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Rafael Chacón’s Biography of Montana Architect A.J. Gibson

The Original Man: The Life and Work of Montana Architect A.J. Gibson
by Hipólito Rafael Chacón
The University of Montana Press, 164 pages, $35

A.J. Gibson is one of Montana’s most beloved and famed architects. Paradoxically, he is – at least as far as the scant written historical record goes – also its most unsung. In fact, the only biographical material related to Gibson’s life published before September’s release of Rafael Chacón’s The Original Man: The Life and Work of Montana Architect A.J. Gibson, was part of a multi-volume set released in 1914.

Therefore, when Rafael Chacón, an art historian and University of Montana art professor, began to conduct research for a book about this recognizable and influential figure, there was a lot less material available than what he was expecting to find.

“Historians and the press have dropped the ball on architects and their value and importance to the life of the state,” says Chacón, who first learnt of Gibson while researching Spanish architecture in Montana more than 8 years ago. “I think of architecture as more significant than painting and sculpting, because it has the potential to reach more people in a much more public way. I wanted to pay respect to one of the great designers of the space we inhabit.”

Chacón believes that A.J. Gibson (1862-1927) deserves a book of this stature. Indeed, Gibson was the quintessence of the great western story; he typified what one man could do with an abundance of enterprise, willfulness, and desire, and he repeatedly demonstrated the initiative, dynamism, and excitement required to urbanize and modernize the west. He is a classic western figure from the Progressive Era in Montana and the Northwest.

From the University of Montana to the Missoula County Courthouse, Gibson’s architectural legacy in Missoula is ubiquitous. A fact made all the more remarkable when considering that he had no formal training as an architect.

“What made him exceptional was that he was a guy with a 6th grade education who graduated from carpentry, building, and contracting to architecture without any licensure or professional training. He lived in a time when that was possible. He was practical about architecture. He believed in learning the craft from the bottom up, from carpentry all the way up. Gibson thought that one had to have practical knowledge of the field in order to be good.

“The buildings here on campus,” continues Chacón, “their entire pattern and design style owes a tremendous debt to Gibson. He built the first five buildings, and he established an architectural style and language, one that still continues.”

In the two decades that Gibson lived there (1889-1909), Missoula evolved from a crude boom and bust, a makeshift, if not hazardous, place, to a well-planned, well-organized, beautiful location. (He and wife, Maud, married in Missoula in 1889, the year that Montana gained entrance to the Union as the 41st state.)

“When Gibson arrived in the late 1880s,” says Chacón, “Missoula was still a pretty rough place; it had a few bad fires because the architecture was wood. Most of the city was made up of wood frames and log buildings. There were very few brick and stone buildings.”

As Missoula’s population increased, major industries developed, including logging and agricultural sectors, and the town became a hub for the railroads. Gibson’s talents intersected with a place that had to be rebuilt out of more substantive materials. Urban planning now needed to be much more substantial than in previous years and much more reflective of urban patterns back east. He became a major principal in the designing of durable brick and stone buildings, well-appointed houses, and new neighborhoods on the south side.

“At that time (1880s-1890s), Missoula was a fully-functioning town, but it still had much of the character of your typical western town, the mud streets, wooden sidewalks, bars and bordellos everywhere. By the time A.J. Gibson left, there was electricity, street cars, automobiles, paved roads, sidewalks, it was a different place.”

In 1895 the building of a commercial corner known as Gibson Block (now Higgins and Broadway) ushered in the beginning of Missoula’s urban epoch. It catalyzed national architectural advancements, business trends, and societal changes.

“In the early 1890s,” says Chacón, “Gibson decided to build a downtown office at the northeastern corner of Higgins and Broadway, called Cedar Street. It was to be the most important intersection of downtown Missoula – and it still is. It had office spaces, rentable space, a general store, and some boarding rooms. He gambled on that location, and it turned out to be a smart choice. It gave him a front row seat.”

People who know the name A.J. Gibson are familiar with his more famous achievements, they know the courthouse, the campus buildings, and the great big, neoclassical columns of the Daly Mansion (the state’s largest private home), as well as the fancy cornices which decorate the elegant commercial buildings of downtown Hamilton. Nevertheless, even the most ardent admirer of Gibson’s artistry must have some trouble grasping the prolific nature of his talent and professionalism, or find it difficult to distinguish authentic Gibson constructions from commonly misattributed ones. (Many buildings mistakenly attributed to Gibson over the years had been designed by Ole Bakke, an associate he greatly influenced.)

“The problem for me,” says Chacón, “was that there were so many competing lists about what he had actually done, and so much wrong information out there. What I wanted to do here was actually clear the record as to what Gibson did and didn’t do. When I started this project, there were 44 buildings in Missoula, and a handful outside of Missoula, documented as being Gibson’s.

“We now know that there were at least 144 designs, if not as many buildings. That’s amazing for a person who practiced architecture for just 20 years. The drawings at the K. Ross Toole archives are the definitive argument that there were more buildings designed here by Gibson than at first thought. His opus has expanded greatly. This is as close to a definitive list as we can get right now. The list is bound to change as people see more of Gibson’s documents and descriptions.”

The Missoula County Courthouse is often described as Gibson’s greatest masterpiece, and the apex of his talent. In many ways, at least as far as aesthetic design and construction are concerned, it is certainly one of his most glorious achievements. However, in terms of his career and life, it was a lowly and sour point.

“There was a lot of controversy surrounding his hiring,” says Chacón. “It was quite ugly from the start. There were accusations that damaged his reputation, and there were issues with the execution of the building. He had major problems with the materials. Eventually another supervisor was hired to complete the project, which must have been demeaning for Gibson.

“The project came in very late. If you go to the courthouse today, you’ll see 1908 over the doorway, but the building actually opened its doors in 1910. In 1909, with the project in the middle of operation, Gibson retired.”

In 1927, Gibson and his wife, Maud, were killed when their automobile was struck by a passenger train. His bequest, an architectural and urban perspicacity that transformed his hometown and neighboring communities, continues to impact more than 80 years later. In fact, Chacón feels that if Gibson had committed his life’s work to Seattle, Portland, or somewhere other than Montana, he may have left a greater mark in the history of Western and American architecture.

In no way, though, did Gibson die as a lonely, unheralded man deprived of fame or notoriety. Public mourning was widespread at the time of his death. However, since then, his legacy has been delineated to the rough-hewn edges of historical memory. Indeed, Gibson’s greatest contribution to Montana was that he was able to look outside the state, identify major trends in American architecture at the time, and transpose them.

“When he died in 1927, there was a clear knowledge that he was a brilliant, important figure in the development of architecture and urbanism in the western part of the state. But Gibson didn’t create a distinctive style or receive formal training as an architect, so he’s been on the outside.

“I’ve always had an interest for artists who are at the margins of movements,” continues Chacón. “The people on the edges of movements. Figures like Gibson interest me, because they have certain freedoms that those who have been academically trained do not. They see opportunities the pack doesn’t often see.”

Chacón began working on The Original Man in 2001. While on sabbatical from UM in 2002, he intensified his examination, spending more than five years matching up documents, inspecting drawings, identifying structures, as well as meeting with people throughout western Montana and northern Idaho, who owned or thought they owned a Gibson property. Most of the book’s photos, culled from Maud Gibson’s own albums, have never been published.

Within the 150 plus pages of The Original Man, Chacón has not only clarified the historical record as to exactly what structures A.J. Gibson designed and when, he has reintroduced the story of a great man who lived the western dream, catalyzed the development of architecture in western Montana, and transformed Missoula into something, as he puts it, “beyond the teepee, the log cabin, and the trailer.”

A preservation-minded angle exists to the book that Chacón does not want to be overlooked. As he sees it, A.J. Gibson’s designs give us all a precious peek into the mind of a man who shall always remain a notable physical and aesthetical link to Missoula’s history.

“I want to see these buildings acknowledged, celebrated, and preserved as our legacy for the next generation,” says Chacón. “To help do so is my way of giving back to Missoula. It’s my way of giving the city back its own history.”

Rafael Chacón will discuss his book at Missoula’s University Congregational Church of Christ on September 14 (11:30 a.m.) and at Fact & Fiction on September 16 (7 p.m.). The book will also accompany a traveling exhibition of the same title that features architectural models, facsimiles of drawings and photographs. Organized by the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, the exhibition will be on view September 18 through October 19 at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena.

Brian D’Ambrosio is a writer living in Missoula and the editor of the Clark Fork Journal. His second book, Fresh Oil and Loose Gravel: Road Poetry 1998-2008, was published last month.

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One comment

  1. As an architect, you gotta love the guy and give architecture its due and remembrance. He’d be happy to know that the Missoula County Courthouse lawn is perenially inhabited by vagrants.