When it first opened its doors in 1941, the Armory at 24 W. Mendenhall St., stood two stories tall, with fortress-like concrete walls, built to house the 163rd Infantry Regiment of the Montana National Guard during World War II.

This time around, it’s seven stories taller and a whole lot bigger.

The Kimpton Armory Hotel, also called the Etha, will be welcoming its first guests on Tuesday after nearly a decade of paperwork, permits, meetings, construction and construction stoppages.

“We are so excited to be opening,” said Cory Lawrence, who leads the hotel’s ownership group, during an early August tour of the building.

Now the tallest building in downtown, the Etha Hotel will house three restaurants, all open to the public (though the rooftop restaurant won’t be open right away — that’s slated to begin serving customers sometime in September). It will also house the Armory Music Hall, a 600-person capacity venue that Lawrence said will provide curated music experiences and hold other events.

The hotel’s operator is Kimpton Boutique Hotels + Restaurants, which runs hotels in more than 45 cities around the world and specializes in running hotels in unique venues like the Armory, according to general manager Aaron Whitten.

For now, the hotel has about 70 staff members hired, according to Lawrence. Hotel general manager Whitten said that when it’s fully staffed post-COVID, whenever that may be, it’ll likely have around 150 employees. He said that, aside from some of the top management, Kimpton is hiring mostly local employees.

Whitten said he feels that the 121-room Armory will be “able to offer the whole package.”

“What we really bring to the table is an ability to encompass the entire experience,” he said, from the music hall to the restaurants and bars to welcoming and comfortable rooms for guests. “We’ll really create particularly individual experiences for our guests.”

Lawrence has said from the very beginning that the hotel exists for guests, yes, but also for the community.

“This is for Bozeman … (and) I have always intended that this is for Bozeman,” he said.

The man who built it first

The original armory was designed by architect Fred Willson, who designed a several of Bozeman’s historic buildings, including the Baxter Hotel, the Rialto Theatre, Ellen Theatre, the Gallatin County Courthouse and buildings on the Montana State University campus and houses scattered throughout old Bozeman.

Willson was born in Bozeman on Nov. 11, 1877, 12 years before Montana became a state. His father was a Civil War Union Army veteran and his mother brought the first-ever grand piano to Bozeman, according to a story written by Willson’s daughter Virginia Kippen in 1990 and archived at the Gallatin History Museum — which Willson designed as the original Gallatin County Jail.

He briefly went to Montana State College — now MSU — and then transferred to Columbia University in New York City to study architecture.

After earning his architecture degree, Willson went on a years-long study and tour of Europe, most essentially Paris. After working at architecture firms in Helena and Butte, he returned to Bozeman in 1910 to open his own.

He designed the Armory to house the 163rd Infantry Regiment of the Montana National Guard, on land donated by the Story family, who are attributed with driving the first cattle into the Gallatin Valley. The Story family is actually where the name Etha comes from — Nelson Story Sr.’s wife’s name was Etha May Story.

When completed in 1941, the building had a soundproof music room for the National Guard band, a rifle range in the basement, 18-inch concrete walls and maple block floors that could withstand the weight of military trucks. That same year, the 163rd was activated to go to the Philippines and to New Guinea, where Nelson Story IV died.

The building was used as an Armory until 2003, according to a 2011 Chronicle article, when the National Guard completed a new facility near Gallatin Field.

After the new facility was completed, the original Armory building and the lot it was on was sold to the city of Bozeman and, in turn, to a developer. That developer intended to turn it into a $40 million performing arts center, but ended up returning the building to First Interstate Bank of Bozeman, which held the mortgage, in a deal to avoid foreclosure.

The building was then bought by two local developers in 2004 and briefly housed some artists, a band and a retail clothing store. But in 2006, the developers closed the building and, the next year, applied for city permits to demolish and replace it with a four-story multi-use building. That project got the go-ahead from the city of Bozeman, but then the ‘07-08 recession hit, and it never came to fruition.

At the time, Jerry Pape, the real estate agent working to sell the building, said it was structurally “fit as a fiddle.” Lawrence echoed that sentiment — while big and old, the building was far from falling down, even after it sat empty except for graffiti and bird poop for years before the ownership group purchased it.

“It’s amazing how much of the Armory is completely functional,” Lawrence said. “I think Fred was a little clairvoyant.”

Lawrence said almost 98% of the original Armory is still intact and in operation, including the original stage in the music hall, which sits underneath Willson’s original art deco-style circles and lines.

That area will mostly be used for conferences and events like wedding receptions, Lawrence said, but occasionally will host concerts once it’s appropriate to do so.

The artist selection for those shows will be very intentional, and they won’t be an overly common occurrence. The Armory has partnered with Live from the Divide for those performances and will have a special side entrance for audience members so the front doors on Mendenhall don’t become too crowded.

“This is a place we hope to gain a reputation,” Lawrence said. “We want it to be a really special experience for the artist as well as the patrons.”

The chevrons on the front of the concrete building are also Willson creations, and the ornate doors and canopies, while not included in the original building, were doodles in Willson’s original blueprints that never made it onto the final product.

According to a Montana Historical/Architectural Inventory document at the Gallatin History Museum, those components may have been left off in part because of the time the building was erected. The original Armory was finished in 1941, during World War II and shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when building materials and capable workers were both hard to come by.

“Eighty years later, they’re finally coming to life,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence and the hotel’s ownership group, Etha Hotel LLC, purchased the Armory in 2012 with the intention of turning it into a 40- to 80-room hotel with a restaurant and event center.

Food and drink at the new Armory

The hotel will have three restaurants in regular operation, as well as drink and food concessions in the Armory Music Hall during live events, though that may not be happening for a while because of COVID-19. All of the restaurants are open to the public.

In the basement, there’s the Tune Up, a bar serving cocktails and “elevated bar food,” according to Tracy Brickner, the general manager of all the food service in the building. That elevated bar food will include menu items like poutine, mozzarella sticks and burgers.

“Just upscale bar food that’s going to be really great,” Brickner said. “When you see the presentation here, it’s out of the ordinary and it’s something that people are going to talk about.”

The Tune Up’s drink offerings will focus primarily on whiskey cocktails like the old fashioned and twists on classic cocktails, as well as a “focused” local beer list.

The basement bar also has the second and smaller stage in the hotel, which Brickner said will begin hosting music in the future.

“There’s some state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment down there … We’re going to have music activation when it’s responsible,” she said.

On the first floor sits Fielding’s, the only three-meal restaurant in the building, though at first it will just be doing breakfast and dinner.

Fielding’s, like many things in Bozeman, is named after Fred Willson, whose full name was Frederick Fielding Willson. It’ll feature American-inspired cuisine like lamb shoulder, trout and gnocchi. Brickner said all of the Armory restaurants will be using as many local ingredients as possible, which will mean that the menus will change slightly as produce goes in and out of season.

The walls of Fielding’s are covered in Willson-inspired art created by local artist Hannah Uhde, who also painted an 8-foot-tall painting based on a vintage photo of the MSU marching band that hangs in the music hall. Several of her pieces appear in the building.

Much of the art in the Etha’s public spaces were created by local artists. In early 2020, Lawrence invited local artists to meet at the Emerson Center to gauge local artist’s interest in creating commissioned art to hang in the Armory. The reception for that project was great, he said.

“We wanted local,” he said. “We could not think of a more appropriate way (to find art for the Armory) … They just took it and ran with it.”

In addition to Uhde’s paintings, art by LeeAnn Ramey, DG House, Trevor Nelson, Edd Enders, Kara Tripp and Will Hunter is scattered throughout the building.

On the roof of the building’s ninth floor will be the Sky Shed, which will be open to the public and service guests swimming in the hotel infinity-edge pool. Brickner said dishes at the Sky Shed will be “very focused on sharing.”

“We want it to be known for more of a celebratory atmosphere,” she said, like girl’s nights and engagement parties. “And so the beverage program, as far as the cocktails go, they’re going to be very flirty and they’re going to have some very pretty garnishes.”

The Sky Shed, when completed, will be essentially a glass box with a patio area, complete with three fire pits and, when the weather is appropriate, outdoor seating.

It has unmatched views of the Bridger Mountains and of downtown, which Lawrence said he’s proud and excited to be a part of.

“Most of the time, stories are written,” Lawrence said. “I feel like ours was found.”

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.