Live up to your license plate Bozeman

Courtney Kramer

October 15 was my last day as Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Bozeman. Rather than the usual article about a place or person important in our community’s history, this article is a soliloquy on the state of cultural resource preservation in Bozeman and Gallatin County. In short, I’m challenging Bozeman to live up to its license plate.

Bozeman and Gallatin County are home to some of the earliest, and most interesting, historic sites in our state. From use of the area by indigenous tribes to the area’s role as a breadbasket during the 1860’s Gold Rush, to scientific innovations made on the Montana State University campus during the 20th century, thousands of historic sites are located in our area.

Our modern economy leverages those cultural resources through heritage tourism. Tourism barely follows agriculture as Montana’s economic driver. In 2012, 10.9 million non-residents visited Montana and spent an estimated $3.2 billion dollars, which accounted for 7.3% of Montana’s Gross Domestic Product.

Many of those tourists utilized Bozeman as a jumping-off point to Yellowstone National Park. These visitors fit the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s definition of “heritage tourists,” or people who travel “to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. It includes historic, cultural and natural attractions.” Economic research indicates that heritage tourists spend 60% more than the average visitor.

Clearly, preserving the unique historic sites in and around Bozeman is good for our economy, our culture and our sense of place. Our community is pointed to as a model for historic preservation in the state of Montana, yet troubling trends exist which point to the degradation of our heritage preservation efforts.

Most of Bozeman’s historic sites were nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and 1987, with the Northern Pacific/ Story Mill District added in 1995. With exception of the Montana State University District in 2013, we have not had a single nomination for a historic district or individually historic property come from within the City of Bozeman since 1995. This indicates a lack of community interest in identifying and recognizing our historic places.

The lack of a cultural resources survey to identify potentially historic sites contributes to the absence of National Register nominations. The last comprehensive survey of historic sites was conducted in 1984, and totally disregarded anything constructed after 1945. With the passage of time, we see that properties built in the mid-20th century are historically significant for their architectural innovation and their relationship to the revolutionary events of the 1960’s. Surely we don’t want to create a community that demolishes all buildings constructed during the Civil Rights era and Women’s Movement? Despite Bozeman’s growth during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, only the mid-century structures on the MSU Campus are listed on the National Register. Not a single mid-century residential district or individual residence has been nominated. The 50 and 60 year old residences in the Spring Creek Drive, Marwyn and South Tracy neighborhoods would make excellent mid-century historic districts.

It’s my belief that the City of Bozeman’s Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District (NCOD), established in 1991, contributes to the community’s disinterest in new historic districts. Established to stabilize property values through retention of neighborhood character and protection of historic properties, the NCOD subjects each of the 3,100 properties in the NCOD to design review for most exterior modifications. This is entirely a Bozeman-based requirement established through local zoning. Listing a property on the National Register comes with no strings attached from the federal government; it’s an honorary designation. Bozemanites voted to apply these regulations to ourselves in an effort to prevent wholesale deterioration the neighborhoods surrounding our commercial core.

In general, the NCOD has been wildly successful in stabilizing property values, giving adjoining property owners the opportunity to comment on major changes in their neighborhood and preventing or ameliorating the demolition of historic properties inside the NCOD. In trade, however, the staff person running the NCOD design review is too swamped to conduct survey work or advocate for new historic districts. Also, the City’s demolition review process does not apply to historic properties not located within the NCOD boundaries.

For example, demolition of the old JC Billion auto dealership, a classic example of mid-century “Googie” architecture at 19th and West Main, occurred without consideration for the building’s historic significance or the sense of place the spaceship-like building added to the intersection.  More recently, the Leander Black residence at 301 West Peach Street happened without consideration for the building’s relationship to one of the town’s founders. Moved from South Black Avenue to make way for the Federal Building on East Babcock Street in the 1960’s, the house was in disrepair and located—I kid you not--- 50 feet from the NCOD boundary. The demolition was conducted through all of the City’s established, legal processes, which ignore a property’s history if the structure is outside of the NCOD. We didn’t even get a minimum of documentation of the residence prior to its demolition.

The City is wrapping up an evaluation of the NCOD this fall. A draft report of the evaluation is available on the City’s website with a final report to the City Commission planned for December 14. The draft report includes five recommendations pertaining to historic preservation:

1. Regular surveys of the community to identify cultural resources, with a recommendation of a 10 year survey interval;

2. Revision of the design guidelines to enable a smooth transition from the Main Street commercial area to the adjacent low-density residential areas in a manner that doesn’t detract from the feel and setting of the residential areas;

3. Creation of local historic districts with their own district- specific design guidelines that reflect the built environment and priorities of community members who live in that built environment;

4. Identification of areas that don’t have historic buildings and removal of the requirement for design review in those areas; and,

5. A recognition of the economic pressures facing preservation of historic properties in Bozeman.

“Bozeman is at a critical juncture where a determination must be made to retain, protect, advocate, cherish and celebrate the city’s cultural and built history,” notes the draft report, “or to open the doors wide to change, innovation, growth and economic strength, sometimes one at the expense of the other.”

Public participation is the key to figuring out where to go with the NCOD. I urge community members to read the draft report, discuss the evaluation and recommendations with their friends and colleagues, and participate in the public process taking place at the City Commission meeting on December 14. Info about the NCOD evaluation is here. The actual draft report is available here.

Curiously, Bozeman’s residents don’t have an established historic preservation organization to advocate for the protection of our cultural resources. The Bozeman Historic Preservation Advisory Board is a dedicated group of community members interested in advancing preservation in the community. They are, however, a bit muzzled in their recommendations to the City Staff and City Commission, as appointments to the BHPAB are made by the City Commission. Speak too loudly and lose your position. Gallatin County does not have a staff member dedicated to historic preservation and instead relies on a dedicated group of volunteers.

The Extreme Historic Project is a five year old public history not-for-profit which has been doing a bang-up job bringing history to the people through walking tours and free lectures. But their public history mission and tight resources make it difficult for them to advocate with a strong voice. The Friends of the Story Mansion are rightfully focused on the substantial challenge of completing the restoration of the Story Mansion. None of these groups yet have the community support to fully participate in the public process for cultural resource advocacy. Nor do they have the funding base to come to the negotiating table with financial incentives to help get a project done.

As examples of what could be, Butte’s CPR- Citizens for Preservation and Restoration has been a fantastically effective partner for the Butte/ Silberbow Historic Preservation Office, with small grant funding and effective public outreach projects like “Dust to Dazzle,” a home tour in late June. Great Falls has at least five non-profit organizations dedicated to preservation of historic buildings, cultural resources and cultural traditions. The Friends of Historic Fort Missoula have been incredibly effective in the management and preservation of Fort Missoula, in partnership with the City of Missoula. Why hasn’t an advocacy group evolved in Bozeman?

In titling this article I made a pointed reference to Bozeman’s license plate, which features historic Main Street buildings against a backdrop of the Bridger Mountain range. Owners who purchase the plate pay an additional $35 which goes to the City’s General Fund, not a historic preservation fund. I think the license plate is symbolic of Bozeman’s current relationship with our community’s cultural resources. We’re more than happy to take the revenue generated from heritage tourism and license plates with pretty pictures of old buildings on them. But we’re much less enthusiastic about reinvesting in the identification of cultural resources, financial aid to owners of historic properties or protection of historic properties. What will it take to live up to Bozeman’s symbol of itself?    

This will be my last article for Bozeman Magazine. By the time the December 2015 publication hits the rack my family will have relocated to pursue new career opportunities. Montana will always remain dear to me. I moved from Bozeman for the first time as a four year old in 1987 and have been a Montanan for 19 of my 32 years. I graduated from Bozeman High and Montana State, met my husband as a coworker at the City of Bozeman and gave birth to our daughter at Bozeman Health. For someone like me, who draws such an emotional connection to a place or landscape, it’s incredibly difficult to put Montana in a rear view mirror. I’d like to thank Angie Ripple for the opportunity to write for Bozeman Magazine. I’ve enjoyed sharing interesting stories of historic places with our community.

This was made by

Courtney Kramer

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 (at) bozeman [d0t] net,). More information about Bozeman’s historic districts is available at

View more of Courtney Kramer's work »