Fred Brinkman, with up to 100 structures to his name, including some of the town’s most recognizable homes and businesses, is perhaps more responsible for shaping Kalispell’s appearance than any other person
Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Sally Finneran
Just in time for Christmas in 1990, Dan Muir and his family moved into the three-bedroom Tudor Revival-style home on the corner of First Avenue East and Seventh Street in Kalispell. Muir, a retired railroad crane operator, remembers the holiday scene in the grand room.
“The room is just bare,” he said. “There’s a funky little stereo in one corner, a Christmas tree in the other. We didn’t have furniture to fill it. There was a three-inch shag carpet everywhere, an ugly green.”
It was the first house the Muirs’ real estate agent had shown them, more than a year earlier, when they decided to move from their too-small home on the west side of town.
“It was like a haunted house — empty, and people were leery of it,” Muir recalls, adding that there was “weird wallpaper” everywhere.
Nobody was living there; the previous owner had apparently donated it to his Midwestern alma mater. The home needed a lot of work. Today, Muir can’t really remember why they finally chose it.
“I guess we thought it was pretty cool — the style,” he said. “It’s not a common house.”
✤ ✤ ✤ ✤ ✤To see what sets Muir’s residence apart, you might look to design, which includes a prominent and steep cross-gabled roof, or stylistic features like quatrefoil flower design accents, tall casement windows, and the semi-circular door. As Gail and Jim Atkinson write in “Kalispell Cornerstones: A Fascinating History of Twenty-Five Kalispell Homes,” the house “represents a significant contribution in architectural design” to the town. The man responsible for that design was Fred Brinkman, an influential early Kalispell architect, who built the home in the late 1930s and lived there until his death in 1961.
Brinkman had a hand in the design of up to 100 local structures, according to estimates by Jaix Chaix, author of “Flathead Valley Landmarks: Historic Homes and Places of the Past,” and a former instructor of a Brinkman course at Flathead Valley Community College. Whatever the count, Brinkman shaped Kalispell’s appearance perhaps more than any other person. More Flathead County entries on the National Register of Historic Places are ascribed to Brinkman than to any other architect. Some entries encompass entire neighborhoods, such as the West and East Side Historic Districts, and the Courthouse Historic District.
In downtown Kalispell, Brinkman’s fingerprints are so widespread that Muir’s home, as unique as it looks, could almost be called common.
Early Kalispell had three architects who set the course for how the burgeoning railroad town would look. Joseph Gibson came first, arriving in 1891, when the community was reportedly home to just two log cabins. As the railroad hired hundreds of workers, Gibson built many of the town’s first residences, a number of which were Craftsman-style bungalows. He passed away in 1918.
George Shanley, originally one of Gibson’s partners, played a major role in the development of the commercial historic district; he is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the primary architect of the Kalispell Main Street Historic District. He moved to Butte in 1904, eventually to settle in Great Falls.
Marion Riffo arrived in the Flathead Valley from the East Coast in 1908. A rival of Gibson’s, he designed the Kalispell Grand Hotel and the Liberty Theater.
“They should make Kalispell an architectural Disney World and charge admission,” Chaix said. “The place is a portal to the past, in the sense of architecture.”
Though some buildings by Gibson, Shanley, and Riffo still stand, the portal isn’t through their work. Among the town’s first master carpenters was Gustave Brinkman, a German immigrant. He moved to Kalispell from Spokane, Washington, in the late 1890s, with his wife and young family, including a six-month-old son Fred. Gus’s son was a bright student, eventually earning an architecture degree from the University of Michigan and serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I. After working on the Panama Canal, Fred returned to his home state.
When Riffo died in 1921, Gus encouraged Fred to start his own firm. Fred set up his practice within a few months, establishing himself at age 29 as next in Kalispell’s architectural lineage. According to Chaix, Kalispell’s architectural style was solidified by the 1950s, which was also when passenger rail service to Kalispell was terminated.
“It looks that way because of this dude,” he said. “It really is that significant; it is that profound … Without Brinkman, Kalispell was just another city in the Northwest.”
The appearance of historical Kalispell, defined not by one style, but by the seamless integration of so many, is largely because of Brinkman. “As an architect, he was integral to the physical development of the city of Kalispell,” a Historic Places registration form for a Brinkman home reads.
Brinkman designed homes at a dizzying clip, as the town boomed at a similar pace. He exhibited a growing mastery of revival styles — Tudor was his specialty — and was able to adapt contemporary trends. He designed grand homes and modest ones, public buildings and businesses. Shortly, Brinkman realized he wasn’t just designing buildings.
“The canvas is not the house, or the neighborhood, or the block,” Chaix said. “He realized, ‘Kalispell is my canvas.’”
Brinkman designed in almost all architectural styles popular in the early to mid 20th century, from Gothic Revival to Art Deco. Yet he never produced textbook recreations. In a true revival approach, he took hallmark elements of each style and adapted it to the present-day context. He knew he wasn’t designing a Spanish Mission Revival in a vacuum; it had to exist in a specific place, on a street in a neighborhood in a town, and he wanted it to look like it was supposed to be there, even if every other house on the street was a single-story bungalow. To strike harmony, he used similar building materials, and employed certain flairs, or artistic “tells,” that weren’t tethered to any particular style.
The City Water Department, Hedges Elementary School, and First Presbyterian Church, all Brinkman designs
The quatrefoils on the front of Muir’s house are also on the inside, as well as on houses across Kalispell. Whenever Brinkman designed interior arches, he used groups of three: “Never four, never two, always three,” Chaix said.
Brinkman put crests on everything in the 1930s, and would often add a decorative circular feature above windows, doors, and gates. He would create something on the east side, then design the “mirror image” on the west side, Chaix said. He leaned on what Chaix calls a “crazy, neurotic” eye and a “sense of exacting precision,” to create harmony.
“It’s like doing a puzzle,” Chaix said of identifying Brinkman signatures. Chaix didn’t want to point out too many tells; he didn’t want to ruin the architectural detail-finding game for you. Now that you know, you’ll see quatrefoils everywhere.
Aside from observable features, Chaix notes other parallels in Brinkman’s work.
“If you think about his architecture, there are three themes,” he said. “A sense of civility, a sense of nature, and a sense of progress.”
Brinkman was always aware, in almost a Darwinian sense, Chaix said, that buildings were symbolic of their times, benchmarks plotting a continual human evolution. In 1941, Brinkman designed the Anderson Style Shop on Main Street, which featured a “far-out style called nautical moderne,” Chaix said. At the time it was the town’s biggest installation of fluorescent light bulbs, a newer technology.
Still, Brinkman didn’t forsake nature. He added seahorses to the Style Shop façade, and though kooky for a landlocked town, they were still “a nod to nature,” Chaix said. The natural world felt closer to downtown Kalispell in those days, and Brinkman worked with it in mind. He used natural building materials, like the river rocks on the Tudor-style First Presbyterian Church, which reflects the rustic chalet style of Glacier National Park’s “parkitecture.” His devotion to harmony extended to his relationship with nature: Harmony between the interior and exterior leads to harmony between the exterior and the environment.
Yet another measure of harmony, Brinkman was a “civic-minded individual,” as “Kalispell Cornerstones reads.” When he was 40, and WWII broke out, he sought out another contract with the Army Corps. He was prominent in his church and he was an Elk, a Mason, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, a Kiwanis president, and more. Brinkman “put a lot of stock in” the notion of service to others, Chaix said. He knew what his talents were, and he hoped to build the stage where a strong community would grow.
✤ ✤ ✤ ✤ ✤This fall, Dan Muir had a rummage sale on the front lawn. Awaiting customers, Muir bustled around the property, chipping away at his never-ending list of renovation projects for the home. It still needs a lot of work.
How did Fred Brinkman’s own house fall into such disrepair before Muir’s tenure there as owner? Who put in that green shag carpet and ugly wallpaper Muir ripped out? What would Brinkman have thought of that? What about the harmony?
The home, unlike so much of Brinkman’s work, never found its way onto the National Register of Historic Places. Is it not worthy of preservation? It is a portal, like Chaix said. It’s art; it’s history. But it’s not a museum. It’s a house, where a member of the community lives his life as well as he can.