Harmon’s Histories: Hotel Missoula endures 128 years on Main Street

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

With “a blaze of light and a burst of music,” the city’s newest and grandest hotel, described as “a royal hostelrie,” opened for business on Monday, February 23, 1891.

“The Missoula,” as it was known then, was built at the corner of Main and Stevens and still stands today, although the name of the building and the name of one of the streets have changed.

Missoulians today know it as the Howard Apartments – that Tudor-style building – at Main and Ryman.

The man behind “The Missoula” was William J. Kennedy, an Ohio native who headed west during the gold rush, finally settling in Missoula. He established himself in the restaurant and hotel business and owned a nearby ranch.

He opened his first hotel, “Kennedy House,” on Main Street in 1871, selling it 10 years later to Captain W. H. Rodgers of Virginia City, who re-named it “The Rodgers.”

Kennedy bought a downtown lot from C.P. Higgins in 1881 and built “The Missoula Restaurant.” Over the next few years, he also assumed the management of Front Street’s Windsor Hotel and the local skating rink.

The highlight of Kennedy’s life came in May 1890. He partnered with Sam Mitchell to build the three-story Missoula Hotel. That same month, the well-known, well-liked man became Missoula’s eighth mayor. 

A drawing of the Hotel Missoula, circa 1909.

His popularity was reflected in the Missoula Weekly Gazette’s coverage of opening night at the new hotel: “The ruddy, honest face of the host … cast a mellow tint over the scene, for who does not know the sturdy form, the well kept, hardy, kindly, Wm. Kennedy.”

That sentiment is also reflected in the city of Missoula’s current guidebook to mayors buried at the city cemetery: “He was known for his generosity. No prospector or wayfarer ever left the Kennedy house because he did not have a dollar to pay for a meal or a night’s lodging.”

The new, three-story brick and stone Missoula Hotel was designed by the architectural firm of Fuller, Irwin and Company in a modern “mingling of French and English” styles, and financed with loans from William C. Murphy of the Montana Commercial Company (tied to Marcus Daly) and the First National Bank.

It was described as “one of the best hotels in the Northwest,” with solid oak furniture, plate glass windows, its own electric generator, and a public dining space that could “easily accommodate 200 guests.” A dumbwaiter sailed “silently from the top of the building to the bottom, communicating with the dining room, laundry and office.”

The Missoula offered reading and writing rooms, 70 sleeping rooms, private dining space and a second-story ladies’ parlor “with tempting chairs that sink deep in their softness … a dreamy place.”

There was a post office, a drugstore and a barbershop with “four public baths.”

The local paper described the bar as being “supplied with the choicest,” but jokingly added, “but, of course, this does not interest the Gazette’s readers.”

Likening the hotel to the launching of a ship, the paper proclaimed, “May she have a pleasant and prosperous voyage.”

She did not.

A street scene from 1909, outside the Hotel Missoula.

Within months, William Kennedy and his partner in the hotel business, Sam Mitchell, were faced with “something like $70,000 of liabilities” and creditors pulled the plug. 

Financier William Murphy filed a series of mortgages to cover his loans and the First National Bank attached the property, “placing Sheriff Houston and his deputies in charge therein.”

On Saturday, November 28, 1891 the dining room served its last meal, the bar closed and the remaining tenants were given three or four days to move out.

In early December, the district court ruled in favor of First National Bank. Just before Christmas, A. G. England (England Blvd.) bought the property for $57,000.

England quickly reopened The Missoula in late January 1892 with William Kennedy in charge, but it was short-lived.

The property was reopened again in 1893 – this time under the management of Harry E. Chaney of the Hotel Florence.

In 1909, with the Chaney lease expiring, O. H. Linn of Wallace, Idaho, purchased and completely renovated the hotel, adding “Turkish baths and massage treatment” in the basement. Later, the building was purchased by the Gunds Brewing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

In 1919, Frank Thomas of Missoula bought the hotel and, once again, leased it to the Florence Hotel as “an annex.” The Florence, by then, had become so popular there was hardly ever a vacant room.

The Jungle Club, inside the Hotel Missoula.

During the 1940s and ‘50s, the hotel bar (known then as the “Jungle Club”) featured “the music of Leon at the Novachord and Harold Nelson at the Wurlitzer.” 

A Novachord, it turns out, was an early form of an electronic synthesizer. Only a thousand or so were manufactured between 1939 and 1942. But I have digressed.

According to a “Montana historical and architectural inventory” of the property prepared in February 2005, the earliest known title holder was the Marcus Daly Estate and the Daly Realty Company (presumably through William C. Murphy of the Montana Commercial Company). 

As of 2005, the last owner of the property was listed as Howard N. Horton (Howard Apartments) who apparently acquired the property sometime in the mid-20th century.

As old as the building is and as wonderful as it certainly was back in the day, it does not meet today’s standards for historical significance, and is currently listed as “non-protected.”

While its future is uncertain, the memories of its heyday will always remain.

I wonder whatever happened to that Novachord?

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.