The back wall of the 90-year-old Firestone building on East Main Street came down in one dramatic dissolution last Friday.
The piece of Missoula history that emerged stunned the demolition crew.
“It was just amazing,” said Brian Nostrant, superintendent for Dick Anderson Construction, which has the general contract to build a six-story, $22-million hotel on the site.
Parts of two vivid “ghost signs” greeted the demo crew and scores of curious bystanders in the days since. The signs were apparently covered up when Firestone Tires came to Missoula in 1929 and built David E. Anderson Tire Stores, which celebrated its formal opening on Jan. 24, 1930.
One advertises the Bureau of Printing that Portus Baxter Thornton and a partner established circa 1911. The other used to read “Kohn Jewelry Company, Jewelers and Opticians, Florence Hotel, Established 1887.”
Some of that is missing, but what a sight it was Wednesday for Herman Kohn’s great-granddaughters.
“I’m thrilled to death. Thrilled to death,” said Mary Paulson, who with her sister Brenda Henry donned hard hats and construction vests to get a close-up look.
Herman Kohn was a well-respected Jewish merchant in early-day Missoula, who came from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) and arrived in 1879 and set up a harness shop and saddlery on West Front Street. He was either the first or one of the first to get into the jewelry business here, said Bert Chessin, who's compiling an exhibit on the history of Missoula's Jewish community.
After Herman’s untimely death in 1917, his son Irvin took over the business and ran it until selling it to Oz Stoverud in 1955. Irvin, the grandfather of Paulson and Henry, died the following year.
The last known vestige of Kohn Jewelry was an iconic clock. In 1913, Herman Kohn and his wife Carrie traveled to Europe for a niece’s wedding in Prague, Bohemia. While there, according to Henry and Paulson, they ordered the clock from a German clock-maker. It arrived in Missoula two years later and was installed in front of the Kohn Jewelry on the ground floor of the Florence, surviving a fire in 1936 that destroyed the hotel and community gathering place.
“From 1913 to 1997, a sign proudly an arch across the top and the clock face, which read ‘Kohn Jewelry,” wrote Henry and Paulson in an guest column in the Missoulian in 2009.
A wayward truck toppled the clock in 1997, and when it was refurbished to its current condition, Stoverud 's Jewelry was prominently displayed.
Paulson retired back to Missoula and the town the Kohns helped build 20 years ago. Henry, who moved back to her hometown from Denver four years ago, doesn’t want history to pigeonhole her great-grandfather Herman.
“He had a lot more to do with Missoula than just the jewelry store, and that’s what I really care about. He worked really hard, I think,” she said.
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Some of Herman Kohn’s leathermaking tools will be on display on Sept. 15, when Chessin, Henry and other researchers open an exhibit on the history of Jewish people in the Unseen Missoula Pop-Up Museum downstairs in the Hammond Arcade, across West Front Street from the Florence.
The ghost-sign reveal, a limited attraction until the new hotel is built, is ideal timing for Chessin.
The Jewish presence in Missoula has a rich history but was always “pretty thin,” he said. The city didn't have a resident congregational rabbi until Laurie Franklin at Har Shalom was ordained earlier this year.
In the past, while Jewish leaders like Herman Kohn handled local services, rabbis were brought in from Helena, Butte and Spokane when needed, said Chessin.
“I’m just interested in what happened to the Jewish community. Who were the Jews in Missoula and did they create a Jewish community? “ Chessin said.
Other than the juxtaposition of their ads on the east brick wall of the historic Radio Central Building, Kohn Jewelry and the Bureau of Printing appear to have nothing in common.
The larger Kohn sign could have been painted any time between 1902, when Herman Kohn added optician services, and 1929 when the Firestone building was constructed.
Based on mentions in the newspaper, Thornton seems to have opened the Bureau of Printing around 1911 at 424 N. Higgins, home since June of the Bicycle Hangar Downtown. He was a pressman and pressroom chief at the Missoulian before that.
Thornton sold the business to the short-lived New Northwest in 1920, so there’s a good chance the ghost sign predates that. He and Tom Weaver re-established it in the Palace Hotel in the early 1930s, and the business was moved to 123 W. Broadway in 1946 when Lloyd Delaney bought it. Delaney's son, Ted, moved it to 125 E. Front St. in 1960.
The question now is what to do with the relics of early 20th century Missoula.
Nick Caras is in the business of restoring and renovating historic downtown landmarks and has been renovating the Radio Central Building. He plans to protect the painted signs with a sealant.
“Though the hotel will cover them up when it's constructed, perhaps the developers would consider using glass on our shared wall to make the signs visible to the hotel guests,” Caras said in an email. “Otherwise, they'll be protected and preserved for the future, perhaps if the Radio Central Building outlasts the new construction in decades or centuries to come.”
Nostrant said a window to the ghost signs isn’t in the plans of Andy Holloran and HomeBase Partners. The Bozeman-based development group is shooting to have the 105-room AC Hotel completed by late next year.