Friday, September 02, 2011


I’m going to interrupt the artifact series so I can tell about the growing edge of Valier, two projects totally dismissed or unknown at the town meeting.  Getting restless as the equinox hits with its rain, cold and wind, yesterday I was out prowling in the afternoon when it had grown warm enough for people to be working with garage doors up.
I’d been very curious about a couple who inherited a little A-frame and built around it a complex of house and shop.  The man vacuum casts small bronzes and the woman makes beautiful jewelry.  They are quiet and not yet ready to announce themselves, though it looks as though this fall they will have poured the concrete for the yard paths.  Some of the graceful design of the yard was forced by the flood, which sent torrents of water through low spots, and some was already put in place by the builder of the A-frame, notably a fire pit with big square stones around it, suitable for singing and story-telling or just toasting s’mores.  The tall formal gate is in place but so far no fence.  When the fence is finished, the plan is to acquire a small dog.

Gary was working on a little figurine of a lady basketball player throwing the ball from the back of a panther, a lively little piece different from his usual horses and riders.  He had a real panther skull on his workbench to use as a reference.  It appears that though our politics are close to the same, we affiliate rather differently.  But then, I’m not much of an affiliator anyway.
The other place I stopped because the doors were flung open was the Catholic church, where Bill Grant, an architect, has redesigned and is personally finishing a new foyer that opens up access and includes an elevator.   I’ve known Bill a long time because he was the architect and builder for both of the Piegan Institute buildings.  His wife, Anne, is a DesRosier and a sister to Doctor Mary DesRosier, who is the M.D. at the Heart Butte Clinic but lives in Valier at least part-time.  Anne is an artist and teaches at the Catholic private school.  The DesRosier family is demographically parallel to the Scriver family in Browning, coming about the same time (maybe earlier) and running successful businesses.  Blackfeet are woven into their family tree.  They are achievers.  Intelligence and bright red hair run in the family, though neither Anne nor Mary inherited the hair.

“Grant” is a local name, but Bill’s roots are in Boston.  He is gifted and thoughtful, an idealist with an upper-class background.  He’s one of those rare people who arrive as dreamers and remain as doers.  He’s the person who redesigned the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife so it could be used for the Blackfeet Heritage Center.  Living in a modest house in East Glacier, he has become a pillar of that sometimes volatile community and knows what it is to struggle with water systems.  
When I was living there, our water system’s main problem was that cows kept standing in the middle of our intake pond.  The “piping” was really logs sliced lengthwise, the middle removed, then bound back together with tarpaper and wire.  They say there are sewers in Browning that are still like that and some in Valier that are not much different.  
For a long time East Glacier had to stock motel and hotel rooms with bottled water and caution people to use it to brush their teeth.  One person claimed she turned on the water faucet and a small snake slithered out.  Splinters of wood were not uncommon.  At the moment Browning, which has been under a “boil order” already, is saying not to use any of the water at all and school has had to be shut down.  The lesson is that being close to the great watershed of mountains is not a guarantee.  But the three tourism towns (East Glacier, St. Mary and Babb) were never intended to be more than summer places.  Increasing population pressure has made it necessary to upgrade and build, but it was easy to ignore infrastructure.
It has irritated me from the beginning that both this and the previous town councils are always so impressed by appearances and will totally ignore basics in order to force people to cut their grass or spend money on new street signs and other salesman-propelled purchases.  The single most volatile issue in town is street dust because public comment is mostly provided by obsessive female housekeepers.  Potholes are the second most passionate issue.  The goal is not to impress tourists. (The local service station removed its fishing license machine because it was too much trouble, though one would think it would bring in customers and be a service to the many lake fishermen.)  The whole mindset is to outdo old athletic rivals in the neighboring towns.  High school rules all, even for those who go to college somewhere else and then return.  The worst thing in life is to have someone from Cut Bank or Conrad sneer at the way you look.
The new church foyer will be dedicated on October 2, in case someone reading this is close enough to attend.  The Bishop will be here.  It is a warm and welcoming place with careful detailing and many little niches necessary to accommodate the pre-existing structure; these turn out to be handy for bookcases or a coat alcove.  It’s taken Bill all winter because he began working alone as soon as the major labor was done so he could reflect quietly as he went along.  The quiet success of this renovation is due to the combination of close consideration, good workmanship, and truly being attentive to the best spirit of the place -- Bill and Anne are devout and attending Catholics and their son is enrolled at Gonzaga.
The lesson I get from all this is that one can grip the status quo so hard that the future is lost.  Optimism and growth are partly a matter of pressure from various sources, but there’s also a visionary side to it and to be effective it has to be both thoughtful and generous, including everyone.  Half-full/half-empty is a dynamic state.  It never stays that way.  


Bill Grant AIA said...

Thank you for your kind words. A few corrections. It is my daughter Melanie that attends her junior year at Gonzaga as a Biology major. My son is a senior at Browning high School. Anne is no longer a teacher at the De La Salle school, but did spend many long hours in the classroom at the school. Mary no longer lives in Valier and is planning to build a house in Browning after the tragic fire loss of her home at Heart Butte. The description of my upbringing as upper class would no doubt pique my mothers ego, but alas, I do not characterize it as anything but a Boston suburb shift through various experiences with blue blood, irish, jewish, italian and sports minded aquaintances. My two brothers Hal and Rob are still immersed in the boston life, and my parents Hal and Cornelia have most recently moved back to their Commonwealth Avenue Vondome apartment to finally leave the gardening and golfing atmosphere of Redlands, California.

The work on the addition is close to completion. It has been quite a journey through the design and construction, working through all weather conditions. I am proud of the building and hope that the parish enjoys using it.

Bill Grant AIA

prairie mary said...

I'm discovering that one of the uses of blogs is to draw out corrections that make the story much deeper and richer, even when it exposes my own unjustified and outdated assumptions.

Everyone I've talked to has agreed on the warm, simple beauty of the renovations to the church.

Thanks, Bill.

Prairie Mary