Fred Willson’s designs include downtown buildings like the Gallatin County Courthouse, the Dokken-Nelson Funeral Home, Hamill Apartment Building, The Bozeman Armory and the Hotel Baxter.
Standing in a sun-drenched second-floor room at Bozeman’s Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture on a winter day, Richard Brown gazed out of the east-facing windows, pointing out building after building after building.
You see that church there? And that church next to it? How about that bicycle shop? And the funeral home over there? The Baxter Hotel, downtown Bozeman’s tallest building? Oh, and the building he was standing in that very moment?
All works of architect Fred F. Willson, who designed more than 330 buildings in Bozeman and beyond, including area schools, buildings on the Montana State University campus and some of the most recognizable buildings in the heart of downtown Bozeman.
“It just goes on and on and on,” said Brown, whose show “Fred Willson: Context and Contrast” is currently on exhibit in the Weaver Room
“He would do anything.”
And it’s that context and contrast of Willson’s work, of history and of his range of talent that Brown hopes to showcase in his exhibit.
Fred Willson was born in Bozeman in 1877, the son of Gen. Lester S. Willson (the namesake of Willson Avenue) and Emma Willson.
After attending Bozeman schools, Willson spent a couple of years at Montana State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts before transferring to Columbia University in New York City.
“That really did change his life,” Brown said.
Willson graduated from Columbia in 1902 with a degree in architecture. He returned to Montana, where he worked for a Helena architect for a couple of years before taking off on an extended tour of Europe. There, he continued his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Willson eventually returned to Bozeman in 1910 and began to work as an architect under his own name.
Over the course of the next few decades, Willson designed a wide range of buildings in Bozeman and beyond, from the iconic to the mundane.
Hamilton Hall, then a women’s dormitory on the Montana State University campus, was the first project Willson did on his own.
Just at MSU, in addition to Hamilton Hall (1910), Willson designed the Student Union Building (1939), the heating plant (1922), Herrick Hall (1925), the Chemistry Building (1911), Fort Ellis Ranch House (1931) and other smaller projects like a greenhouse, a service shop and a concrete silo, among numerous others.
Off campus, Willson’s designs include Bozeman’s older schools of Hawthorne, Irving and Longfellow, as well as the Emerson and Willson.
There are the buildings downtown, including the aforementioned Baxter Hotel (1928), the Armory (1940), the old Gallatin County jail (now the Gallatin History Museum, 1911) and the Ellen Theater (1919).
Then there are the seemingly countless houses and smaller projects: garages, apartments, building alterations, storefronts, warehouses, Quonset huts.
And Willson’s designs are featured across Gallatin Valley and beyond: schools in Maudlow, Belgrade, Ennis, a municipal building in Dillon, a quiet room and dormitory for student nurses at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.
Derek Strahn, Bozeman’s former historic preservation officer and a current teacher at Bozeman High School, said Willson’s works left a significant legacy in Bozeman.
“I can’t think of a Bozemanite that left more of a footprint,” Strahn said. “He is probably, more than anyone else in our community, someone who has shaped our history and the look and feel and culture of Bozeman.”
Despite his talent and breadth of work, Strahn said Willson remained down to earth.
“I think he was pretty humble and more pleased when his buildings would actually reflect the tenor of the community for which the building was built,” Strahn said.
As part of Brown’s studies to earn his master’s degree in Montana history at MSU, he curated the show on Willson’s works at the Emerson, which went up in the Weaver Room last week and will be on display until April 28.
It’s that versatility of Willson’s resume that Brown showcases with his exhibit. That’s why viewers will see plans for the big, beautiful Baxter Hotel hanging next to plans for a garage Willson designed for a friend.
He did “anything that needed to be done,” Brown said of Willson.
Throughout the exhibit, Brown weaves in quotes from Willson himself — “It can be said, with truth and sincerity, that architecture is a form of public service.” — as well as historical context about what was happening around the world and the world of architecture, to again, contrast Willson’s work with the time he was living.
One photo shows Willson siting in a café in Europe, holding a baguette like a flute.
“He had a sense of humor,” Brown said.
Image by Rachel Leah/Chronicle
Curator Richard Brown, explains the life and work of prolific Bozeman architect, Fred F. Willson, through a series of architectural plans on exhibit in the Weaver Room at the Emerson Center until April 28.