The city of Helena is proposing to demolish and replace its iconic Fire Tower, which was damaged by arson in an early morning fire Aug. 2.
Parts of the tower date back to 1874. Because of the fire, along with damage caused by wind and other harsh weather over the last 143 years, city officials believe it is necessary to replace the Fire Tower with one that mirrors what was built at that time.
The tower’s safety has become a concern and, as a result, access was not allowed in December to place Christmas lights on the structure.
“I think our recommendation, replace and replicate, is a common-sense approach. It’s the prudent thing to do,” said Amy Teegarden, the city’s parks and recreation director.
“I think what’s important to know is that this is not the first Fire Tower. There might be a misperception that this is the original Fire Tower, and it’s not. And many of the features are not original to even this 1874 structure," she added.
The city’s original Fire Tower was destroyed by fire in the 1870s. Only the tower’s four legs are original and one of them was damaged by the arson. No one has yet been charged in connection with the crime.
The $165,000 estimate to demolish and rebuild the tower is contained in an engineering analysis by Morrison Maierle that also looked at other options for repairs, which ranged from $200,000 to $230,000.
A less expensive option for the city is to replace the Fire Tower’s damaged leg at a cost of $132,000. However, the engineering analysis noted other work the tower needs because of its age.
One of the repair options calls for replacing all four of the tower’s legs because they show signs of weakening. Other timbers used in the tower’s construction would be replaced. Reinforced concrete pads for the legs – these would be anchored to rock – are included in this option that’s projected to cost $230,000.
Because the Fire Tower is a contributing structure to the city’s downtown historic district, work on the structure will require a demolition permit. The permit is a necessary step because either significant repair is needed or actual demolition could occur.
Obtaining a permit would involve the Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council, which will make a recommendation on granting a permit to the city commission for a decision.
Public hearings are part of the process for issuing demolition permits.
Using the same types of materials, design and colors in rebuilding the Fire Tower wouldn’t diminish its historic value, Teegarden said she was advised by city historic preservation staff.
Rough-hewn timbers will be used to simulate the original wood, and some of the hardware from the tower will be reused, she noted.
“Historic preservation understands that things don’t last forever, especially if they’re made of wood. I was relieved that there was this sense of ‘yes, we have to replace this,’ and you can’t always keep throwing money at things that isn’t going to really fix the problem," she said.
“It just makes sense to build it right again,” she said. “And we can do that. You can build something new that looks historic.”
“It’s more than just the structure itself,” she continued. “It’s also the location. And by having another replica of the Fire Tower, you still have Fire Tower Hill (a city park) intact. And it’s that location that’s significant as well.”
The Fire Tower won’t be open for public use. Because of that limitation and that the same design will be employed in reconstruction, there will be no requirement to meet accessibility standards contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Teegarden.
There is no money in the parks department’s current fiscal year budget for reconstruction, although the city budget process is beginning for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1.
It’s also yet uncertain how much the city will receive from its insurance policy that covers the Fire Tower, Teegarden said. Construction could begin after July 1 of this year, or in 2018.
Once the city has the reconstruction cost finalized and knows how much it will have toward the work, it will be able to seek the community’s financial support.
A community fund-raiser is envisioned to help finance rebuilding the tower although details have yet to be announced.
“I think there’s opportunities for downtown businesses to help contribute, people at-large. The breweries have reached out to me knowing that Kessler Brewery in the 1950s did a fundraiser, they might do a special brew for the Fire Tower. All proceeds or a portion of proceeds could go toward that,” she said, adding that ideas are still under discussion.
The Helena Tourism Alliance has shown interest, as has the Helena Business Improvement District.
“I don’t think there’ll be a lack of opportunities,” she continued and added the city would also need to contribute toward the work.
Design and engineering would be about $15,000, she said, and the city has already spent $11,000 for the engineering analysis.
Together that would be a little more than $25,000 from the city, and perhaps the city could contribute $25,000 toward the construction costs, Teegarden said.