By Martin Kidston
Few in the noontime crowd sitting for lunch outside the Florence Building in downtown Missoula considered the structure’s weathered facade; its pealing paint and cracked terracotta tiles rising seven stories to meet a bright Montana sky.
But in the coming weeks, if not sooner, the Florence and its historic posture over Higgins Avenue will become more apparent to anyone who passes, as the building’s exterior receives a fresh update.
“It’s overdue for a full exterior refit of the building, which includes painting and what I would categorize as extensive exterior repairs,” said David Bell, president and CEO of the Alps Corporation, which owns the Florence. “It’s going to be an extensive project.”
Seated in his second-story office in the Florence with a view of the Wilma Theater and the Clark Fork River, Bell described the renovation process that officially began in March. Crews will soon begin scrapping away the peeling paint before applying a new coat in the same color.
The terracotta tiles that rim portions of the Florence, lending the building its iconic look, have suffered water damage over the years. They too will be replaced. Crews will also address damage to the roof, correcting issues that come with time and weather.
It’s all expected for a building closing in on its 77th year of service to the citizenry of Missoula.
“There’s a fairly limited window given the Montana climate to do these things,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, it’s also when there’s the most activity on the sidewalks. We’re trying to minimize the disturbance to our tenants on all seven floors, as well as the commerce that goes on below on the sidewalks.”
Bell received several bids to complete the job, including companies from outside Montana, and more from inside the state but outside Missoula. In the end, they chose Staggs Painting and Powerwashing, a Missoula firm that’s known about town.
It was important, Bell said, to hire locally to the extent that finances would allow.
“We were pleased to be able to do that,” said Bell. “This is an historic building, so it has a lot of nuances. The complexity of painting and restoring this building adds considerable cost. It’s well and comfortably into a six-figure investment to paint this structure. It’s a big painting job.”
Bill Staggs grew up in Missoula, the third generation to do so. He’s been looking at the Florence all his life, marveling in its art-deco style. The chance to give it a fresh look isn’t something he takes lightly.
In fact, he confessed, it was a prideful thing, one that will take several hundred gallons of “antique white” paint and a swing stay to drop down off the roof. A rappeler with a spray gun.
“It’s a big deal getting to take care of something like that that’s been in the community all those years,” Staggs said. “The building is historic. It’s a relic here in Missoula and everyone knows it. It’s good publicity for the company.”
The first iteration of the Florence Hotel was constructed at the same location in 1888, but burned in 1913. Its replacement burned again in 1936. The current building dates to 1941 and still bares the name Florence – the wife of A.B. Hammond who built the first hotel in 1888.
The ALPS Corporation has owned the building for more than a decade now and has already made significant investments to restore the lobby to its original look. The space is open to the community, fit with plush couches and wi-fi service to accommodate business meetings.
While renovations continue inside and out, Bell said efforts to commemorate the building’s rich downtown history are also taking place. Historic photos lining the lobby’s walls recall the fires that destroyed the first two hotels built on the site.
The images will be enlarged and the collection expanded.
“This is the third iteration of the Florence Hotel,” Bell said. “We’ve gone back to the Mansfield Library and some other private owners of photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s. We’ve secured those photos and have begun the process of blowing them up and framing them. Our intent will be to create a more chronological museum-like history as you walk around the lobby.”
The Florence is currently home to 52 businesses, and Bell said the demand for office space within the structure is significant. The property is currently full with a waiting list, though it wasn’t always that way.
Occupancy was just 60 percent a few short years ago, he said.
“I would attribute the demand to a few things,” he said. “The Florence isn’t really comparable to the First Interstate Bank Building or the GRL Building. It has a different feel – a different vibe. On the plus side, it has character that comes with an historical building.”
But it also has idiosyncrasies that come with age, though they’re easily overlooked by affordable leases and the structure’s downtown location. While parking can be a challenge, the downtown district offers vibrancy lacking in other locations elsewhere in town.
“Downtown is on the upswing – you can feel it,” Bell said. “Besides, there’s no place in this country that you can be in your business attire, go down at lunch, grab your surfboard and go surf for an hour, then come back and be at a meeting.”
As for the renovations, Bell said the cost merits the end result.
“The idea is that it looks new when it’s done, and it looks as close to new as possible several years from now,” he said. “We’re also going to test illuminating the building at night. We have test lights being installed this week or next. We’ll have a week or so to stand back and take a look at it and decide how it looks.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org