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Thursday, August 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Capital Charm Helena Busting Out In Western Warmth, Art And History

Kristi G. Streiffert Special To Travel

Montana’s cult of outdoor recreation has turned some cities into mere departure points to skiing, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding and wildlife-watching sites beyond.

But the state capital beckons travelers to stay a few days and explore.

Born in the 1860’s gold rush era, Helena is rich in mining history, graceful architecture and lovingly preserved mansions. As a bonus, a vibrant arts community thrives amid the atmosphere of past gold-laden grandeur.

The Montana Historical Museum offers a mix of art and history that held me longer than I had budgeted on my recent two-day stay.

Its “Homeland” exhibit traverses the 12,000-year history of the people who have lived in what is now Montana. The exhibit relies on more than 2,000 artifacts and works of art to tell the story of Native Americans, miners, ranchers, homesteaders and others who settled the state.

In another wing of the museum, Western art buffs can relish one of the largest Charles M. Russell art collections in the nation. More then sixty works are exhibited, including major oils, such as “When the Land Belonged to God” and “Men of the Open Range.” The exhibit includes not only “official” works of art, but also a series of spontaneously illustrated postcards and letters written by “Kid Russell” to friends and acquaintances.

One of Russell’s most famous works is found across the street, in the Capitol. Most out-of-state visitors to the domed building come expressly to view the 1911 painting “Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole,” found in the House of Representatives. The huge (12-by-25-foot) canvas dominates the chamber.

The painting portrays the meeting between Salish Indians and the Corps of Discovery expedition. Captains Lewis and Clark were looking for a northern pass by which, they had been told, the Nez Perces crossed the mountains in Idaho. Lewis and Clark can be seen on the far right of the painting, not in the center of the work as might be expected. Russell composed the painting so that viewers would see this meeting from the perspective of the Salish.

Numerous signs and arrows in the Capitol point visitors “To The Russell Painting,” as if the historic piece is the only reason to visit the building. But a self-guided tour turns up many other interesting features. Visitors are first greeted by a magnificent French Renaissance-style rotunda featuring classical columns, Tennessee marble wainscoting, a terrazzo tile floor and a frescoed dome.

Overhead, four decorative paintings energetically portray Montana’s turn-of-the century heroes: the Native American, the cowboy, the trapper and the prospector. Other historic statues, architecture and decor are easily viewed using the self-guiding brochure available daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. In summer, guided tours are available.

The dose of history on the Capitol tour only whets the appetite for more, and Helena delivers. A downtown walking tour (outlined in a free brochure titled “The Heart of Helena: A Historical Tour”) showcases over 50 sites, including a log cabin built in 1864, and the Montana Club, founded by the wealthy stockmen and mining elite of Helena in 1885.

One of the historic structures, built in 1914 as a workshop, now houses the Holter Museum of Art, which provides a showcase for the work of local and regional artists and traveling exhibits.

Helena cherishes its artists, and the Holter Museum provides a focal point for that admiration. The Holter Museum will feature a Christmas exhibit and sale from Nov. 13 to Jan. 4.

During that same period, the museum will exhibit Elizabeth Lochrie’s paintings, which document early Blackfoot culture. Lochrie, born in 1890, was adopted by that tribe 1932.

From Nov. 13 to Dec. 30, there also will be an exhibit of contemporary Montana artist Jeff Walker’s prints and paintings.

Helena’s 14th annual Fall Art Walk will be Nov. 21, featuring works by a number of artists and includes exhibits, demonstrations, drawings and horse-drawn carriage rides. The event takes place on the Last Chance Walking Mall.

Artisans display their works in the downtown businesses, and at the close of the business day, the art walk begins. Cider and cookies are served at many of the business, and artists are present to answer questions about their work.

More art is found outside of the downtown area, notably at the Archie Bray Foundation, an internationally known center for ceramic art. The foundation holds its holiday show and sale Nov. 21 to Dec. 24, featuring works by current resident artists.

The Foundation’s grounds are a show in themselves, and a walking tour of the 26 acres provides ceramic surprises that delight the curious. The foundation is built on the ruins of an old brickyard and the dilapidated kilns suggest a set for a romantic movie about an artists’ colony. But this really is an artists’ colony - and a not-to-be-missed part of Helena’s charm.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Walking-tour brochures are available by calling (800) 7-HELENA. The city’s Web site is imageplaza.com/Helena The Montana Historical Society is at 225 N. Roberts, (800) 243-9900, with Web site information at his.mt.gov. Admission is free. Archie Bray Foundation is at 2915 Country Club Ave., (406) 443-3502; Web site archiebray.org. The Holter Museum of Art is at 12 E. Lawrence, (406) 442-6400. Warm-season visitors are advised not to miss the Last Chance Tour Train. In just one hour, the “train” (which has wheels and travels city street) provides visitors a comprehensive overview of Helena’s history, mansions and landmarks. Operates May 15-Sept. 30; (406) 442-1023. Prices are $4.50 for adults, less for children.

Accommodations: For those who want to stay in the heart of Helena’s historic district, the Park Plaza Inn is situated on the Last Chance Walking Mall, and is a great place to begin the historic downtown walking tour. Rates start at $69.75; (800) 332-2290. For those who prefer bed and breakfasts, The Appleton, on the west end of Helena, has Spokane connections. The turn-of-the-century architect who designed this house, George Appleton, also designed many homes in Spokane. And the English Cottage Room features the antique bedroom suite of John and Sonora Dodd, Spokane residents during the early 1900’s. Sonora is famous as the founders of Fathers’ Day. The B&B; is only about a mile from the Archie Bray Foundation. Rates start at $65, and include a full breakfast. Reservations can be made at (800) 956-1999 or AppletonInn.com

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Walking-tour brochures are available by calling (800) 7-HELENA. The city’s Web site is imageplaza.com/Helena The Montana Historical Society is at 225 N. Roberts, (800) 243-9900, with Web site information at his.mt.gov. Admission is free. Archie Bray Foundation is at 2915 Country Club Ave., (406) 443-3502; Web site archiebray.org. The Holter Museum of Art is at 12 E. Lawrence, (406) 442-6400. Warm-season visitors are advised not to miss the Last Chance Tour Train. In just one hour, the “train” (which has wheels and travels city street) provides visitors a comprehensive overview of Helena’s history, mansions and landmarks. Operates May 15-Sept. 30; (406) 442-1023. Prices are $4.50 for adults, less for children.

Accommodations: For those who want to stay in the heart of Helena’s historic district, the Park Plaza Inn is situated on the Last Chance Walking Mall, and is a great place to begin the historic downtown walking tour. Rates start at $69.75; (800) 332-2290. For those who prefer bed and breakfasts, The Appleton, on the west end of Helena, has Spokane connections. The turn-of-the-century architect who designed this house, George Appleton, also designed many homes in Spokane. And the English Cottage Room features the antique bedroom suite of John and Sonora Dodd, Spokane residents during the early 1900’s. Sonora is famous as the founders of Fathers’ Day. The B&B; is only about a mile from the Archie Bray Foundation. Rates start at $65, and include a full breakfast. Reservations can be made at (800) 956-1999 or AppletonInn.com

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