HISTORY OF THE SQUARE
Paris Gibson Square, one of Great Falls' oldest and most beloved landmarks,
has served as a center for learning and growth for more than 100 years.
The magnificent sandstone structure was completed in 1896,
served for 34 years as Central High School and for 45 years as Paris Gibson Junior High,
before closing its doors in 1975.
In 1977, community volunteers renovated and reopened the historic building as Paris Gibson Square. Since that time, Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art has provided a dynamic program of exhibitions, classes, lectures, tours, and performances designed to nurture the region's creative spirit.
The Building as a Monument to Education
Central High School (1896-1930)
Paris Gibson Junior High School (1930-1975)
Located near downtown between Central Avenue and First Avenue North, Paris Gibson Square was the most distinctive building in Great Falls at the end of the 19th century. This building boasts over 45,000 sq. ft., and is situated on a full city block. Built in 1896 as the city's first high school, it represents both the visionary and pragmatic aspects of the citizens of a town merely a decade old. Its crowning glory, a four-faced clock tower almost as high as the building itself, easily gave it visual distinction as it towered above everything on the surrounding plains. The emphasis on time was a symbol not only for urban industrialization where accurate and consistent time became essential for the interaction of commerce, but also a suggestion for the youth attending the school that their time be wisely spent in learning. Through the choice of its "cathedral-like" style, the three-storied structure emphatically stated its ideological purpose as a monument to education. Described as a modified Norman style in the National Historic Register, it is, in fact, a version of a popular turn-of-the-century Romanesque style for public buildings made famous by Boston architect H.H. Richardson.
The Building as a Museum and Cultural Center
Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art (1977-Today)
Initiated in 1974 by the Junior League of Great Falls and led by Jean Warden Dybdal, a community task force was responsible for the building's metamorphosis as a community cultural center. For more than two years, these leaders organized, planned, cleaned, painted and raised funds to open the doors of this historic treasure. Through a unique inter-local agreement with the Great Falls School District and the Cascade County Commissioners, Paris Gibson Square became a reality in 1977.
The museum has grown from its visionary beginning, with a volunteer director and a budget of just $20,000, to become a significant artistic and cultural resource in Montana. The Square serves as an educational and cultural hub for Cascade County and the surrounding rural communities. The museum provides a variety of cultural, educational, artistic and cross-disciplinary enrichment opportunities for both children and adults. These include 15-20 unique art exhibitions per year, school tours with hand-on art activities, workshops and classes for all ages and abilities, outreach programs to underserved populations, lectures, panel discussions and more.
Participating artists and the Curator of Art provide lectures at all exhibition openings and often host panel discussions. The Square's thriving formal docent program provides over 200 group tours annually, including all third graders enrolled in one of the fifteen public elementary schools, and the education department offers quarterly sessions of classes and workshops for all ages and abilities. Our After School Art Education programs provide art classes to students in grades K-12 five days per week, and the growing VSA Montana Arts program provides art classes and enrichment experiences to children and adults with disabilities and other barriers to access. Preschool Open Studio opens the door for artistic expression, and our Traveling Museum outreach program, a fully developed art lesson on American Indian Contemporary Art, brings art education to rural schools and organizations free of charge.
The museum maintains a permanent collection of 800+ pieces, including Northwest regional contemporary art, American Indian contemporary art, and American self-taught art. Much of the collection comprises 234 sculptures created from cottonwood branches and found objects by self-taught artist Lee Steen. In 2001, The Square inaugurated a permanent installation of Steen's work, and schedules regular exhibitions of other work from the permanent collection. The Square continues to secure notable additions to the collection, ensuring its continued relevance to contemporary art and the region.
The importance of preserving the building, regarded locally as a cultural treasure and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is an important part of the organization's mission. In 1997, the museum successfully led a $1.87 million campaign to renovate the building and establish a fledgling endowment to support museum operations. Working closely with the State Historic Preservation Officer, the organization restored the historical integrity of the building, while significantly expanding and improving the galleries and providing increased accessibility.
To compact the foundation backfill, 100 sheep were driven around the perimeter of the building 100 times.
Native gray sandstone was quarried between Helena and Great Falls, and transported by mule team and wagon to the site. The massive, rough-hewn stones were shaped at the site. The lower walls, which are thicker at the bottom than at the top, vary from four to five feet in width. These walls are load bearing and extend 16 feet underground to shale bedrock.
A four-faced clock tower dominated the central portion of the roof and was nearly as high as the main building. An early prediction that the building could not support the clock tower proved to be true. The tower was removed 20 years later because of its crushing weight.
A modified mansard style roof with the peaks cut off and the addition of gables describes the most distinctive feature of the building. The tin roof, designed to look like tile and now painted brick red, is supported by a series of trusses of tremendous size. The attic floor is suspended and supported by heavy-beamed, bridge-like joists. Huge iron clevises hold the ceiling beams to the bridge-joist construction.
Logs were floated down the Missouri River for construction of the stairways; the steps were fashioned from full logs, squared and finished with oak treads and risers.
The woodwork is solid oak with the original golden finish; all the rooms are surrounded by a wainscoting three feet high made of vertical cove molding.
Wide door casing with elaborate molded pediments surround the 2-1/2 inch thick doors, many of which still bear the heavy cast brass doorknobs and unusual door hinges. Ornate cast iron radiators heat the rooms and cast iron filigree grates cover the vents.
In 1913, when the brick annex was built, the boiler system was moved from the basement of the original building to the outside, between the two buildings, to serve both facilities. Legend has it that the former boiler room was converted into a swimming pool 10 feet deep at the shallow end. A few years later, a student drowned and the pool was condemned and used only for storage until the annex was demolished and the boilers moved back into their current location. Research has not been able to prove or disprove this story. There are no official records of a pool in the original building nor of a student drowning on school property. There is documentation of a pool in the brick annex from 1913 to 1917, when it was closed due to a crack that would not allow the pool to hold water. However, several alumni have sworn that the legend of the drowning in the original building is true.
The first class was 46 students (9 boys and 37 girls). Speakers at the dedication ceremony on November 1, 1896, were Mayor Webster, Superintendent of Schools, B.T. Hathaway, and Paris Gibson. The Black Eagle Band and special choruses under the direction of Josephine Trigg furnished the music. The principal was Helen Edgerton.
The first graduation exercises for the class of 1897 were held in the Opera House for lack of a school auditorium. There were five graduates and a packed house.
1893 | Bond issue overwhelmingly passed for the construction of a high school, but the financial panic of 1893 slowed the progress and bidding out of the construction. Great Falls architect William White's design was selected from four proposals.
1894 | Contract signed for construction of building at $59,940 (limit for bids was $60,000) by the McKay Brothers construction firm. Final cost of the building was more than $110,000.
1896 | Dedication ceremonies held after long-awaited arrival of slate blackboards.
1913 | Brick addition (annex) designed by W.R. Lowery and constructed for $200,000.
1916 | Clock tower removed.
1970's | Annex closed.
1975 | School officially closed.
1977 | January | Dedicated as Paris Gibson Square| February | Brick annex demolished for the making of the movie Telefon.