The Helena City Commission Monday evening voted to deny a request to demolish a historic building in the city's oldest neighborhood.
The two-story, Italianate style house, located on the northwest corner of the intersection of Rodney and Broadway streets, was built in 1878 for Cornelius Hedges and his family.
Helena/Lewis and Clark County Heritage Preservation Officer Pam Attardo said Hedges is a figure of "local, state and national significance."
Attardo said Hedges arrived in Helena in 1865. Hedges practiced law, one of the first in Helena to do so, and served as a U.S. Attorney.
Additionally, he was the editor of the Helena Daily Herald, chairman of the committee that formed the Helena Library, superintendent of public schools for eight years, the first superintendent of public instruction and a co-founder of the Montana Historical Society.
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Arguably his biggest claim to fame is his involvement in the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. The group explored northwestern Wyoming, making maps, noting landmarks and observing wildlife. When the group came across that famous geyser in the area, they timed its eruptions and gave it the name Old Faithful.
Hedges wrote articles about the expedition in the local paper and used the platform to advocate for the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, which happened two years later.
Nathaniel P. Langford, a fellow member of the expedition and later the first superintendent of Yellowstone, credited Hedges with having the idea to set aside the Yellowstone area as a national park.
"He's the most famous person you've probably never heard of," Attardo told the city commissioners. "He didn't amass a fortune, but rather lent his talents to causes that uplifted fellow citizens."
The home on Rodney Street was converted to a fourplex by Hedges' son in 1922, later became a funeral home, then was converted back into a fourplex in the early 1990s.
A space heater in the unit on the north side of the building caught fire in December 2018 and spread to the attic. The building has remained vacant since.
Attardo said the first floor has no fire or smoke damage. The southern second floor unit has water damage caused by the fire hoses, but no smoke or fire damage.
The fire marshal did not condemn the structure, and a Heritage Tourism Council-provided professional engineer stated "access to the main floor should pose no risk to people" and that "most of the second floor is safe."
The owner of the building is listed in the demolition permit application as Bent Tree Enterprises, a Helena-based roofing and construction company owned by David Blackman.
Attardo said the owner purchased the building the summer of 2019 and neglected to put tarps over the roof to prevent further water damage and "the current pigeon infestation."
"The applicants attended a pre-application meeting in June 2019 and submitted a signed (a historic building demolition) application in June 2022. That building has remained open to the elements during that three-year period," Attardo said.
The owner proposed constructing an eight-unit apartment building. The units would be rented at market rate, well above the affordable rents charged in the neighborhood.
"Demolishing the Hedges house ... would erode the historic fabric and sense of place and have significant adverse impacts on the historic district," Attardo said.
Helena's Historic District, on the National Register of Historic Places, is made up of the many "contributing structures" in the city's urban core. Should a significant amount of those historic structures be removed from the district, the National Parks Service could remove its historic designation.
Attardo also noted that Hedges' house is the only remaining structure associated with the pioneer and the only National Register listed house of a nationally significant person in Helena. The houses of Charlie Pride, Myrna Loy, L. Ron Hubbard and Gary Cooper are not listed.
Two hearings on the proposed demolition were held before the Heritage Tourism Council on July 12 and Aug. 16, following which the council voted unanimously to recommend denial, citing the historic significance and "the fact that the applicant presented no documentation of structure as structurally unsound despite repeated requests," Attardo said.
A conditional approval with nine stipulations, including the owner obtain a building permit within one year of demolition and fully document the building with photographs and descriptions, was presented as an alternative recommendation.
However, City Attorney Rebecca Dockter said such a permit cannot be issued with conditions.
Charlie Carson, de-facto mayor of Rodney Street, reminded the commissioners during public comment that he "own(s) a lot of Rodney Street" and said he is opposed to the demolition. Carson said he would like to see the building rehabilitated and that he made a "very fair" offer to purchase the property and was turned down.
"We feel we have gone above and beyond in following the historic guidelines," Blackman said during public comment.
He stated the roof would likely have to be replaced and the building would need to be completely rewired as a result of the water used to fight the fire. Blackman also cited the numerous upgrades that would need to be made to bring the structure up to modern codes. Additionally, asbestos and lead paint mitigation work would need to be done.
"This is expensive and a time-hungry endeavor," he said.
Blackman also stated he was not aware of the historic district restrictions when he purchased the property.
"For three years we have tried to find the combination to the ever-changing riddle of an approved rendering," he said, referencing the Heritage Tourism Council's required documentation of what would replace the structure.
"What is disconcerting is the building has undergone so many changes with no regard to historic importance that it is unrecognizable to its predecessor," he said. "So now somehow we are at fault for not being willing to overhaul this eyesore to the original glory."
Ten people stated they opposed the demolition during the public comment period; no one supported it.
City Commissioner Melinda Reed moved to deny the demolition permit request.
In a roll call vote, City Commissioners Andy Shirtliff and Reed voted in favor of the motion.
City Commissioner Sean Logan voted against the motion.
"The historical sentiments that have been expressed here tonight are certainly not lost on me, but on the flip side of that, I am sympathetic to some investor who has taken a risk on a building that sustained a lot of damage, not only fire, but water," Logan said.
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, after asking the city attorney what happens in a tie and being informed the motion would fail, voted to deny the demolition permit request.
Blackman said the denial is "not a good scenario," but declined to offer what his next steps will be for the building.
Bent Tree Enterprises can reapply for a historic building demolition permit in six months.