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Florence Building: Downtown Missoula landmark sold to historic preservation expert

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It wasn’t for sale, but Thomas Taylor’s mind was made up.

Taylor, the owner of a Texas engineering firm with expertise in building preservation and a long history of such projects, has purchased the historic Florence Building in downtown Missoula.

“It’s really exciting,” he said on Tuesday as he outlined his general plan to maintain and upgrade portions of the building, including the famous lobby.

Thomas said he started looking at the Florence a few years ago and thought owning it would be a great opportunity to add to two other commercial buildings he owns across the street.

“Because it’s on the National Historic Register and has such beautiful architecture, it attracts tenants over and above what more conventional buildings would,” he said. “Plus, I’m attracted to Montana. The economy there is quite well, the economy in Missoula seems to be good, so all three of those factors put together made us look at that building.”

Thomas said he has no major immediate plans for The Florence other than to refurbish the lobby’s furniture back to its former glory and upgrade some other areas.

“We do have money put aside for restoration work,” he explained. “How much we can do with the economy booming, hiring a contractor to do anything right now is difficult. We’ll see how far we can go. We’ll definitely make some major upgrades. The lobby is something that’s No. 1 on our list, so we’ll be refurnishing that.”

Thomas' daughter attended the University of Montana and he has spent time in the area. He also owns the MSO Hub building at 140 N. Higgins and the Copperopolis home furnishings building at 132 N. Higgins.

“We have plans for (those two buildings) but I got so excited right now about the Florence that we’re focused on that, then we’ll get back to those renovation plans for them,” he said.

Thomas serves as the principal design director of Texas-based Datum Engineers and is on the board of directors. The firm has done preservation work for the Texas State Capitol, the historic Alamo Mission and the Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald took aim at President Kennedy.

“Our firm has done a lot of preservation work,” he said.

The original Florence Hotel was built in 1888, but burned down in 1913. The second iteration burned in 1936. The current building was completed in 1942, and the hotel once featured a bustling ballroom and a restaurant that served scallops and lobster lunches for $1, according to old menus.

The hotel was remodeled into an office and retail complex in the 1970s. With its signature Art Deco style, unique original facade and interior elements, and long history as a regional gathering hub, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

In 2002 it was purchased by a local company called ALPS, which provides insurance for attorneys and other services.

David Bell, the President and CEO of ALPS, said the company has always been a “proud steward of this amazing piece of Missoula history,” starting with former ALPS CEO Bob Minto who painstakingly oversaw the restoration of the lobby to its original condition.

“While we at ALPS could be described as ‘recreational preservationists,’ Thomas would be described as an expert and a national leader in the field,” Bell said. “ALPS simply would not sell The Florence to any person or entity who doesn’t share our commitment and passion for The Florence and its history.”

Bell said the building was never listed for sale, but he’s gotten inquiries from interested buyers over the years.

“I get one or two of those calls a year,” he said. “I’m always happy to engage in a discussion.”

Bell would always pleasantly tell people that the building isn’t for sale, but any offer would have to take into account the building’s importance to the community rather than just its appraised value. The discussions would usually end there.

“With Thomas, he had his heart set on this building,” Bell recalled. “Our talks were very pleasant, certainly, and his interest came out of nowhere. It was an unsolicited call. He looks at this property as a history with an incredible background. He’s certainly more qualified than we are to make sure that this building continues to historical greatness.”

Neither party disclosed the purchase price, but Bell said ALPS will remain a long-term tenant of the building and has secured terms on a “right of first refusal” to buy it back if it’s ever listed for sale in the future.

ALPS is currently in the last phases of remodeling the sixth and seventh floors for its new offices. Tech companies LumenAd and Submittable occupy most of the lower floors, and there’s a variety of other restaurants and offices on the ground floor. Thomas said the only vacant space is a 550-square-foot retail space. A locker room and shower area for employees is being constructed in the basement, and a private rooftop deck is being built in the next few weeks that someday may be open to community events.

"The Florence combines the best of the old and the new, with a lobby that serves as a gathering place for so many in our community," Bell said.

Thomas said his son will spend a lot of time in Missoula to manage his properties here, and he plans to spend time here as well between his other ongoing work projects.

“We look forward to seeing this wonderful historic property thrive under the expertise of its new owner,” Bell said.

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