MSU Campus and Buildings Convey History
Thursday Sep. 1st, 2011
Montana State University’s campus in Bozeman is an undeniably special place. Scenic vistas, proximity to outdoor recreation and access to outstanding higher learning create a strong sense of place found on few collegiate campuses. In their own way, the campus landscape and historic buildings combine to subtly convey MSU, Bozeman and Montana history.
The university’s location on “College Hill” is tied to the election held to determine the location of Montana’s permanent state capital following statehood in 1889. In an effort to impress voters, Bozeman boosters annexed and platted much of the farmland south and east of the Main Street commercial district. Local entrepreneur Nelson Story, whose life inspired the character “Captain Call” in Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove, made a portion of his property on a rise south of town available as the location for the capital grounds.
Despite aggressive promotion, Bozeman finished fourth in the runoff election and as a consolation prize was instead selected as the site of the state’s land grant college. Construction of Montana Hall commenced in 1893, following Story’s donation of the provisional state capital grounds to serve as the university campus. Enrollment at the Montana Agricultural College (MAC) began the same year, with 46 students attending courses in rented rooms downtown.
Initially, college buildings reflected the connection between a land-grant institution, its charge to improve the science of agricultural production and distributing the new information to Montana’s farmers, ranchers and home gardeners. Built in 1894, the Ag Experiment Station, renamed Taylor Hall in the 1970’s, served as laboratory, classroom and office space, and bear the scars of greenhouses added to the south side of the structure in 1899 in an effort to extend the growing season.
In 1906 MSU’s agriculture curriculum expanded to include agronomy, animal industry, dairy science and horticulture. To house those programs Link and Haire architects designed Morril Hall, so named for the Morril Act which established America’s land grant colleges. Finished in 1909 with an $80,000 appropriation from the legislature, the building was renamed for Frederick Linfield, dean of agriculture and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, 1913 ‐ 1937.
Programs of study at MAC quickly evolved to include other scientific pursuits, including Home Economics and Engineering. Hamilton Hall, completed in 1910 in the Mission Revival architectural style, served as dormitory space for women co-eds who sought access to advanced education. Engineering students left perhaps the most iconic symbol of the university in Bozeman in 1915 when they used the steeple of Montana Hall as a sighting tower to survey and plan the white “M” at the end of the Bridger Mountain Range.
Though the entrance of the United States into World War I curtailed new construction projects, the campus enjoyed a significant building boom immediately following the conflicts end. Roberts Hall, built at the eastern edge of the campus, joined Lewis Hall, Herrick Hall, the Steam Plant, Traphagen Hall and Romney Gym as symbols of the financial surplus created in Montana’s economy by war-inflated commodity prices in wheat, livestock and copper. Designed in the Italian Renaissance style, these buildings reflect a cohesive step forward in the academic programs and campus architecture as the institution became Montana State College (MSC) in early 1920’s.
When observed closely, the buildings also convey the economic downturn which descended upon Montana by the latter 1920’s. Roberts Hall, home of the Engineering Department, bears a distinct downgrade in the interior materials and decoration between the second and third floors. Traphagen Hall, designed to be symmetrical, was abbreviated on its southern wing as a cost-saving measure, as evidenced by the difference in brick quality marring the southern end of the building. The murals in Lewis Hall, originally intended to be found throughout the building, were only installed in the foyer. Romney Gym, home of the 1928-29 National Champion “Golden Bobcats” men’s basketball team provided a bright spot of architecture and sporting entertainment as the Great Depression settled into Montana.
While the world economies lagged through the 1930’s, government agencies poured millions of dollars into “make work” projects and collegiate campuses benefited from the infusion of investment. Constructed from this funding source in 1935, the Tudor Revival style Atkinson Quadrangle provided additional housing for female students. The Quads, still in use as dormitories, are ironically named for then MSC president Alfred Atkinson, a strict conservative who despised President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
A.L. Strand replaced Atkinson as university leader in 1937, and shortly thereafter commenced construction on a Student Union Building in the heart of campus to provide student meeting space, lounges and a cafeteria for the expanding student population. Later renamed the Strand Union Building, and repeatedly expanded, the SUB continues to provide students with gathering space.
Driven by the GI Bill, which paid for college education for every returning World War II veteran, enrollment at MSU skyrocketed after 1945. Students lived in Quonset huts, army surplus housing and packed fraternity and sorority houses through 1955, when the Johnstone Center was constructed as permanent student housing. Other Cold War-era buildings on campus include the Renne Library, Reid Hall, the Brick Breeden Field House, Cobleigh Hall and AJM Johnson Hall. In the mid-century modern architectural style, all of these buildings reflect a radical departure from the more traditional revival-style architecture seen on campus before the war. The transition from Montana State College to Montana State University in 1965 solidified the university’s stature as a research based institution.
Through these buildings and spaces, Montana and university’s history is evident and accessible. It is well worth a student’s time to explore outside of their normal classroom spaces. See the different materials of Roberts Hall. Check out murals inside Lewis Hall. Observe the symbols of different sports on Romney Gym. Hike the “M” to understand the geographical relationship between College Hill and Bozeman. Discover Bozeman’s residential historic districts by walking from campus to downtown. Get out and explore this beautiful campus and friendly community we share. You won’t regret it!
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.