Preserving History and Wildlife
By Brian D’Ambrosio
Aged buildings discarded. Doors sealed. Factories shuttered. Older architecture is commonly replaced with new forms.
But instead of bumping into the wrecking ball, many weary – and unceremoniously retired – buildings find re-purpose as housing, arts incubators or events centers.
The Montana Wildlife Center, located at 2668 Broadwater Avenue, is one of Helena’s finest examples of adaptive re-use, the revitalization of a former industrial site as a support system for a cherished and engaged relationship with the outdoors.
“One of the themes of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is choosing to conserve as well as coexist with our heritage, wild or otherwise, and this building fits in with that,” said Thomas Baumeister, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks education program manager.
While the building is certainly part of a larger focus on an aesthetic response to the need for energy conservation and sustainability, its genesis as the Montana Wildlife Center – or Montana WILD – is rooted more in the principles of partnership, good will, and chance.
In the mid-1990s, the Mikal Kellner Foundation for Animals and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks agreed to relocate and improve FWP’s rehabilitation facility. (The founding mission of the Montana Wildlife Rehabilitation Center was to rehabilitate injured wildlife, especially bears and raptors, and healthfully re-integrating such animals back into the ecosystem.) The problem was that there was no money available to implement the plan, no resources to pay staff, and no specific location mapped out.
Come 2001, the five-and-a-half acres abutting approximately 60 acres of Spring Meadow Lake State Park was swapped between MFWP and the MKFA. FWP moved the wildlife rehabilitation center to the new site, on acreage that consisted of three buildings that had badly fallen into disuse. Once more, a lack of funds obstructed any discussion of stabilizing the structures.
When the middle building burned down in 2002, and the foundry’s pattern house met a similar fate in 2007, a hefty infusion of insurance money allowed for the potential preservation of the lone machine shop. Supported by smaller additional grants, the building, which had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its historic importance to Helena, was salvaged.
That building, the John Stedman Foundry and Machine Company was constructed in 1892, once manufacturing and repairing machinery including mining and milling equipment. As part of an industrial complex that included the Kessler Brewery and Kessler Brickworks, the J.R. Stedman Foundry brought cast iron production and the vagaries of commerce and progress to a developing region. The John Stedman Foundry and Machine Company operated from 1892-1901. (The Stedman iron stamp nameplate is imprinted on various buildings in Helena, Butte, Lewistown, and across Montana.)
Throughout the 20th-century, the location accommodated a wire fencing manufacturer, a metal assaying and refining operation, and Helena Sand and Gravel throughout the 1930s.
Reinforced in thick, masonry walls and exhibiting niceties such as expansive windows and high ceilings, the Montana Wildlife Center is a harmonizing refurbishment of dioramas, exhibited areas, interpretative information and habitat facts.
“At the time before the refurbishment, it was just a shell,” said Baumeister. “The foundry had been abandoned and idling for decades. There were pigeons in here, no plumbing, and it had been really neglected. And it was built as a structure within a structure – a new shell that was built as an envelope.”
There was, however, another striking complication: the land the building sat on had been declared a Superfund site, containing an overabundance of heavy metals and contaminated soil. Excavation dug as much as 18 feet deep into the earth to remove the polluted sediment, which was then hauled off site.
“What is interesting here,” said Baumeister, “is that the property has gone from an industrial site and a gravel pit and a foundry, where there was a lot of activity, to a place that was abandoned and just sat – this wasteland of an era gone by – to a wonderful place that has been repurposed as an education site.”
The stone edifice is one of Montana’s best surviving examples of late-19th-century mill-type construction. Much of the building’s charm remains intact: timbers and rafters and the original beams now supported by concrete walls. None of the structure’s disposition needed to be comprised in order to achieve sustainability or modern design.
“Several of the original details have been retained and repurposed,” said Ken Soderberg, Outdoor Interpretation and Volunteer Program Specialist at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “The clerestory windows are original – the tremendous windows made to attract more sunlight.”
Baumeister said that the idea of providing “a sense of place” was apparent in the design features of the building, and that its history is united to the main theme and mantra of the Montana Wildlife Center.
“It’s a great example of showing and saying, ‘hey, see what we can do,’ said Baumeister. “It’s a tangible example of a restoration that can be done if there is the will and creativity to do it. We’ve repurposed what was once a gravel pit and turned it into a focal point, and it is even a major birding spot now. That same philosophy can be applied to the restoration of water, landscape and wildlife.”
Interpreter exhibits, a narrative walkthrough, and meeting rooms designed to accommodate naturalist or educator-led talks were installed, and the Montana Wildlife Center opened to the public in September 2012 (the adjacent wildlife rehabilitation center is not open to the public). Programs ranging from school and youth programs to family-friendly bat walks are offered to the community as a method of scaffolding the foundation for meaningful outdoor interactions.
Ultimately, any shift to recycled and repurposed material brings out the innovative side of architects and builders as well as conserves the link that binds past to present, generation to generation, tale to tale.
As for the narrative of the former foundry, it is not finished. It continues to be written as the Montana Wildlife Center.
Click here for a calendar of free, upcoming programs hosted by Montana WILD.