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Saving Rivenes Norwegian's work still a showcase of early 20th-century design
DAN BURKHART/Gazette Staff Ella and David Rivenes look through family records while discussing David's uncle, architect Brynjulf Rivenes. The Miles City couple entertained some of Brynjulf's sons when they came from Norway to see their father's work. DAN BURKHART/Gazette Staff Margaret Basta owns buildings in Glendive that have the imprint of Brynjulf Rivenes from a 1910 revision. While Basta and her co-owners face restoration work to shore up crumbling foundations, she is committed to preserving the historic buildings. A dapper gentleman, architect Brynjulf Rivens was a quiet, unassuming man, according to his nephew, David. Brynjulf Rivens was responsible for designing hundreds of commercial and public buildings and homes in northeastern Montana. The Douglas Mead building in 1905, at top, had three arches to break up the roof line. In 1915 Brynjulf Rivenes remodeled, adding pilasters with capitals and contrasting brick work, above. The photos are from "Montana Mainstreet; Vol. 2." DAN BURKHART/Gazette Staff Behind modern signs and contemporary remodeling some of the designs that came from Brynjulf Rivenes' blueprints are still visible. This block of buildings was constructed to include space for his brother's hardware store. The leaded-glass doors in the lobby of the Olive Hotel in Miles City were a signature feature of Brynjulf Rivenes. Rivenes used the decorative doors to allow natural light inside. This photo is from "Montana Mainstreet; Vol. 2." DAN BURKHART/Gazette Staff The use of brick in contrasting colors and patterns was often employed by Brynjulf Rivenes. The Sacred Heart Catholic Church is one example. Rivenes blueprints were also used to build at least three other churches in Miles City and Glendive.

GLENDIVE - Margaret Basta crouches to see where a bricklayer is crumbling sandstone between his fingers.

The sandstone foundations of the two historic buildings she owns on South Merrill Avenue are being dissolved by Glendive's high water table.

The two buildings were designed by architect Brynjulf Rivenes, one of an extensive family of Norwegian immigrants who settled in northeast Montana at the turn of the 20th century.

Rivenes is recognized for more than 50 public and business buildings constructed from blueprints he drew from 1905 to 1929. Scores of homes bear his unique imprint.

Basta isn't thinking about Rivenes as she casts a worried eye to the gaping holes in the sandstone.

"You feel a frigid blast of air upstairs," Basta says. "I'm not sure where it's coming from down here, but it sure seems to come through those gaps."

Thick beams shore up the floor for now, but Basta wants a long-term solution.

"I don't know how much money we can pour into these buildings," she sighs. "But I think we can fix it with concrete blocks. We'll have to add another sump pump. Those things have to work all the time."

Not many business people have the same appreciation for historic buildings that Basta has. On many of Rivenes' business buildings, the intricate brickwork, contrasting stone columns and decorative features are obscured by modern signs and 1950-era aluminum fronts.

One of the reasons she bought the buildings three years ago was to protect the Rivenes touch.

Find out more There are walking tours of historic buildings and homes in both Miles City and Glendive that feature much of the work of Brynjulf Rivenes.

Two books about the architecture of both cities were published by the Montana Historical Press. John V. Goff wrote "An Architectural History of Miles City" which catalogs Rivenes buildings and homes in both cities, as well as buildings in Forsyth, Sidney and Terry.

David and Ella Rivenes, who live in Miles City, provided a family history that was great help in reading what the Rivenes brothers thought about their lives in Eastern Montana.

"We don't seem to appreciate history in the West like they do in the East," Basta says. "A good part of my decision to buy them was because they were historic."

Rivenes had offices in both Miles City and Glendive. He worked during the homesteading heydays as both cities razed wooden buildings and replaced them with more fire-resistant brick.

Optimism abounded as the population tripled in the decade from 1900 to 1910.

Rivenes influenced nearly all of the commercial and public buildings during that era.

He designed the Rivenes-Wester building for his brother David's hardware business. He designed the Krug building, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the First Methodist Episcopal Church and the Glendive City Hall. All are still standing and in use.

In Miles City, actor Robert Duvall rocked on the porch of the Olive Hotel - a Rivenes building - during the filming of "Lonesome Dove."

The YMCA-Eagles Club building, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches and a bevy of homes were constructed from Rivenes designs. Hospitals, schools and commercial blocks used Rivenes blueprints.

Basta's buildings were first built by Henry Dion. They were simple brick affairs, solid and plain. Dion first built a mercantile in 1896, and it became the Exchange State Bank.

Later he added two more buildings. Upstairs was Glendive's first social club, for men only except one night a week when ladies were welcome. Gentlemen members had "access to whist and billiard tables, magazines, newspapers and lunging and smoking facilities," according to "Montana Mainstreets," a series of books published by the Montana Historical Society Press.

The brick buildings reveal the neoclassical roof lines, the multi-colored brick and decorative lion heads and scrolls that characterized Rivenes' work after he revised the exterior in 1910. The addition of lion heads was used because it rhymed with Dion, said Fred Dion, a grandson.

Today the street-level businesses house bright and inviting stores.

Basta, and her partners, Leslie Micheletto and her son, Joel, lease one to The Flower Basket, owned Judy Carlson. A second is used for a restaurant called The Coffee Den, and a third is the Book N' Bear Nook, a gift shop.

Carlson blushes when she admits that she never read the plaque about the building she occupies.

"I guess I will now," she says, laughing.

The original pressed-tin decorative ceilings are visible in the flower shop. In the others buildings, lowered ceilings hide them.

"They're so high it makes it expensive to heat," Basta says. "I'd like to have them all displayed, but, for now, it wouldn't be a good decision."

Rivenes is not as famous as Link & Haire, the architectural firm most famous for designing the Capitol. But, because his work brought the popular neoclassical style from the 1893 World Exposition to Montana, he has been revered as one of the state's first modern architects.

"He accomplished an amazing amount of work," says Ellen Baumler, an interpretative historian with the state Historical Society in Helena.

Baumler knows because part of her job was writing the text that appears on the historical plaques outside Rivenes houses and buildings.

The longevity of the buildings owes a great deal to the materials he incorporated into his designs. Most of those materials were available in the region.

From a quarry near Columbus he brought limestone. From brickyards in Hebron, N.D., he brought a variety of colorful bricks. Plywood was not yet invented so solid wood went into the frames.

He was masterful in using bricks in elegant arches over windows as well as employing contrasting colors in tiers.

"His work was splendid," Baumler says.

Rivenes was a modernist when it came to details. Tenants in Rivenes buildings enjoyed the city's first running water and bathroom facilities. He favored clear glass with leaded seams rather than stained glass to bring natural light inside.

"There was balance and harmony in his work," says his nephew, David Rivenes.

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David, who lives in Miles City, is the son of Brynjulf's brother, Jens, an attorney who died when David was only 12. He was named for another brother who claimed that, when he first arrived in America, he slept in manure piles to stay warm.

"We think most of what he said he did was made up," David's wife, Ella, says. "He took credit for some things he didn't do and boasted quite a bit."

But Brynjulf was a different kind of Rivenes.

"He was quiet, a gentleman and kind to all of us children," David says.

He shared the attitudes of David's father about life in America. They learned the United States wasn't necessarily a better place than Norway and regretted the "young strength (of immigrants) who yearly travel here only to sink in the big city's maelstroms," Jens wrote.

On the other hand, he wrote, "Here, one is asked only what one can do. Honesty, sobriety, work ethic, speed and punctuality are demanded. One who looks much at the ticking of the clock will not last long."

Certainly Brynjulf did not watch the clock ticking. He worked tirelessly as he became more in demand.

But Brynjulf did not become wealthy for all his labors. He lived in a modest home with his wife and six children. When he died unexpectedly four days before Christmas in 1929, he was so poor his family had to rely on other family members to pay for them to return to Norway, according to David.

By then the homesteading days were over.

Economically depressed businessmen could not pay their debts. The drylands withered, and Brynjulf, unpaid for much of his work, was burdened with debt.

"It was sad. His wife was never quite the same after he died," David says.

According to one of Brynjulf's sons, his mother "enjoyed the role of being a successful, independent mother" in Montana only to return to an indifferent life in Norway.

Several times, some of the sons of Brynjulf came from Norway to see their father's work.

"They were very impressed by what their father had accomplished. He was a quiet, unassuming man. Humble but proud," David adds.

Like many immigrants, Brynjulf found opportunity and then poverty in the prairie country where he hoped to prosper.

At least Brynjulf bestowed a legacy of architecture that defies the crumbling foundations and showcases some of the best that was built in the West.

"I appreciate what he did. He must have been an exceptional talent," Basta says.

"It's worth preserving his work. You don't see anything like it today."

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