The Historic Significance of Mid-20th Century Commercial Architecture in Downtown Bozeman
Bozeman’s Main Street Historic District, on the National Register of Historic Places, is generally limited to structures facing Main Street between Grand and Rouse Avenues. The 1986 National Register nomination focused the district’s period of historic significance from 1870 to 1937 and thus did not recognize the expansion of commercial development related to the Post World War II era. Buildings of this time period represent an important effort by Bozeman merchants to reinvest in the downtown district and should be evaluated for their contribution to Bozeman’s retail landscape.
Historically Bozeman’s commercial district stretched lengthwise along Main Street, in order to best catch the attention of consumers traveling the Bozeman Trail, which developed into Highway 10 and part of the national Yellowstone Trail, and finally US 191. The relationship between Bozeman merchants and vehicular travel along a linear transportation corridor explains why Bozeman’s Main Street developed in a linear fashion.
Commercial buildings of this era reflect the perceived lack of business along the side streets in that very few of these structures include a storefront, or even windows, along Tracy, Black or Bozeman Avenues. Merchants believed all customers to be on Main Street, and the investment in additional display space on the side streets an unnecessary expense.
The pattern of commercial development in Bozeman after World War II reflects the national uncertainty about consumer preferences as automobile ownership expanded. Would consumers remain loyal to enterprises in established downtown environments? Or did buyers demand large free parking lots on streets designed to provide sufficient space for the Chevys, Mercurys and Hudsons of the day?
By the early 1950’s merchants and developers on North 7th Avenue petitioned the City Commission for a Business Improvement District and special relaxations from building requirements in order to create their vision of the new American commercial street. This corridor, linked to the Interstate Highway system in the mid 1960’s, became Bozeman’s principal example of auto-centered architecture, with large, tall signs, neon lights and ample parking.
Meanwhile, downtown merchants reinvested in existing buildings by remodeling the structures through application of new storefront facades. These modifications usually involved replacement of original windows with large plate-glass storefronts. Mid-century facades applied like a mask to the Golden Rule building, the Avant Courier Building and the Story Block have all been removed during restoration projects.
The various expansions and developments of Owenhouse Hardware reflect the pattern of modifications to existing commercial buildings as well as development of new structures to the north and south of Main Street.
In 1946 Owenhouse Hardware moved to 36 East Main Street. At the same time the business substantially modified building’s faÃ§ade by rearranging second floor window openings and sheathing the upper half of the building in salmon colored glazed tiles outlined in vertically fluted brown glazed tiles. The lower half of the faÃ§ade received a dramatic new retail storefront, with a large plate glass window framed by coordinating salmon pink granite slabs beveled from the building’s faÃ§ade back four inches to the plate glass window.
In this manner, the Owenhouse remodel of the turn of the 20th century commercial building reflected quintessential retail design of the mid-20th century, which made the display window the most prominent architectural element. Owenhouse eventually expanded to the west, incorporating space occupied by Byron’s Café and Woolworth’s Department Store into the hardware store’s current configuration. A 1983 faÃ§ade remodel unified these retail spaces with a metal storefront and centralized door opening, though the second story facades of these buildings indicate previous division of the spaces.
Owenhouse Hardware began as a dry-goods and farm implement retailer servicing the Gallatin Valley’s agricultural needs. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps indicate construction of the building sometime between 1927 and 1943 to the south, between the alley and Babcock Street, which provided space for “Tractor and Truck Sales and Service.” From this building Owenhouse sold International Harvester farm equipment and vehicles.
Period advertisements in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle alerted customers to Owenhouse’s selection of International Harvester refrigerators and freezers with “Sunshine Yellow porcelain interior,” the door of which could be decorated to match the consumer’s kitchen.
Owenhouse constructed a modern retail store to facilitate International Harvester sales sometime between 1950 and 1954 at 25 South Black Avenue. Many of us think of this structure as the Owenhouse Bicycle shop. This building also reflects mid-century design, with large display windows symmetrically centered on an unusual vertical support element upon which the business’ sign is located. The projecting flat canopy adds a three-dimensional element at the pedestrian level. It is uncertain if the building was locally designed or the stock-plan for International Harvester storefronts used in our region. The building’s brick veneer is particularly character-defining, as the bricks are stacked vertically rather than staggered between courses.
Polk Directories label the building at 25 South Black Avenue as “Owenhouse Hardware Co. parts and truck department” from 1954 until 1989, when the listing switches to the Owenhouse Schwinn Bike Shop. Agricultural implement and truck sales discontinued in the early 1970’s, due to lack of space on the site. Over time the structure became home to the bicycle sales (formerly on the second floor of the main Owenhouse building), as well as retail space for lawn mowers, snow blowers and other power equipment.
Architecturally the Owenhouse building at 25 South Black is a strong departure from the commercial design norms of the restored Main Street Historic District. The building, and others constructed during the mid-20th century, represents an important business investment in Bozeman’s downtown during a transitional period of commercial design and site layout. Though Owenhouse no longer sells International Scouts or Travel-Alls from the building, the continued use of the space for retail sales by the same company is an admirable continuation of historic use and association with a single business. Though more investigation is needed, the building could be eligible for individual listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Courtney Kramer is a proud graduate of MSU’s History Department and serves as the City of Bozeman’s Historic Preservation Officer. She may be contacted at the City Planning Office, 406-582-2260 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about Bozeman’s historic districts is available at www.preservebozeman.org.