John Westenberg

I have been involved or interested in historic preservation since the late 1970’s, when I worked for Montana’s Historic Preservation Office, conducting an inventory and assessment of Montana’s state owned buildings for their architectural and historic significance.

My work included drafting nominations to the National Historic Register for a number of those properties.  In the 1980’s, I served  on Missoula’s Historic Preservation Commission.  I’ve continued to be a supporter of historic preservation through the following years.

My experiences shaped a philosophy of historic preservation I would summarize as follows:  History and the structures associated with it are best served not by relegating them to a “back room” and occasionally visiting them, but rather by keeping them a part of the fabric of a community’s everyday life. The old Fort Hospital will be far more valued and historically informative if it is preserved and actively enjoyed, rather than allowed to molder in place and eventually be demolished.

Whatever one’s perspective on the goals of historic preservation, the alternatives in this case are stark. The hospital is deteriorating rapidly. If something is not done reasonably soon, it will be lost. Ideally some private or public entity would have by now provided funding to preserve and restore a function to the hospital without any need for attendant development.

Unfortunately, no such shining knights appear on the horizon. As a result, the proposal under review is quite likely the last chance to save and restore it. The existing proposal, while not perfect, is far preferable to the eventual loss of the hospital. It would also revitalize an under-appreciated corner of the Fort Missoula complex.

The arguments against this proposal are flawed and unconvincing. For example, concerns have been expressed that the proposal is the first step towards large scale private development of the Fort. But that cannot happen because the proposed development and restoration project comprise the only privately owned land in the Fort complex.

Project opponents have also suggested that it will compromise the historic integrity of the Fort. While not entirely consistent with the historic Fort landscape, the proposal would add structures that are architecturally compatible with the existing structures in the area surrounding the hospital.

The concern expressed by project opponents about integrity seems to be a bit late in arriving:  Additions to the Fort over the years, made with no controversy, include a Forest Service Lookout tower, a locomotive and railroad cars, the former Drummond Depot, an abundance of historic logging equipment, and much more.

None of those additions are remotely related to the Fort’s history as a military base or an internment camp, nor are they architecturally compatible with the original structures.

I understand why those additions occurred, and acknowledge that they have value. However, the acceptance of those additions by those who now oppose the Hospital proposal on the basis of integrity suggests a double standard.

The argument that the proposal negatively impacts open space is unconvincing, perhaps even counter-productive. The proposal’s footprint is quite small, and the density of the townhouses is consistent with what our city and county planners say is necessary to reduce sprawl and to preserve open space in the Missoula Valley.

Finally, it is disappointing to read statements from some opponents that allowing the hospital to gradually deteriorate in place, even to the point of demolition, is preferable to any proposal that requires some attendant development.  As the grandparent of four young Missoulians, I find that position to be generationally selfish and shortsighted.

I walk this portion of the Fort up to a dozen times per year and rarely see more than a half dozen people, if anyone at all.  The Fort Hospital is an underutilized and under-appreciated Missoula gem.  I hope Missoula does what is necessary to once again make the old Fort Hospital a part of the fabric of Missoula’s everyday life.