Standing outside the old Depot overlooking the train yard, it’s easy to imagine what travelers must have felt as they arrived in Livingston, Montana in the last part of the 19th century. After a long train journey across vast expanses of unfamiliar territory, Livingston must have been a delightful respite — an invigorating stop-over for pilgrims headed to Yellowstone National Park, to the coast, or perhaps on their way to the legendary mining camps scattered throughout Montana.
Once the rails linked Livingston to the East in 1882, Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors drafted plans for a company town and a classic street grid that still exists to this day. The following year a spur line was constructed to link Livingston with Yellowstone National Park — making Livingston the original gateway to America’s first national park. Originally named Clark City, the town quickly transformed itself from a hodgepodge tent city to a thriving center of commerce. By the early 1900s Livingston boasted several stately hotels, banks and factories, and became a flourishing commercial hub anchored by the largest railroad shops between Seattle and Minneapolis.
Insider’s Tip: Many of the notable buildings from Livingston’s bygone days are intact and still define the character of the downtown area. Highlighted here are a few must-see gems for the casual history buff.
Block-for-block, downtown Livingston has more buildings on the National Register of Historic Places than most large US cities. Although several distinctive structures have been destroyed over the years — mostly due to fire — there are still an abundance of turn-of-the-century treasures to behold. Livingston’s main historical (commercial) district is centered around Main and 2nd Streets between Park and Clark Streets.
Constructed in 1902, the Depot was designed by the same architectural firm that devised the plans for Grand Central Station. The Depot is a masterful example of the American Italianate style, at the time a popular form derived from 16th-century Italian Renaissance architecture. Currently the Depot is maintained by the Depot Foundation and houses summer exhibitions highlighting the area’s railroad heritage. If you’re lucky, a train will rumble by as you stroll the Depot grounds. 200 West Park Street
The Murray Hotel has been a downtown landmark since its inception in 1904. Originally dubbed “The Elite Hotel” by owner and local business woman Josephine Kline, the Murray was conveniently located across from the Depot, welcoming travelers as they strolled into downtown. The hotel started out as a two-story structure and expanded upward as business boomed. Make sure to visit the Murray Hotel’s lobby, a beautifully maintained space featuring historical artifacts, ornate detailing and terrazzo floors. 201 West Park Street
John O. Sax Co. opened its doors in 1883 and has been open for business ever since, making it Livingston’s oldest continuous business. After residing at three different locations, Sax & Fryer moved to its current-day location in 1914. Mostly unchanged since its 19th-century opening, the business still sells books, office supplies and general merchandise. Historians and book lover alike will be delighted with Sax & Fryer’s comprehensive collection of local and regional Montana fiction and non-fiction. 109 W Callender Street
The 100 block of Main Street, is home to some of Livingston’s oldest commercial buildings. By far the most photographed setting in Livingston, the distinct arrangement of alternating two-and one-story structures with a majestic mountain backdrop makes for a postcard-like photo opp. While walking down Main Street pay special attention to the many ornate facades and original merchant name plates. 100 block, east side of North Main Street
Funded by a $10,000 bond, the building housing the city hall and fire station was constructed in 1896. Eventually an extra bay was added and the pronounced bell tower was dismantled due to earthquake concerns. The original volunteer firefighters used a hand-drawn cart and eventually moved to a “modern” motorized fire truck. 120-126 East Callender
The 30-room Grabow Hotel was established in 1908 by Elizabeth and William Grabow. Over the years the Grabow has hosted countless travelers, including such note-worthy guests as John D. Rockefeller. William Grabow died in 1918, leaving the hotel operations to Elizabeth and her grown children. 202-206 East Callender
The largest concentration of historical homes in Livingston can be found on Yellowstone Street between Callendar and Geyser Streets. Livingston is small enough that one could easily walk from Main Street to Yellowstone Street — a short four blocks. These beauties should get you started on a self-guided historical tour of some of Livingston’s most prominent homes.
Constructed using locally-produced brick, this early Westside home was the first on the block. The Queen Anne styling adds flair to the front of the house. In the 1920s the residence was converted into the Lott Birthing Center. At the time maternity patients stayed in “maternity houses” around town rather than in hospitals. The Birthing Hospital was operated by local nurse Edith Lott. 128 South Yellowstone Street
Josiah Vilas arrived in Montana in 1881. After a stint as postmaster in Gardiner, Montana, Vilas moved to Livingston to become president of the National Park Bank of Livingston. The Vilas residence is one of seven Livingston homes built with locally-quarried stone. The fine masonry work, along with leaded glass and classical fluted columns in the front of the house, make the Vilas House a must-see historical home. 130 South Yellowstone Street
Insider’s Tip: Catch the yellow bus! Historic tours of Livingston are offered June through August. Catch the vintage, Yellowstone National Park bus in front of the Depot Center on Park Street.
The section of Yellowstone Street between Callendar and Clark Streets was known as “Banker’s Row” due to the number of prominent bankers living in the neighborhood. In 1903, Edward Talcott, then president of the National Park Bank of Livingston, constructed this majestic residence on six city lots. The grand structure has several impressive features, including a metal-clad, widow’s walk roof. During this period houses were primarily heated using wood, and widow’s walks provided easy access to chimneys. 206 South Yellowstone Street
This Italianate style home was originally inhabited by Julia and John Rolfson starting in 1891. The original cross-gable structure featured gracious overhanging eaves juxtaposed with narrow windows. Mabel and Thomas Manzer purchased the home in 1898 and added a wrap-around porch. During the Depression locomotive engineer Christy Testers and his family moved in and leased rooms out to make ends meet. 221 South Yellowstone Street
This striking 1890 residence is punctuated by an octagonal corner tower, a popular architectural motif in the late 19th century. The house was built in the Queen Anne style using blonde brick and colored mortar. The original owner was well-known sheep rancher John Harvat, who moved his family to Livingston so his children could enroll in school. 229 South Yellowstone Street
Insider Tip: With so many buildings on the historical register in Livingston, the above list of historical gems is a minute sampling of what the town has to offer. For more in-depth information about Livingston’s historical structures, stop in at the Livingston Chamber of Commerce on Park Street for a historical walking tour map and guide.
Brad Bunkers, GoLivingston.com founder and editor, wears many creative hats. In addition to producing the Livingston travel guide, he owns the Livingston, Montana graphic design and branding company, Engine 8; maintains a Livingston fine art studio; produces the international arts journal, HoboEye; and sits on two non-profit boards. Visit engine8design.com or bradbunkers.com to learn more about Bunkers.
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