A hidden historical treasure in downtown Missoula, covered by an unfortunate metal façade for half a century, may soon be revealed in all its glory.
The three-story Radio Central Building at 127 E. Main St. was built in 1900 with detailed, classic Victorian architecture including large, decorative columns and brick. However, the entire street-facing portion of the building was covered with metal-backed ceramic siding panels in the 1950s or 1960s. Over time, most of the Missoula community forgot what lay underneath. And it was only recently that the building's new owners were shocked to discover the beautiful original façade is still in great shape and just waiting to be uncovered.
Now, the owners are planning a $3 million renovation of the building, also called The Union Block. On Thursday, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency pledged $579,858 in Façade Improvement Program funds to help with the project.
“Hidden underneath that (metal) is this treasure that nobody even knew was there,” explained MRA assistant director Chris Behan. “It may be one of the last big hidden treasures downtown, in my opinion. Hopefully this will renew additional interest in historic renovations downtown. There aren’t too many big ones left.”
Behan noted that many of the grand multistory commercial buildings built downtown between 1890 and 1930 burned down and were not replaced, or were replaced by more modern structures.
“Restoring the Union Block to the 1900 façade will change the makeup of the streetscape and surrounding commercial neighborhood as well as the entire downtown,” he said. “It will alter both the pedestrian experience and view from inside a vehicle passing by and leave a lasting positive impression. The chance discovery of the intact 1900 façade is an opportunity for the entire community to celebrate.”
Members of the MRA board were surprised when, earlier this year, architect David Gray showed a slide of an old Missoulian article showing a rendering of the original façade. It was built by F.G. Higgins, T.L. Greenough and Wm. H. Houston for $100,000 in the year 1900. The original drawing shows beautiful arches above the third-story windows, and Gray said the ornate brickwork appears to be intact.
“The granite stonework, the masonry is in fantastic shape,” he said. “It’s filthy from birds nesting there, but it’s probably one of the prettiest buildings in the downtown. We found something that is a real treasure on that street.”
Emy Scherrer, the city’s historic preservation officer, called it a “dream project.”
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"I think it’s probably one of the oldest buildings in downtown Missoula that’s still standing that’s in such good shape,” she said. “So, next to Higgins Block, I can’t think of an older building that has the potential to be restored. It’s pretty significant and pretty exciting.”
As new hotels and breweries go up in the immediate vicinity downtown, along with new retail shops and a new public library, Gray said the owners want their building to complement the visual resurgence of a formerly blighted area.
“This will make this street, which is really quite nasty, into something that will tie into the new library and new brewery and everything else,” Gray explained.
Jim McDonald, a member of the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission, told the Missoulian last year that the Radio Central Building was one of the first large brick buildings built in Missoula’s downtown core.
“There was a big movement to put in more brick,” he said. “They wanted to get rid of all the wood-framed structures in the late 1880s and early 1890s because of all the fires.”
Nick Caras of Access Property Management is part of the ownership group that purchased the building last year, which is about 32,000 square feet with a basement. He’s expressed interest in a historically accurate restoration of the building.
“We don’t want fake history,” he told the Missoulian last year.
The building’s previous owners never had it listed with the National Register of Historic Places, but Scherrer said it will definitely be eligible once the façade is restored.