Save the (Built) Environment



It's one of the most peculiar ironies of American life. The one part of our environment that we use the most is also the one that we think about the least-buildings. The truth is, you don't have to be an architect or a bricklayer or a museum docent to appreciate them. Just think of buildings as storytellers. Each landmark in town has at least one story, somewhere-in an attic or an archive or maybe in the brickwork itself. And now more than ever, as we sit here on the brink of the next century, it seems like a time to recall as many stories as we can.

That's exactly why Missoula, like dozens of communities nationwide, is observing National Historic Preservation Week, a time for taking stock of all of our historical resources-from the old buildings we see every day to the tales hidden inside which we seldom get to hear. And certainly, Missoula has a lot of stock-taking to do. With five neighborhoods registered as national historic districts and more than 60 official landmarks lining its streets, historic Missoula is truly an embarrassment of riches. There's scarcely a walk you can take or a street you can tool down without passing one of Missoula's many architectural marvels.

But while Preservation Week is usually a time for ticking off all of our successes, it should also be a time for action. And there are several historic sites in Missoula whose future remains uncertain. Like the landmarks we all know, these overlooked sites are also rich with history-replete with their own engaging stories, curious connections, meticulous architectural details-but none of them enjoys the enduring appreciation that the city's more prominent monuments do.

With that in mind, we've tracked down just three of these endangered spaces-three places in Missoula that are on the brink of being lost forever. Some of them have simply gone unnoticed. Others are in the midst of big transitions. Others still are faced with the threat of stone-cold destruction, because no one is willing or able to resurrect them. But they each have a story to tell, if anyone is willing to listen.

When It's Gone, It's Gone Front Street Theatre (c. 1884) 221 E. Front Street

The story of the Front Street Theatre begins not at the site itself, but several blocks to the north. That's where Missoula's historic preservation officer, Allan Mathews, is rummaging through a veritable Stonehenge of filing cabinets, bookshelves and rolled-up blueprints. Tucked away in the city's cluttered Office of Planning and Grants, Mathews is finger-picking his way along a drawerful of files. All around him are architect's renderings, spiral-bound studies, spray-mounted maps and old postcards of streamlined buildings. On the computer behind him, a screen saver message flashes periodically: When it's gone, it's gone.

The problem Mathews is gnawing on right now is just how old the Front Street Theatre is. Which in itself says something. Because Mathews knows buildings better than anyone. He can explain to you, in 40 words or less, the difference between Queen Anne-style and Edwardian-style architecture. He knows what a soffit is. And he could probably, just by looking, date half of the houses in the Southside neighborhood, and maybe even name the architect. But even he isn't sure how old the Front Street Theatre is.

The Civilian Conservation Corps buildings at Fort Missoula were built in 1936 as part of FDR's New Deal work plan. Today, they go almost entirely unusued and are targets for vandalism.

"It's one of the oldest buildings in town, I can tell you that much," he says, pulling out a handful of papers. "Thing is, there are about a half-dozen groups that want to buy that place. And all of them want to tear it down."

Behind him, the message flashes: When it's gone, it's gone.

The stone and brick building we now know as the Front Street Theatre was built as a warehouse for the Missoula Mercantile Company. Nobody is quite sure when. Its parent building, the original Missoula Mercantile-today The Bon Marché-was built in 1882, so Mathews figures that the warehouse probably came soon after. According to city archives, the structure first appeared on local surveys in 1884, making it second only to The Bon as the oldest building downtown.

And to be truthful, the history of the warehouse can be as difficult to find with your eyes as it is with charts and documents. Careless remodels and sloppy alterations over the past 115 years have made the long architectural history of the building hard to trace. But with the right kind of eyes, you can still see its story unfold.

When you turn east onto Front Street from Pattee, you get a glimpse of it. The warehouse flaunts its most handsome and articulate feature on the side facing you-its west wall, made of hand-fashioned masonry. With just a glance you can see that it's a work of hearty, frontier architecture. The wall is made with bulky field stones. The mortar joints that hold them together are thicker than your finger. All over its face are the outlines of old windows and doors that have been covered up. And if you look below, where the wall meets the ground, you can still see the gentle curve of a flumed arch, where a diversion channel once ran underneath the building to a grist mill down the street.

All that from just one wall. But from this point on, the story of the Front Street Theatre gets a bit more complex. The warehouse served its original purpose for the dry-goods firm for nearly 100 years. Then, in 1982, a few years after Missoula Mercantile was bought out by Federated Department Stores and became The Bon, the warehouse got a new tenant. It became the new home of the Missoula Children's Theatre, which converted the property into a much-needed performance space. The inside was gutted. A stage was erected. Rows of red steel seats were installed. Small offices were carved out of the cavernous space. It would serve as the troupe's workshop and showspace for the next 16 years, a long but somewhat tenuous tenancy.

The redesign of the old warehouse, it turns out, was insufficient. Soon, the house became too small to seat MCT's growing crowds. The low-slung ceiling made stage lighting difficult. Production designers struggled with tiny wings on the sides of the stage, and the utter lack of a flyspace behind. While the troupe enjoyed the cut-rate rents it was paying to The Bon, it was quickly outgrowing the awkward space.

"We wanted a better-equipped and bigger performance space," says MCT's facilities manager John Torma. "Something that would give us the ability to do technically more advanced productions."

To futher confound matters, the venue was found to be in violation of new fire codes. There were additional concerns about its lack of wheelchair access. Then, when the players got word that Federated Stores was receiving offers on the property, MCT saw the writing on the wall. It staged its final performance at the Front Street Theatre last summer, and has been in the process of moving out ever since.

"We knew that Federated Stores had been talking about selling the property for quite a few years," Torma says. "And we were on a month-to-month lease the whole time. It certainly is nice to know now, that when we plan a season, we'll have a theater for the length of that season."

The old Post Hospital at Fort Missoula was built in 1911 and currently houses the offices for the Western Montana Mental Health Center. Since the '50s, only one floor has been in use.

Ever since the MCT's final production there, the small, historic Front Street property has become a hot item on the real estate market-but not because of the building. According to The Bon's manager Rich Boberg, about six different offers have been made on the old theater lot, but none of them involve rehabilitating the 115-year-old structure. Instead, plans range from erecting a new office building in its place to razing the whole site, paving it, and putting in a parking lot. And according to the Missoula Parking Commission, that's one option that Federated Stores has shown a particular interest in.

"If we buy it, if we get that land, Federated Stores has insisted that we put it into parking," says Anne Guest, director of the parking commission. "They would not sell it to us unless we put it into parking."

Given all the concern among local retailers about downtown's parking crunch, she explains, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that The Bon wants a new lot right across the street. "It directly benefits their business," she says.

Furthermore, the consensus seems to be that the Front Street Theatre is, financially speaking, a lost cause. Due to its antiquated building standards, the warehouse has nowhere to go but down.

"All of the people who are trying to buy it have the intention of tearing down the building," Guest states. "The advice that we've been given is that the building can't be used for anything at this point. Because of the state that it's in, you can't bring it up to any code to use it commercially. So anyone who buys it will have to tear it down."

Back in his cluttered office, Allan Mathews shrugs. He doesn't doubt that saving the Front Street Theatre is too expensive a proposition for most folks. But part of the appeal of the old warehouse seems to be not what we do know about it-like how much it would cost to fix-but what we don't-like who built it, or how old it is. Even the building's original appearance, which has been addled by generations of half-hearted renovations-a process that Mathews refers to as "remuddling"-remains a mystery. Unfortunately, he says, the Front Street Theatre doesn't have the curb appeal needed to win over the hearts of investors.

"You can't tell the history of the building by looking at it," Mathews says. "It's weird with buildings that way. If there's a lot to it visually, then you have a case there. But when it's been 'remuddled,' it's very difficult to argue saving a building like that."

Behind him, again, the message flashes: When it's gone, it's gone.

Use It Or Lose It CCC Buildings (1936) Fort Missoula

As a director of the Northern Rockies Heritage Center, Roger Bergmeier has no small appreciation of nature. In fact, when we meet up for an impromptu tour of Fort Missoula, he's out planting trees along the old parade grounds, replacing dead elms with new linden saplings.

Bergmeier is big and hale, and there is a smell of green wood in the air. It all seems appropriate enough. He is, in many senses, the conservator of latter-day Fort Missoula-its gardener. It's his job to keep this place healthy and to nurture its growth. An awesome task, no doubt, but the responsibility will officially become his this summer, when the U.S. Army turns over most of the land at Fort Missoula to the Northern Rockies Heritage Center, a result of Cold War cutbacks that may actually benefit Missoula more than anyone ever thought.

The Front Street Theatre in downtown Missoula is thought to be 115 years old. Now, a half-dozen prospective buyers are eyeing the property, all of whom have plans to demolish it.

It's the NRHC's plan, you see, to use the old post as a kind of hothouse for cultural endeavors. Under the fort's new ownership, historical, educational and cultural groups will be invited to set up shop there, to take advantage of affordable rents and to help transform the old army campus into a sort of brain trust. It's a plan, Bergmeier claims, that will benefit everyone involved-the NRHC, the organizations who take part, and even the buildings themselves. And it's all based on a little-known truth of architectural conservation: The most effective way to preserve old buildings is to keep using them.

"Historians call it adaptive reuse," Bergmeier says. "Instead of tearing a building down, you remodel it, restore it, stabilize it, whatever, and put it to good use. The key to the whole issue in historic preservation is, if you have a building, the best way to preserve it is to use it."

With that it mind, maybe it's not much of a surprise that the buildings at Fort Missoula which Bergmeier is most concerned about are ones that have been left virtually vacant for decades. His fear is even more understandable when you realize that the structures in question were originally used by the granddaddy of all conservation groups-the Civilian Conservation Corps.

From 1936 to 1942, Fort Missoula served as the Northern Rockies headquarters for the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal program that employed whole armies of young, work-hungry men on federal labor projects. At Fort Missoula alone, 25,600 men were trained, housed and cared for during the six-year project, while they embarked in squadrons into the surrounding wilderness to build roads, construct wildlife refuges and plant trees by the thousands. Their first task, though, was to build themselves a home.

In 1936, CCC members constructed four buildings that served as their encampment: an administration building, a warehouse, a hospital/staff quarters and a barracks. None of them was built to last-the shortage of both time and money ensured that their home base would feature only simple materials and even simpler designs. But what they managed to create were some truly sound specimens of American public architecture. They're all plain wood constructions, slathered with whitewash, so lacking in ornament that they seem almost Puritanical. Their foundations are plain slabs of concrete, their exteriors mere rows of narrow, ship-lap siding. In effect, they look like Protestant heartland farmhouses-only on a grander scale.

Today, the CCC buildings survive, but only barely. In particular, Bergmeier singles out the administration building and the warehouse-both of which are mere shells of their former selves, having lain fallow for decades. Once the war began, he says, and the men of the CCC were sent off as soldiers, the old base was left to fade into memory. As a result, the buildings have slipped into severe disrepair. Windows are shattered. Doors are boarded over. There is even evidence that looters have broken into one building and stolen lumber from its framework. And, as is always the case with these historic structures, the worse their condition becomes, the less likely it is that they can be saved.

"It's had a very sad history," says Bob Brown, historian at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, about the CCC camp. "I know some groups looked at turning it into a museum for the CCC. It would be a really nice museum complex, but we're talking huge amounts of money.

"The windows alone would run thousands and thousands of dollars just to fix them. For a time, we [at the Historical Museum] looked at it very longingly as a solution for our storage problems. But it would take so much to make it a secure and climate-controlled space, that it was just too much."

While he freely admits that the future of the CCC buildings looks dim, Brown tries to remain optimistic. His hope is that the right combination of funds and enterprise can intervene to save these monuments of Montana's New Deal days.

"Its fate is not sealed," he says. "If someone comes along with enough money, or if somebody gets a grant, there are funds available. It's just a matter of finding the right match."

For his part, Roger Bergmeier looks disappointed as he takes a break from his tree-planting to look over the old warehouse. To him, the CCC buildings seem to stand as an object lesson in the methods of historic preservation. They are proof of his building-saving mantra: Use it or lose it.

Standing in front of the warehouse, Bergmeier squints into the afternoon sun and gives it one more scan. "Look at it," he said. "Just sitting there, empty." With its leaky roof, loose windows and creaky walls, it now has almost no protection from the elements. And this is one place where nature doesn't belong. "Nothing in there now but birds," he says. "Birds and bats."

Unseen Stories Post Hospital (1911) Fort Missoula

We are stumbling in the dark. Paul Meyer tells me that if I walk to the middle of the room, I'll feel a wire overhead. "Pull it," he says.

A light bulb blazes, and for a moment, we both go blind. This is the first light that this windowless room has seen in months, perhaps years, and it shows. The basement of the old Post Hospital at Fort Missoula is covered with the past, larded down with it, weighted with dusty record books, examination tables, decapitated lighting fixtures and prehistoric computers-the detritus of generations of use.

Indeed, the Post Hospital at Fort Missoula is quite possibly the most well-used building around. But within this colossal, dark, 88-year-old structure, only one story has survived-the first story. That's where the Western Montana Mental Health Center has kept its offices since 1971, when it bought the hospital from a youth-care group for the sum of one dollar. For decades, the other floors of the hospital have gone utterly untouched. As Meyer, the Mental Health Center's director, admits, "We have more building than we need."

But the fact of the matter is, only when you see those other, unseen stories, do you get a sense of how full this building's history is. Each floor, it seems, captures a chapter of its past.

On the first floor, for instance, Meyer walks through the early days of the post hospital. It was built in 1911, in an extremely elegant but somewhat impractical California Mission style of architecture. As Meyer points out, the doorways are arched, the walls are plastered and the ceilings are a dizzying 15 feet high-features better suited to a warmer climate.

The next floor up, where few people have been in the past half-century, it's still the 1940s, when Italian-Americans were cared for here during their years of government-imposed imprisonment. Dust-covered, streamlined furniture sits in an abandoned lounge. The pharmacy is marked with a hand-painted sign. And a room off the hall has steel bars for a door. "This is from the '40s," Meyer says, "which is probably the last time this place was in active use as a hospital. When the internees were here."

Finally, the third floor gives testament to the role the place played in the 1950s. Here, adult education classes were held, including sewing, home economics and, believe it or not, indoor archery. The east wall is riddled with holes left by errant arrows that missed their marks. Steel arrowtips pepper the floor like bullet casings.

No doubt, few buildings in Missoula are as manifestly historic as this. And yet, the Post Hospital is dogged with the same problem as all of Missoula's endangered spaces: It is too expensive to save.

"The biggest problem with it is the roof is 88 years old now," Paul Meyer says. "It's pretty expensive to replace a whole roof. We haven't been very encouraged about that."

But there's plenty of evidence to prove the need. On the third floor, entire sections of ceiling are missing, where water has gushed through after storms and snow melt. In places, you can look up and see sunlight.

Just as it is with the Front Street Theatre and the CCC buildings, the solution seems obvious and yet out of reach. You can hear it in Meyer's speech when he talks about repairs: "We talked with [Allan] Mathews, and he indicated that we could probably-or somebody could, I don't know if we'll ever have the money-replace the roof with a metal roof. But I don't know if we'll ever have the money."

Instead, he is hoping that the task will be taken up by a new tenant, the Montana Natural History Center, a group that has expressed interest in turning the old Post Hospital into a three-story interpretive center.

"There may be a museum in its future," Meyer intones hopefully. "They've been through a couple of times and said they were maybe a couple years out from being able to take it over." But first, he says, they'll have to find the money-which he estimates at several hundred thousand dollars-for repairs. "They're still sorta getting their feet on the ground," he adds. In the meantime, he lets the Center store its artifacts in the dark, dry basement, where we are now, free of charge.

Until some sort of solution is found, Meyer says, as he climbs the stairs to the ground floor, they will continue to patch holes, fix leaks and work with what they have. "That's the trade-off," he says. "You get some value out of the structure that's here, but there


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