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Building beauty

H. Rafael Chacón explains A.J. Gibson’s art of architecture


The Missoula home of architect A.J. Gibson still sits south of the Clark Fork River. Though it’s now converted into apartments with new additions—the sunroom blocked out, the picket fence and garden gone—it still reveals the hybrid trademarks of the most prominent architect in Missoula’s history. There’s the cobbled stone porch, modified-Tudor stucco and stately columns.

Gibson built a good portion of this town—some 144 building designs in the span of just 20 years—including the courthouse, the buildings around the UM oval and the old library that now houses part of the renovated Missoula Art Museum. That’s not to mention his work in the Bitterroot, such as the lofty Daly Mansion. His styles range from the more fanciful Queen Anne Victorian to the columned classicism used by the Greeks to a more practical craftsman approach, and he often combined all of those elements into one building.

“In my mind he really represented an era of buildings civilizing the West, giving it this shape that was really optimistic,” says Hipólito Rafael Chacón, a University of Montana art professor and author of a new book about Gibson, The Original Man. “When [Gibson and his wife] came here this town was made of mud and logs and makeshift buildings, and when they left it had street cars and electricity and stone buildings.”

While it’s difficult to pick out every documented Gibson building—there are “copycat” designs all over Missoula—it’s easy to see his stylistic influences. On a recent tour through the city’s neighborhoods, Chacón helped explain what it was about Gibson that made him the architect of his time.

Fanciful designs
You can tell a Queen Anne style by its asymmetry: a tower on one side above a bay window, perhaps a porch on the other end and roof lines broken up by various levels of the house. In Missoula, Gibson built everything from small single-family houses to large mansions in this Victorian manner, and you can see the full spectrum of these sizes within the University and Riverfront neighborhoods. The Beck House on S. Fifth Street E., for instance, is one of Gibson’s most ornate, featuring a wrap-around porch, delicate latticed detail and windows varying in size.

But Gibson wasn’t a purist. At the turn of the century, just a few years after he moved to Missoula in 1889, Queen Anne was slowly going out of vogue in favor of simpler designs. Gibson changed with the times.

“The sociological aspect of that is that you have these patrons who want a house that they’re familiar with,” says Chacón, “and what they thought of as good architecture was the Queen Anne. But they also wanted to be seen by their neighbors as being hip and current so there’s a kind of subtle shift away from the gingerbread.”

This is why Gibson is so important, says Chacón. It’s not that he invented his own style, but that he was able to take—with no training and an elementary school education—the dominant national style and bring it here, incorporating it to the tastes of his patrons.

“I think nationally, the best architects were doing that,” says Chacón. “America’s known for its hybrid architecture and Gibson was, in some ways, taking liberties…To me that shows a sign of somebody who understands the styles and is confident using them, playing with them, and it shows a lively mind.”

Classic hybrids
As the Queen Anne popularity waned and classicism came into fashion, Gibson tried his hand at apartment buildings. Rows of mirror image brick apartments fill the University District, and while not all of them are documented Gibsons, they stem from similar floor plans. These residencies were mostly for professors, students, secretaries and working class people, all of whom required something more affordable. In fact, these examples constituted some of Missoula’s first affordable housing. Design-wise, the classic apartments adhere to a strict symmetry.

“Those round porthole windows with the kind of exaggerated keystones were things that he designed,” says Chacón. “It’s part of his repertoire of motifs and he also did a lot of those leaded glass windows like the panes you see at the top. It’s all about perfect balance, symmetry, harmony—so that was a major shift in his style.”

But the turn from Queen Anne to classical wasn’t just an aesthetic switch. The University Apartments, across from Hellgate High School, show the symmetrical columns and mirror image design of classical architecture. But the backside of the apartments incorporates alcoves instead of being one straight line of brick and windows. This provides more space for windows and, therefore, more light.

“I think with Queen Anne style houses, they really were all about aesthetics,” Chacón says. “They would build these houses and not think that they would eventually have to repaint them, or fix all the shingles or all the copper gutters. Eventually, architects particularly at the turn of the century became much more mindful of the nature of space and of light.”

Craftsman craze
The streamlining of Queen Anne to classical led to an even more practical—and aesthetically modern—style. Even in the University Apartments Chacón points out the influence of craftsman elements, which Gibson started incorporating close to his retirement in 1909. The apartments’ eves, for instance, are wider than earlier designs and the columns, albeit inspired by classicism, are tamed down even more.

“There’s enough evidence here that he’s simplifying forms, modernizing it and cleaning it up for a new age,” says Chacón.

A photo dated 1910 shows the final stages of the first Frank Lloyd Wright building in Montana—the Bitterroot Inn in Hamilton. In the photograph, you can see Gibson’s car parked right in front of the building as it is being finished.

“This building was so radical—horizontal lines and stained glass windows—and very, very modern,” says Chacón. “To me what it says is that Gibson has just retired and he’s in Hamilton checking out the coolest architecture around, which is Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. That to me says that this guy, even after his retirement, was still sensitive to the newest trends.”

The legacy
For Chacón, Gibson left a legacy that builders today shouldn’t forget.

“In some ways what is American about this story is that it’s not wealth that determines good taste or that determines doing the right thing,” he says. “I mean, I call the book The Original Man because [Gibson] refers to himself as the original man in some of his literature, and what he means by that is that the common man should have access to good architecture, to good design and good craftsmanship and that’s a value I think we need to reclaim.”

Chacón says that some of that is already happening in the newest innovations of green building and affordable housing around Missoula, including places like the Gold Dust apartments.

“In some ways they’re doing what Gibson was doing 100 years ago because they’re bringing international trends [to Missoula] and native-izing them,” he says. “I think [Gibson had] an amazing urban vision, but it was an amazing social vision too… And yes, it was about cutthroat business and making money, but it was also about populism and a democratic age.”

H. Rafael Chacón discusses The Original Man: The Life and Work of Montana Architect A.J. Gibson at Missoula’s University Congregational Church of Christ Sunday, Sept. 14, at 11:30 AM and at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, Sept. 16, at 7 PM.


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