The idea behind the plaster repair and repainting of the Western Heritage Center’s walls and ceilings on the main floor is that visitors will barely be able to tell the difference — in most spots.

Since the century-old sandstone gem is “our biggest artifact,” it requires tender loving care, and occasional paint and plaster repair, said the museum’s interim director, Joyce Mayer.

“The look was good, and now it’s going to be good through and through,” Mayer said during an impromptu Thursday tour of the museum, constructed as the city’s public library in 1901 with a 1923 addition.

The museum is closed until March 15, when staff will once again begin hearing the kind of noise they like to hear: curious students out on a field trip designed to teach them more about local history, said Lisa Olmsted, Western Heritage Center’s business manager.

“I like the sound of students running through here,” she said. “They make this a happy place.”

The center “needed a good bath and some paint,” said Kevin Kooistra, Western Heritage Center’s community historian. “Aesthetically, it really lights up the place. This is one of our community’s great buildings, and it requires a lot of long-term care.”

With the reopening less than five weeks away, “we’ve still got a lot to do,” he said, including re-establishing some exhibits and constructing and making space for new displays.

While the center’s three full-time and two part-time employees all have job titles, those titles have essentially gone out the window with all the work that needs to be done.

“We’ve all taken a turn with a paintbrush,” Kooistra said.

The work did push back one of the center’s favorite traditions, Playapalooza, a family activity and fundraiser that allows children to play traditional games, including marbles, jacks, hopscotch and other pleasant diversions from a century ago. Playapalooza will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 26 at the center, 2922 Montana Ave.

The work on the county-owned building, according to Greg Erpenbach, Yellowstone County’s facilities manager, will cost $54,837 — $38,721 for ceiling repairs and $16,116 for wall repairs.

With plastering nearly complete and painting well underway, the only significant difference is a change in hue in the East Gallery, which accessed by the center’s main entrance. Gone is the old navy paint, replaced by white shade that makes the gallery appear larger.

“It brings the eye up and highlights the architecture,” Olmsted said. Repairing the plaster, she added, solved the potential safety issue of cracking plaster coming down on visitors, staff and volunteers.

The work and the fresh paint also serve to make the old building look newer than it is.

Artifacts and displays have been put away for safekeeping while the work’s being done, and some new exhibits have been timed for the March 15 re-opening. “Those Noble Brutes: Engravings of the American Bison, 1749-1909,” will run through June 4. “History on Canvas: J.K. Ralston” will be on display in the Hawkins Gallery through Sept. 1.

The High Noon Speaker Series will resume shortly after the re-opening. The initial speaker March 17 will be Elisabeth DeGrenier. Her talk is on “Cities of the Dead: A History of Billings’ Early Cemeteries.”

Staff remains on the job to answer questions even as the work continues. The telephone number is 406-256-6809. The website is



City reporter for The Billings Gazette.