A historic Northside building is beginning its next incarnation.
Papers were finalized this week for the sale of the Stensrud Building to Jackie Stermitz, who plans to turn the building into a playhouse with her daughter Michelle Stermitz.
Previous owner Mark Kersting spent nearly 14 years restoring and maintaining the Stensrud Building that once was a Chinese laundry, grocery store and perhaps brothel after it was built between 1890 and 1891. But by the time he purchased the building in 2000, it had deteriorated from its railroad heyday.
“It was three months from the wrecking ball when I bought it,” said Kersting, who has a decades-long background in historic renovations.
Instead, Kersting stabilized the building with help from Eric Ebinger and Gruver Pohl (among others, including Sandy Mitchell who helped make the purchase possible) and restored the interior woodwork, plaster and floors.
In 2006, the building opened as an events center. Since then, community members used the building for wedding receptions, thesis readings, graduation parties, wakes and more, while the second-floor pigeons were replaced by professionals renting office space.
However, the patronage didn’t create enough revenue to justify remaining open, he said.
Ultimately, the building’s revitalization sparked more interest and investment on North First Street, Kersting said, adding he’s proud to have contributed to a safer section of town that now is home to the Zootown Arts Community Center and the Kettlehouse Brewing Co. He also was recognized with an Excellence in Historic Preservation award from the Montana Preservation Alliance in 2012.
While Kersting said the decision to sell has been emotional, he’s excited about using the cash infusion to help finish another renovation project on an apartment building he owns on the same block.
“There comes a time in your life when you have to move on and that time is now,” he said.
Knowing the Stensrud Building will become a playhouse makes his decision easier to take.
“I can’t think of a much better use,” Kersting said.
The building’s new owners wanted to honor its history and so named their new venture the Stensrud Playhouse, which will be home to Zootown Improv, Murder at the Stensrud and the Stensrud School of Improv and Comedy Writing.
On March 1 and 2, an improv intensive for acting and sketch writing will be held with Guy Stevenson. In April, the mother-daughter team plan to hold their first round of classes centered on improv and comedy writing, open an improv show and begin a dinner theater show. Eventually, they’ll offer corporate events, during which groups can enjoy private shows.
A stage, seating and tables, box office area and bar will be added to the main floor, while the second-floor rooms will become classrooms and writing rooms.
The new center will fill a niche in town, said Jackie Stermitz, a theater veteran who returned to Montana 3 1/2 years ago after several years in Los Angeles.
Missoula as a town is supportive of the arts, Stermitz said, but so far comedy is missing, as is dinner theater.
“There’re a lot of closet comedians out there,” she said, adding the playhouse’s offerings are geared to people ages 9 and older.
Michelle Stermitz agreed, saying that she especially would like to see more women participate in improv and comedy.
“I think Missoula has a lot of undiscovered talent that needs an outlet,” she said.
A website with class schedules and shows, and for ticket sales, will be up by mid-March. Until then, more information can be found at facebook.com/stensrudplayhouse.