It was March of last year when crews removed the roof from the old Mercantile in downtown Missoula, allowing the spring rain to settle into the structure’s darkest corners.
From the top floor of an adjacent bank, the roofless view revealed the hodgepodge of additions made over a century of growth, and the bounty of rare wood and ornamental relics reflected in the Mercantile’s age.
Most of that material made its way to Home ReSource, which has spent the past year parceling out thousands of items piece by piece. Now it’s nearly gone – 200,000 board feet of lumber scattered across Missoula in homes, schools and offices.
“The wood, especially, went pretty fast,” said Katie Deuel, executive director of Home ReSource. “It’s the big, thick, rough-sawn timber. You can’t come by it anymore. People like the rough-sawn look, and it’s all true-dimensional lumber. A lot of it didn’t even have knots.”
More than a year after deconstruction wrapped up on the Mercantile, the lumber yard at Home ReSource has a little more room. The giant timbers, honest 2x4s and ornamental wood that filled the yard to the brim last spring found their way into various projects across the city.
Some built furniture, trim and mantels for the fireplace. Contractors stocked up on hard-to-find lumber for home remodels. A giant steel wheel found its way into an art competition built from recycled goods.
Glass tile from the old pharmacy became a back splash.
“One woman had a table made for her husband,” Deuel said. “He had worked at the Merc for 35 years, so she really wanted that. There’s some great human interest stories in there. People recognized the value of it as material that came locally from our ecosystem and stayed in the community.”
Crews with Home ReSource began deconstructing the Mercantile in February of last year, shortly after a District Court judge ended a protracted legal debate that pitted community activists against the owner of the building and those wanting to see the property repurposed.
By March, crews had removed the structure’s roof and by April, most of the usable lumber had been salvaged from the building. Much of that wood, including giant 6x8s and planks 16 inches wide, served as a rare community prize.
The property’s owner, Mercantile LLC, spent $95,800 deconstructing the building. The costs ran higher than expected and placed construction of the new Mercantile Residence Inn by Marriott months behind schedule.
But it also earned the developer praise and saw elements of the historic structure repurposed in the community. Deuel said that includes renovations at Hellgate High School and the historic Moon Randolph Homestead.
“It’s old material that was good for restoration, and that wood is now in public places,” Deuel said. “To see the Merc come apart piece by piece and know that value is being kept in the community, people love that, and I don’t blame them. We’re not losing it, we’re just reforming it somewhere else and spreading it further.”
The Mercantile’s deconstruction also served as a boon to Home ReSources, a nonprofit that operates on lean margins. Accepting used materials, which must be sorted, cleaned and resold at affordable prices, doesn’t net a lot of cash, Deuel said.
But the bounty of materials helped the organization operate under budget. It also proved the value of deconstruction.
“We learned that you can deconstruct at any scope or scale we have in Missoula, and you can do it safely,” Deuel said. “That building had been empty for a long time and had a lot of safety concerns, and we just nailed it. It’s nice to show these techniques work, and that they work anywhere at any scale.”