Butte goes by many nicknames – The richest hill on earth; The Gibraltar of unionism; The ugliest town in the world; The most pictorial place in America, and most recently, The nation’s largest Superfund site. It is the home of the Butte-Anaconda National Historic Landmark District, the National Folk Festival, and was host to the Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference, of which I was an attendee last week.
The city grew from a mining camp on the side of what most in Greensboro would consider a mountain, over 5,000 feet in elevation in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The mountain was discovered to hold one of the largest copper deposits in the United States – a fact that brought great prosperity to the region with rapidly increasing demand for copper due to the burgeoning electronics and munitions industry.
Between 1890 and 1920, mining for copper resulted in an explosion in the city’s population and an accompanying housing shortage. Just as Greensboro grew from a village into a city during the same period, Butte boomed into a nationally recognized industrial center and the largest city between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Spokane, Washington.
Butte was not coy in its position as a mining town. The city featured a Chinatown for the segregated Chinese, a Millionaires Club for the mine owners, a red light district for the lonesome, and lots and lots of mines. Mines drove the wealth of the town, and their entrances were located where geology dictated them to be – not where zoning laws restricted them. Unlike Greensboro’s wealth-generating mills and factories that were located on the outskirts of the Gate City, Butte’s mines were sprinkled throughout the city adjacent to schools, churches, playgrounds, and houses. Mining operations in Butte are not represented by a simple hole in the ground. Rather, they are flagged by massive and towering headframes – or industrial elevators – used to transport workers and ore from underground tunnels up to the earth’s surface.
Dealing with the high-profile headframes is the first lesson in what Butte is doing right. Instead of abandoning its unique history by tearing down the headframes in an effort to make the city look for like any other place, Butte has embraced its industrial past by celebrating the headframes in the city’s skyline. It is illegal to destroy a headframe, many of which are lit at night or used as trademarks for parks and redevelopment projects. Could the Gate City identify a similar iconic feature from our past – such as textile mill buildings or the elaborate cornices that topped most commercial buildings along Elm Street – and celebrate their role in keeping Greensboro a unique and authentic American city? Could Greensboro adopt an iconic feature as the headframes have become for Butte?
As Butte exploded in growth in the early twentieth century, the once-modest settlement was graced with grand civic structures, towering skyscrapers, and sophisticated hotels designed by America’s most talented architects. Demand for real estate expanded shops and apartments beyond the intersection of Main and Broadway. Other streets grew in importance, including Park Street – the site of the Metals Bank Building designed by New York’s Cass Gilbert (image, right). Granite Street featured the new county courthouse. The Mother Lode Theatre located on Park Street. These landmark sites are united by the fabric of the city in the form of shop fronts and civic spaces.
Unlike downtown Greensboro, which focuses like a laser beam along South Elm Street, Butte’s uptown (so-named because it is on a mountain!) spreads over a broad area. Imagine replacing Greensboro’s sprawling parking lots along Edgeworth, Smith, and Church streets with mid-rise structures. Butte is endowed with a dense downtown, and though some notable losses of architecture have occurred, new buildings are being added that match the scale and character of the old (image, right).
At its peak, Butte is estimated to have sported a population of 40,000-60,000. Today the city has close to 35,000. In order to preserve its historic core in spite of depopulation, the city has recognized most of its center as an “Historic overlay zone”.
The overlay is a special zoning designation that protects the historical significance of existing structures by prohibiting the undue moving, removal or demolition of these structures. Much more stringent that the current Design Guidelines being considered in the Gate City, Butte’s overlay zone goes much further to promote the preservation of historic sites, structures, and buildings by addressing preservation issues at the local level and integrating them into the planning and decision making process. In doing so, the city recognizes that preservation enhances the visual character of the city by:
- • Encouraging preservation ideals;
• Encouraging maintenance of the present housing stock;
• Promoting the tourist industry within Butte through the preservation of historically significant buildings and structures;
• Enhancing the property values of Butte through the preservation of historic buildings and structures;
• Fostering public appreciation of and civic pride in the beauty of the community and the accomplishments of the past; and by
• Safeguarding the heritage of the community by providing for the protection of historic buildings and structures representing significant elements of its history.
In enforcing this ordinance, Butte means business. Any person, firm or corporation who omits, neglects, or refuses to do any act required in these provisions or removes, moves or demolishes any building, headframe or pertinent element located in the historic overlay zoning district without approval shall be subject to a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or six months in jail or both! In Greensboro, enforcement is sometimes limited to terse verbiage.
Greensboro need not become Butte, Montana. To paraphrase Lady Bird Johnson “I want Greensboro to look like Greensboro and Butte to look like Butte”. Greensboro is doing some great things that serve this city well. However, Butte is exercising some actions that preserve the city’s character and enhance the economy that might also serve the Gate City well.