Lost Treasure: the Greek Café Building of Butte Montana

When the book on Greek-American monuments is finally written someday, the Greek Café of Butte, MT is bound to see inclusion.

In the entry on this building, in that as-yet-to-be-written volume, much more detail to the historical relationship between the Greeks immigrants of Butte and this structure will see inclusion than is now publicly available. Monuments found in North America that commemorate the actions and history of Greeks are not always preserved by ethnic Greeks. The information we do have on this specific structure comes to us from a long drawn out civic battle among the citizens of Butte. The events surrounding the Greek café building clearly proved to a touchstone for the citizens of Butte.

All in all, at least 92 newspaper articles, editorials, and letters to the editor saw publication, and it was on the agenda for the Council of Commissioners for at least 20 of its weekly meetings. As preservation efforts moved forward the Montana Preservation Alliance, the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historical Preservation all wrote letters supporting the stabilization of the building local people in Butte still refer to as the Greek Café. As if all that were not enough at one point in this furious debate, a lone Butte citizen, Brian McGregor, a local businessman, chained himself to the Greek Café building. Right next to McGregor was a sign, reading, “this place matters.”

As the cited information below will quickly reveal this contest was one directed at the historical preservation of a specific building. A chronological outline of the various businesses and other uses which were to be found at this building from 1917 onward was compiled and published. But as will become apparent very quickly outside of this historical outline little other detailed discussion is offered. In one sense this is understandable. As reading the available documents reveals clearly the town council, local citizens as well as the area newspapers all clearly shared a common knowledge of the local history of this building. What is sometimes frustrating is that more of those historical accounts are not shared in the available documents.

There are only a few passing references, in Richard I. Gibson’s book, Lost Butte Montana, that as it offers a survey of the building’s origins and history under the title, ‘The Greek Cafe:’ “The new two-story business block erected by heirs of Louis and Herman Gans and Henry Klein on the southwest corner of Park and Wyoming in 1917 replaced seven separate one-story shops and bars that dated to 1890…The new building contained diverse storefronts within one edifice that held a large hall on the second floor. The second-floor hall probably eventually became a meeting and dining room for Butte’s Greek population; it bears the label “Greek Café 2nd Floor” on an old map. Greeks never numbered more than a thousand or so in Butte, but they established several restaurants sand groceries and held Greek Orthodox services in the old Welsh Presbyterian Church (at Aluminum and Dakota Streets) from 1960 to 1977 (Charleston SC: History Press, 2012).”

Historical research by Irene Scheidecker on behalf of the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization offers a fuller chronological account of this same building: “In 1917, a two-story commercial building was erected at the corner of East Park and Wyoming streets. East Park Street at the time was a bustling commercial corridor, lined with shops and restaurants to serve Butte’s large and diverse population. The building was designed from its start to house stores and a restaurant on its first floor: three shop fronts opened onto Park Street, and three onto Wyoming Street. The second floor was likely a fraternal hall for those of Greek descent– no commercial businesses are listed there through years of city directories, but a Sanborn fire map shows “Greek Cafe 2nd floor” in bold letters.

Of the three Park Street storefronts, 84 East Park was a restaurant throughout its life. In 1918, it was called the Hazelwood Cafe. By 1930, the eatery was called Tia Juana Chili Parlor, and operated under that name for approximately 22 years. By the early 1950’s through the mid-1960s, it was the Tasty Lunch. In 1967, it was listed as Corned Beef and Turkey Plaza Restr. By 1969, the location was listed as vacant and appears never to have been occupied again.

The center Park Street entrance, 86 East Park, was a barber shop throughout the building’s entire history. It was listed under the names Byer & Pissot in 1918. From 1940 to its final listing in 1969, it was called the Park Barber Shop. The corner location (88 East Park), was listed under Thos. Stamatis Fruit from the late 1920s through the early 1940s. By the late 1940s through the 1950s, this location served as Sevores grocery store.

There were 3 entrances on Wyoming Street: 5 South, 7 South, and 11 South. (Presumably, 9 South Wyoming was the entrance to the hall upstairs, since it never appears in the business directory).7 South Wyoming seems to have always operated as a drinking establishment. During Prohibition, it was listed in the city directory as “soft drinks place.” In 1937, the Miners Union Bar opened at that location and operated there for 17 years. The building’s historic Grain Belt Beer ghost sign dates from that era.

5 South Wyoming, when it isn’t listed as vacant in the city directory, seems to have been an eatery: the Butte Chili Parlor in 1936, the Wyoming Cafe in 1937, and the Hamburger King in 1939. After that, the eatery appears to have been absorbed into the Miners Union Bar.

11 South Wyoming seems to have been a 2nd hand store for much of its life, listed in 1928 under Solomon Kirshen, 2nd hand goods, and by 1939 as Ideal Bargain Store.

The 1960s brought the rapid expansion of the Berkeley Pit, the re-routing of the highway that entered Butte right into Park Street, and the death of the East Park Street business corridor. The Anaconda Company bought up building after building to demolish. Beyond the first block of East Park, only those few stubborn holdouts that refused to sell were left standing (P.O. Box 164, Butte, MT 59703 info@buttecpr.org).

For those with even a mere passing knowledge of Greek American history know that early Greek immigrants in the west were deeply involved with the American labor movement of the 1900s. Louis Tikas, who figures prominently in American labor history and whose name heads the list of victims on the Ludlow Massacre Monument, once owned a Greek Cafe in Denver CO that was only several doorways away from an International Workers of the World office. Is it fair to ask if the Union Miners Bar, in a building everyone in Butte knew as the Greek Cafe, had any affiliations?

All manner of ideas and offers for the preservation of Butte’s Greek Café building were raised event that of using the structure as a local museum. Peaceful demonstrations in the park across the street from the Greek Café were also held from time to time. All to no avail. On October 11, 2011, this building was demolished and an empty lot is all that remains. All that will remain for future generations of Greek America is what we preserve today.