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The February 5, 1947 issue of the NoMoCo presented the case for a new building in a full page ad and multiple articles. It pointed out the originally designated appropriation for the new classroom and administration building was set at $865,000. A legislative committee had recommended that only $200,000 be allotted to Northern. The paper pictured the architect's sketch of the proposed building showing a four story, peaked room Gothic style building with an extended wing in the back for a gymnasium.
The second floor was planned to house the library, administrative offices,
auditorium, and access to the gymnasium. English, biology, education,
mathematics, and psychology departments were to be housed on the third
Bonds for University System construction had been approved in the legislative session preceding World War II. A building bond of $4,500,000 had accumulated through the war years. It was up to the 1947 legislature to divide the money among the university units. A veritable war within the state over the division of the accumulated money ensued. Suits and counter suits were constantly in the headlines. While the battles raged, construction languished and cost escalated.
At the end of the legislative session, Northern had been allocated $400,000 for new construction and $33,480 for maintenance and repair. New plans eliminating the gymnasium wing and top floors and modifying other areas had to be drawn. The compromise was painful.
Construction began on the east wing of the building early in the summer of 1947 but stopped when money ran out early in 1949. Work did not resume for two years. Unroofed areas filled with water and materials disappeared. By the time the building was dedicated in 1953 it had cost $1,300,068.21 and was incomplete except for the ground level and main floor. A small gymnasium was incorporated into the west wing of the building. In 1957 this was converted into a little theatre. The first play presented there was the Rainmaker under the direction of faculty member Joseph Keller. Seating was on folding chairs. The theatre evolved into a professional performance space over the years as funds became available and through the generous contributions of local businesses. In subsequent years a variety of plays, concerts and lectures were offered to both the college and community.
A popular community summer theatre used the facility in the 1970s and under the direction of faculty member Dr. Mary Clearman (Blew) produced popular plays and musicals showcasing college, high school and local talent. The theater was remodeled in the mid 1980s and expanded with an outside entrance on the west side of Cowan Hall. A light grid and sound booth were added and university faculty continue to bring quality productions to the Hi Line using talent from campus and the community.
The Montana National Guard occupied the unfinished floors of Cowan Hall for several years. In lieu of rent, the Guard put up partitions and did other construction work, but it was some time before the space was available for classroom use.
The building was named for former Senator William T. Cowan of Box Elder, a strong advocate and devoted worker for the college throughout its history. The imposing building dominates the landscape of the upper campus. Its very presence and structure embody the compromise and effort required to achieve a major building for the college at that time.
In the succeeding postwar years of prosperity and swelling enrollments, the college added buildings at the rate of approximately one a year.
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