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Historic Virginia City building set for $2 million restoration

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A rendering depicts Stonewall Hall after the planned $2 million renovation that’s set to begin this summer. Credit: ARCHitecture Trio, Inc.

Project to rejuvenate Stonewall Hall, dilapidated and long ignored, will begin this summer.

By James Jarvis MONTANA FREE PRESS

VIRGINIA CITY — Ignored for decades, in poor condition and generally considered a lost cause, one of Montana’s most significant historic buildings — Stonewall Hall in Virginia City — is being coaxed back to relevance.

The center of local activity during Virginia City’s short-lived stint as capital of the Montana Territory from 1865 until 1875, Stonewall Hall is set for a $2 million restoration beginning this summer. Until recently, the iconic property seemed destined for the dustbin of forgotten state history.

But after years of lobbying by community members and statewide preservationists, that changed in 2022 when the Neal C. LaFever Trust donated the property to the Montana Heritage Commission (MHC), a state agency that set about raising funds for restoration. 

“The MHC is excited to lead this significant restoration project, ensuring the Stonewall Hall building and its unique history live on for the appreciation of future generations of Montanans,” MHC Executive Director Elijah Allen told Montana Free Press.

Stonewall Hall, seen here in a circa 1885 photo, was one of the first stone buildings built in Virginia City and marked its transition from a camp to a town. COURTESY OF THE MONTANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

The Montana Legislature created the MHC in 1997 to manage numerous historic properties purchased from the Bovey family in Virginia City and nearby Nevada City. Beginning in the 1940s, Charlie and Sue Bovey — and later their son, Ford — acquired and preserved more than 200 historic properties associated with the legendary Alder Gulch and the two major settlements that sprung up around the discovery of gold there in 1863. Over the course of 50 years, the Boveys created one of Montana’s premier heritage tourism experiences.  

By the 1990s, burdened with increasing operating costs and a backlog of deferred maintenance, the entire Bovey operation was up for sale. Faced with the potential loss of the now-cherished Montana treasure, the Legislature agreed to purchase the entire collection of buildings and artifacts for $6.5 million. Ironically, Stonewall Hall, a Bovey property, was not included in the original transfer due to a clerical error and ended up in the hands of a succession of private owners.  

Based on accounts from the Montana Post, Montana’s first newspaper, Stonewall Hall was a popular gathering place for the community during its boisterous gold rush days. Constructed in 1864 along Virginia City’s then booming main thoroughfare — today’s U.S. Highway 287 —  the prominent two-story masonry building was a major landmark within the rough-and-tumble mining camp. The site of numerous balls, festivals and austere occasions — including the 1865 Democratic Convention and sessions of the Territorial Legislature — the community was well-served by the building’s primary tenants, a popular first-floor saloon and a notorious second-floor billiard and gambling parlor known as the El Sol.

Within a few years, during the perpetual race to the latest gold strike, Virginia City’s status as the territory’s capital and principal settlement was soon challenged by the upstart community of Helena. In 1875, the rich gold deposits of Last Chance Gulch and Helena’s more centralized location within the region provided the final impetus to relocate the capital. As chronicled in the Montana Post’s successor, the Madisonian newspaper, Stonewall Hall — the de facto territorial capitol — was center stage for this contentious rivalry. 

“Aside from the fact that it housed the Territorial Legislature, Stonewall Hall, one of the first stone buildings built in Virginia City, marked the transition from camp phase to a real town,” said Virginia City Historic Preservation Officer Eric Barsness. 

As Virginia City’s prominence faded, Stonewall Hall was relegated to a more mundane existence as a series of dry goods and clothing stores for the remainder of the century.

During this period, the lovely arched-transom windows and French doors were replaced with a “modern” plate-glass storefront. In 1915, the building was converted into the Virginia City Garage. As the local gas station and auto repair shop, the once-proud building survived for several more decades.

By the late-1960s, the much-altered property was acquired by the Bovey family to store and display a collection of antique cars. The exhibit, known as “The Dudley,” was in honor of the family that operated the local garage for many years. Beyond repairing the leaky roof, the Boveys never got around to restoring the building. That task would have to wait another 50 years.

Stonewall Hall, at the left in this current photo, is along U.S. Highway 287 in Virginia City. PHOTO BY JAMES JARVIS

In 2022, a team of architects, engineers and contractors well-versed in historic preservation assembled to undertake the complex project. Following  years of neglect and showing obvious signs of deterioration, the building was seen by many as a safety hazard likely to collapse. 

Project architect Pat Jacobs, with ARCHitecture Trio, Inc., of Virginia City and Indianapolis, Indiana, said the project involves several challenges, including the interpretation of historical evidence to ensure the accurate reconstruction of the facade and the building’s structurally compromised condition. A statewide search was required to locate specialized masons and tradespeople willing and able to take on a project “of this magnitude and significance,” Jacobs said.  

During a yearlong fundraising campaign led by the Foundation for Montana History, more than $1 million was raised for the project, according to MHC’s Allen. Encouraged by that strong response, the MHC elected to proceed with the urgent stabilization phase of the project as the fundraising continues. Scheduled for completion in late 2024, the fully restored building will house public meeting spaces and a new interpretive center dedicated to the building’s prominent role in Montana’s territorial history.   

According to Allen, and contingent on additional funding, the one-story building adjacent to Stonewall Hall, the site of the former Pony Saloon, is being considered for additional tourism-related retail space.

Following the decades-long effort to preserve the building, local historians anticipate that Stonewall Hall will once again take its place as a major architectural feature along Virginia City’s boardwalk, and serve as an excellent venue to showcase a poorly understood chapter of Montana history. 

“The Stonewall restoration is yet another wonderful reminder,” said Virginia City Mayor Justin Gatewood, “that all the time and effort to protect and preserve Virginia City’s history is well worth it.”

(Editor’s note: The author provides grant writing and historical research consulting services to various clients, including the Montana Heritage Commission.)

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