This story is the first in a two-part series.
Butte-Silver Bow government has a painfully obvious problem on its hands.
Its referee role in historic preservation and proposed demolitions is nothing new. Past controversies have come and gone.
But two recent demolition disputes — one involving the so-called Blue Range prostitution cribs in Uptown Butte and another a cookie-cutter old house on the Flat — have exposed conflict, confusion and strife like never before.
They have elements of a long-running clash between people who believe more dilapidated, vacant properties should be torn down to curb blight and those who say history is Butte’s greatest asset and its historical buildings should be saved.
But Butte-Silver Bow departments and boards are increasingly battling with opposing missions and hostility that’s hard to hide, inevitably passing their disputes onto part-time commissioners to figure out and decide.
The disputes often involve a mix of issues including private property rights, public safety, government roles and reach, looks to the past, looks to the future, and alternative views on economic development. All come with personal passions attached.
Frictions with those are inevitable and American democracy can be messy at all levels, but in Butte-Silver Bow, ordinances, interpretations and actions in this arena are sending mixed, muddy messages.
As a governmental process, it is dysfunctional.
”We need to really figure out what our process is,” said J.P. Gallagher, who became Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive on Dec. 31. “That has become abundantly clear.
“We absolutely have to clarify what the process is going to be because, as we all know, there is a lot of interest in these historic Uptown buildings now,” he said. “But when they see the internal — I don’t want to say strife, but the internal confusion of the processes — are people going to want to invest in these properties?”
There are times when county departments and officials agree on demolition actions, but when they don't, nothing goes smoothly.
At the government level, the county has an historic preservation officer, historic preservation ordinances and a seven-member board called the Historic Preservation Commission, or HPC, all with certain powers, but limits, too.
Their mission is in their title — preservation. Some say they collectively have too much authority, others say too little.
The county also has a Community Enrichment Department, whose missions include curbing blight and ensuring buildings are safe. And there is a Community Development Department that works to foster economic development.
At the public level, there has long been a tug-of-war between those who want to save virtually every building and those who say many should be demolished. There has been lots of fighting and sniping but little middle ground.
There were months-long, high-profile battles over the Greek Café and the Brincks and Deluxe buildings that ended in demolitions, and a years-long crusade to save the Basin Creek Caretaker’s House, which is still standing, still needs fixing and is still vacant.
There have been squabbles over numerous other buildings, too, that were less explosive but contentious all the same.
All recent chief executives have dealt with the wrangling. Gallagher is just the latest.
When Matt Vincent was chief executive in January 2015, he went to an HPC meeting and pleaded for peace on the preservation front. It came a week after commissioners settled on new preservation ordinances years in the making.
Vincent said a new spirit of cooperation was needed.
“We will never move mountains unless we get past the molehills,” he said, adding that some efforts, such as educating the public about historic preservation, could actually be fun.
That didn’t get far.
Mitzi Rossillon, a member of the HPC then and now, said she welcomed the “opportunity for a brand new day,” but said there were differing views on historic preservation and some things would be contentious.
“Our job, unfortunately, is not to have fun,” she said.
That drew some sharp comments from Ed Randall, the county’s community enrichment director then and now.
“I think that’s the wrong attitude going into it,” he said.
Still, Rossillon said she would think positively about going forward and Randall pledged a spirit of cooperation.
It hasn’t materialized.
Discord has continued, always under the surface, sometimes on clear display. It was the latter in 2019 when Randall spent months fighting for an ordinance designed to get dangerous buildings repaired or demolished faster.
Most top county officials backed the proposal, saying there were too many deteriorating buildings in Butte, especially Uptown, and efforts to address them get tied up in endless delays. Randall called it “demolition by neglect.”
Top officials, including then-Chief Executive Dave Palmer, agreed to some changes sought by preservationists — Historic Preservation Officer Mary McCormick and a group called Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization among them. But then more requests were made by HPC members.
“This is what makes people frustrated with all of us,” Randall said during a committee hearing on the issue.
Commissioners ultimately approved new provisions, but frustrations haven’t gone away. They have been on full display in recent weeks.
THE “CRIBS” CONTROVERSY
The latest uproar is over the Blue Range cribs, part of three dilapidated buildings on East Mercury Street that were houses of prostitution decades and decades ago in Butte’s once infamous and thriving Red Light District.
Larry Hoffman, a longtime mining engineer in Butte, has owned the buildings for 40 years and gave them the “Blue Range” name as part of the mining business he ran from there.
The “cribs” were a series of small prostitutes' rooms, each with a door and window facing Mercury, in a two-story masonry building constructed around 1897. The building has had other uses over the years, including apartments.
There is an old warehouse on the east end of the cribs and an old auto repair shop on the west end. Hoffman still has a little office in the repair shop building.
Staack’s Motor Sports, a longtime business in Butte, wants to purchase the buildings, and under current plans, tear down the warehouse and all but the west and south walls of the cribs. The old repair shop would be restored and renovated for business use. The rest of the property would be cleaned up with future use to be determined, said Staack’s owner Ed Staack.
As part of a buy-sell agreement with Hoffman, Staack’s commissioned Kevin Feldman, a structural engineer from Bozeman, to inspect the buildings. McCormick has acknowledged that Feldman is a “very well-established, respected” structural engineer who has looked at historic buildings around the country.
Feldman says the cribs and warehouse buildings are in such horrible shape they pose serious safety threats.
There are interior columns missing in the warehouse and the roof and main levels were at risk of collapse, he said. There were signs of brick failure and bricks falling from upper levels of the cribs and one wall bowed outward 6 inches.
Feldman said he’s been part of numerous preservation projects over his 20-year career, but it would cost $600,000 to $800,000 just to stabilize and save the façade of the cribs. A low-grade renovation of everything would cost $1.3 million, a high-grade about $2 million, he said.
A reporter and photographer with The Montana Standard were allowed into the cribs building briefly last week and saw debris everywhere: brick walls separating from each other, caved-in ceilings, boards and other materials rotted out from moisture, sagging, rickety floors, holes everywhere.
The engineer’s report was shared with county officials and based on that, they posted the warehouse and cribs buildings as dangerous and required an abatement plan. That plan includes the partial demolition and the county’s Community Enrichment Department has OK’d it.
But as part of a separate ordinance, demolition requests that impact “historic properties” are reviewed by the historic preservation officer and the HPC, and in this case, like many before it, they have imposed conditions and delays.
McCormick acknowledges the cribs are in “dire structural condition” but says they are the only remaining brothel architecture “that clearly expresses its internal function on the exterior of the building, with each crib marked on the front façade by its own door and a window.”
“The Blue Range cribs is of equal significance to any of Butte’s iconic steel headframes,” she wrote in a recommendation to block demolition. “It conveys an important chapter of Women’s History in the American West.”
Many preservationists agree, and many weighed in with letters during a recent HPC meeting on the issue. Like McCormick, they suggest that grant funds or money from other buyers could save the buildings.
“With the recent flourishing of Butte’s commercial real estate market, we think advertisements for building sales to a wide audience of possible investors should be pursued. This opens revitalization opportunities for this historic structure and the block that it is on,” wrote Larry and Debbie Smith.
The HPC is generally authorized to impose a 45-day delay on demolitions so alternatives can be considered, but this time, it required Hoffman and Staack’s to advertise the cribs for sale or lease for uses other than demolition.
Rossillon, a longtime HPC member, said one section of the preservation code calls for alternatives to be explored first and one involves transfer of ownership.
It says if a property owner does not have the financial resources to rehabilitate an “otherwise useful, economically viable building,” the owner will advertise it for sale or lease for a minimum of 90 days with a local newspaper or realtor and then analyze offers.
The building was not economically viable for Staack’s purposes, Rossillon said, but it might be for others. She said county code authorized the move, but McCormick acknowledged it was the first time it has been cited in blocking a demolition.
Unlike actual demolition recommendations made by the HPC, it wasn’t immediately clear whether this 90-day stay with advertising requirements could be appealed. But County Attorney Eileen Joyce has since weighed in, saying the HPC is an advisory board and ANY action it takes can be appealed to the Council of Commissioners.
When that was done last Wednesday, on an emergency basis because it was inadvertently left off the agenda, a new proposal surfaced in a letter to commissioners.
Peggy Guccione, who has purchased and renovated several buildings in Butte, including the Hodgens Ryan Mansion on North Excelsior Street that’s now a bed-and-breakfast, says she could do the same for the cribs despite its structural issues.
Guccione currently lives primarily in Arkansas, and acknowledges she hasn’t been inside the cribs building. She says if she could purchase the cribs and warehouse from Hoffman, she has the financial ability to save them.
When asked by The Standard if she had $2 million the engineer said it would take to stabilize and save the buildings, she said “probably not,” but did have $600,000 “if I choose to use it.”
The engineer who surveyed the building for Staack’s wrote it for a customer “so obviously they are going to slant it,” she said, echoing comments other preservationists have made. So she would seek a second opinion.
But questions were immediately raised about the timing of her proposal and whether Butte-Silver Bow government had any legal or ethical right to insert a third party into a private buy-sell agreement already established.
That hasn’t been answered. The council ultimately voted 9-3 for a 45-day stay, but even that action was murky.
Coming Monday: Another case, this one over a house in the Floral Park Neighborhood on the Flat, is raising even more questions and controversy.