Montana State University

MSU architectural students bring to life historic fort that disappeared a century ago

July 5, 2013 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Steven Levesque, an MSU architecture student from Fountain Valley, Calif., was one of 10 students from the MSU School of Architecture Community Design Center that used old-fashioned research and cutting-edge technology to build an accurate model of historic Fort Custer now on display in the new Centennial Gallery of the Big Horn County Historical Museum and Visitors Center in Hardin. Photo by Thomas McNab.   High-Res Available

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Using cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned detective work, a group of Montana State University architecture students has replicated a historic Montana fort that disappeared more than a century ago.

MSU School of Architecture Community Design Center students, under the direction of Thomas McNab, researched historic photographs, drawings, maps and written descriptions, then translated the information to develop 3-D computer building models and a site model which were sent to a 3-D Printer and CNC fabricating machine to accurately create the physical 6-by-9 foot model of historic Fort Custer. The model is among several displays created by the students for the new Centennial Gallery of the Big Horn County Historical Museum and Visitors Center in Hardin, which opens this week during Hardin's 100th anniversary celebration.

The Centennial Gallery, which tells the stories of the various cultures which meld in the Hardin area, is at  the heart of the new museum and visitors center that was built last year, according to Diana Scheidt, museum director.  Scheidt praised the MSU students for bringing fresh vision and technology to the display areas of the historical center.

"It was awesome to see Fort Custer come to life through the students' work," Scheidt said. "In fact, through the whole project, it was great to see the museum through young eyes."

McNab, a teaching professor who is the director of the School of Architecture's CDC, worked for more than a year with MSU students to develop the model of Fort Custer.   The students also hand built a traditional wooden model of the hospital at Fort Custer, and designed other display  concepts and logos for the Hardin museum.

In its 38th year, the MSU Community Design Center provides visioning, planning, and conceptual design to non-profit organizations and government agencies.  McNab first heard of the Hardin project several years ago while talking to the architect who designed the new museum building. The museum had few funds left over for design consultation or display development, so McNab, who has family roots in the area, approached the museum about using students for the project's design needs.

Scheidt said the students worked for a year to research the museum's needs and came up with several innovative ideas that the museum used to adapt to its needs and budget. Those ideas included museum branding, exterior and interior mural design, graphic materials and a unique idea to cross reference the historic buildings located on museum grounds to the display areas inside the buildings. Scheidt notes that more than 26 historic buildings have been relocated to museum grounds from throughout Big Horn County.

"The students inspired us to do so many things," Scheidt said. "It was a great relationship working with them."

But, central to the project was research and construction of a model of a historic fort that no one had seen in more than 100 years.

Fort Custer was built in 1877 on a bluff at the confluence of the Big Horn and Little Big Horn rivers to house members of the U.S. Cavalry. It was closed just 21 years later

"Fort Custer was known, in its time, as the most luxurious fort in the west," McNab said. "It was the Riviera of Indian forts."

Among the fort's residents were one of the famous Buffalo Soldier platoons made up of African-American soldiers. However, Native American tribes were already on reservations when the fort opened, and it was officially closed in 1898, with most of the buildings moved throughout the region and repurposed, Scheidt said.  "Now, there is nothing there."

Starting in the spring of 2012, McNab and his MSU architecture students embarked on painstaking detective work to learn what the fort looked like 100 years ago.  While beautiful black-and-white period photographs of the fort exist, information on the layout of the fort was scant until students uncovered mid 20th century aerial photographs showing soil disturbances that marked the exact locations of the fort's original buildings.  They also discovered an original U.S. Army ordnance survey drawing in the MSU Library Special Collections that identified and located every building on the original fort grounds.

The students developed 3-D computer models of the buildings from historic photographs, drawings, maps, and contemporary written descriptions of the fort. The information was sent to a 3-D printer that accurately created physical models of each of the over 100 buildings of historic Fort Custer.

The contour model of the site that the fort sat on was developed by combining topographic data from a number of sources, since no accurate mapping was available for the site.  Through a series of computer overlays the CDC students were able to create a “data point cloud” that was converted to a “contour mesh.”  The mesh was then manipulated in the computer and compared with photographs taken at the site to accurately portray the bluffs along the Bighorn River.  This computer model was sent to a CNC (computer numeral control) machine that cut the physical site model from layers of medium density fiber board.

MSU architectural graduate student Steven Levesque of Fountain Valley, Calif., who worked on the project beginning last summer until it was installed last month, said the project was rewarding and eye-opening. Originally drawn to the project because of his love of model making, he also enjoyed his first experience working with a client. He believes the experience will make him a better architect.

"I really enjoyed seeing a whole different way to look at architecture," Levesque said. "I think many of us think that architecture is only making buildings. That's not true. We have a wide skill set, and a variety of projects that we can do, as shown in this project."

Scheidt and Levesque both said it was a near magical experience to see the fort come to life before their eyes.

"Even people who have lived here their entire lives were surprised to see that there were so many buildings on the fort's grounds," said Scheidt, adding that many have asked the museum to re-create the original fort, which would be completely infeasible economically. "But, now we can see what it really looked like. That's pretty cool."

For more information about the museum and visitors center, go to


Thomas McNab (406) 994-3793