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Local/Regional briefs

Former hotel undergoes major renovation project

The architectural version of a heart transplant has restored the lobby of downtown Missoula's historic Florence Building.

Before January, visitors often had the eerie feeling something was wrong with the first- and second-floor hallways. Space seemed cramped. Walls appeared as oddly placed afterthoughts. Decorative grillwork and travertine wainscots started and ended abruptly.

Much of that miasma has evaporated with the restoration of the former hotel's central lobby and atrium. Although not yet the public "meeting place of Missoula" as the lobby used to be known, extensive removal of walls and ceilings has returned the sense of light and space that made the original so inviting.

"When we first moved in, in the late '70s, all the carpet was that orange-yellow-brown shag," said Attorneys Liability Protection Society president Bob Minto, whose company contracted the restoration work. "We called it the 'moldy pizza' look. We always wanted to restore parts of it."

More importantly, previous building owners had walled off the lobby and built a floor through the vertical middle of the atrium, chopping up the space into offices and the Boardroom Lounge. At some point, bar owners cut away a section of the two-story-high fireplace mantle to insert a big-screen television. The stone floor got covered with red-and-black linoleum.

In January, workers began tearing out those floors and walls, Fortunately, the additions had been built over or around many of the original fixtures, such as the brass-and-wood art deco railing around the lobby's second floor. A glass-block window that used to bring light from a second-floor beer garden (above Front Street) was uncovered. It now helps light a real boardroom in the 3,500-square-foot office area ALPS built over the beer garden six years ago.

In consent with modern business needs, the lobby was sheathed in glass. It now contains the offices of Professional Insurance Resource, a subsidiary of ALPS. But visitors to the second floor can see the old railing and admire the restored fireplace on their way to public functions in the Governor's Room.

Sirius Construction owner Greg Nemoff used photos from University of Montana archives to guide much of the work. They show elaborate chandeliers and a large painting over the fireplace that have been lost, but most of the rest of the original fixtures are back. Minto said furniture for the offices was chosen to match the old photos as close as possible. A Larry Pirnie painting of a similar mountain landscape has found a home at the fireplace.

The Florence Building has had a traumatic past. Built as a hotel in the 1890s, it burned down twice in 1913 and 1936. It reopened in its art deco format in 1946. This time it was made of concrete and gypsum, which made it much more fireproof but also bedeviled future remodeling efforts.

The Florence remained a hotel until 1973, after which it became know as the Glacier General building. Then-owner John Hayden sold the building to the Worden, Thane and Haines law firm shortly after his Glacier General Assurance Co. was dismantled following a lengthy criminal and civil trial in 1989.

Minto said ALPS and the law firm began making improvements on the building in the 1980s, as long-term leases expired and opportunities arose to rearrange the space. The fifth, sixth and seventh floors have been remodeled, entryway work done and the beer garden turned into office space during the 1990s.

As the Professional Insurance Resources operation grows and needs to move, Minto said he hopes the lobby can become a fully open public space for the building. There are dreams of turning it into the entryway of a restaurant, or a reception hall or some other gathering area.

ALPS vice president Rod Gibson said Missoula residents have started discovering the restored lobby, even though it's still a private business.

"We have people come in here to look around, and then they tend to just sit down for a while," Gibson said. "I'm just amazed by the number of people who are interested in this, especially older people. They come in and tell us, 'This is where we came for brunch,' or 'This is where we had our honeymoon,' or 'This is where we got married.' An enormous number of people have a real sense of ownership of this place."

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