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Johnson Building in downtown Great Falls marks centennial

Posted at 11:14 AM, Aug 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-14 13:14:54-04

In the summer of 1920, Pete Johnson opened the Johnson Hotel in downtown Great Falls - a building that has fulfilled numerous purposes in its 100 years of operation.

For 48 years, the building served as a hotel until it was converted into a three-story restaurant in 1968. The building became vacant years later and remained that way until 1993, when the building was turned into a center for retailers, residents, and businesses.

Current resident Bill Salonen was particularly inspired by the Johnson Building’s history and took it upon himself to plan the centennial event.

“My wife and I have lived here almost three years and when I knew it was the 100-year anniversary, I was just curious. I started doing some research at the History Museum, and then we connected with the Johnson family. I got some photos and artifacts from them, and then Steve Schell, whose father provided the hotel in 1968, provided some articles and pictures and things like that. So that helped me in just putting a timeline together,” Salonen said.

In addition to its several uses, the building has also held different meanings for those who possess the Johnson family name. Pete Johnson’s grandchildren Susan and Tom Johnson recalled old memories of the hotel.

“We were here all the time. Running through the building. They put us in a special room nobody would rent,” Susan said.

While the grandchildren couldn't predict the building’s change from a hotel to a hub, they did expect the building’s legacy in Great Falls would be long-lasting. “He built it out of concrete. We knew it would be here for a long, long, long time,” Susan said.

Salonen explained why the building’s legacy means so much to the community.

“I run into people all the time in Great Falls that used to come to Schell’s Town House or used to come down from the Hi-Line as a family to stay here at the hotel to I think just the association that the community has with the hotel itself is really meaningful,” Salonen said.

Susan added that Pete’s role as a county commissioner also played a role in the community’s remembrance of him.

“He was a pillar of the community. He was a builder of the community,” Susan said.

The Johnson Building is located at 419 Central Avenue; click here to visit the website.