Filed Under Architecture

Christmas Gift Evans House

A building with an unusual name, the Christmas Gift Evans House is one of the oldest homes in Helena and one of the few examples of Second Empire architecture in Montana.

In 1864, the year of Helena’s founding, John B. Sanford and Christmas Gift Evans (named after his birth date) arrived in Montana from the East Coast, beginning a friendship on their cross-country journey. In 1865, they formed a business partnership, establishing Helena’s first water-powered sawmill, and they later founded the Sanford and Evans Feed Store, where they sold animal feed, lumber, coal, and heavy-duty farming equipment. When Sanford married in 1877, to celebrate he designed and built a new home, though he later sold it to Evans in 1883. The Christmas Gift Evans House, built at the height of the Second Empire period, embodies the style through its symmetry and ornate exterior.

Second Empire architecture emphasizes symmetry because of its necessary mansard roof, which curves downward from a rectangular top, resting evenly above the walls. Mansard roofs, besides standing out visually, also make practical sense, as they allow more living space upstairs, unlike sloping roofs, which form a triangle, providing minimal room.

The Christmas Gift Evans House replicates this design: a mansard roof tops the residence with elegant supportive bracketing below, all alongside arched windows, inlaid on each side. The inclusion of cresting on the roof—the ornamental cast-iron fencing—further confirms the home’s Second Empire design. The cresting, with its curves and free-flowing lines, while ornamental, exists to break up the proportional façade below it, providing variation in the symmetrical exterior. Another notable element is the presence of three stone-carved floral friezes on the side tower. Friezes, often found in Second Empire, are decorative horizontal carvings intended to provide more ornamentation and depth to buildings.

Like most Second Empire homes, the Christmas Gift Evans House is quite large at 3,500 square feet, containing three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms within its walls. The whole property rests on 12,600 square feet with spacious front and backyards, including a rear carport, added decades after the original construction. The old landscape did not contain trees, providing an unobstructed street view, unlike now, when trees cover most of the house’s exterior. Requiring little restoration, the Christmas Gift Evans House remains well-preserved, though two notable alterations occurred over time. Originally, a bracketed porch topped with a miniature mansard roof occupied the entrance, lining up with the covered doorway on the side of the house. At some point, the Evans family decided to remove this feature, instead opting for a humbler entrance with minimal decoration. The subsequent owner, Eric Myhre, restored the porch to its initial condition in the 1980s. The domed tower also is not original.

Christmas Gift Evans lived in the house until his sudden death in 1915, caused by complications from a leg amputation. The Evans family, however, continued residing there, and his daughter and son-in-law inhabited the home until the late 1970s. The Christmas Gift Evans House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, continues serving as a private residence and is not open to the public for visitors.

Images

Porch remodeled
Porch remodeled Exterior photo taken for National Register registration in 1980, facing North Benton Street. Observe the lack of the extended porch, with only the smaller front porch extant. Without the larger entryway, the exterior looks simpler and less-Second Empire in character. Source:

“80004271-1.” National Register of Historic Places, April 16, 1980. National Park Service Digital Asset Management System. https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/88c900c3-9ed0-44b7-a632-5c88821ad132#.

Cresting
Cresting Exterior photo taken for National Register registration, in 1980 facing West Lawrence Street. Note the cresting lining the top of the roof and lack of trees present in the yard in comparison to the contemporary photographs, placed presumably for privacy reasons. Source:

“80004271-2.” National Register of Historic Places, April 16, 1980. National Park Service Digital Asset Management System. https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/88c900c3-9ed0-44b7-a632-5c88821ad132#.

Portico
Portico Image displaying the now-demolished portico, topped with ornately carved fretwork, and crowned with a simple pediment, now replaced by the current, originally-intended façade. A portico is the entryway supported by columns, while a pediment is the triangular element topping it, usually found in Greco-Roman Revival architecture in the United States. Source:

“80004271-4.” National Register of Historic Places, April 16, 1980. National Park Service Digital Asset Management System. https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/88c900c3-9ed0-44b7-a632-5c88821ad132#.

Domers
Domers Exterior of the Christmas Gift Evans House facing North Benton Street in 2020. Notice the cresting atop the mansard roof, including the two front-facing windows projecting outside the roof, called dormers. Dormers, besides providing more light in second stories, also create more exterior variety, as they break up the blandness of the roof’s sides. If older images did not capture the original porch’s removal, it would be hard to tell the exterior went through a major restoration. Source:

“Christmas Gift Evans House NRHP 80004271 Lewis and Clark County, MT.” John Roanhaus, August 3, 2020, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christmas_Gift_Evans_House_NRHP_80004271_Lewis_And_Clark_County,_MT.jpg.

Tower
Tower Side exterior of the Christmas Gift Evans House facing West Lawrence Street in 2020. The second-story addition, alongside the domed tower, are most visible in this image, though appear original to the home, likely because of the age of the addition, which includes the friezes. Source:

“Christmas Gift Evans House2 NRHP 80004271 Lewis and Clark County, MT.” John Roanhaus, August 3, 2020, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christmas_Gift_Evans_House2_NRHP_80004271_Lewis_And_Clark_County,_MT.jpg.

Sanborn Fire Insurance
Sanborn Fire Insurance A portion of the 1892 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Helena, Montana, sheet 27. The Christmas Gift Evans House is located on the lower right, indicated by its current address number at 404 North Benton Street. The mansard roof is shown in red, while the porches are colored in yellow and bordered with a dotted line. Source:

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Helena, Lewis and Clark County, Montana. Sanborn Map Company, 1892. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4254hm.g4254hm_g050171892/?sp=27&r=0.23,-0.283,0.538,0.882,90.

Location

404 North Benton Avenue, Helena, Montana | Currently private property and not open to the public.

Metadata

William R. Batson, Northern Arizona University, “Christmas Gift Evans House,” Intermountain Histories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/596.