With more than $1 million raised, Montana begins efforts to save territorial capitol

By: - September 5, 2022 8:34 am

The Stonewall Hall in Virginia City was recently acquired by the State of Montana. It served as the first permanent territorial capitol building in Virginia City. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

VIRGINIA CITY – Walking down the boardwalk of this historic city, you could be forgiven for passing by a peach-colored stone building that used to be a garage.

It looks like so many other buildings here, in a sort of ongoing historic preservation in the heart of the rowdy home of the Vigilantes.

But Stonewall Hall may be the most significant historical building in the state at risk of collapsing.

Built in 1864, Stonewall Hall served as the territorial capitol from 1865 to 1875. And it’s now the top priority of the Montana Heritage Commission and the Montana History Foundation in the race to stabilize and save the most important structure from the territorial era. The state and historic preservation leaders have just completed efforts to begin the restoration process, which will take more than $1 million.

The building’s two-story walls are in need of stabilization before the true restoration can begin. Unreinforced stones have already started heaving inward.

The Montana Territorial Legislature in 1874 in what is presumed to be Stonewall Hall in Virginia City (Photo provided with permission by the Montana Historical Society Photo Archives).

One historical picture taken in 1874 shows the all-male legislature sitting behind a gallery, with American flags draped near the ceiling, a portrait of George Washington hanging above a rostrum, and gas-fed lights. The wooden railing in the center of the picture was still intact and in the building when the state acquired it, according to Becky DiGiovanna of the Montana Heritage Commission.

The hope is to restore the building, including the historic second floor where the Legislature met. The goal is to make it a convention center, repurposing it like so many buildings there today.

The building has sat mostly empty for some time because no one wanted to buy the liability of a building that was literally crumbling.

“Yet everyone wanted it saved and kept on asking, ‘What can we do?’” DiGiovanna said.

The efforts were given a boost by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte who has personally given to the project. It has also helped that the state could be convinced to help the private-public partnership to restore a building that so closely is tied into its own statehood. As a member of the state land board, Gianforte himself led the effort to accept the building for restoration, which included assuming the liability for its rickety condition.

An unreinforced masonry wall will need to be stabilized in order to restore the rest of Stonewall Hall, the building which houses the Montana Territorial Legislature from 1874-1884 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Now both the Montana History Foundation, an independent nonprofit and the Montana Heritage Commission, which is part of the Department of Commerce and also manages many parts of Virginia City, a national historic district, announced that they have completed raising funds to save the hall. So far, those efforts have amassed more than $1 million, and the restoration can begin.

It’s expected to be complete sometime in 2024.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.