Harmon’s Histories: Downtown Missoula’s Union block an architectural treasure, then and now
It was a massive undertaking for its day.
When construction began in late 1890, it was estimated Missoula’s “Union block” would cost $100,000 by the time it was completed.
This past week, current owner Nick Caras, with help from David Gray of DVG Architecture and Planning, peeled back some of the cheap tin facade applied in the 1960s to reveal what Gray described to reporter Martin Kidston as “probably one of the prettiest buildings downtown … a real treasure” from the 19th century.
The men who financed the Union block were some of the biggest names in Missoula at the time – Frank Higgins, Thomas Greenough and William Houston.
Higgins, the son of Missoula founder C. P. Higgins, was a college football star at Michigan, a lawyer (the first to be admitted to the Montana state bar), president of the Higgins Bank, and later, a prominent state politician.
Greenough, a railroad worker and miner as a young man, made his fortune in Missoula’s early lumber business developing the Bonner mill site. He’s remembered to this day for his 1902 Christmas gift to the city of Greenough Park, and the famous Greenough mansion designed by A. J. Gibson.
Houston, who was alternately said to either be a friend of Wild Bill Hickok or to have pistol-whipped the Wild West icon and run him out of Missoula, owned the Grand Central Hotel for a time and was the county’s sheriff on two occasions (kicked out of office the first time for having connections with moonshiners).
The foundation walls of the Union block were completed in late 1890, with the trio of entrepreneurs revealing the architectural drawing of their real estate venture in the Jan. 7, 1891 edition of the Missoula Gazette newspaper.
The front entrance tower was to be “supported with polished Clarks Island granite column plinths, carved caps and lintels, carried up prominently and roofed with vitrified tile.
“The first and second story … stores and offices will be finished in polished white oak wood (and) the store entrance vestibules and the main entrance vestibule will have floors alternating in black and white marble.”
Full construction commenced in May 1891 and a month later William Harrison, the owner of a stone quarry on Ten Mile creek near Helena, was on hand to personally supervise delivery of the stone for the entrance lintel.
The huge 20-inch-thick block, over 10 feet long, three feet wide and weighing more than 9,000 pounds, was “polished on four sides.”
Harrison’s Helena operation was the only granite quarry in the state and had supplied much or all of the cut stone in Helena, Missoula and Butte.
The local newspaper was complimentary of Harrison’s work, but couldn’t resist taking a jab at the man’s hometown. “If the capital city had more men like Mr. Harrison, it would not be in its present condition of graveyard quietude.”
As the construction of the Union block continued, it garnered an occasional update or two in the press, but on June 24, 1891 it made headlines again.
Rumors had begun that “some of the laborers on the work being done by Riddell & Watts on the Union block were receiving less than $2.50 a day.” A demonstration was quickly organized by the Workingmen’s Union.
The parade of 200 union members led by police officers and a band marched through downtown Missoula, halting in front of the construction site, where the union president urged “all the workmen there engaged to join the Union and demand living wages!”
Despite reports that Riddell and Watts “had armed their men and had made threats,” the unionists made clear they would not resort to any violence. After making their speeches, they returned to Union Hall and disbanded.
The only other trouble reported as the construction continued was a burglary in late August.
“The notorious Sailor Jack broke into Riddell & Watts shed in the Union block night before last, stole a blank check book and for a while did a land office business in bogus checks, signing them Riddell & Watts,” reported the Gazette. They concluded, “He was jugged last Saturday.”
By September 1891, construction was wrapping up. The passenger and freight elevators were installed, the “three separate steam heating plants” were done, the electric light system was finished and the “handsome Union block” was about ready for occupancy.
“Bache the tailor” was ready to open shop in one of the downstairs spaces, “Undertaker Lucy” prepared to move his “immense stock of furniture and funereal goods” into one of the storefronts and William Houston (one of the project’s financial backers) planned to partner with F. L. Darbee to open a “fine gents’ furnishing goods establishment in one of the elegant store rooms.”
Looking back now, it’s likely the trio of entrepreneurs (Higgins, Greenough and Houston) would most likely agree with architect David Gray’s assessment.
The Union block was then, as now, “probably one of the prettiest buildings downtown … a real treasure.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.