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Historic windows from East Helena smelter get new lease on life

East Helena Windows Before and After.jpg
East Helena Windows
East Helena Windows
Posted at 1:11 PM, Dec 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-24 20:50:09-05

EAST HELENA — Last summer, three eye-catching historic windows came out of storage, with damaged wood, cracked glass and peeling paint. Now, they’ve been fully restored to how they might have looked 100 years ago.

“It’s hard to imagine that they would look like this after seeing the before pictures, but I think they turned out pretty well,” said Mary Webb, restoration director for Preserve Montana.

The unique windows – round and several feet in diameter, with a Star of David pattern – came from the ASARCO smelter complex. The lead smelter, which operated from 1888 to 2001, was East Helena’s dominant employer for decades, and its smokestacks remained the most prominent landmarks in the city until they were demolished in 2009.

East Helena Mayor James Schell believes these three windows were among five installed in the smelter in the early 1900s. They date from the period when the wealthy Guggenheim family owned ASARCO, and Schell said they suspect the Star of David motif refers to the family’s Jewish heritage.

East Helena Windows
Two of the historic windows salvaged from the ASARCO smelter in East Helena, before restoration work began in July 2020.

When the smelter site was cleared, the windows were salvaged, and the Montana Environmental Trust Group kept them in storage. Last year, the Montana History Foundation provided a $6,000 grant to restore the windows, and the city provided additional funding of its own. Preserve Montana took on the restoration work.

“When I first got a look at them and I really thought about trying to take them into a state that people could be proud of and they could be displayed, I thought it was going to be an impossible task; I really did,” said Schell.

Webb had to remove all the old paint and the caulking holding in the glass to get a better look at what condition the wooden frames were in.

“Surprisingly, once you got all of that off, there weren’t that many repairs that needed to be done,” she said.

She says some of the biggest challenges were recreating some curved wooden pieces that had rotted away and cleaning off the grime that had built up on the glass after years in a contaminated area. She had to replace about half of the glass panes, including some that had been replaced with plastic over the years. Finally, she repainted the frames with red and green oil-based paint.

“Judging by the before pictures, I think most people would just assume that they had to throw them away and replace them with something else,” she said. “It’s neat to show people what can really be done with restoration projects, and how much can really be saved.”

East Helena Windows
Two of the historic windows salvaged from the ASARCO smelter in East Helena, seen in December 2021 after being fully restored by Preserve Montana.

Schell says they’re planning to put one window on display in East Helena City Hall. The other two may eventually be placed in the historic Volunteer Fireman’s Hall, which is now used to host community events.

Schell said the smelter and its history are an important piece of East Helena’s heritage, and he’s thankful for how everyone came together to keep this reminder of that heritage alive.

“It’s the people and the families, working together to get something done,” he said.