Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Missoula County signed two letters to the state on Tuesday seeking funding from the historic preservation grant program to restore the Montana Building downtown and St. Michaels Church, located at Fort Missoula.

The church dates back to 1863 and is believed to be the oldest standing structure in Missoula County. The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula is seeking $114,000 from the state preservation grant and plans to raise the remaining $29,000 through a campaign of supporters.

“The project will include log repair, oiling, any repair or replacement of the dobbing around the logs, and roof replacement,” said museum director Matt Lautzenheiser. “There are modern windows in the building we'll be taking out and replacing with historical replicas to bring it back to that 1863 look.”

The church was constructed by Brother William Claessens in 1863 in the town of Hellgate, a trading post just east of Missoula along Mullan Road. The site was chosen by Father Urban Grassi, the superior of the St. Ignatius Indian Mission, to serve missionaries along the trading route.

St. Michael's opened to weekly mass in 1866 and drew parishioners from local villages. Lautzenheiser said the missionaries were welcomed by the locals, as they administered “medical services in the full sense of charity, irrespective of the race, color, nationality or creed of those in need.”

But within a decade, the church's importance began to wane. Another church was built in 1864 in Frenchtown and, by 1866, Hellgate Village practically vanished. The church was relocated to the Catholic Block in downtown Missoula and finally landed at Fort Missoula in 1981.

Thanks in part to the Sisters of Providence, the church had been dedicated as an historic landmark in 1962. If the grant is awarded, Lautzenheiser expects restoration to take place in 2026.

“I feel really good about this project. It's something that's needed on this site,” he said. “It's definitely going to need to be done. There's no impact on the county budget for this.”

The county also signed a letter supporting the restoration of the Montana Building in downtown Missoula.

The Montana Building was constructed around 1909 to provide office space near the county courthouse. While it continues to provide office space, mid-century renovations “were not kind to it,” the county said.

As a result, the building is in dire need of restoration.

“It's the buliding where you've seen iconic images of Theodor Rosevelt giving a speech in front of it in 1911 or so,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Prior remodels did not do it well.”

The project would restore the building to its historic form, includig the architectural elements that defined the era.