Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Burton K. Wheeler House

1232 East Second Street
Built: c. 1905

Independently listed National Historic Landmark (one of only 26 in Montana), designated in 1976. This house, similar to many in Butte, is a National Historic Landmark—much greater significance than a National Register property—because of its association with Burton K. Wheeler. See the Definitions tab above for the differences between National Historic Landmarks and National Register listings.

This 1½-story, gable-roofed, brick and wood-shingle house was Wheeler's home from 1908 until he went to Washington to take his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1923. Wheeler bought this dwelling, which was situated in a miners' neighborhood, soon after opening his first law practice, and although he eventually earned sufficient money to move to a more expensive residential section, he preferred to remain here. "My choice . . . was worth extra votes every time I ran for office," he recalled later. "But in truth this was not my motive in refusing to move. I simply enjoyed associating with these hard-working, fun-loving Irish, Welsh, and Cornish families. There was no pretension and there was plenty of merriment."

The architect, builder, and date of construction of the house are unknown even to the architectural historian conducting the Montana State Historic Sites Survey, but the structure appears to have been erected not long before Wheeler's occupancy. There have been several subsequent owners, but the house has undergone no significant alterations. The residential area in which the dwelling is situated retains the appearance of an early 20th-century workingmen's neighborhood. Of varying style and construction, the houses are built just a few feet from the street and close together. Only a 3-foot-wide concrete walk separates the Wheeler House from the two frame residences that flank it. First-story exterior walls of the generally square-shaped structure are brick, and upper-level walls are frame and covered by wood shingles. The house faces north, has an east-west roof ridge, and rests on a stone foundation. A brick watertable consisting of three rows of stretchers passes around the front and both sides. Plank faciae grace the east and west eaves of the main roof, but rafters are exposed at the front and rear. A large, gabled dormer adorns each roof slope, and a single, brick exterior chimney stands at the rear of the house and pierces both the main roof and the dormer roof. Two recessed, one-bay-square porches one at the northeast corner (front) and one at the southeast corner (rear) are sheltered by roof overhangs. The concrete front porch, which is open, is accessible from the north end via three concrete steps. A concrete balustrade crosses the east side, and a shingled post on a brick pier supports the corner of the roof. The rear porch is frame-enclosed with a sidelighted door.

Fenestration is irregular, but the majority of the windows are 16-over-l, double-hung sash. The lower front facade is broken only by a rectangular triple window with a flat arch of radiating brick voussoirs and wood lugsill. The center window is stationary and consists of two horizontal rows of eight lights set above a large single pane; flanking windows are 16-over-l double-hung sash. Above, in the gabled dormer, is another triple window, which features three 16-over-l double-hung sashes. The rear dormer has a similar double window east of the chimney and a nine-light single window west of it. Window style and placement vary in the gable ends. Along the east wall of the lower level are two segmentally arched single windows, and on the west wall is a rectangular-shaped bay window. The single front door, which is placed in a segmentally arched opening in the east wall under the front porch, consists of two horizontal rows of four glass panes above a single wood panel. Above is a rectangular transom. The rear door is single and situated in the east wall under the rear porch. Also at the rear, a ground-level, double, plank, bulkhead door gives access to a half-basement.

In the small yard rear of the house is a one-story, gable-roofed, frame garage-carriage house of unknown construction date. It is wood-shingled and could date from late in the Wheeler occupancy. In any case, the structure is part of the nominated property.

There are two other extant Wheeler residences. One, in Washington, D.C., was Wheeler's home from 1950 until his death in 1975. The other, in Glacier National Park, is a summer house that remains in the Wheeler family but eventually is to become National Park Service property.

Biography of Burton K. Wheeler

Burton Kendall Wheeler was born February 27, 1882, in Hudson, Mass., to Asa L. and Mary T. Wheeler. Although his shoemaker father's income was small, the family lived fairly comfortably. Because he was an asthmatic child, Burton's parents encouraged his scholarly interests, and by the time he graduated from high school in 1900, he had decided to become a lawyer. Lacking the necessary funds, he worked as a stenographer in Boston for two years and saved his money. In 1902, he entered the University of Michigan Law School. Supporting himself by using his stenographic skills, waiting tables, and selling books door to door, Wheeler completed requirements for the LL.B in 1905. Shortly after his graduation in 1905, Wheeler decided that his best opportunities were in the West, and he traveled to several Western States searching for an older attorney who wanted a junior partner. While in Butte, Mont., he lost most of his money to card sharks, and financial necessity forced him to remain and practice law here. Soon he prospered, primarily because of his ability to win damage suits against railroads and mining companies.

Wheeler first turned his attention to politics in 1908 when he tried to help his law partner Matt Canning win the Democratic nomination for Silver Bow County prosecutor. Although Canning lost, Wheeler made a favorable impression, and in 1910 he was elected to the Montana House of Representatives on a slate endorsed by the Anaconda Copper Company, the dominant force in the State's political life.
Despite his freshman status, he became chairman of the judiciary committee. Refusing to bow to pressure from Anaconda, Wheeler tried to push a liberalized workmen's compensation law. Although he failed, he did get a loan shark bill passed which fixed the maximum interest rate, and a measure to ban the sale of prison-made goods as well. Wheeler most clearly showed his defiance of Anaconda in his leadership of the forces in the House that were trying to elect the company's enemy Thomas J. Walsh to the U.S. Senate. This fight, says historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., turned Wheeler into a "rough-and-ready alley fighter who had to learn to bite and kick and gouge in order to save his political life."

In 1912, thanks in large part to Wheeler, Walsh was finally elected to the U.S. Senate. Wheeler himself tried to win the Democratic nomination for Montana Attorney General, but bitterly opposed by Anaconda, he lost in the State convention by three votes. In 1913 on Walsh's recommendation, Wheeler was appointed U.S. District Attorney for Montana. His tenure in this office was largely uneventful until the U.S. entered the European War in April 1917. Montana had one of the worse outbreaks of anti-German and anti-radical hysteria in the country partly due to the Anaconda Copper Company, who hoped to use it to break the power of the State's labor unions. Despite demands that he make wholesale arrests, Wheeler refused. "He was assiduous in handling what he considered genuine sedition cases," says New York reporter Alden Whitman, "but equally diligent in refusing to prosecute what he regarded as unworthy ones." By 1918 he had become so controversial that he resigned because he feared he would ruin Senator Walsh's chances for reelection. Wheeler's experiences as U.S. Attorney made him determined to wrest control of the Democratic Party from Anaconda. In 1920 he won the party's gubernatorial nomination with the assistance of the Nonpartisan League on a platform of State hail insurance, State grain inspection, State-owned grain elevators and flour mills, increased workmen's benefits, the end of labor blacklisting, and guaranteed freedom of speech. In the campaign which followed, Anaconda Copper used all its power to defeat him, accusing him of being a Communist and claiming that his election would ruin the State's economy. Despite heroic campaigning on Wheeler's part in the face of serious threats against his life, he was decisively defeated. In 1922 depressed economic conditions enabled Wheeler to handily win election to the U.S. Senate on a platform of aid to agriculture, the right of labor to organize, and passage of the soldiers' bonus. Despite his freshman status, he wasted little time before making himself well known. Assigned to the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, he challenged the reelection of Albert B. Cummins as chairman. With the aid of progressive Republicans, Democrat Ellison D. "Cotton Ed" Smith was selected to replace him — one of the few times in the history of Congress when an important chairmanship has been held by the minority party.

Wheeler first attracted national attention in February 1924, when he introduced a resolution to investigate Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty for his failure to prosecute law violators, particularly those in the Teapot Dome scandal being uncovered by his friend and colleague Senator Walsh. Wheeler produced a number of sensational witnesses like the ex-wife of Daugherty crony Jess Smith, and within 2 weeks, President Coolidge asked for the Attorney General's resignation. Before quitting, however, Daugherty started proceedings which eventually led to Wheeler's indictment for improperly using his influence to get oil leases for a law client. At his trial, it soon became apparent that the charges were patently political, and the jury quickly returned a verdict of not guilty.

Wheeler refused to support Democratic Presidential candidate John W. Davis in 1924 because of his Wall Street connections. Bolting the party, the Montanan ran for Vice President on the Progressive Party ticket with Robert M. LaFollette. Wheeler made speeches all over the country, and although defeated, he and LaFollette made the best popular showing of any third-party ticket prior to the election of 1968. Returning to the Democratic fold, he enthusiastically supported Alfred E. Smith in 1928.

In 1932 Wheeler was one of the first nationally prominent Democrats to support Franklin D. Roosevelt for the party's nomination. After 1933, however, Wheeler, who was personally close to Huey Long, came to believe that Roosevelt was too conservative. In 1935 the Montanan led the fight in the Senate for the Holding Company Act and was the foremost proponent of the controversial "death sentence" provision which required the breaking up of large utility companies within a specified period of time. In 1937 Wheeler led the successful fight against Roosevelt's "court packing" scheme. Although he had been critical of the Supreme Court himself, Wheeler opposed Roosevelt's plan, says his biographer Richard T. Ruetten, because of his "fear of centralized, concentrated power, whether it be public or private." At any rate, he organized the plan's opponents, kept reactionaries in the background, and tried to give his group, says historian James T. Patterson, "the air of unselfish crusaders waging a hold war against totalitarianism." Eventually Wheeler's skillful leadership-combined with the untimely death of Joseph T. Robinson, the leading Congressional proponent of F.D.R.'s Court plan, and a sudden shift to support of the New Deal on the part of the Court, forced Roosevelt to back down after suffering his first major legislative defeat.

In the late 1930 s and early 1940s Wheeler became one of the bitterest critics of Roosevelt's foreign policies, which the Senator believed were calculated to get the Nation into war. At the 1940 Democratic Convention he helped force the inclusion of a peace plank in the Party platform. He particularly aroused the ire of Roosevelt in 1941 when he attacked the Lend Lease bill as the "New Deal's triple-A foreign policy," which, he said, would "plow under every fourth American boy." According to his biographer Richard T. Ruetten, Wheeler was not an isolationist but a noninterventionist who believed the country should go to war only if its "interests seemed immediately threatened." Accordingly, he supported war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Although he became somewhat more conservative after the Court fight, Wheeler continued to support most New Deal domestic legislation and personally secured the enactment of a number of important measures. In 1938 he helped author the law which gave the Federal Trade Commission authority to regulate drug advertising, and in 1939 he was responsible for the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act. In 1940 he played a significant role in the passage of the Wheeler-Lea Transportation Act which coordinated the regulation of all forms of transportation under the auspices of the Interstate Commerce Commission. In 1946, largely because of his opposition to Roosevelt and Truman's foreign policy, he was defeated for reelection in the Montana Democratic primary. After leaving the Senate in 1947, Wheeler remained in Washington and practiced law with one of his sons. Active until the day of his death, he suffered a fatal stroke in Washington, DC, on January 6, 1975, at the age of 92.

Text modified from George R. Adams and Ralph Christian, February, 1976, National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination: Burton K. Wheeler House (National Park Service), based largely on Wheeler's autobiography, Yankee from the West. House photo from Wikipedia, by user Robstutz licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wheeler photo from U.S. Congress, public domain. 

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