of Minneapolis (1887, now demolished) and the Wainright Building in St. Louis (1891, still standing) both claim to be the "first skyscraper west of the Mississippi" — even though they were practically along the banks of the river. There is little argument that the Hirbour is the first and oldest skyscraper west of those big cities — and a year older than the oldest standing skyscraper in New York City, the Flatiron Building.
Emanuel Hirbour didn't live to see his building completed, but he is memorialized in the letters "H" in terra cotta medallions on the corners of the tower. Cast iron window casings reflect an additional touch of elegance in what was once a prestigious office building, called the Prudential Tower at times.
Butte's exploding population demanded more and more retail spaces, and the below-the-sidewalk storefront in the Hirbour's basement is the best preserved example. The basement was initially home to the Salvation Army. A courier company occupied the space until about 1928 when the Hirbour Barber Shop began a 35-year tenancy, probably ending about 1962 after the devastating six-month strike in all the mines in 1959 — another blow in Butte's economic decline.
Today, access to the historic underground space is preserved thanks to a Butte-Silver Bow decision in 2003 to repair the vaulted sidewalk while maintaining the stairway.
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.