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Local art, historic photos give new Mercantile hotel a Missoula-grown feel

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When the new Mercantile Hotel opens up to the public on Friday, they'll see an interior design that reflects the past and the present, in part through a contemporary art program.

The hotel, a Residence Inn by Marriott built by HomeBase Partners, hired Radius Gallery to commission work throughout the building.

Andy Holloran, HomeBase project developer, said they wanted to build a hotel that was unique to Missoula "to pay tribute and recognize the great history that this corner and this building has had over decades."

The physical design is a juxtaposition between a "classic, historic-type structure and contemporary," he said. There are exposed concrete floors, salvaged beams and vintage, aged metal roof tiles. An entire wall behind the check-in desk is lined with bricks.

Lead interior designer Blaire Weiser of Johnson Nathan Strohe Architects said they wanted to stay true the building's roots — it's built on the site of the old Missoula Mercantile department store — as both a retail center and community space. They re-used materials found on site, but also "wanted the revitalized building to feel clean and forward-thinking. Being influenced by the Mercantile and the different trades that took place at this incredible site, allowed us to understand the importance of this space to the local Missoula culture."

Radius co-owner Jason Neal said it feels like a different kind of public space in Missoula, with a cool, elegant design.

While hotels often opt for artwork that's neutral and abstract, and doesn't contain any sort of message to interpret, he said the project allowed them to bring in contemporary and sometimes narrative work.

The Mews, as they call it, is the northwest corner of the building where they preserved the exterior brick facade. Once you step in the entryway, you'll see the historic awning above you. The hallway ahead is lined with art either by local artists or historic photographs of the Merc's stores, or downtown Missoula, and artifacts salvaged from the site.

Weiser said there's "nothing frilly about this design. It is tough, adventurous, yet inviting and handcrafted."

Radius commissioned work by ceramicist Trey Hill, painters Tim Nielsen and Ben Pease, and a book-themed found-object sculpture by Jack Boyd. They also selected prints by Jim Todd of famous Montana authors, and cyanotypes of vintage clothing by Lucy Capehart.

Neal said the initial talks with HomeBase and lead interior designer Blaire Weiser of JNS Architects called for local art and historic photographs. There was also a box of artifacts salvaged from the site: an old keg tap, liquor bottles, a coil of spring, and more, that were considered for a display of some sort.

In the end, they decided that photographs of the objects were a better route. "These photos really do something bigger, and bolder, and frankly more interesting" than the artifacts themselves, Neal said. For one, many were quite small, while the finished photographs are several feet wide.

They hired Jeff McLain, who teaches product photography and Adobe Photoshop at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, just up Higgins Avenue.

Coincidentally, he took a class on historic archaeology at the University of Montana, where professor Kelly Dixon took them on surveys of the Merc before it was demolished.

The look for the photographs they settled on was stark, black and white, crisp, and high-resolution, he said. They wanted an artistic interpretation of objects that people might consider refuse or junk.

McLain thought some notable pictures included a small flag, only about a foot tall, from 1890. It has only 42 stars, which he thought was an interesting way to signal its age without saying it directly.

The look of the flag was visually interesting as well. He said it was mangled, muddy, likely sitting in dirt for a long time. In his final image, it's laid out flat and somewhat scrunched in places. It's respectful but isn't hiding the damage to the fabric. 

Other photographs around the lobby depict shops within the old Merc or historic downtown Missoula

All the photographs were printed by Marcy James of Paper & Ink Studios and framed by Marlo Crocifisso Art Haus Framing.


The local art theme didn't exclude Montana literature. Famous authors like James Welch, Richard Hugo, Thomas McGuane and Norman Maclean are depicted in prints by James Todd.

A wall-sized sculpture pays tribute to the state's literary history as well. Found-object sculptor Jack Boyd's custom-made book piece, "Prose and Connotations" is a diamond-shaped arrangement of open books, measuring 10 feet wide by 5 feet tall.

A number of titles by Montana authors, like Maclean and Hugo, are raised off the surface to give the piece some depth, Boyd said.

For the base layer, Boyd picked older, junk books that wouldn't have any value. He found images to paste in that would have more close associations: vintage guns, sheet music for "Git Along, Little Dogies," and scenes of Indian camps, that provide the "connotations" for the books' setting.


You might expect to see taxidermy of some sort in a Montana hotel, but the closest is "Slowly Untying the Web," by Trey Hill, a ceramics professor at the University of Montana.

It comprises two rows of seven sculptures with sleek black finishes. In each piece, a bighorn sheep horn is seemingly entangled or propped up by pieces of steel tubing. Hill took a real horn and real tubing and made molds that he cast in liquid ceramic, and placed them in a varied and dynamic series of arrangements.

While making it, he said he was thinking about the ways that human interaction affects the environment. The manner in which the horns are "choreographed" into different positions and either held up or trapped by the steel tubing, suggests the way that human decisions affect environment, often in ways that we can't foresee, he said.

"I couldn't be happier that the folks at the hotel took the chances" that they did, he said.


Ben Pease, a Northern Cheyenne/Crow artist, made "As Beauty Comes By," a mixed-media painting. A group of Indians ride in a procession in the foreground. A few of their heads are surrounded by orange circles. In the background, he pasted and painted over old images of women from catalogs. Small white lines cover their eyes.

Neal said Pease's work can be subtle but provocative, and is open to interpretation, which he sees as an important feature for art in a public space.

Holleran, meanwhile, said he hopes that people think of the Mews and lobby as a public space. The hotel opens to the public on Friday and is open to bookings now.

"We want to invite them in, he said. "As we've said all along, this project and location is downtown Missoula's living room, and we want people to enjoy it and see it."

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