Commercial Building – Then and Now
The heavy timber post and beam Commercial Building was designed and built in 1915 by prominent Missoula architect, Ole Bakke. It is an icon to the Fairgrounds, Western Montana Fair, and Midtown Missoula, but had fallen into disrepair and was on the verge of collapse in 2018.
In 2019, a $2.5 million investment was made by Missoula County to ensure the treasured Commercial Building will continue to serve Missoula and the Western Montana Fair for another 100 years. A ribbon-cutting on August 7, 2019 throws open the doors to reveal a building overflowing with beautiful handmade local crafts. Thanks to the MADE Fair Marketplace, hundreds of Missoula artisans display and sell their fine products at the Western Montana Fair once again.
Over the past decades, multiple non-historic modifications to the building altered its historic condition and detracted from its superiority. This current restoration effort reversed that trend with undertakings such as removing aluminum siding and green metal roofing and replacing them with horizontal drop-lap siding and a roof finish like the original sawn wood shingle design. As well as removing modern pegboard and Masonite wall finishes to expose original horizontal sheathing, preserving the original stairs, and replacing of the deteriorated painted-wood floor with a new hardwood floor.
The cupolas, which had been infilled with non-historic treatments, were restored to function in their original capacity to circulate air. On the east and west ends of the building, the twenty-light, arched windows were rebuilt by a local craftsperson. Likewise, new sliding, cross-braced wooden doors were also rebuilt locally and added to both the exterior and interior, as Bakke originally intended. The original horizontal windows on the north and south sides of the building were preserved to their original condition.
Missoula County has ensured the building will stand the test of time with structural and seismic upgrades, such as a concrete foundation and vertical corner boards. Of course, it also meets modern needs with new electrical, IT, security, heating, and ventilation systems, energy efficient lighting, a handicap accessible elevator, and fire and life safety systems. Importantly for Western Montana Fair attendees and other users, restrooms were added to the building.
Thanks to partners at the Montana Department of Commerce, an elevator was installed that adds 5,000 more square feet of usable space to the building to meet ADA-ABA standards, improve visitors’ access to and experience of Western Montana Fair exhibits, and expand the number of events held in the building. The Tourism Grant Program that funded this project awards grants to projects that strengthen Montana’s economy through the development and enhancement of the state’s tourism and recreation industry. Eligible projects include arts, culture and heritage preservation; visitor facility upgrades and construction; and niche product development. The program is currently accepting applications.
1915 - The Beginning
In 1914, Western Montana Fair Commission Secretary, F. M. Lawrence, was thrilled with the outcome of the first annual Fair at the new Fairgrounds site, noting press reviews which called it “one of the best district fairs ever held in the state of Montana.” However, without a proper venue, fruits, vegetables and flowers had to be exhibited in a tent. “Fortunately, the lack of wind which frequently visits us at that time of year saved the exhibit from an inglorious disaster,” he said.
“The need for an agricultural building is imperative and I urgently recommend the building of a structure to house (those) exhibits...so that each exhibitor may have a fair opportunity to display his products.”
The Board of County Commissioners agreed, authorizing the construction of an Agricultural Building (now called the Commercial building) the following year. By noon on Tuesday, September 28, 1915 (the day before the opening of the 2nd annual fair held at the new grounds), “the new agricultural building was half filled and the exhibitors were beginning to fight for space,” wrote the Missoulian newspaper. By the end of the day it was expected to be full to overflowing. Getting to the new Fairgrounds south of town was easier than ever, with streetcar service directly to the gates, supplemented by entrepreneurs offering their autos “for hire.”
There was much to see at the 1915 fair: livestock displays, horse racing, food and entertainment. But when it came to exhibits, the place to be was the new Agriculture hall described as “a splendid building with an ideal arrangement for the most effective showing of every sort of produce and handiwork.” Vegetables and grains took center stage on the ground floor along with flower and flour displays. Along one side of the hall the “forest service” set up an exhibit to explain the purpose and accomplishments of the relatively new federal agency. On the north end of the building the Northern Pacific railroad highlighted its dining car service, featuring the highly promoted “Great Big Baked Potato.” Nearby, the Missoula Mercantile displayed a series of household rooms, “tastefully and richly furnished” with everything a fine home should have.
For media inquiries, please contact Fairgrounds Production Manager Tom Aldrich - 406-721-3247 / email@example.com