Magazine article Sunset

Here's to Helena

Magazine article Sunset

Here's to Helena

Article excerpt

Montana's historic capital city is getting a makeover

It began life in 1864, when four disheartened prospectors found gold nuggets "that made the pan ring" in Prickly Pear Creek. The prospectors dubbed the area Last Chance Gulch. By the 1880s, a fullfledged town-now named Helena-- had sprung up, as the surrounding mountains yielded an estimated $15 million in gold.

Today, Montana's capital city is still proud of its hardworking mining past-but now it's getting a sophisticated makeover. The Greek neoclassical state capitol overlooking the town, with its copper dome topping out at 100 feet, has undergone a $26-million restoration. Just west of the capitol, a new downtown center is rising. And an already lively art community is getting even more vibrant.

Where once roamed

Set between Mt. Helena and Sleeping Giant, Helena began as a sprawling, ramshackle town, nearly consumed by an 1874 fire. The fire watchtower built to commemorate the disaster still dominates the skyline. That fire also inspired the use of the brick in many of the more than 60 commercial buildings and mansions that compose the historic district.

Many of these structures date from the town's 1880s boom days, when Helena won its designation as the state capital. Some of the buildings are grand-the 1888 Atlas Building, for instance, with its cornice featuring a battling salamander and lizards. Others had pretensions they had perhaps not earned, like the mansions that visiting Mark Twain described as "Queen Anne in front and Mary Ann behind." Even so, by the 1880s, Helena boasted considerable wealth. Indeed, one had to be a millionaire to be a member of the Montana Club.

You can still visit the Montana Club, on a historical tour that includes a three-day membership. But Helena is not fixated on its past. West of the capitol, the new Great Northern Town Center is rising: five brick office and condominium buildings, a convention center with a hotel, a restaurant, and a hand-carved wooden carousel (slated to open in September). …

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