Out of the rubble

The knock-down, drag-out fight over the Missoula Mercantile will change local historic preservation for years to come. Is it a new beginning or the beginning of the end?



"Doomsdayer" isn't how anyone who knows Page Goode would think to describe her. The president of Preserve Historic Missoula wears thick-rimmed glasses with short, gray hair and apologizes for the softness of her voice, which barely reaches across the small table at Clyde Coffee.

However faint her words, their tone is heavy, stacked with frustration and a resignation of sorts. "Doomsdayer" is how she describes her present attitude, and she says it only half joking. Preservation has had a rotten year. Projects at the fairgrounds and public library threaten structures in two historic districts. Franklin School was demolished on its 100th birthday. The Historic Preservation Commission canceled its annual awards—no one was in the mood to celebrate—and at least two members have resigned their seats. To top it off, a former city historic preservation officer and author, Allan Mathews, was charged for possession of child pornography. (Mathews pleaded not guilty, but a change of plea hearing was scheduled for October.)

But Goode's sense of foreboding, and that of the entire preservation community, most notably stems from the Missoula Mercantile building, which has been issued, in her words, a "death warrant." To Goode and her colleagues, the vote by Missoula City Council last month is still raw. They're angry for the building's fate and the way it was decided, but also anxious that it may signal more still to come.

"I think it sets a very dangerous precedent," says Nikki Manning, a University of Montana graduate student who helped lead the "Save the Merc" campaign. "If you can knock down the most important building in town, what does that mean for anything that's not quite as important?"

The contest over the Merc isn't over quite yet. Goode says Preserve Historic Missoula is drawing up a Hail Mary play in the form of an administrative appeal to Missoula County District Court. After six months of debate over what the city's historic preservation rules say, the group wants a judge to weigh in.

  • historical image courtesy of Mansfield Library

Even if the downtown landmark is granted a reprieve, there are still plenty of pieces to be picked up. On one hand, the Merc cause has generated more public support for historic preservation than ever—interest that could be leveraged to pass new regulations that ensure other monuments to Missoula's heritage aren't razed. But the Merc has also torn open wounds that will likely take time to heal. Friendships have been ruined. Trust between advocates and city officials has withered. It's not clear who, exactly, is ready to take on the challenge of rebuilding the relationships. Meanwhile, the pace of real estate development quickens.

"We are at a turning point—for good or bad, I'm not sure," Manning says. "I just don't know. I'm a little pessimistic about it right now."

"Challenging the bulldozer"

A week before plans to demolish the Merc were presented to the public, Mike Monsos met with city planners. Monsos was chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, the volunteer board that would soon have to decide if the demolition permit application passed muster.

"I was told they felt it was a good idea and it would be in everyone's best interest if we approved it as soon as possible," he says. "No one came out and said, 'You have to do this,' but it was clear that everything possible was being done to try and interrupt the process. The reality is, the only thing saving that block was the HPC and the preservation ordinance. The only hurdle to free use of that space was us. And I think people just wanted us out of the way."

Historic preservation advocates in America have long been referred to as "little old ladies in tennis shoes" who are stodgy, nagging and breathless in their piety to values that have long gone out of fashion. Missoula activists are sensitive to the stereotype; that's why they were stung when Missoula Redevelopment Agency Director Ellen Buchanan described them as "extreme preservationists" who want "to save virtually everything, even if it is falling down" in an email to Merc developers with HomeBase Montana.

  • photo by Amy Donovan

"We're often thought of as the guys who are chaining themselves to buildings in front of a bulldozer, always coming in at the last moment and just screwing up the process," Monsos says. "I don't want to be that person."

The Merc is where advocates ultimately dug in their heels, though. If tennis shoes aren't a good look for preservation, combat boots didn't seem to serve them well, either. Hundreds of residents showed up at city council chambers to speak, often repeatedly, while thousands signed Save the Merc petitions. They weren't all little old ladies: two petition signers were members of the HPC itself, a city attorney's investigation revealed—including Monsos. The accusations of bias were just the beginning of the public relations nightmare for preservation advocates. The HPC struggled to run orderly meetings and stumbled over basic procedures. Merc supporters' testimony included pledges to chain themselves to the building. Someone compared those who supported demolition to ISIS terrorists who have destroyed historic sites in Iraq and Syria.


Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment