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Queen Anne history slowly restored in downtown Missoula; more funding allocated

Union Block Downtown Missoula
Graphic A DRAWING
Posted at 10:18 AM, Mar 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 12:19:11-05

MISSOULA — After a lengthy discussion on the value of the city’s history and the importance of preserving it, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s board recently agreed to dedicate more funding toward the painstaking restoration of one downtown building.

The board has approved a $125,000 request from Radio Central LLC to complete the historic restoration of the Union Block, which stands as one of Missoula’s last Queen Anne style structures dating back to the 1800s.

“We’re going to come out with a great product,” said building owner Nick Caras. “It’s going to be an amazing building and a great asset to the city.”

Old city maps show the building as “being built” in 1893. Many of the properties on that edge of the city were still vacant at the time or contained smaller structures, according to maps.

By 1893, however, maps identify Caras’ building as the Union Block, and early renderings reveal Queen Anne architecture similar to the Higgins Block on the corner of Front Street and Higgins Avenue – a building commissioned in 1889 by C.P. Higgins.

For some reason in the 1950s, however, many of the Union Block’s historic features were smashed or removed, and the entire façade was covered with a sheet of tin that would remain in place until 2019.

It was then that Caras began the historic renovation of the Queen Anne façade, and Radio Central LLC asked for and received $579,000 from MRA to complete the work.

Thursday’s second request for an additional $125,000 led to a protracted discussion among board members, who as a rule don’t generally entertain second requests for public assistance from the same party.

“I’m asking myself if our general rule, which is not to entertain second requests, if there’s an exception for historic preservation projects, and whether there are unique difficulties that are part of such projects that would justify a departure from that general rule,” said board member Tasha Jones.

“When I evaluate what our core values are, historic preservation seems like one of those core values, similar to our commitment to affordable housing.”

Project architect David Gray said the restoration project has stayed on budget and was going well. But surprises came as the team began removing the building’s tin covering.

Doing so revealed a long list of historic surprises, including marble banding, carved stone corner pieces, carved granite capitals, hand-carved hardwood mullions, and oak window tops carved with a rope detail.

“We didn’t know they existed, and it would be a shame to go this far and try not to bring that back,” said David Gray. “It’s craftsmanship work. To not take that level of care to the end is doing the downtown a disservice.”

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency has helped fund historic preservation work before, most notably the Wilma and the Florence, both which stand as marquise structures in downtown Missoula.

Historic renovation brings unique challenges not found in all construction projects, said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan.

“You can’t know. Renovation projects are a problem anyway, usually on the inside. When you’re restoring a historic building, especially one that was as disguised as this one was, it’s impossible. They don’t have the same rules applied to them, so if you’re going to restore it, by golly restore it.”