Just north of Kiwanis Park, a green-and-pink Victorian home has nearly 150 years of Missoula history in its bones and a football-sized rock in the front room. The rock likely entered through a bay window, beneath which shards of glass and a crumpled can of Rainier sit suspended in some shrubs.
The building at 503 East Front St. is a freakish structure that has been abandoned since city officials condemned it in January 2015. What started as one of Missoula’s earliest log cabins and a backdrop for some bizarre moments in city history ended up a 10-unit apartment complex where period architecture was patched up—and often over—with cheap repairs.
It’s hard to say whether Bob Oaks, executive director of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, is more excited about the site’s storied past or its now-promising future. Oaks should have a chance to celebrate both later this summer, as funding falls into place that will allow NMCDC to deconstruct and study the historic building, then erect a new affordable housing development in its place.
The complex, to be called Lee Gordon Place, will be NMCDC’s fourth such project since 2002 and the first to bring its new model of affordable homeownership to downtown Missoula.
Much like the house itself, which was jury-rigged over the years into its present state, NMCDC is piecing together a slew of grants and funding sources to make the project happen. The bulk of the money is coming from federal housing programs, and on June 13 the Missoula City Council approved a Brownfields grant of up to $125,000 to remediate the property.
In endorsing the funding during a council committee hearing, Councilman Bryan Von Lossberg called the allocation “one way we chip away” at the city’s affordable housing problem.
Like with prior projects such as the Burns Street Commons, the Front Street townhomes will be offered as part of NMCDC’s community land trust, which Oaks says keeps the units permanently affordable. NMCDC plans to offer seven townhomes at a price point under $150,000 to buyers who make less than 80 percent of the city’s median income.
In 2015, only 10 percent of homes sold in the Missoula urban area were priced below $150,000, with the median sales price increasing again to $238,700, according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors.
Oaks, a founding member of Preserve Historic Missoula, says deconstructing the building will be “a greater contribution to history” than trying to preserve what’s left of it. Both city and state preservation officers have “reluctantly” endorsed its demolition, as city senior grants administrator Nancy Harte told council members. (Unlike the Mercantile building, the Front Street building is not individually listed as a historic structure and is not subject to Historic Preservation Commission review.)
NMCDC has approached the Missoula Redevelopment Agency for aid in deconstructing the home and is seeking private foundation money to fully investigate its history with a local researcher.
Oaks calls these sorts of projects “very difficult” to pull off, adding that NMCDC wouldn’t have been able to acquire the property if the heirs to its deceased owner, Lee Gordon, hadn’t donated it.
“There just isn’t money out there to buy land,” he says.