Bozeman, Montana’s vanished landmark City Hall & Opera House is the template for Silver Rose’s City Hall.  Silver Rose has no opera house and two instead of three floors.  Bozeman’s story is civic frontier enterprise at its apex.

Silver Rose front elevation

Bozeman, just before demolition, 1964 *

For 75 years, a brick and stone building at the corner of Rouse and Main streets was headquarters for Bozeman, Montana city administration.  In 1964, fire engines were housed on one side of the lower floor, with firemen’s dormitory above.  City officers and clerks occupied the other side, with a long hall leading back to jail cells and janitor’s quarters. Wide front stairs led to the second floor police headquarters and a large courtroom, where a small door led into “a deserted land of make-believe – an old time opera house.” (1)

            In 1887, Bozeman was growing with great hopes.   John Vreeland Bogert was elected mayor and a $10,000 bond was passed to finance a new city hall.  The Avant-Courier reassured readers $10K was enough, but the issue was declared invalid on a technicality. Bogert called a new vote and the ordinance passed. Bonds sold easily.  Although offered a free site, Council paid $3,500 to W. W. Alderson, publisher of the Avant-Courier for a Main Street lot. Byron Vreeland, a local architect, was hired to plan and supervise construction for a fee of $300.

            Vreeland soon presented plans for a 3-story building in the French Renaissance style with a “handsome bell tower, bristling spires, entablatures, Gothic windows, tryglyphs, spandrels, facades, friezes, and cornices, handsomely combined,” reported the Avant-Courier, also noting: “…it is but flattering to [Vreeland’s] taste and skill to state that not one fault could be found by the councilmen, two of whom are themselves builders.” The design included a fire hall, various city offices, and an opera house to occupy most of the second floor.

Bozeman before remodeling 1898

Silver Rose’s new city hall and justice center, 2007

Why would a small pioneer town of 3,000 people need an opera house? We don’t know, but Mayor John Vreeland Bogert was a “Bozeman Booster,” writing articles for the Avant-Courier.  Fourth of July parades were his specialty.  Byron Vreeland was gaining reputation as the outstanding architect in southeastern Montana, with work in Miles City, Lewiston, and Billings.  No one had mentioned an opera house, but there were no recorded objections when it was.

            Two months later, there was a reckoning. Contractors Kermode and Davis agreed to construct the foundation and basement for a low bid of $2,800.  They also low bid $21,950 to complete the building. Council had committed $3,500 for the lot, $300 for the architect, and $2,800 for the basement, a total of $6,600 of the $10,000 available.  The Building committee immediately recommended another bond issue, this time for $25,000, creating a storm of popular protest, although Council insisted it had no choice.

John V. Bogert, Mayor

W. W. Alderson, Avant-Courier publisher

The Avant-Courier came out strongly in favor. “Let every citizen, having the present and future welfare of our beautiful city at heart, go to the polls and deposit a ballot in favor of issuing the bonds.” The issue carried 10 to 1, but the bonds didn’t sell, because buyers feared the city was over limit on indebtedness.  The foundation was covered to protect it from the weather, and work stopped.  With Bogert mayor, Fourth of July meant a parade, speeches, street decorations, fireworks and a gala ball. With an unsold bond, cornerstone laying for the new city hall highlighted events in 1887.  W.W. Alderson spoke reviewing notable town developments, and Bogert described the history of city hall, saying:

“This building is the election of our people…. [The] will of the people must prevail and this building shall at last become our City Hall. We place in the [metal] box the records...of this city…and should in time this stone ever be upturned, it will not be to our discredit that our names were found within it… [This cornerstone]…becomes the point from which the intended structure shall arise, let us hope that all delays and misconceptions and opposition may forever cease.”

After the cornerstone laying, the foundation was undisturbed until spring 1889, when a new $25,000 bond passed and sold.  The Avant-Courier bragged, “This shows the credit of our beautiful, substantial and progressive little city is No. 1 when business is properly conducted.  The bonds, of course, were appropriately advertised in the Avant-Courier.”

            The construction delay meant new bids.  Kermode and Davis bid $27,611, $5,500 higher than their 1887 bid, and $4,000 over the current low bidder, but they got  the contract again.  Council called a special session to discuss this, but a motion for reconsideration lost, and construction restarted in July 1889.  In that October, Byron Vreeland died of “congestion and paralysis of the lungs,” and W.H. Babcock, an old-time pioneer citizen was hired to succeed him at $30 per month.

Salt Lake Theater, 1890’s.  Theater buff Brigham Young built a 1.500 seat showplace in 1861.

Bogert was soon unhappy over the opera house.  He called council meetings to ask for changes, particularly in the sloping stage, which he thought should be flat. Council refused to interfere, arguing for months, while the builders worked.  In February 1890, Councilman Frank Benepe returned from Chicago to report, “all Chicago theater stages are level, all parquet floors inclined, and all stage fronts, except perhaps one, arched.” Relations between mayor and council were now so strained, that council still refused to act. They argued through March, until Bogert refused re-election.  Democrat H.A. Pease took office in May.

The Avant-Courier summed up:

“That the structure has been botched…must be apparent to all thoughtful persons…whether owing to defective plans…, careless supervision…, or… inadvertencies on the part of the contractors we are not prepared to say. But the blunders exist all the same…

  “…[T] he contractors feel…they are in no way responsible… The original architect and superintendent of the works died while it was in progress, and no doubt after having made numerous changes and deviations from the original plans, which were neither explained nor understood by either his successor, W.E. Babcock, or the old building committee, so the responsibility for the serious, not to say fatal, blunders would be extremely difficult to locate…

“Perhaps it was a mistake to…[construct]…an opera house in connection with …a city hall… At all events, the entire performance seems to have been ‘A Comedy of Errors.’”

The fire bell was hung in the tower, the fire engine moved in, with the horses stabled nearby. City officials moved into new offices, extra space was offered for rent, and the city library was housed (until 1904, when the room became the firemen’s dormitory, and a brass pole was installed).  But the opera house had to be remodeled.  The cost had risen from $10- to $45,000.  

            Bozeman citizens were by now anxious to use the new opera house.  Mrs. L.S. Willson, “the local nightingale,” tried it out, and pronounced the acoustics “perfect.”  On September 19, 1890, the local Queen City Band held the first concert, a benefit to raise money for curtains and scenery. In October, the Mendelssohn Quintette Club of Boston, sponsored by the Volunteer Fire Department, gave the first performance by an out-of-town group; and, the Caroline Gage and Harry Keene Company played for one week, performing The Galley Slave, Our Boys, Camille, The Pearl of Savoy, Queena, Franchon the Cricket, and Mr. Barnes of New York.  Seven plays in seven days!

A popular hit featuring a real buzz saw.

Maude Adams & John Drew,

A giant political rally was next, and local events, slapstick, great actors, drama, comedy, politicians, music, rallies, promenade concerts by the opera house orchestra followed with dancing on the parquet, and charity masked balls, one raising $164.50 for a hospital. One magical night in March 1891, the new Bozeman Hotel had its grand opening, receiving free use of the auditorium, and permission to build a footbridge from the second floor of the hotel across Main Street to the opera house.  Orchestras played at both ends, with dancing on the parquet, as guests strolled to and fro.  It was removed immediately afterward, but the image still stirred the imagination of Bozeman grade school kids in 2006.

            Theater road companies knew Bozeman as a “show town between Minneapolis and Seattle on the Northern Pacific Railway, with a better than average theater.”  Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in 1895.  Alba Haywood appeared in Ben Hur and Monte Cristo, and a veriscope exhibition featured the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight in 1897.  An “animated picture machine” presented the passion play in 1898.
Star Power
Maude Adams DeWolf Hopper Frank Mayo Dustin Farnum
            After eight years, the roof was at crisis, the building needed paint, walls had to be calcimined, and the foundation needed repair.  In 1898, matinee idol Frederick Warde gave a scathing curtain speech: dressing room ceilings were only 5 ˝ feet high, and the stage wasn’t high enough for modern scenery.  Stung, Council acted to fix the roof and provide higher scenery space.  They raised the walls fifteen feet, put on a flat roof, and added windows to light an inaccessible pseudo fourth floor.  The change completely altered the external character of the building.

Upper floor offices, jury room, library.

Lower floor rear, courtroom.

Work went on around uninterrupted activities.  A “moving picture machine” screened the Sharkey-McCoy fight, and Spanish-American War scenes in 1899.  Major James W. Drennan, who died in the Philippines of the “enervating climate of the tropics” was given “the largest funeral train ever held in the county” in 1900, when “the opera house was filled, hundreds not being able to find even standing room.”  It was state Democratic convention headquarters in 1902.  Shows rolled in, high school classes graduated, local bands gave concerts.  Clarence Darrow thundered  against Prohibition, and Birth of a Nation showed to overflow crowds in 1916.  Al Jolson starred in Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in 1917.

Then, WWI took the traveling shows off the road.  Activity slowed.  Boxing and wrestling featured briefly. The hall fell deserted until the National Guard rented it in the 1920’s to drill on the parquet before moving to more soldierly space.  After an ill-fated refurbishment, a Montana State University dramatics class gave a “re-opening” performance of The Importance of Being Earnest on May 19, 1927.  A few last high school classes graduated from the stage, but the house was finally judged structurally unsound, and closed for public use.  Pigeons moved into the scenery loft. 

            The rest of the building had grown more crowded.  Offices encroached on the auditorium. A fireman’s dormitory was built under one side of the balcony out onto the parquet. More cells were needed, so dressing rooms were fitted with bars and steel doors. The stage became a dump for broken street decorations.

As the building grew shabbier, there was a half-hearted move to replace it. In 1959, an earthquake structurally destabilized the walls.  Reinforcing beams were  bolted together inside and out, but the building was dangerously weak. Whether for financial or sentimental reasons, Bozeman was reluctant to build a new city hall, and it took several elections to pass a successful bond. However, the old building was emptied, and ready for demolition by 1965. 

A demolition crew found the unsealed cornerstone box rusted away, and the documents unreadable. When the last stone was removed, the site was leveled for a parking lot. Nothing today shows that it was once Bozeman’s social heart.

(1)    This article freely paraphrases the much more scholarly “Footlights and Fire Engines,” by John N. and Bernice W. DeHaas, Montana, the Magazine of Western History, Autumn 1967, pp. 28-43.

(2)    Consult also: Montana Historical Society, 225 N. Roberts Street, Helena MT 59620; 1-800-243-9900, or  

·        Bozeman photos, courtesy Montana Historical Society,  &  John N. DeHaas .

·        Theatrical posters & stills, courtesy American Heritage, & Culver Pictures.

·        Color photography by Tana Legry, and Shari Clevenger.

Students:  Create a historical preservation class project.  Mrs. Olsen’s 5th Grade in Bozeman chose the Operahouse.  Choose a building in your hometown, and:

  1. Draw a picture of it.  (Make an art gallery with your classmates).
  2. Make a model of it.  (Use balsa wood, cardboard, or whatever works).
  3. Put up a web site about it.  (Share your discoveries with the wider world).
  4. Network with your local and state historical societies to learn and share your work.
Teachers: Civil society and community begin with a sense of place.  An historical preservation project stimulates a sense of community pride, and the common, shared good.  The kids help strengthen civil society, as well as create a public art that most hometown folks will appreciate.



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