The balanced economy and the presence of governmental agencies lessened the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s on Missoula. As federal relief and construction programs came into being the city benefited. Fort Missoula became the site of the Civilian Conservation Corp District Headquarters for the Rocky Mountain Region. With its pacific front weather patterns, agricultural resources were hardly affected by the drought that ravaged much of the rest of the state. The local economy gained an unexpected boost in construction jobs when three major fires involving significant buildings that were insured provided the capital to fund rebuilding in the downtown.
Missoula captured fourteen Civil Works Administration (CWA) projects during the 1930s, including the huge Missoula County Airport construction project that cost over a million dollars. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded the building of the Parkway (Orange Street) Bridge across the Clark Fork, the new Central School, an addition to Lowell School on the West Side, and improvements and construction of numerous parks and playgrounds. The University campus saw construction of four major buildings, all funded by the WPA. The most noticeable of the WPA projects in downtown Missoula was the northern addition to the United States Post Office in 1936.
Missoula’s economy remained solid during the World War II years. In fact, two major building projects in the heart of the downtown started just before the United States became directly affected by the war. They were the seven-story Florence Hotel located across from the Missoula Mercantile, and the six-story Savoy Hotel, built as a companion building to the 1909 Palace Hotel at the corner of Ryman and Broadway streets, near the Missoula County Courthouse.
Florence Hotel (left)
Like most cities throughout the country, Missoula experienced a post-war residential housing boom as soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill. Enrollment at the University also increased as a result of the educational benefits related to that legislation. After the war, the faces of many of the downtown businesses changed as modern construction materials were utilized to “modernize” the facades. This alteration of historic building stock continued, reaching a fever pitch during the 1960s. The First National Bank Building, a grand monument of granite and brick and located across the street to the south from the Missoula Mercantile, was demolished in 1962 to make way for a modern bank building of steel, glass and stucco. During this same period a minimalist modern addition was attached to the classically elegant Missoula County Courthouse. Despite these and many other changes, Missoula did not experience the massive loss of historic buildings that many cities such as Helena did under a federal program known as “Urban Renewal.” It was the backlash from that program that triggered the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act and the creation of state and local preservation programs throughout the nation.
It took over twenty years for Missoula to create a local preservation ordinance and join the Certified Local Government program overseen by the State Historic Preservation Office. During those interim two decades, business fled the downtown to take their place along the automobile dominated business strips and malls. As a result, the downtown suffered a business recession with buildings partially or totally empty. Many of the businesses that remained attempted to compete with the malls by applying modern materials to the facades of historic buildings. However, the formation of the historic preservation program and funding assistance managed by the newly created Missoula Redevelopment Agency began to convince business owners that the historic architecture was a valuable and unique asset in attracting customers back to the downtown. Educational efforts by the preservation office and the monetary incentives offered to those owners of buildings listed in the National Register, led to the restoration of dozens of downtown historic buildings.
Missoula has continued to grow and prosper during the 1990s and into the new century. While the lumber industry has waned and governmental staffing decreased, an increase in medical related facilities and service industries has taken up the slack. Historic surveys have continued and are supported by the downtown and neighborhoods that realize the value of historic architecture for both aesthetics and economics. One of the fastest growing cities in the state, with accompanying sprawling commercial strips on its periphery, Missoula has come to embrace the idea of historic preservation in its downtown and older residential neighborhoods.