Works Progress Administration (WPA) Buildings

The Great Depression came early to Montana, beginning in 1918 while the rest of the country thrived. Drought and reduced demand for agricultural products following World War I forced many farmers to default on wartime loans, causing widespread bank failure. Debilitating droughts continued to ravage Montana intermittently throughout the 1920s.

Hard times spread across the country in the 1930s. To alleviate the suffering experienced nationwide, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs established multiple agencies to jumpstart the economy and help the poor and unemployed. Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed millions of people in improving and building a huge network of public roads, bridges, schools, civic buildings, and large-scale infrastructure projects.

WPA projects were wide-ranging. Workers built nearly ten thousand outhouses across rural Montana to improve sanitation and prevent the spread of infectious disease. In 1940, in Miles City, the WPA built Denton Field, a minor league baseball stadium still in use. While other New Deal agencies constructed the Fort Peck Dam, the WPA built the Swiss Chalet-style Fort Peck Theatre to entertain the community of dam workers and their families. Unchanged today, the theatre now houses Eastern Montana’s largest theater company.

The WPA also constructed sorely needed civic buildings, which communities otherwise would have been unable to afford. These architect-designed buildings balanced limited budgets, local needs and visual appeal with the WPA mission to employ unskilled workers. The Great Falls Civic Center’s clean lines and columned entryway typifies the resulting restrained WPA Moderne style.

World War II swept away the last vestiges of the Great Depression. Many Montanans entered military service while others worked to produce the resources, like crops, cattle, and copper, that supplied the Allied forces. Though the New Deal agencies were dissolved, Montana’s WPA projects successfully transformed Montana’s cities and small towns and live on as symbols of resilience in the face of hardship.

Great Falls Civic Center

Clean lines, formal monumental openings, and restrained revival details mark the 1939 Great Falls Civic Center as a municipal Art Deco style building. The Works Projects Administration provided most of the funding for the building. The Depression-era…

Fort Peck Theatre

When President Roosevelt authorized the Works Progress Administration construction of the Fort Peck Dam in 1933, the “instant” town with a population of 10,000 created a need for social and recreational diversions in this remote area of Montana. The…

Madison County Fairgrounds Historic District

Early Twin Bridges offered few public gathering places, and so these fifty acres, once part of the Lott and Seidensticker homesteads, were developed as “The Park” in 1887. A “harvest home barbecue” was held that year, and two years later the event…

Square Building

Post-and-beam construction covered with log-veneer siding characterizes this early building inspired by M. H. Lott and built as a community project by area homesteaders in 1894. It is the only remaining building of the original fairground complex,…

Pavilion

WPA engineer C. D. Paxton designed this impressive octagonal community building as part of the federally funded project to rebuild the fairground in 1936. Master log craftsman Tosten Stenberg of WPA headquarters in Livingston supervised the building.…

Montana State Arsenal, Armory and Drill Hall

In 1885, the Montana Territorial Legislature authorized the organization of a National Guard. Within three years its nine companies were headquartered in the territorial capital at Helena. Since that time Montana Guard personnel have been called up…

Camp Paxson Boy Scout Camp

Seeley Lake is one link in a chain of five lakes nestled between the lofty Swan and Mission mountain ranges in western Montana. Two hundred acres of ancient larch trees surround the area, which has drawn visitors since the early 1900s. In 1924, the…

Woodland Park

In the earliest days before trees lined Kalispell’s residential streets, this was the town’s only wooded area. The dense, dark evergreens that surrounded a swamp were off limits to children because transients from the freight trains camped here and…

Red Lodge City Hall and Fire Station

"A hook and ladder outfit stored at a central point" and a loosely organized volunteer company served as Red Lodge's defense against fire in 1897. A disastrous fire in 1900, which killed one man and destroyed four brick business…

Black Otter Trail Historic District

Situated atop massive sandstone rimrocks, this two-and-a-half-mile scenic roadway in Swords Rimrock Park offers unique perspectives. National Register-listed Boothill Cemetery, which served the early settlement of Coulson, Montana, anchors the…

Lodgepole Community Hall

The Lodgepole Community Hall was dedicated in November 1936 in a ceremony the Harlem News called an interesting mix of “Indian tribal tradition and modern governmental activity.” In fact, that mix can be seen in the hall itself. Works Progress…

Big Horn County Courthouse

In the midst of the Great Depression, the federal Works Progress Administration created jobs across the country in an effort to jumpstart the economy. From 1935 to 1937, the WPA spent $24.6 million in Montana alone, which was matched by $3.4 million…