1:20 p.m., Jan. 16, 2009----If someone had warned you that your college studies would require the detailed examination of a brothel and a speakeasy, would you have believed them?
For Victoria Walker, Anna Blinn Cole, Stephanie Shaw, Kimberly Toney and Elyse Poinsett, five students at the University of Delaware's Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD), this bizarre scenario became a reality during a study trip to Butte, Mont., where they documented historic buildings in preparation for the annual meeting of the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF) scheduled for June 2009.
CHAD is a research and public service center housed in the College of Human Services, Education and Public Policy's School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. Faculty, staff and students of CHAD focus on the study and preservation of historic buildings and landscapes.
Assistant Professor Rebecca Sheppard, CHAD's associate director who also took part in the fieldwork, says that from an educational standpoint, the trip was a tremendous test of the students' skills.
“It was a very concentrated, intensive experience,” she says. “The students were applying techniques that they've learned here in the Mid-Atlantic to a very different environment, with very different styles of architecture from what they're used to.”
Mining the past
Each year the Vernacular Architecture Forum meets in a new location in North America and spends the first two days of the conference touring the historic buildings in the area. VAF chose Butte as the next meeting location in order to learn about the buildings and landscapes associated with mining.
The city rests on top of the “richest hill on Earth,” where enormous quantities of gold, silver and copper were extracted from the rich deposits below the Earth's surface during the town's fascinating history. Some estimate that as many as 10,000 miles of horizontal mine shafts lie beneath the city today as a result of the extensive mining operations that took place during the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Like other mining towns, Butte's population seemed to boom overnight. The mining industry drew tens of thousands of people to the city, where they built many of the homes and businesses that currently comprise one of the largest historic districts in the country.
The shortage of preservation programs in Montana left the VAF organizers short-handed and searching for volunteer field teams to help finish the field guides for their upcoming tours. The students and staff at CHAD were eager to offer their services and skills to complete the documentation of the historic buildings through a painstaking process of measured drawings and photographs.
The study trip was thus organized in August 2008 in cooperation with faculty from Montana State University. CHAD's team of five students and two staff members documented ten different buildings in five days -- an incredible challenge requiring discipline, hard work and a sense of humor.
Buildings of Butte
It became readily apparent to the team that this was not a typical fieldtrip when the first building they tackled was an early 20th century tin shop with a brothel on the second floor. Once the giggling died down, the team began a serious exploration of the building, learning that the brothel was added in 1920 as a second source of income for the tinsmith's family.
At the rear of the property, another group of buildings known as the “Cabbage Patch” also captured their interest. These one-story shacks, approximately 12 by 20 feet in size, were made of nine-inch-wide planks and represent some of the last surviving examples of the early miners' housing that once covered the hillside in the hundreds.
According to Sheppard, the uncommon dimensions of the planks offered a clue to the difficulties of the miners' lives in Butte. “It spoke to the ephemeral nature of the buildings. They were built with whatever materials were available,” she said. “We found ourselves trying to imagine what it was like to spend a Montana winter in one of these rooms, with only these planks and a layer of tarpaper for protection from the elements. Yet some still had remnants of the wallpaper used to decorate the inside.”
At another site, inside the first skyscraper built west of the Mississippi, the team encountered a basement barbershop with a secret speakeasy that kept Butte wet during the dry years of Prohibition.
In nearby Anaconda, home of the smelting works, the team wrestled with the framing of a railroad roundhouse.
“The roundhouse was definitely a hard building to document because of its sheer size and geometry,” said Cole, a master's student in the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. “We were told this was one of the last roundhouses in the country still in operation.”
Walker, a student in art conservation who has since completed her bachelor's degree, found all the hard work to be worth the effort. “This trip provided an excellent opportunity to acquire hands-on experience which is unattainable in the classroom,” she said. “The variety, size and condition of the buildings challenged us to apply our historic preservation field skills like never before -- it was truly a rewarding experience.”
During their free time, the students enjoyed exploring the streetscapes, museums, restaurants, and wildlife in Butte, discovering that the higher altitude and hard work whetted their appetites for the great food in town.
The trip was a resounding success. The unfamiliar history and culture of Butte introduced the students to new types of structures that broadened their knowledge of architecture and landscapes. At the same time, by providing their services, the students contributed to the preservation and understanding of Butte's past, ensuring that important information about the buildings was recorded for posterity.
Article by Rebecca Sheppard, Elyse Poinsett, Victoria Walker and Beth Chajes