Old Front Street home gives up secrets as deconstruction nears

Historian Nikki Manning stands in what’s left of a home located at 503 E. Front Street in downtown Missoula. The structure, which traces its roots back to 1867 and Missoula’s early days, is slated for deconstruction and redevelopment as affordable housing. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Stripped to its bones, the old house at 503 E. Front St. doesn’t look like much: the remains of lapboards, rough-cut timbers and a maze of additions completed over the years. But the history here runs deep, dating back to Missoula’s early days and its future emergence as the “Garden City.”

Before the deconstruction crews arrive this month with their array of tools, and before work begins on a new affordable housing complex, members of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation opened the gutted structure for a brief tour this week, giving one last glimpse of a building full of stories.

From the original log cabin constructed by the McWhirk brothers sometime around 1867, to the additions made by former Missoula County Sheriff Daniel Heyfron in 1882, the property offers a glimpse into Missoula’s founding, when life here was closely tied to the bustling Front Street district.

“So far, we can date this pretty close to 1867 or 1869,” said historian Nikki Manning. “This land was owned by the McWhirk brothers. They’d started the gardens and orchards in Missoula by ’67.”

The oldest portion of the structure sits closest to Front Street and is framed by thick rough-cut planks that likely stem from Missoula Mills – the name attached to the town in the early 1860s. The “cabin,” as Manning calls it, includes a crude brick fireplace tucked into the corner and ceilings that rise to an unusual height.

City Council member Heidi West, who is also a member of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, explores the historic structure before it’s removed to make way for affordable downtown housing. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“We’re not sure why it was so tall,” said Manning. “Perhaps it was used for storage for the gardens or the orchards. There’s a lot of information we don’t have.”

What is known is that Cyrus McWhirk married Mary Angeline when she was 14 years old and built her “a good house” on the property. But under allegations of abuse, the marriage wasn’t to last, nor was McWhirk’s ownership of the property.

By 1882, Manning said, Daniel Heyfron had purchased the property and completed an addition to McWhirk’s original cabin. Heyfron’s investment transformed the structure into a Victorian charmer complete with a second floor.

Wood stamped with the Boston Emerson Piano Company logo suggests Heyfron used the piano crate to aid in his project. A marble was uncovered in one hidden corner, noting the presence of children.

Issues of Gentleman’s Quarterly were also uncovered. Dated to 1882, the magazines include stories on yachting and horse racing and bear the signature of Daniel Heyfron.

“The most exciting thing I think are those old newspapers,” Manning said. “They found a lot around the windows and in one of the rooms upstairs, they had them all laid out flat under the floorboards.”

What began as a single cabin in the 1860s would grow over the years to become a collection of rooms that included as many as 10 units. The scars of a mysterious fire still stain the rafters black in one section of the structure.

Missoulians continued to occupy the apartment up until recently, when the heirs of Lee Gordon – the last property owner – donated the site to the NMCDC. Ward 1 City Councilwoman Heidi West, who is an employee of the organization, looks to the lot’s future as permanently affordable housing.

It is, she said, the property’s next evolution, though the history won’t be forgotten.

“We’re deconstructing this and part of the reason is to get to the history here before it’s gone,” said West. “This area of town is part of what was the earliest of Missoula. There’s a lot of stories that can be told. This one you can actually explore.”

A woman moves between levels of the home, which was built in sections over the years. The earliest portion dates back to 1867, followed by the first major expansion in 1882. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Aided by a number of funding pools, NMCDC will replace the historic structure with seven affordable townhouses. Named after the property’s recent owner – Lee Gordon – the project will be operated as a community land trust, where residents own the buildings and NMCDC retains ownership of the land.

The units will range in price from $130,000 to $150,000. While the land will likely receive tax-exempt status, the new townhouses will generate additional tax revenue for the city.

West hopes to have the project completed early next year.

“We’re in the middle of having our final architect’s design and hopefully go out to bid pretty soon,” said West. “We’re trying to reduce the cost of the houses by a third. Instead of renting, it gives people the benefit of home ownership.”

When deconstruction does ramp up, Gary Delp of Heritage Timber said the wood will be salvaged for sale and reuse.

“Our process is typically to work backward in time,” said Delp. “We’ll pull everything down to the subfloors, framing and structural members. We can get the wood denailed, stacked and get it lumber wrapped so they’re good to resale.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com