The restored Stensrud struggles to stay open

Last week, historic preservationist Mark Kersting went to the Missoula County Treasurer's Office and plopped down more than $20,000 in overdue taxes, narrowly making his August 16 deadline, after which Kersting would have lost the Northside property he's spent a decade restoring: the Stensrud Building.

Today, Kersting sits inside the building, perhaps Missoula's finest period-restored architectural artifact from the late 1800s, and ponders what to do next. He's rented out this space for community events nearly 500 times over the past six years, he says, but the revenue, and the rent from the upstairs apartments, isn't enough to pay the bills.

click to enlarge More changes could be in store for the Stensrud Building. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"I have to bow out," he says. "I can't afford to run this enterprise. The community just doesn't support it."

Kersting, 53, lays out the few options before him. He could turn the building, at 314 North First Street West, into a coffeehouse, but he needs an investor, and cringes at the thought of the infrastructure costs and jumping through Health Department hoops. He could rent out the first floor as a residence. Or he could wash his hands of the property altogether and sell it. All options would likely mean the end of the Stensrud Events Center, one of Missoula's most popular venues for banquets, concerts, thesis readings, art exhibits, neighborhood meetings, and even chili cook-offs.

"It would be a shame to lose it," says Bob Oaks, director of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation. "It's hugely important [to the neighborhood] what happens to it."

Kersting walks around the building's airy, museum-like 1,800-square foot main level, with its 13-foot ceiling and rough-sawn fir floors. He's skim-coated the plaster walls and applied an orange faux finish. He restored the original wainscoting. A piano, a coal stove dating to 1905, and other antiques line the walls. Artwork hangs from them. He says about 90 percent of what's in the building was in it when it was originally built. Outside, Kersting tells of the brick he spent three and a half weeks scraping. The building's wooden cornice is painted bright yellow, turquoise and red. Local historian Allan Mathews calls it "the most beautiful cornice of any building in Missoula." The Historic Preservation Commission recognized Kersting's work in 2004.

"The building, the way I've reconstructed it, is probably much more elegant than it was when it was originally built," Kersting says.

Between then and now, the Stensrud, named for former owner Merlin Stensrud, who had it for about 40 years before selling it to Kersting in 2000, has housed a drug warehouse, grocery and thrift stores, a Chinese laundry in the basement, and a brothel upstairs.

Mathews, Missoula's former historic preservation officer, says the Stensrud, one of his favorite historic buildings, "captures the whole charm of that early railroad period and trade period on the Northside. If you can think of a building like that, and think of three or four more on the same block, you have any idea of what it was like over there. I think that building is just amazing—and it's what I think started this whole renaissance of that Northside commercial area on North First."

The renaissance Mathews refers to started when Kersting, shortly after acquiring the Stensrud and a few adjacent lots, sold land to the nonprofit affordable housing developer homeWORD, which in 2003 completed a $1.8 million, 18-unit development called the Gold Dust. It provides housing to households earning half of the area's median income. Other neighborhood development followed, including the Kettlehouse Brewing Company's new taproom.

But no matter how crucial Kersting's work has been to revitalizing that Northside neighborhood, he finds himself in a precarious financial situation. He blames himself, but says the problem is compounded by a tight lending environment which, he says, only loans money to people who don't need it.

When Kersting was looking for financing to help solve his tax-debt problem, "I couldn't get $100 from a lending institution in this city to help me continue to do my work, which is community redevelopment," he says. "It affects this block, but it also affects the entire city. And to think: This treasure, it would probably be in the dump right now if I wouldn't have shown up. It could very well be a parking lot."

Barring an investor coming forward with a new business plan, Kersting plans to shutter the Stensrud Events Center in the coming weeks and prepare it to be a residence for rent. He says he'll also put the building on the market. "If I can get my number, I'm out of here," he says. He's already envisioning that. "As long as this building is here, and the other building on the corner and the Gold Dust, it'll be attributed to Mark Kersting, and I'm really proud of that."

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