Federal Building

For some, the Federal Building was a marvel of establishment

By Jaix Chaix

The Federal Building at 247 First Ave. E. in Kalispell was built in 1917 and designed by James A. Wetmore (the supervising architect for the U.S. Treasury Department).

The building was a hallmark of progress for the era: a vision realized in Colonial-Revival style with grand elliptical windows, nuanced symmetry, a roof with balustrades – and the commitment of brick and concrete. The grandeur on the outside did not disappoint on the inside, where marble and hardwoods gleamed as bright as the polished brass.

In some ways, the solid exterior and bright interior contrasted with reality. The United States declared war on the German Empire on April 6, 1917. Almost everything seemed to be a struggle or uncertain, even construction of the building was fraught with harsh weather and a scarcity of materials and labor diverted to the war effort. But somehow the Federal Building was completed on time. It soon housed the U.S. Post Office (first floor), and local offices for the Forest Service, Land Office, and the Weather Bureau (all on the second floor).

For some, the Federal Building was a marvel of establishment: Kalispell was no longer an outpost, railroad town – but a place worthy of its own federal building and services. The timely construction only proved and portended a deserving future for the Flathead Valley (despite the circumstances of the day).

For others, the building was a sign of intrusion. It was another dismal sign along the road to “progress” – a sign that a more natural, and a less “civilized” way of life was all but left behind as “the Feds had arrived.”

And perhaps for more than a few folks, the “government men” could now use the corner building to spy more easily upon the locals. Whether peculiar or paranoid, debating this point involves recognizing at least some truth. That is, the post office was indeed outfitted with the latest efficiencies of the era – including louvered shutters and well-disguised peep-holes that allowed the postal inspector to secretly keep an eye on postal workers.

Other aspects of the building may seem obvious, or a bit more hidden. For example, the postal service (perhaps the proudest, most public service of the federal government of the era) occupied the cavernous first floor, filled with revealing light from the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides.

Meanwhile, the less-publicly patronized federal offices where located on the second floor – where the narrow staircase at the front corner may seem odd today. Originally, the staircase was meant to tucked away, so that a gate could be locked to close off the second floor, but keep the area for the post boxes open after hours.

Perhaps even harder to see (if at all) are the design elements for the weather service, such as the spiral staircase to the roof – and the very roof itself, which were designed for weathermen and weather observation equipment.

For decades, the building served much of its original purpose. In the late 1960s, the postal service need to expand – and so did the city and county libraries. In 1969, the libraries merged and took over the building, which became known as the Flathead County Library (nowadays, the Kalispell branch of the ImagineIF libraries).

Fortunately, attention was given to the historical character of the building as the library continued to expand over the years. If you look beyond the books, you may notice a few original doors, some original hardware, or adjustments to the floors or walls where it looks as if something else once was (much like learning about history itself).

 Jaix Chaix is a columnist and author of Flathead Valley Landmarks and other local history books that are available for sale at the Flathead Beacon at 17 Main St. in Kalispell.