Starting next week, a crew of workers will begin dismantling the historic Missoula Mercantile in downtown Missoula, an event that will be marked by many with sadness at the loss of an iconic touchstone but by others as a step of forward progress.
Either way, it marks the beginning of momentous change for Missoula’s downtown, where the Merc kept watch for more than 140 years.
According to the book “The Missoula Mercantile: The Store that Ran an Empire” by Minie Smith, the Merc sprouted from a log cabin at a “dusty crossroads in Montana Territory…to become the largest department store between Minneapolis and Seattle.” Smith detailed how the Merc became a western institution that drew customers from all over the region to purchase big-city silks, hardware, horseshoes and hosiery for nearly a century and a half.
The building has languished since Macy’s shut down in 2010. When a Bozeman developer proposed demolishing it to build a five-story hotel this past March, it ignited a bitter debate that divided the community.
The building’s owner and the developer contended that all reasonable uses for the building were no longer economically feasible given the costs to rehab the building and the price tenants were willing to pay for renting an old building.
The city’s Historic Preservation Commission unanimously denied the demolition permit, but the City Council reversed the commission's decision. A local preservation group sued to overturn the council vote, but ultimately a District Court judge sided with the developer and the city.
Now, developer Andy Holloran of HomeBase Montana has hired L. Keeley Construction out of St. Louis to oversee construction of a $35 million, custom Residence Inn by Marriott with about 150 rooms. The pharmacy portion of the Merc on Higgins must be saved per an agreement with the city.
Rather than demolishing the Merc and hauling debris to a landfill, the developer has also promised to salvage as much material from the building as possible. Holloran has already promised that there will be a “brick giveaway” in the future. Also, L. Keeley has subcontracted a local nonprofit, Home ReSource, to deconstruct the building. That nonprofit has, in turn, subcontracted another private company called Heritage Timber to help out.
Home ReSource deconstruction manager Jason Nuckolls said he’s spent about 150 hours in the building over the last year figuring out how to take apart the building in the safest and most efficient way possible.
“There’s a ton of dimensional lumber, some 2x12 and greater rough-cut, clear fir in there,” he said. “It’s big wood, stuff you don’t see very often. There’s also an assortment of various types of lumber beam sizes, six-inch and eighteen-inch. It’s about the best stuff you want to see.”
Nuckolls said his crews come across that big, non-knotty wood every once in a while and it is in high demand when it goes for sale at Home ReSource’s headquarters and re-sale store on Russell Street.
“We find a little bit here and there, but just not in this quantity and quality,” he said.
The first part of next week will be spent on snow removal, and Nuckolls estimated it will take about two months for the whole building to come down.
He said he’s worked with an engineer to determine how to take apart the building without having walls cave in or have pieces damage the pharmacy portion.
“The contractor will shore up the pharmacy before anything happens and before an excavator comes in to dig out the foundation,” he said.