Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A proposal to restore the Old Post Hospital at Fort Missoula by developing several acres of private property next to it drew wide opinions Wednesday night as the Historic Preservation Committee opened its public hearing on the matter.

Both sides are now represented by attorneys and those opposed to the plan have the backing of Save the Fort Inc., a private group that has worked to keep Fort Missoula as it was before and during World War II.

City planner Elizabeth Johnson said efforts to restore the Old Post Hospital would result in minimal changes to the building's exterior, other than a small elevator addition needed to provide ADA access to the upper floors.

But it's the developer's plans for the surrounding property that prompted city staff to recommend the project be denied on Wednesday night.

“The proposed new construction would adversely affect the integrity of the Post Hospital and broader Fort Missoula Historic District,” said Johnson. “The integrity of the setting encompasses an historic resource's physical environment and the historical relationship to its surroundings.”

To fund the multi-million-dollar restoration of the Old Post Hospital, the developer has proposed 16 condos in five buildings set behind the hospital and two commercial buildings connected by a plaza, all situated on private property.

But city staff believes the development would consume open space, which Johnson described as a key component of the Fort's historic integrity. She also believes that new construction as proposed would downgrade the hospital “from the central, primary feature of the site to just one element in a larger configuration of new construction that bears little relationship to the historic context of the district.”

Leah Trahan, an attorney with Parsons Behle & Latimer who is representing Save the Fort, agreed with city staff's recommendation that the application be denied.

“We do understand and are cognizant of the fact that restoring a historic resource requires extensive investment,” said Trahan. “Unfortunately, we feel the application here has not met the requisite criteria.”

But those backing the project believe otherwise, saying the application is proper and their plans for the property currently consider the district's historic significance.

Max Wolf, who lives in Missoula, said his family purchased the Old Post Hospital and surrounding property in 2019 with the intent of restoring the building, which is currently in poor condition.

A rendering of plans for the property.
A rendering of plans for the property.

Restoration would see Wolf replace all windows, remove and repair the roof and restore the roof tiles. New plumbing, heating and electric is needed, along with the remediation of lead-based paint. Cosmetic work is needed throughout the structure as well.

Wolf said development of the adjacent condos and commercial space is needed to fund the cost of restoration, which is likely to cost several million dollars. The new buildings would incorporate the architectural elements seen across the fort, he said.

“I understand there will be differences in opinion about our proposal. But I believe what we've put forward makes sense for the community,” said Wolf. “It would finally once and for all rehabilitate the Old Post Hospital. But this work isn't going to be cheap, hence the proposed commercial and residential components. Those are the aspects of the development that make the rehab of the Old Post Hospital fiscally feasible.”

Missoula has lost a number of historic structures over the years and the Old Post Hospital is currently considered one of Missoula's most endangered historic buildings. And while the proposal has a number of opponents, no other viable plan to fund and restore the building have been provided.

The current proposal represents a chance to save what one architect described as a “decaying corpse.”

“I'm sick and tired of watching buildings decay and rot when we have the opportunity to fix them and restore them,” said Steve Loken. “We need to figure out a way to fit historic preservation with the vitality of a community.”

Mark Stermitz, an attorney with Crowley Fleck Law who is representing the developers, said the Old Post Hospital won't get many more chances to be restored if the current proposal is quashed.

“This is a decision about whether that hospital gets rehabilitated or not. It doesn't have many years left,” he said.

But those with Save the Fort said they've dedicated decades to saving what they could of the historic district over the years, and they remain opposed to the proposal.

Some said the developers haven't offered adequate financial information to justify their plans while others sought to protect open space and the character of the district as it currently stands.

“The fort is a shining gem that makes us what we are,” said John Langstaff. “Instead of neglect, I prefer to refer to this property as elegant decay. That's the historic nature of the property at this time, and I wish to see it preserved in its state of elegant decay.”