Taller than any other building in Montana, the First Interstate Center has been a feature of the Billings skyline since 1985, though the planners hope it doesn’t show its age.
“It seems to be kind of a timeless building,” said Tom Scott, who served as chief executive officer of First Interstate Bank from 1979 until 2005. “It looks good today, it looked good back then. And, in 10 years, it will still look good.”
At 255 feet from bottom to top, the skyscraper is 12 feet taller than the Crowne Plaza, which held the title of tallest building for five years after its completion in 1980.
The property is managed by United Properties Inc., which is owned by Joel Long and his family.
United Properties and First Interstate each own half of the building at 401 N. 31st St.
The building was originally planned as a 15-story building, but one of the structure’s planners at the Minneapolis-based design firm Opus talked Long into going bigger.
“He said, ‘Your project is too safe,’” Long said. “So, I said, ‘Let’s add three more floors to it.’”
Building the tallest structure in Montana was a big statement.
At the time, First Interstate was housed in the Miller Building, 2825 Third Ave. N., and it was not much more than a boxy office with a large clock on it, Scott said.
First Interstate wanted to make a statement.
“It was going to be the tallest building in Montana,” Scott said, “We wanted it to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Montana.”
The building’s angular design, and its materials, reflect Billings’ unique geographic features, Scott said. It is covered with a reddish-tan concrete composite representing the Rims, and features 9,000 panes of blue-tinted glass to imitate the big Montana sky.
Even though the mid 1980s were economically sluggish in Billings, Long’s gamble paid off.
As a result of adding the extra floors, they attracted the real estate subsidiary of telecom company U.S. West to purchase the space.
Currently the building is 96 percent occupied, and it’s been like that since the economy gained momentum in the latter part of the '80s, said Jerome Ries, United Properties facilities manager. “Once we filled it up, we’ve been able to keep it that full.”
Originally owned by First Interstate Bank, United and U.S. West, U.S. West sold its shares to the other two companies when U.S. West decided to get out of the real estate business.
Ries has worked with United for 38 years and was in charge of drafting office floor plans for new tenants after they agreed to lease space in the new center.
“When I first started, you didn’t do computers,” he said. It was all drawing tables.”
As the building began to rise, interest from the public grew, Ries said. By the time it was finished, many were itching to see the view from the 18th floor.
“I love the view from the top,” he said. “On a clear day you can see Red Lodge, the ski hill.”
Workers spent 255,000 hours moving 310,000 cubic feet of earth, welding 1.5 million pounds of structural steel, and installing and pouring 29 million pounds of concrete, the Gazette reported on Sept. 22, 1985.
“We had the most modern building that we could build at that time,” Ries said.
The building features an efficient heat exchange system, which cools the building when employees’ body heat warms the building and uses the residual heat after employees leave for the day to keep temperatures up and save money on energy to run the boiler and chilling tower.
The warmed and cooled water is stored in two 30,000 gallon water tanks buried under the courtyard between the building and an 800-space parking deck.
Gazette articles at the time of the building’s dedication touted a system featuring a microprocessor that controlled the Dover Corp.-manufactured elevators.
A computer system weighed each elevator car to determine whether it was full, and then would route other less-full cars to pick up passengers, making sure people got to their destinations quickly.
The building also featured keypad security locks — new technology at the time.
The building’s legacy of modern technology is continued today, with a cutting-edge ThyssenKrupp elevator system called Destination Dispatch.
The control system directs the user to a car with the passengers all headed to similar floors, insuring a shorter travel time.
A new touch-screen directory will go in later this year, so visitors to the building can search for an employee’s name and find which floor and business they work in.
The campus was also thoughtfully landscaped.
First Interstate Bank officials commissioned local artist Mike Capser to create a sculpture called “Pioneer’s Vision.”
“The statue had a purpose,” Scott said. “It was really to honor the old-time customers who really founded Billings.”
They added a plaque engraved with a poem by cowboy poet and Colstrip rancher Wally McRae.
Planting a veritable forest of grass, shrubs and flowers on the campus was the final touch.
“We really went as overboard as we could with the landscaping,” Scott said. “We wanted people to sit out there in the summertime and talk.”
The buildings and parking garage frame the central area dotted with picnic tables and benches, providing employees and visitors an appealing place to relax during the workday.
“It’s very inviting, and that’s the way it was supposed to be,” he said. “It’s all part of the package.”