Hidden away in his basement office in the Northern Hotel, Mike Nelson has a collection of keepsakes — old menus, faded photographs, scraps of linen, newspaper clippings and the like — that form a sort of collage detailing of the historic hotel's history.
They tell the story of a hotel in the heart of downtown Billings on the corner of First Avenue North and North Broadway that has seen the town grow and change, hosted presidents, parties, dignitaries and weary travelers alike, and risen from the ashes — literally — of disaster.
And while the past is important, Nelson wants to ensure the recently renovated 10-story hotel also holds a key spot in the area's future.
"Our goal in reopening the Northern was that it would be a place where people gather," he said. "Not just any hotel, but one that really fit into the community."
Now owned by brothers and Billings natives Mike and Chris Nelson, the original Northern was built in 1904 — the young city of Billings was only about 20 years old at the time — by P.B. Moss and Henry Ward Rowley, a pair of local businessmen who wanted an upscale downtown hotel and helped shape much of the town's early history.
When construction wrapped, the Northern sat three stories tall and had 69 rooms. A remodel 12 years later added a marble-lined lobby and another floor, increasing the number of rooms to 200.
The hotel quickly became a bustling social center in a bustling Western town, drawing ranchers, travelers and business dignitaries.
As it stands today, the Northern features 10 stories and 160 guest rooms, 12 meeting rooms, four kitchens, a bar, two restaurants, a remodeled adjacent parking garage and new technology throughout.
'A life of its own'
The Nelson brothers bought the hotel in 2009 and, after tens of millions of dollars in renovations that stripped the interior down to little more than studs and support beams, reopened it in 2013.
"We like to see it as the gathering place, the place where people want to go," said Mike Nelson, who also serves as general manager. "We're not the same place we were even two-and-a-half years ago (upon reopening)."
In the more than 100 years between its initial construction and the latest remodel, the Northern saw its fair share of ups and downs and, as Nelson puts it, all of that helped shape the personality of the familiar red brick building today.
"This building takes on a life of its own," he said. "It's become something more than just a building."
Much of how the building appears today, at least on the exterior, is due to a catastrophic fire that destroyed the original Northern.
"A spectacular fire in 1940 destroyed the original Northern Hotel, but it was immediately rebuilt," wrote Roger Clawson and Katherine A. Shandera in their book "Billings: The City and the People."
That rebuilding effort was spearheaded by one of the hotel's original builders, P.B. Moss, and the effort wrapped up in 1942 with a 10-story hotel with 163 guest rooms that was at the time the tallest building in Montana.
Since, a pair of other significant additions and renovations created the building as it stands today.
It now counts among its famous guests presidents Theodore Roosevelt in 1918 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919, presidential candidate Adlai Stephenson in 1952, then-vice president and presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1960, according to the hotel's website.
An important part of the building's lore stems from the famous Golden Belle bar and restaurant. Opened in 1959 and designed more in the late-1800s- or early-1900s-style of the original building and featuring bawdy paintings in the bar that famously included a woman in a petticoat staring down at patrons, it quickly became a destination for locals and visitors alike looking to celebrate.
Over the years, the hotel's ownership changed hands a number of times, and it began to fall into decline in the 1990s.
In 2006, the hotel and the Golden Belle closed, and, after a few more ownership changes, the Nelsons bought the building three years later and almost immediately announced plans to renovate and reopen.
They kept that promise, and today it's a state-of-the-art, 150-employee hotel featuring plush rooms and behind-the-scenes upgrades found in modern hotels worldwide.
The two restaurants — Bernie's Diner, which serves breakfast and lunch, and TEN, serving dinner and featuring an upscale bar — sit on the building's first floor.
Nelson said that they're catered to the community as much as the patrons.
"They're not just hotel restaurants," he said. "They're quality restaurants that have won awards and would stand on their own."
Nelson pointed to the water-heating system, hidden in the building's basement, that, among other things, monitors weather conditions and can produce 100 gallons of hot water per minute.
"We can have 200 showers turned on at once and have enough hot water that they won't run out," he said. "The cool thing about that is we only have 160 rooms."
Soon after the Nelsons took over, people began to bring them tidbits and memories from the old hotel. They'd drop them off and share a story or favorite memory.
The collection shows not just the building's history, but its place in the lives of the people who stayed and worked there over the years.
"They've been coming in and giving me these things that are important to them, like family heirlooms," Mike Nelson said. "One person came in and said, 'This is the last known picture of my grandfather. He was putting on the building's roof, and we thought you should have this.'"
In 2013, the Northern was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Mike Nelson said that he and his brother are, in part, stewards of the building's history even as they usher in a new era.
"It's hard to put into words because it's an incredible responsibility," he said. "The Northern holds a really important place in a lot of people's hearts, and we feel it's our responsibility to take care of this place in the proper way. There's something about this building that just gets inside of you and holds on, and we want everybody who leaves the Northern to think, 'That's a really great place.'"