Time marches on along East Front Street, but for an hour or two Wednesday evening it stopped and stood at attention.
Several members of Missoula’s preservation community and Emy Scherrer, the city’s new historic preservation officer, stopped by 503 E. Front St. to examine the bones of what’s possibly the city's oldest standing building just before it falls.
Dating back to its log cabin days of the late 1860s, the building and its adds-on evolved into a rambling nine-unit rental that was eventually shut down by the city for code violations. The heirs of its last owner, Lee Gordon, donated the property to the North Missoula Community Development Corp. Heidi West of NMCDC said plans are to build a three-story affordable housing complex as a community land trust.
The arrangement will call for NMCDC to own the lot but sell each of the seven new units to low- and moderate-income homebuyers, who lease the land at a modest monthly cost.
Abatement of asbestors and lead paint was completed last week, and Gary Delp and his crew from Heritage Timber are set to begin deconstruction. By midsummer there’ll be nothing left standing.
“This is pretty much it,” said West. “This is our last chance before it gets dismantled.”
Logs for the original structure were probably cut at the lumber mill built in 1865 a block or so west of what became Higgins Avenue. The trace that provided water from Rattlesnake Creek to operate the mill and, starting a year later, a grist mill ran just feet behind the home that was believed to have been built by brothers Cyrus and William McWhirk.
“You kind of hesitate to call it a cabin because it’s so huge,” said Nikki Manning, who wrote the 2015 book “Historic Underground Missoula”and has helped West and NMCDC executive director Bob Oaks dig up the building’s history.
“So far I think we can date this pretty close to 1867-1869, somewhere in between there,” Manning said. “The land was owned by the McWhirk brothers and they actually started the gardens and orchards here in Missoula. The orchards and the garden were in by ’67.”
There's some evidence that Cyrus McWhirk married in 1868 or 1869 and built the house for his bride, she added.
While William McWhirk went to the Bitterroot and became a successful merchant in the early days of Corvallis, Cyrus died destitute in Fort Benton in 1881.
In 1882, Dan and Josephine Heyfron arrived from Wyoming with their young family, bought the McWhirk home and set out to expand it.
“They basically built a Victorian structure around the cabin,” Manning said.
Dan Heyfron was a butcher who had followed Northern Pacific Railroad construction camps around the West. The railroad followed him here in 1883, and Heyfron went to make an indelible mark on early Missoula. He served two stints as county sheriff. It was his quarry south of the river that provided the rock to build most of the prominent homes in Montana as well as the University of Montana campus. Heyfron was also widely known for his stable of quality racehorses.
The house on East Front was the only Missoula home for the Heyfrons, who had 10 children but only five who survived infancy. Dan died of leukemia in 1934. Josephine passed away two years later.
West said the building is a contributing structure to the Missoula Downtown Historic District, “but it’s pretty much been a boarding house and then a rental starting in the '30s.”
“The entire space has been carved up and redesigned, and carved up and redesigned,” she said.
Thought has been given to salvaging the timber of the original cabin.
“The long-term goal would be maybe to construct a bus shelter or something where we could commemorate the history, but it’s just ideas at this point,” West said.
Part of the problem is that there’s not much left of the original timbers.
“With all the cutouts and stuff, you’d get maybe some 30-inch logs. It’s not one you’d tag and reassemble,” Delp said. “Of course you could, but you’d have to build a whole other structure around it because it can’t really bear anything at this point.”
Extensive abatement has revealed some exciting things.
“It’s pretty interesting,” Oaks said. “The log structure’s shape is more clearly discernible. Another hearth was exposed behind a wall in one apartment. Some interesting old wallpaper treatments were uncovered.”
“The wallpaper was gold-stenciled. It had to be just breathtaking,” said West.
A piano crate had been used for wall sheathing, and Oaks speculated it could have contained the Heyfrons’ piano that was almost lost over an embankment during transport from Dillon.
“This area of town is part of what was the earliest of Missoula, and there are a lot of stories that can be told,” said West, who represents Ward 1 on the city council. “All of these houses have stories that can be told, but this one we can actually explore.”
The Heyfron house is almost directly across Front Street from a block of houses and apartments that face deconstruction soon to make way for a new public library. William McWhirk once owned at least part of the block.
According to Lenora Koelbel in "Missoula the Way It Was," in December 1872 McWhirk sold the lot on the northwest corner to the Missoula school district for $40. The first brick schoolhouse in Montana Territory was built there. It too was extensively remodeled over the years. Now vacated like the other structures on the block, the brick and white stucco building was last rented by a wealth management company.
Steve Adler, a Missoula architect, was one of the many on the historic preservation commission last year who opposed granting a demolition permit to tear down the Missoula Mercantile four blocks to the west.
Adler said Wednesday’s visit to the Heyfron house was “basically a learning experience for future episodes.”
The house was in no condition to be saved.
“When you take the building down and peel back the layers and find all the cool stuff, it’s still a question of integrity and there’s just not much left," he said. "So it’s hard to pitch a case for preserving it. Now if it was George Washington’s homestead instead of the McWhirks’ it’d be a different ballgame.”