People in the South Hills of Missoula call it “the little white house,” even if it’s more of a tan these days. It’s small and old and seems out of place in the only developed city park in the Farviews-Pattee Canyon area.
The neighborhood council and the city parks department have been keeping it upright, and talking for years about what best to do with the boarded-up building at the edge of Whitaker Park.
The “problem” is it’s roiling in history, to a degree that Preserve Historic Missoula has marked it as one of Missoula’s 11 most endangered historic sites. It’ll be one subject of a slideshow presentation as the nonprofit preservation group rolls out its first full-fledged list in nine years Thursday night at the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission’s awards celebration. The free event begins at 7 p.m. at the Public House, 130 E. Broadway.
Other entries, in no particular ranked order, include two in the Missoula County Public Schools district — the old Cold Springs School and the administration building on South Sixth Street West — and two Missoula County properties, the historic Lalonde Ranch west of town and the WPA-built maintenance building at the fairgrounds.
Two others are on the Fort Missoula campus within close proximity: the privately owned (and for sale) Post Hospital — most recently an administrative building for the Western Montana Mental Health Center — and a pair of matching buildings known as the NCO Quarters that were used in the post-1910 era.
Neither of the first endangered sites lists released by Preserve Historic Missoula in 2008 and 2009 had sites outside the county, but this one has two: the 1896 St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Hamilton and the Milwaukee Railroad’s Ravenna Substation No. 9, circa 1915, in Granite County between Clinton and Drummond.
Also on the list: the Howard Apartments, circa 1890, in downtown Missoula and the Sussex School office and classroom building that was once the home of Montana Governor Frank Cooney.
A story in the Aug. 31, 1936, issue of the Missoulian described the building in Whitaker Park:
“A new building, small and attractive, on Whittaker (sic) hill south of Missoula, is headquarters for one of the most entrancing operations of region No. 1 of the Forest Service,” the article began. “It houses the central shortwave radio station, heart of the regional radio communications system.”
Telephone and telegraph lines didn’t penetrate the region’s “vast, inaccessible expanses of wilderness,” the writer explained. This permanent, two-room station painted white with green trim replaced a temporary one operating for several years in a hall on the university campus that had been plagued with “local interference within the city.”
It’s not certain how long the radio station was in use by the Forest Service. According to a compilation of information from neighborhood council newsletters and provided by Missoula Parks and Recreation, the site was declared surplus by the government and, in 1975, given to the city.
In the past 13 years, Parks and Rec has removed the lead paint, made minor repairs and repainted it twice. Woodworker Larry Wade in 2006 prepared new shutters with pine tree cutouts like the originals, and a Girl Scouts troop under the direction of Kathy Gillespie primed and painted the shutters. Such efforts resulted in a Missoula Historic Preservation award in 2009.
The neighborhood council voted this spring to demolish the building “if that meant they could finally get to master planning their park,” said Donna Gaukler, Parks and Rec director.
She’s sure they’d prefer it be moved, perhaps to the National Museum of Forest Service History on Highway 10 West or to the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Both museums have expressed interest.
“We’ve been challenged with costs,” Gaukler said. “The challenge of leaving it on site is there’s nothing obvious about it that meets code for public access, whether it’s fire, Americans With Disabilities mandates, asbestos, all those things. To change that would take some considerable changes. And it’s not really the best place to visit a historic building.”
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Either museum could provide a better venue, at the same time directing visitors to the original site on Whitaker Drive. But neither they nor the city can afford the moving costs, which Gaukler said have been estimated at $15,000 to $20,000, and “maybe as high as $30,000.”
Then there’s still the cost of refurbishing and preparing the building for display.
“I do have $20,000 in our fiscal year '19 request to apply toward moving or decommissioning it, just so we can move on to the next step,” Gaukler said. “The neighborhood council has been going through its own process to try to build a consensus on what to do.”
Sussex School faces a different issue. The former Gov. Cooney home is, in the words of co-director Joellen Shannon, “the gem of our campus” at 1800 South Second St., where the private school moved in 1980 from West Sussex Street.
It “certainly needs quite a lot of work, but it’s in no danger of being torn down,” Shannon said.
It’s still used for administrative offices and a couple of classrooms, though flanked by two newer LEED-certified school buildings on the 2.5-acre site.
“The main hub is here. My office is Grand Central Station,” joked assistant director Robin Etingen-Ayers, who is looking into the benefits and handicaps of nominating the Cooney house for the National Register of Historic Places.
“Our concern is would it hamstring us in any way, shape or form” to make improvements by moving interior walls, repainting or reroofing it, Shannon said.
It appears it wouldn’t, she added.
“Their concerns should be part of a community discussion,” Preserve Historic Missoula said in its listing. “Placing this historic school on the Endangered List will help highlight how a property is placed on the National Register and will hopefully showcase that property owners are not encumbered by the listing.”
This is the first time Preserve Historic Missoula is joining forces with the city’s historic preservation commission on awards night. The revival of the Endangered List comes after years-long battles that involved successes (the Bonner mill, the Tremper House on the University of Montana campus, and Lincoln School in the Rattlesnake) and abject failures, notably the disappearance of the iconic Missoula Mercantile building and the demise of the racetrack and barns at the fairgrounds.
“We’re not taking full credit for the successes,” said spokesman Dan Hall of Western Cultural, a historical research and archaeology firm. “The purpose of the list is to start a community discussion. These are buildings and sites in Missoula that are threatened, and if we publicize that, maybe we can influence a different outcome.”
The list is sure to upset some property owners, Hall allowed.
“That’s always one of the reasons we vet the nominations as carefully as we can,” he said. “We don’t want to scare people off. We’re trying to find solutions, and if it means a building is salvaged rather than taken to the landfill, which is the worst-case scenario, that’s better than nothing.”