Great Falls Central Business Historic District
Great Falls began with an act of imagination. In 1882 entrepreneur Paris Gibson looked at the broad flat plain near the cataracts of the Missouri and envisioned a booming metropolis. By the next year, Gibson had convinced railroad magnate James J. Hill to help him found a town. When surveyor Herbert Rolfe laid out Great Falls’ original 160-block plat, he made the streets wide enough for freighters to easily turn their wagons around. “Grass and sagebrush grew, and nothing indicated that here would rise a city,” Rolfe’s wife recalled. “Piles of rocks were placed at the corners of streets and avenues to show their location.” Yet within six years permanent buildings—including several still standing in Central Avenue’s 100 block—dominated the business district. As the city grew, the heavy architectural styles popular in the 1890s gave way to brick commercial buildings. Many of these, including the 1920 Beaux Arts Liberty Theater, sported elaborate terra-cotta ornamentation. Forty percent of the district’s buildings were constructed before 1920, but unlike many Montana communities, Great Falls continued to grow despite drought and economic depression. The 1931 Art Deco S. H. Kress building and the Moderne one-story 1948 Bus Depot and Garage reflect that expansion. Today 103 buildings constructed between 1886 and 1951 contribute to the historic business district. Schools, banks, commercial blocks, hotels, and apartment buildings enliven the district, reflecting an eclectic mix of architectural styles while testifying to Great Falls’ layered development.