Jennifer Anthony uses words like "defeated" and "hopeless" when talking about Missoula's preservation community. The loss of the Merc was bad enough, she says, then the controversial demolition of the old Willard Alternative High School building came as something of a blindside this summer. Hence Anthony's posing of a rhetorical question to the city's Historic Preservation Commission last week: "We could use a win, right?"
Anthony went before the commission Oct. 5 to present a draft of a letter that the nonprofit Preserve Historic Missoula, where she serves as co-vice president, plans to send to Missoula County Public Schools. The letter includes a plea that someone with historic preservation experience be included in any school board discussions involving the renovation or sale of historic district-owned properties. Of particular concern, Anthony tells the Indy, is the fate of MCPS's administration building, on Sixth Street near the Hip Strip. With the district moving toward consolidating its offices at the former Missoula College campus, the current facility appears destined for vacancy.
Superintendent Mark Thane says any decision on the building's fate is still a ways off. However, the school board has been directed to review district assets and determine whether they should be retained or sold. Thane adds that several private entities have expressed interest in the administration building. A few have even asked to have architects or engineers take a look at the property, Thane says, which MCPS has allowed them to do.
"None of that conversation has happened formally yet," Thane says, "but I would expect in the coming months that those will be conversations that the [board of] trustees will begin having."
Anthony isn't the only member of the preservation community making overtures to MCPS. Prior to last week's HPC meeting, Missoula Historic Preservation Officer Emy Scherrer met with Thane and City Council member Gwen Jones to discuss the district's historic properties. Part of that conversation centered on the potential to add Hellgate High School to the National Register of Historic Places—a prospect that Thane, in light of ongoing renovations at the school, says is premature. Scherrer says the meeting was intended to be informational, to offer Thane a primer on what the National Register is and to "clear up some of the misconceptions" about historic preservation. It's information that Thane agrees will be valuable as the district considers its holdings.
Scherrer attributes these conversations with MCPS to a growing interest in historic preservation Missoula-wide. She sees a community that's not hopeless, but rather more aware of preservation issues—a silver lining to the fall of the Merc.
"The term 'historic preservation' has gotten a bad rap over time with connotations of red tape," she says. "But what we in the preservation world are trying to do is similar to wilderness preservation. It's preserving what makes a certain place unique and special."