Architecture of Place:C.M. Russell House and Studio Perspective of the Historic Architect of Record
By Ken Sievert
It was a privilege to be asked to develop and oversee a plan for protecting and preserving the Charles M. Russell House and Studio National Historic Landmark. Although we had enjoyed visiting the two principal properties of the house and studio on many occasions and had followed their evolution over time, it was an exhilarating prospect to get into the nitty-gritty of what makes these structures work and what makes them special. In condensed terms, we knew that the work would consist of expanding and refreshing our knowledge about Charlie and Nancy Russell, comprehending their relationship with the historic properties, developing a general timeline of the buildings’ history, identifying original and introduced materials, evaluating the physical condition of the architectural, structural, and utility systems serving the buildings, and integrating that collective knowledge into strategic preservation plans for the house and studio. The ultimate goal was to execute the preservation plans with restoration projects that preserved the landmark buildings with a high degree of integrity and that would fulfill the needs of today’s C.M. Russell Museum, its patrons, and the community of Great Falls.
In keeping with best practices of historic preservation, we followed the procedures and protocols outlined in the Secretary of the Department of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties throughout the work, including the preparation of individual Historic Structures Reports for both the house and studio.
It was necessary to understand the basis of the landmark designation to develop the Historic Structures Reports and to make recommendations for the appropriate treatment of the two properties. This landmark was judged by the U.S. National Park Service as important to American history under the primary theme of art, with painting and sculpture listed as subthemes. Although the Historic Structures Reports primarily focused on the buildings and extant materials, the importance of the buildings within the landmark was related to sheltering the occupants and the work of the artist and his partner, not the architecture of the buildings themselves. The Russells’ relationship to the structures had to be understood and respected.
Further emphasis to the restoration process was added when research for the Historic Structures Reports revealed that the display wing of the studio may have been the first art gallery in the United States exclusively devoted to Western art and was at the time the only art museum in the state of Montana.
The goal of the project was to protect, preserve, and interpret both Charlie’s art studio and the adjacent residence that had been built for the Russells. Although the prolific artwork produced by Charlie can be seen at numerous venues across the nation (including the White House), only in Great Falls can visitors see where he and Nancy worked and lived. Capturing the spirit of their time in these surroundings with a high degree of integrity was of paramount importance.
In the world of historic preservation there are a few alternative approaches that may be applied to historic properties. For example, the preservation classification is applied if the property is to remain exactly as it currently exists; the rehabilitation classification is chosen if the property requires significant repair or is intended to experience a change in use; the restoration classification is applied if the property is intended to look as it did at a specific point in time; and the reconstruction classification is adopted if a property is to be re-created from historic photos and documents. After deliberation, and based on evaluations done for the Historic Structures Reports, the restoration approach was selected for the house and studio because it best represented the appearance of the buildings when the Russells engaged in their most productive years and because there were sufficient in-situ original materials to accomplish restoration with a high degree of integrity. Research done for the National Landmark designation established a period of significance of 1900–1926. Initially, an additional goal of emphasizing the appearance of the house as it existed in 1900 (the date of construction) and the appearance of the studio as it existed in 1911–26 (to allow the display wing and elevated roof profile to be maintained) were considered. However, the Russells had made substantive permanent changes to the house during their occupancy that caused further consideration of the specific 1900 date. The installation of hardwood flooring and the change from bare-bulb turn-of-the-century lighting to decorative lighting were allowed to remain as indicators of the Russells’ growth during their most productive years; otherwise, at the completion of restoration the residence exhibits its 1900 appearance.
Context of the House and Studio
The residence was Charlie and Nancy Russell’s home from of its construction in 1900 until Charlie’s death on October 24, 1926. Nancy moved to Pasadena in ensuing months, and ultimately both the house and studio were transferred to the City of Great Falls as part of her bequest to create a museum and gallery in Great Falls as a memorial to Charlie and his art. The house was sporadically occupied by caretakers and museum staff during the period of 1926 until approximately 1970. After the house was repositioned within the landmark in the 1970s, it was made available to visitors as part of the museum’s exhibits of Charles M. Russell, his artwork, and his Great Falls home. New occupants altered the house’s interior colors and finishes after Nancy relocated and repositioned the house approximately fifty feet to the east in the 1970s. In 1996–97 a color analysis resulted in the house’s exterior being abated for lead-containing paint and repainted in the original colors. A low-slope ramp was also installed alongside the east elevation of the house in 1997.
The Russell residence’s exterior exhibits predominantly Victorian style influences. The relatively steep roofs, classical frieze board, double hung windows, wide water table, and studied formalism all relate to this influence. Because of the limited amount of attached ornamentation, the integration of the design with builders’ technology in a residential neighborhood, and the residence’s smaller scale than many larger examples of high-style Victorian architecture, the stylistic influence could be classified as folk Victorian. Early photographs of the house show scrolled classical brackets between the porch columns and porch roof that further reinforce the Victorian era theme.
However, other exterior details reflect stylistic influences in addition to the folk Victorian classification. These include the use of pent eaves at the base of the cross-gable roofs (derivative of German farmhouses), the open veranda–like porch (derivative of French Creole plantation houses), turned porch columns in the manner of Eastlake style houses, and the small leaded glass window that would be more often expressed with Gothic revival and Arts and Crafts examples of architecture. Nevertheless, the Victorian influence and massing appears to be the strongest inspiration for the exterior design.
The classification changes within the interior of the residence; the informal arrangement of the principal rooms, fluidity of circulation between the rooms, lack of doors in some openings, and stained wood appointments in the first-floor principal rooms imply primarily Arts and Crafts influences.
The studio was the workplace for Charlie Russell from the time of its construction in 1903 until his death on October 24, 1926. The gallery wing of the studio was in early stages of construction when Charlie passed; it was completed and opened to the public in 1930. The studio has been continuously used as a museum of Charles Russell and his work since that time. Blanche Higgins Schroer’s statement of significance in the National Register of Historic Places nomination form describes Charles Russell’s connection to the studio: “For the rest of his life, Russell did most of his major work in this studio, where he also entertained many friends. During the last 25 years of his life, Russell received full recognition as a major artist of the American West, and in later life commanded the highest commissions perhaps ever paid to a living American artist for his canvases.” [I]Blanche Higgins Schroer and Ray Mattison, Nomination to the Charles M. Russell House and Studio National Historic Landmark, 1963.
During his lifetime, Russell received full recognition as a major artist of the American West and commanded increasing prices for his art; his last commission, a mural for Edward Doheny, set a mark at $30,000.[II]Brian Dippie, “It Is a Real Business: The Shaping and Selling of Charles M. Russell’s Art,” in Charles M. Russell: A Catalogue Raisonné, ed. B. Byron Price (Norman: University of Oklahoma … Continue reading When Charlie Russell received the commission to execute the large painting that hangs in the Montana State Capitol in 1911, he raised the roof of the studio to accommodate the larger painting and changed the floor from concrete to wood. Construction had started on the display wing when Russell passed away (log partial height walls are visible in the funeral photos); when the wing was finished the roof surfacing had changed from split pole to asphalt shingles. An insulated roofing system was overbuilt above the studio in 1956, and during that project the mechanical heating system was replaced. In 1993 a new foundation was placed beneath the studio, an enclosed viewing space was installed within the original studio room, and a series of wood exhibit cases were placed within the 1930 display wing of the studio. The date for the installation of a restroom within the back passageway of the studio was not determined from the research, although it was clearly after the period of significance but prior to 1956. The restroom was rehabilitated to accommodate mobility-impaired visitors to the studio.
Russell studio, post-1930.
Classification of the Charles M. Russell log cabin studio into a distinct architectural style is challenging on two levels. First, the immediate reaction is to categorize the studio as an example of vernacular architecture, a classification that may not be limited to any specific period of time. Second, the studio was not built as a vernacular structure responding to a functional need but is a replica of the vernacular structures that artist Russell appreciated, had been exposed to during his formative years in the Montana West, and felt comfortable with while creating his artwork. The fact that he organized the construction of this space in an otherwise Midwest 1900s neighborhood is evidence that he believed that this studio space was important to his state of mind as he created his artwork. The studio was an ingredient in his art: “The studio testifies to artistic process in two ways, the artist’s imagination and the labor of making art. As a common interpretive strategy for museums of Western art, the inclusion of a studio exhibit establishes the appropriate credentials for interpreting the art as an act of creation rather than as documentation.” [III]Elizabeth Kennedy, “Charlie Russell’s Log Studio: The Origin of the Museum of Western Art,” Journal of the West 40, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 3.
The 1903 construction date would typically suggest that we study revival styles of architecture for the studio, with a potential for influences from Mission or Arts and Crafts expressions of architecture that were evolving then. Russell’s studio does not visually fit with any of these styles, but it does fit the description for vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture is generally defined as the “study of ordinary buildings and landscapes,” a style that uses locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and is not limited to any specific period of time (we are building vernacular structures today, for example). The design of the studio was based on vernacular values.
In summary, the studio is a copy of Montana frontier vernacular architecture that was an integral part of Charles M. Russell’s artwork. Future treatment of this historic property mandated that we respect the studio and gallery’s original construction means and methods as a significant feature of the National Historic Landmark, preserve extant materials and spaces, and treat the studio as an artifact as much as it is preserved for its vernacular architecture. This approach is consistent with the values of Nancy Russell in her bequest to the memory of Charlie. As Elizabeth Kennedy argues, Nancy’s involvement in shepherding the memorial’s aesthetics to keep it looking as it did when Charles was there indicates that “Nancy understood the value of maintaining the studio’s historical accuracy.” [IV]Elizabeth Kennedy, “Charlie Russell’s Log Studio: The Origin of the Museum of Western Art,” Journal of the West 40, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 64.
The pursuit of historic architecture often raises more questions than it resolves. In the case of the Russell house and studio, one area of unresolved investigation surrounds the builder, George Calvert. The Calvert family had migrated to Great Falls from upstate New York, where George’s father had worked in a supervisory capacity on the Erie Canal. Research revealed that the builder and the Russells were neighbors and friends (Calvert was referred to as Uncle George in correspondence) and that Calvert went on to build numerous Arts and Crafts residences in Great Falls. Numerous photographs of Russell and his friends include George Calvert in the entourage.
However, remaining evidence of bills of materials, subcontractors, or workmen employed in the construction of the house or studio that would relate to the builder were not found during the preparation of the Historic Structures Reports, and we would encourage additional investigation of the connection between George Calvert and the Russells with the hopes of finding additional resources that could further add to the story of the landmark studio’s or house’s construction.
One definition of restoration or preservation could be “the process of translating between an academic goal and the physical actions required to accomplish the work.” Pertinent to the Russell house and studio, this process began with having a clear understanding about why the two structures were important to Charlie’s artwork and Nancy’s business acumen, followed by a plan of action that focused on that importance and adhering to that vision throughout the planning and construction actions. Following the National Park Service’s guidance on historic properties was invaluable to the planning and construction processes.
There are limitations to adapting current industry standards to 120-year-old structures. An example: in 1900 fir tongue and groove flooring that was used within the house was manufactured in 3-1/4-inch widths. That width is no longer produced, but manufacturers do make the flooring in a 3-1/8-inch width. We did not have to replace any flooring within the residence, but if we had, would the 3-1/8-inch width have been acceptable, or would it have been considered a violation of the restoration’s integrity? On a personal restoration project, we elected to custom cut the profile of replacement flooring in the original width at significant additional cost.
As it applies to the house, the products that industry no longer provides or where there was no record of original materials included the decorative appointments at the front porch (historic photos were not clear enough to discern the exact pattern), the structural supports below the front porch (what remained was installed circa 1970), the original heating system, and some hardware items. Although we found remnants of the original brick foundation still attached between floor joists in the crawl space of the house, all of the foundations supporting the house were replaced in the 1970s.
Historic Materials and Treatments
The greatest amount of attention at the house was the interior wall and ceiling surfaces that included plaster, paint, and wallpaper. Nondestructive investigations initiated during the preparation of the Historic Structures Report revealed that the plaster walls and ceilings of the upper floor had been covered with gypsum wallboard with few exceptions as part of the circa-1970 relocation, the ceilings of the first floor had been covered with gypsum wallboard circa 1970, and the first-floor plaster walls (wallpapered over) exhibited numerous crack patterns and loss of bond with the supporting wood-framed walls. Anticipating problems with the plaster, the contract documents for the project included the requirement to engage a plaster conservator to do restoration work to the plaster.
During construction we found that our concerns about the plaster were not without cause; plaster in the house consisted of single-layer plaster (three-coat plaster is typical, though occasionally two-coat plaster is used for secondary spaces), and in some locations within the house the plaster was as thin as one-eighth of an inch. The plaster keyways had broken in many locations and, though still in place, were loose on the wall. The conservator drilled holes through the plaster (carefully) at six inches on center both directions on all first-floor walls, injected a solution to open the pores of the supporting wood lath, and then injected an adhesive specifically developed to rebond the plaster to the supporting lath. Needless to say, the treasured house resembled a war zone during this traumatic (but necessary) step of the construction restoration process.
The decision was made to retain the gypsum wallboard on the second-floor walls and the ceilings throughout. The cost for removal of the wallboard, stabilization of the underlying plaster (which was presumed to be damaged and the reason for the 1970s application of the wallboard), and reworking of door and window frames to accommodate the change in wall thickness would have exponentially increased the project budget, and, secondarily, gypsum wallboard is often used as a plaster substitute on preservation projects. Since it had been predetermined that these surfaces would be either painted or covered with wallpaper to meet the interior objectives of the restoration process, any benefit of removing the wallboard was judged as minimal.
Exploring the evolution of the various applications of wallpaper within the house proved to be equally fascinating. We suspected that various layers of wallpaper had been applied within the house based upon a few interior historic photographs and the knowledge that the Montana Federation of Garden Clubs had totally repapered the house when it was moved in 1970. Our construction documents stipulated that the wallpaper be stripped with the historic architect present so that the layers could be recorded and samples harvested for an archive’s repository. This exercise was recorded along with audio dialogue from the wallpaper specialist that performed the stripping. We discovered six layers of wallpaper in the living room, five layers in the reception and foyer, and three layers in the dining room (the number of layers include the 1970 top layer of wallpaper). The rooms of the upper level exhibited only the 1970 wallpaper that was applied over the introduced gypsum wallboard.
To fully evaluate original finishes on the upper level we had to core through the wallboard from the 1970 installation at numerous locations in search of the historic finishes. It was revealed that the rooms within the upper level of the house had originally been painted rather than finished with wallpaper.
Determining the original paint colors used on the upper floor ultimately required patience, resiliency, and cooperation. Team members involved in this investigation included the historic architect, painter, wallpaper specialist, plaster conservator, and a credentialed color analyst in the employ of the plaster conservator. Numerous trips to the site were required and numerous corings were executed to extract a comprehensive picture of the original finishes. It was a common practice with historic plasters to seal the original plaster surface with a pigmented lime wash before applying the final finish. To the untrained eye this can look like a paint, but in reality it was never a finish. In addition, we found that the lime wash was not a consistent color within any specific room; apparently the applicator used whatever was available on hand since the goal was to seal the surface but not be a finished coating. This was particularly evident on the first floor after the base layers of wallpaper were removed.
Another complication is that without records we do not know the sequence of refinishing of individual rooms; were all rooms repainted (or re-wallpapered) at the same time, or was one space refreshed at a particular time and the neighboring space redone a few years later? Since our goal was the original base layer, we did not re-create a timeline for each space. Nevertheless, we wanted to have a complete record of the layering in the interest of being thorough and for curators to use in the future. We did find some interesting combinations. It appears that at one time the upper rooms were all repainted pastel “ice cream” colors, but we were not able to determine if this occurred before or after Nancy’s move to Pasadena. Regarding the original base colors: the second-floor solarium was a dark green pigment that related to the wallpaper in the stairway, and with the exception of Jack’s room all other spaces were off-white. Since Jack’s room was painted a light blue-gray (similar to the exterior color of the house), it could be speculated that the Russells were thinking about a baby boy long before they expanded their family.
An exhaustive search was conducted to try to find the pattern and the manufacturer of the first-floor wallpaper patterns. Local suppliers were contacted, the collections of current manufacturers were viewed, firms specializing in reproduction wallpapers were consulted, the online wallpaper collections of Cooper-Hewitt Museum were viewed, advice was solicited from colleagues in the preservation community, and historic wallpaper manufacturers were investigated. There were three distinct first campaign wallpaper patterns to research on the first floor.
The original living room wallpaper could be described as a non-geometric organic pattern of branches, leaves, and clusters of fruit that had been screen-printed. A deep red pattern was printed over a lighter red background; the pattern reverses in adjacent panels by switching the dark to light features, resulting in a vibrant block-like appearance. We did not find a record of this pattern during any of the searches; the closest pattern and pattern technique found with characteristics resembling this pattern was wallpaper produced by the French company Zuber & Cie around 1900. This pattern had also been described as a flocked pattern in parts of the historical record. Using microscopy we found that the pattern was not flocked, but because of the heavy pigmentation of the pattern and the contrast of dark and light fields the wallpaper would appear as flocked when viewed from a distance. The restoration documents called to reproduce this wallpaper, bids were solicited from qualified reproduction wallpaper manufacturers, and reproduction wallpaper was hand-printed using the original pattern to create the necessary screens.
The reception and foyer and lower half of the stairway proved to be less elusive. The pattern could be described as a Damascus pattern composed of light and dark pigments of earthen green. We were able to find contemporary wallpaper patterns that were similar on the open market. However, since we had the original materials and had crafted the planning documents to call for a reproduction wallpaper, we reproduced this pattern using the same screen-printing methods used for the living room wallpaper.
The base layer of the dining room wallpaper could be described as a repetitive pattern of a mural with a naturalistic theme. Repetitive large-scale tree form and shrubbery panels unfolded around the dining space. Colors within the pattern are strong and feature spruce influenced greens with the most severe color being indigo, all accentuated by minimal organic browns of the tree trunks. This pattern was controversial among the design team with some members questioning the application of the material because of its strong characteristics and the absence of a record of this type of mural application within modest folk Victorian domiciles. When construction began rolls of the mural pattern had also been found stored within the house, and since there was a full-size pattern from which to extract imagery, the reproduction process for this pattern was digitized and commercially printed. After installation, the curatorial staff of the museum discovered a communication that confirmed the use of this pattern in the dining room and reinforced the on-site evidence we uncovered while doing the work.
The task was less formidable within the studio. With the exception of circa-1993 display cases, a plexiglass partition, replacement foundation, restroom, roof surfacing, and mechanical and electrical utility systems installed after the period of significance, the primary structure and materials at the studio were original parts of the building as it existed before 1930. The replacement foundation is not visible to visitors, is in good condition, and was allowed to remain. The display cases and partition were removed in their entirety. It is worth noting that the collections that had been housed in the cases had suffered extensively because of the lack of a controlled environment and the outgassing nature of plexiglass. We elected to retain and upgrade the restroom to comply with American Disabilities Act standards in recognition of the goal of the C.M. Russell Museum to engage the public more directly with the studio by offering lectures, classes, and presentations within the artist’s place of work. Inappropriate contemporary roof shingles were replaced using a diamond-pattern composition shingle based on historic photographs, and wood columns supporting the shed roof across the front of the studio were replaced in kind because of advanced deterioration. The contemporary building paper below the shingle surfacing was found to contain asbestos and those materials were abated when the shingles were removed.
Departures from historic accuracy within the studio consisted of modifications and additions to the interpretive lighting and adapting floor openings for reconfiguration of the mechanical system. The remainder and greatest amount of work at the studio consisted of restoring and repairing wall logs, restoring floors, and applying protective finishes to interior wood surfaces.
The construction of the 1930 display wing forced the relocation of the skylight because of the intersection of the original roof with the display wing addition. Review of historic photographs suggest that the original skylight was reused; it was simply moved. The restoration retained the existing assembly and replaced a contemporary protective cover on the roof above the skylight.
The visual quality of the studio as seen today is one where the original materials are visible, a selected few have been replaced in kind, and introduced systems serving a contemporary use were installed to be minimally obtrusive and as products of their own time.
Revelations and Surprises
The wood-framed structural system of the house held a few surprises for the owner and the historic architect. The house was constructed using eastern balloon framing techniques—a system where the wall framing is two stories high and the upper floor is hung between the vertical members of the walls. This system was further exacerbated for this house by the truncated roof profile; roof rafters come partway down the second-floor walls, forming a vaulted (knee) profile, and the ceiling occurs at a higher level. In engineering terms this means that there are outward thrust forces at the bottom of the rafters that the walls must resist in addition to the gravity loads they carry. Careful calculations during the planning process confirmed that the existing system was suitable for continued use.
While constructing new foundation supports for the restored porch, the contractor encountered remnants of the foundation of the house that originally occupied the lot. The new supports were adjusted to avoid the former foundation and to assure that the new work reached a suitable depth.
Investigations during the planning process discovered that the 1970 floor structural supports within the foundation had never been connected; the beams and girders supporting the first floor had been held in place by the action of gravity alone since the time of the move. New connecting hardware was added. The beam pockets in the 1970 foundation that were used to allow the steel carriage to move the house over the new foundation were in-filled by this project.
The center exterior chimney was originally taller and more decorative, based on historic photographs. It is not known when the height was lowered, but the change may have been related to the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake that was felt in Great Falls. That sizable chimney offsets within the attic and is constructed of unreinforced brick masonry. Engineering suggested it would require significant intervention to re-create the original height, and there was some concern with stability as-is due to the offset within the attic. The decision was made to retain the existing lowered height, point all of the mortar joints, reflash the chimney, and add concealed braces within the attic to add stability to the offset feature.
During preparation of the Historic Structure Report, the team was surprised to learn that the residence continued to use a knob-and-tube electrical system for electrical distribution of power to lights and outlets within the house. This system was original to 1900. Although not recommended, this system is still permitted by contemporary electrical codes if it is in good condition and if no mitigating factors compromise its continued safe use. Extensive deliberation, examination, and evaluation surrounding this topic enveloped the design team. In-depth investigation revealed that the coating over the wiring was significantly deteriorated, there were numerous splices throughout the house that were attached only with electrical tape, and, most importantly, the wiring had been immersed in Zonolite granular insulation within the walls, which would allow undesirable heat build-up near the wires. Although the insulation was not considered an original historic material, it would have required traumatic intervention of the walls to remove (and would leave the house without any thermal protection). The decision was made to rewire the house, leave visual evidence of the original system where possible, and provide new, period-appropriate switches, plates, and devices if original devices could not be reused.
Although the existing lighting was judged to have been manufactured after 1900, all lighting was restored and rewired to meet current safety requirements. A maid’s enunciation bell on the kitchen end of the house was preserved in place. Security systems were updated within the house, detection and alarm devices were added or upgraded, and cameras were added.
In contrast to the poor quality of the plaster used for the house, the double-hung windows feature metal jamb liners and would have been state-of-the art assemblies in 1900. Wood trim and profiles used throughout were constructed of softwood (much of it vertical grain fir) and were elegantly finished. Many of the original wood finishes remained and required minimal refreshing during restoration. Tongue and groove fir flooring had originally been used throughout the house and was all still in place. It had been covered over by hardwood flooring in the living room, reception and foyer, and dining room; both flooring systems can be seen when raising a mechanical floor grille. Other exposed fir floors exhibited wear and were in need of protective finishes. All flooring throughout the house was restored and refinished.
The circa 1970 mechanical system was replaced by this project. Replacement consisted of changing the central heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning unit and adapting it to the existing distribution system of ductwork and historic grilles. The original 1900 heating system is believed to have consisted of a coal-fired appliance: none of the original system remained for our evaluation. One exterior wall of the house had been visually compromised by contemporary meters, piping, and wiring. Those elements were removed or relocated to a nearby standalone monument and the wall restored.
One of the strategies pursued to manage the overall cost of restoring the studio was for the C.M. Russell Museum staff to remove the display cases and viewing enclosure within the studio. This also had the benefit of assuring that the artifacts within the cases were not adversely impacted as the cases were opened up and allowed the curator to handle those materials with great care. In the course of dismantling the cases it came as a great surprise that the north and west portions of the wall concealed by the cabinetry had been insulated at some time in the studio’s history with a compressed straw material known as Stramit. We did not find any reference to this material in any documentation related to the studio, including drawings and specifications from the 1956 or 1993 work on the studio. Stramit was the result of a process developed in Sweden in 1933, and, although still produced today, the material used in the studio was attributed to an earlier exhibit campaign that furred the walls to provide a flat surface for hanging artwork.
The surprise that left the most memorable impression on the craftsmen engaged involved the redaubing of the exterior logs. The plans called to remove and replace unsound daubing with in-kind materials, treat the surface of existing sound daubing to seal minor cracks, and to review and improve the joint where daubing was feathered to the logwork where necessary. The north wall of the display wing housed the most extensive amount of unsound daubing; when it was removed it was discovered that all of the joints under the failed daubing were full of an infestation of small flying insects. All work stopped. With some assistance, the museum curator captured a representative of the intruders and sent it to the entomology laboratory of Montana State University for identification. All were relieved to find that we had an infestation of snow fleas that would not have a detrimental effect on either building materials or artifacts. They were removed in the process of replacing the daubing.
The source of the logs used for construction for the studio has been attributed as western red cedar telephone poles because they were readily available and of suitable length for the construction. We found during restoration that George Calvert used more than one kind of log for the construction (including the cedar); for example, some of the front columns were harvested from Douglas fir.
The original portion of the studio reveals what I believe was a change requested by the owner as the studio was being built. The profile of the logs for the original room is unconventional; they are flattened on the interior only (in the manner of Blockbau German log structures) but are rounded on the other three sides. Squared log Blockbau structures are typically squared on all four faces or on three sides at the very least to facilitate placement of the logs. The manner of flattening of the interior face is also unconventional; rather than being squared by a broad ax in the traditional score-and-plane fashion, these logs were flattened by sawing into the face of the log at intervals and chiseling off the round face of the log. The method of squaring suggests that the logs were flattened after they were installed, and the change may have been a request from the artist so that he could have a flat wall for hanging artwork. This subject has one additional interesting twist. The upper four logs that were added when the roof was raised do not exhibit this method of flattening but have been surfaced in the traditional manner. When viewed today, you can visualize the height of the original studio by looking at the locations of the saw cuts.
During the restoration process of these remarkable structures, we encountered questions that we were unable to resolve. Unanswered questions predominantly relate to the house, and the inability to address these questions primarily relates to a lack of information or records, removal of forensic clues over a long period of time, or the actions of different tenants after the time that Nancy relocated to Pasadena.
We were unable to re-create an acceptable historic floor plan for the kitchen. We know that the original location of the sink was the southeast corner of the space based on historic plumbing traced in the crawl space, and we generally know the location of the stove based on the position of the north chimney and the remaining thimble on the face of the chimney. The proximity of the stove to the passage into the dining room would be problematic unless the stove was small or unless the flue extended further across the space.
There are no known photographs of the back, north side of the house that date before 1930. The vestibule added in 1970 was kept because of the lack of any clear direction as to how the space was configured during the period of significance.
The interior kitchen door that accesses the passage to the bathroom and basement stair had clearly been added; however, when this occurred is undetermined. It is attributed to an early change based on the materials used and the profile of the wood trims surrounding the opening. Speculatively, this may have been done to separate guests or buyers from the kitchen in the event that they wished to use the bathroom facilities.
Another undocumented change occurred within the pantry or maid’s room. Evidence of a change in flooring can be seen, and there is an unexplained grille at the base of the cabinet on the east wall. The grille may have been related to the furnace in the basement, but no remaining evidence under the floor corroborates that possible use.
Because of a change in plaster application across the back, north side of the fireplace, there was speculation that the fireplace as we now know it may have been modified or enlarged during the period of significance. Documentation suggesting a change to the fireplace was not discovered during the restoration process, and provenance of the fireplace brick is also unknown. The brick has characteristics of concrete brick rather than masonry, but no markings observed on the masonry identify a manufacturer. The fireplace brick is distinctly different than that of the chimneys on the house.
There were French doors at the stair landing when the house was recorded prior to restoration. Origins of this feature are also not known; what we do know is that they do not appear in any of the historic photographs and were added after the house was constructed.
A more distant perspective of the house raises some interesting questions. The interior of the house has two distinct characters. The spaces on the first floor that guests and clients entered were finely detailed, handsomely finished, and well appointed, as well as exhibiting Arts and Crafts influences that were avant-garde in 1900; the remainder of the house, reserved for family, is austere and frugal and exhibits typical Victorian farmhouse influences.
Our search for plans, sketches, or specifications related to the house’s construction in regional archives or repositories did not find any original documents. During development of the Historic Structure Report, we communicated with the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, the Amon Carter Museum, the Montana Historical Society, and notable private authors in an effort to find historic interior photographs. Although there are numerous photographs of the artist and many promotional photos, we found only three interior photographs of the house that yielded any information about the residence that were useful during the restoration process. We also looked through builder’s published catalogs (including prefabricated catalog house publications) in an effort to find a direct connection from a planning document to what we had measured on site. Finding none, we concluded that the house was a custom design authored by a collaboration between the contractor and the owner (possibly Nancy) and that formal plans were never prepared. There is one characteristic, however, that continues to invade the consciousness of this author. The scale of the house feels like a farm Victorian house whose plan was reduced to about a seven-eighths scale. This speculation arises from two observations: the interior stairway is exceedingly steep (it violates contemporary building codes and was allowed to remain during the permitting process because of the landmark status), and the termination of the stair in the second-story hallway results in a very contorted hall configuration. If the floor plan were incrementally larger, then both issues would have been resolved in a more satisfactory plan configuration and stair profile.
With the exception of the bathroom in the studio and the retention of the upper wall surfacing of the house, in general all of the materials viewed by today’s visitors were contained or have been reproduced for these two landmark structures during their period of significance.
The effort to embark upon and follow through this restoration process stands as testimony to the commitment of the Charles M. Russell Museum to protect and tell the story of the studio and house, a journey in which we were privileged to participate.
The project was challenging, but it was also full of reward and enlightenment; in Charlie’s words, we would say that the project had “good medicine.”
The restoration of the C.M. Russell House and Studio National Historic Landmark was fulfilled with the assistance of responsible contractors and qualified craftsmen, credited below.
Historic Architect of Record: Sievert & Sievert Cultural Resource Consultants
Mechanical, electrical, and systems consultants: GPD Engineering Inc.
Industrial hygienist and hazardous materials consultant: TD&H Engineering
Interpretive design: Split Rock Studios in collaboration with CMRM professionals
General contractors: Robinson Construction Co. (2 projects); Detailed Construction Co. (2 projects)
Specialty contractors: Fernandez Painting and Wallcovering (including lead paint mitigation)
Conservators: Custom Plaster, Boise, Idaho; Greg Marster, principal conservator
Masonry restoration: Cooper Masonry
Mechanical and electrical subcontractors: Loenbro, Brennan, A. T. Klemens
Principal subcontractors: Ron Prikockis Roofing; T-C Glass; Winters Stained Glass
Interpretive rough-in: Crestron Electronics Inc.
Compliance: Planning and Community Development Department; City of Great Falls
|↑I||Blanche Higgins Schroer and Ray Mattison, Nomination to the Charles M. Russell House and Studio National Historic Landmark, 1963.|
|↑II||Brian Dippie, “It Is a Real Business: The Shaping and Selling of Charles M. Russell’s Art,” in Charles M. Russell: A Catalogue Raisonné, ed. B. Byron Price (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 1–67.|
|↑III||Elizabeth Kennedy, “Charlie Russell’s Log Studio: The Origin of the Museum of Western Art,” Journal of the West 40, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 3.|
|↑IV||Elizabeth Kennedy, “Charlie Russell’s Log Studio: The Origin of the Museum of Western Art,” Journal of the West 40, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 64.|