Macaques, Moats and Medicine 

Hamilton’s historic Rocky Mountain Labs get a facelift

What unique feature does the Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) campus in Hamilton have that no other American research facility has? The moat, of course.

And the moat, one of the many features that put RML on the National Register of Historic Places, is an example of the Montana tradition of speaking one’s mind loudly enough to be heard on issues important to the community.

The moat was a compromise that ended a lawsuit between the federal government and the residents of early-day Hamilton’s Pine Grove addition. In 1927, when they learned that a major research facility—specializing in then-endemic tick fever—was about to become their next-door neighbor, six landowners filed an injunction against the project. Part of their concern was scientists would be bringing “deadly, poisonous insects and other menaces” into a “densely populated area.” Authorities placated the town’s general populace with the construction of a narrow moat all around the facility, responding to the (mistaken) belief that fever-carrying ticks could not swim.

Today, the laboratory complex and its moat are considered jewels in Hamilton’s historic and economic crowns. RML is a division of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, which is a division of the National Institutes of Health. It employs more than 150 researchers, doctors and staff members and draws top science fellows from all over the world. From researching tick fever in the 1930s and developing malaria vaccine during WWII to current studies of the HIV/AIDS virus, the facility has a long and distinguished history.

But the building complex, which was constructed piecemeal over a decade, beginning in 1927, has not weathered the years as well as its reputation. Technology outpaced the existing laboratories years ago. Patchwork upgrades led to unsightly protuberances sprouting from walls and windows, as modern cooling and air filtration needs were required.

More than five years ago, RML officials began a planning process for a total retrofit, the first in the center’s 60-year history. They worked closely with the Montana Historical Society and the National Register of Historic Places to ensure that the changes made inside the buildings did not change its historic outer shell. Eventually, plans were approved for a $22 million, multi-year renovation project. When completed, RML will be as technologically modern as possible inside and the exterior façade will have been returned to its original appearance.

From start to finish, the renovation is a uniquely western project. The renovation plans and design were drawn by Erlich Rominger, Architects of Boise, Idaho. The actual construction work is being done by National Projects, Inc. (NPI), of Missoula, a Washington Corporation subsidiary that specializes in historic renovations. Dozens of local subcontractors from Missoula and western Montana have been involved in the project.

The retrofit is being done in several phases to fit the challenge of research continuing while the renovation is being done. It’s been an interesting mix of musical chairs, according to construction project manager Jeff Darrow.

In the first phase, two turn-of-the-century homes on the RML campus were retrofitted into administration buildings. An interior maintenance plant that had been attached to one of the main buildings was demolished, opening up a courtyard surrounded by the square of attached brick buildings. New bricks that are an almost perfect match for the originals were used to fill in the walls where the protruding building once stood.

The most important work is visible as one walks through the renovated corridors. All of the buildings’ electrical, air and plumbing components have been brought up to present-day codes. Hanging from an open-ceiling system, miles of wiring are carried in open wire trays and ductwork is painted to merge with the walls and ceilings.

“We’re providing a future expansion package, planning for what will need to be done in 10 years and 20 years and 50 years,” Darrow says. “This method makes it easier and much cheaper to upgrade again when it is needed.”

One huge challenge was to separate the various buildings in the quad. Over the years as construction occurred, building after building was joined together, although various construction methods were used. One building is totally brick; another is cement with a brick façade. The buildings had to be cut apart to allow for movement in the case of a possible earthquake. And all of the buildings had to be upgraded to meet modern fire codes.

Work in the laboratories is scheduled around the construction schedule to facilitate the continuous moving from building section to building section. Experiment time lines coincide with estimated deadlines for moving in or out of specific buildings. About the only major disruption was the removal of RML’s macaque monkey population to another lab facility during the construction.

It has all worked well, says Pat Stewart, RML’s facility supervisor. “The lab staffs have been so flexible,” he adds. “A state-of-the-art laboratory is a great incentive.”

The work creates an expansion in the existing buildings, allowing more space to be used for actual research work. “Moving the administration functions across the street creates more room for science,” Stewart says. “These houses are wonderful unique office spaces.”

Darrow calls the various phases of the work “snapshots in time” and has worked closely with the National Historic Preservation Trust and Montana Historic Preservation Office to ensure that the “new” RML complex will be as historically accurate and authentic as possible on the outside while meeting 21st century needs and goals in the inside.

“When we’re done, it’s going to be something everyone can be proud of,” he promises.

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