We white folk don’t have much history in Montana. It’s only been about a century-and-a-half since gold was discovered in Bannack, and then Alder Gulch, prompting the rush of prospectors to Montana Territory.
Around the same time, Hellgate was founded in the Clark Fork River Valley, followed by Missoula, a few miles to the East. The town didn’t really take off until the 1870s, about the time Mssrs. Hammond, Eddy and McLeod started the Missoula Mercantile. At one point, it was the largest department store between Seattle and Minneapolis.
I started out as rather ambivalent on the destruction of the old, locally nicknamed, Merc. It would be nice to save the building, at least its facade. It was downtown’s anchor but having remained empty for over five years, Missoula was ready to move on.
Enter the development firm HomeBase Montana — out of dreaded Bozeman, no less — with a plan to demolish the Merc and build a five-story, Marriot-owned Residence Inn. Not everyone was receptive to this and in true Missoula fashion, battle lines were drawn.
There are the historic preservationists on one side, and the mayor, Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Improvement District on the other. Today, the Missoulian pushed for demolition in its editorial.
Since the heavy hitters in government and the business community are calling for “deconstruction,” I’m starting to rethink my position. Save the Merc!
Here’s just some of my reasoning. According to the editorial, not approving demolition of the building would be “a big red flag for any business looking to set up shop in Missoula.”
This is the same argument I heard nearly twenty years ago when Eagle Hardware talked about building a store out on Reserve St. The city put some conditions on the development — traffic flow and landscaping, for instance — and Eagle balked and bailed.
We’re anti-business, moaned the Chamber. Other business and government leaders chimed in saying Missoula will never get businesses to locate here. We now have a Lowes and Home Depot across from each other on Reserve St. in about the same location where Eagle wanted to build.
Something else got me thinking about historic preservation. My wife and I are dreaming about a trip to Europe and I’ve started some research. On a moderate budget, we could stay at a 17th Century B&B in Provence, a 16th Century castle in Italy or this place in Bruge:
The earliest written mention of the house that was found, dates back to 1390. The building was redesigned in 1869 by Louis Delacenserie. The former owner ordered the reconstruction of the house later that year.
Either the Europeans are better builders or they have more historical preservation appreciation. The history part is certainly paying off for them. Now Missoula isn’t Paris or Rome, but we also don’t want our downtown to look like an airport strip mall, replete with the chain restaurants, stores and hotels that grace most mid-sized American cities.
Many other properties in Missoula are on the chopping block. There are homes and buildings and schools, stretching from downtown to the fairgrounds, that are worth saving. Some are not. But we shouldn’t sacrifice our historical sites to perceived obsolescence or corporate expedience. I’ll leave readers with this from a guest column by members of Preserve Historic Missoula, also in today’s Missoulian:
Economic development does not ask that we choose between historic buildings and new buildings. Historic preservation does not oppose economic development or revitalization. In fact, Preserve Historic Missoula has been arguing the opposite for over 12 years. We believe, very strongly, that economic development and historic preservation should and can very successfully go hand-in-hand. Rehabilitating and reusing an existing building is the most sustainable building practice available; it minimizes the need for raw materials, fits in existing infrastructure and cuts down on landfill waste. In addition, heritage tourism is an identifiable and growing segment of the tourism industry. Historic preservation plays a crucial role in our economy.
*From the 1960 hit “Wonderful World” by the incomparable Sam Cooke. Please, give it a listen.