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Connie Poten and Andy Sponseller built their stone wall out of rock picked from a nearby field in the upper Rattlesnake Valley. Poten and Sponseller will receive one of Missoula's historic preservation awards in the "traditional agriculture" category for the wall.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Missoula honors those who built their own slice of history

"Well, we had a lot of rocks."

There's just no better way to explain why Connie Poten and Andy Sponseller built a stone wall alongside their upper Rattlesnake Valley vineyard.

"We hand-picked most of them out of the vineyard - piles and piles of rocks," Poten said. "Pretty soon, we had a dump truck full of rocks, and then another dump truck full. So we piled them by the road, thinking we would build a stone wall some day."

Then a pair of old-world stone workers knocked at the door.

The resulting wall, 40 inches at the base and 20 inches at the top, has been a show stopper - or at least a traffic stopper - on Rattlesnake Drive for months.

A neighbor wrote to say thanks. Joggers still stop and give it the once-over, "just to see if it's really straight." And on Friday night, all of Missoula will join the chorus when Poten and Sponseller receive one of the city's historic preservation awards for 2003.

Eight homes and businesses will be recognized at the 13th annual awards ceremony, sponsored by Missoula's Historic Preservation Commission. The festivities - which this year will include a brief talk by New York City preservationist Ned Kaufman - are open to all.

Commission members selected the winners from among 27 nominees.

Poten's stone wall was a given in the "traditional agriculture" category, said Philip Maechling, Missoula's historic preservation officer.

"It is a tradition and always has been a tradition in areas where the geology is such that the fields were stony - to hay those fields or to get better field production, you would get as many stones out of the top 12 inches of soil as you could," he said.

"The most traditional way to deal with the stones was to create delineations between fields and to create border walls, which could also function aesthetically," Maechling said. "This was a case where they got the rocks out of the fields and built this wall along Rattlesnake Drive as an aesthetic, but also a functional, statement."

"You drive by and smile," he said. "Somebody cared."

The same is true of all the recipients - and the nominees as well, Maechling said. "People are really putting a big effort into renovating historic homes. I think it's actually increasing. There's a burgeoning industry of carpenters and craftsmen who specialize in this kind of work."

Of particular note among the 2003 honorees is the home of Chris and Ann Corsi at 422 S. Fourth St. W., which will receive the "painted lady" award. "The Corsis completely transformed that house," Maechling said. "It's a beauty."

"Painted ladies" are recognized nationwide as a restoration category, according to Maechling. Typically, they are homes built in the Victorian style - with lots of details, "what some people would call gingerbread" - and lots of attention paid to painting those details.

The Corsi home is unusual because it combines "a bunch of architectural styles - stick-style, craftsman elements and Queen Anne," Maechling said. "It's a really eclectic building, an interesting building. And they made it even more so by creating new pieces - porches and the like - new construction that ties fundamentally into the original construction."

Credit for the intricate paint work goes to Chris Boyd's Montana Paint Inc. Even the names of the colors seem "painted lady" worthy: Irish Lace, Green Mystery, Shaded Moss and Rodeo Drive (a red accent).

Two individuals will be recognized at Friday night's event for their contributions to historic preservation in and around Missoula: Forest Service retiree Jack Fisher and Bob Oaks of the North Missoula Community Development Corp.

Fisher's passion is the restoration of historic sites and homesteads; his volunteer credits include hours and weeks spent at work on the Hogback Cabin in the upper Rock Creek drainage, Fort Fizzle off U.S. Highway 12, Travelers' Rest, the Puyear Ranch (also up Rock Creek), the Ninemile Remount Depot and the Lolo Trail.

Oaks was "singlehandedly responsible for getting the Northside Railroad Historic District project completed and the nomination submitted as a citizen-volunteer," Maechling said. "He's been a Northside activist and was a member of the Historic Preservation Commission for a decade. Bob has done so much to foster historic preservation efforts on the Northside. He has really shown a passion for restoration."

In fact, Oaks had a hand in one of the other award winners - Whittier Court, the newly constructed housing development at Holmes and Philips streets. The project will be honored as "new construction in an historic neighborhood."

Maechling said he was particularly impressed at how the developers retained the original 1930s-era building, restored it and then built the remaining homes around it. The project also was unique in its financing: the North Missoula Land Trust owns the land; individuals own the homes.

Credit for the homes' design goes to architect Jamie Hoffmann. Allison Handler was the project manager, working with the North Missoula Community Development Corp. and the land trust.

Two homes will be recognized for new construction - additions - completed in the last year, but sympathetic to the historic style of both the houses and their neighborhoods.

At 420 Woodworth Ave., builder Frank Scariano put a second floor atop the original house and created - in Maechling's estimation - a masterpiece.

"It was almost as though he went to an early-20th-century pattern book and built a new house," he said. "This is almost faithfully a two-story version of a one-story building. It looks like it was built as one piece; it's remarkable. Everything lines up with everything else in its own remarkable way."

At 240 Keith Ave., James and Donna Koch put a first- and second-floor addition onto the back of their home, carrying the "rather boxy, eclectic theme" of the front of the house along with them.

"This is such a fine example of an addition to a building that was very compatible," Maechling said. "This one actually steps the building back. The roof pitch recalls the original roof pitch, so the pieces look like they are all talking to each other."

Friday night's nod to businesses involved in historic preservation will go to architect Jeff Maphis, who restored a home at 319 W. Pine St. for use as his office.

"That building has seen it all," Maechling said. "Originally, it was a house, then a prerelease center, then there was a fire, now there's been a restoration and an office."

The result: "More smiles," he said. "Preservation, restoration and rehabilitation."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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