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Collapse: Merc’s historic pharmacy still part of Marriott development

The eastern end of the Missoula Merc’s historic pharmacy building collapsed Monday morning. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current

An attorney representing the owners and developers of the Missoula Mercantile site apologized to local residents Monday night for the disruption caused earlier in the day by the collapse of a section of the roof and second floor of an historic pharmacy that is being preserved as part of the downtown hotel development.

But Alan McCormick, of Garlington, Lohn and Robinson, said the Garden City Drug building’s south, north and west walls remain intact – and that the eastern wall always was intended for removal as part of the Mercantile’s deconstruction, “just not as quickly as what happened today.”

McCormick provided Missoula City Council members with a detailed account of Monday morning’s incident, which necessitated closure of the 100 block of Higgins Avenue while police, fire and construction crews ensured that the remainder of the building was not going to collapse.

“A small mishap occurred today when the east wall of the pharmacy collapsed,” he said.

During the deconstruction, workers created a physical separation between the pharmacy building – which the developers agreed to preserve and incorporate into the Residence Inn Marriott they intend to build at the site – and the main Mercantile building, which was deconstructed.

City police closed off Higgins Avenue in front of the demolition project for a short time Monday, so the building did not collapse on passing cars. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“The contractors were working near that east wall and this area of separation between the two buildings this morning to remove the final part of that adjacent building when the wall collapsed,” McCormick explained.

In an email, Development Services’ assistant director Don Verrue explained that contractors did not believe the column that stood between the pharmacy and the Mercantile building would come away from the pharmacy, but it did, bringing a section of the roof and second floor with it.

Damage to the pharmacy building extends about 3-4 feet into the structure itself, according to McCormick. But there were no injuries and no property damage, “and that was very fortunate.” No other section of the building moved during the east wall’s collapse.

“The remaining portion of the building remains intact,” he said, as does the plan to incorporate it into the hotel.

Added Verrue, in his memo to City Council members, “We possibly would have seen total failure if all the roof and second floor had collapsed.”

As a precaution, knowing there was some danger in Monday’s final piece of the deconstruction, contractors already had Missoula police and fire crews on site when the accident occurred about 8 a.m. So the response was quick and decisive.

As soon as the stability of the remaining structure was verified, the west side of Higgins Avenue was reopened to two-way traffic.  The east side of the street remains closed, as does  a section of sidewalk.

McCormick said the trusses in the area that collapsed had been cut in the past, to allow a fireplace to extend up through the second floor and roof. The collapse does not extend beyond that previously cut.

On Monday afternoon, crews began to shore up the outside of the pharmacy building to increase its rigidity, McCormick said. A structural engineer will be on site Tuesday morning to determine where and how additional shoring should occur.

Development Services will meet with the design team on Tuesday afternoon.

The historic pharmacy building will be incorporated into the new Marriott. (Mercantile LLC)

Verrue said the developers’ agreement with the city was only to preserve the old pharmacy’s north, south and west walls – so the work originally promised will move forward.

McCormick added that deconstruction of the Mercantile “has been a fascinating and challenging process.” Despite the challenges, it has resulted in the recovery of significant amounts of historic timbers, bricks and artifacts – “more than anybody could have dreamed possible,” he said.

He thanked city police and firefighters for their help on Monday, and apologized to local residents for the downtown disruption.

“We apologize for the excitement, and to the citizens of Missoula for the inconvenience that closing down portions of Higgins caused,” McCormick said. “We promise to keep in close contact with you.”

Mayor John Engen praised the city’s public safety workers for their swift response to the incident.

The property’s developer has contracted with L. Keeley Construction of St. Louis to oversee eventual construction of the Residence Inn by Marriott. The new hotel, slated for groundbreaking later this year, will include first-floor retail and dining, with about 150 rooms on five floors.

Monday night’s council meeting also found members reviewing and approving changes in the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, another result of the Mercantile building’s demolition.

The preservation commission initially denied a deconstruction permit for the Mercantile, but was overruled by the City Council. A group called Preserve Historic Missoula then filed suit against the city, hoping to stop the project. The preservationists did not prevail in court.

The bureaucratic and legal process took 11 months, delaying work by Mercantile LLC to begin construction of the $35 million hotel.

The Mercantile building during deconstruction. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

On Monday, City Council members approved changes that will create a smaller Historic Preservation Commission with less focus on downtown and a broader representation of local residents.

Jen Gress with Development Services said the previous commission had 13 members – 9 members and two alternates.

As approved, the new commission will have 9 members – 7 voting members and two alternates. No longer will the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and Design Review Board be able to appoint their own representatives to the commission.

“These changes should encourage greater participation,” Gress said.

Three members (up from one previously) will be selected “at large,” from any area of the city or unincorporated areas outside the city.

The commission will still have three “professional” members, but those potential professions were broadened to include experts in preservation law and historic preservation.

At its smaller size, four members of the Historic Preservation Commission will constitute a quorum.

Councilwoman Gwen Jones said she worked with city staff members in recent months to hold several commission openings in abeyance, knowing these changes were in the works.

So no sitting member of the commission will lose their appointment because of the changes.

Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist. She can be reached at [email protected].

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