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Helena seeking grants for Fire Tower rehabilitation work

Posted at 6:33 PM, May 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-12 15:36:32-04

HELENA — Helena leaders will hold an online public meeting this week, to take comments as they seek grants to restore the city’s historic fire tower.

The city is applying for $25,266 through the Montana Department of Commerce’s Historic Preservation Grant Program. They are also seeking $70,000 through the Revitalizing Montana’s Rural Heritage grant, from the State Historic Preservation Office. The group Friends of the Fire Tower has pledged thousands more toward the work.

The city must hold a public meeting as part of the application process for the Historic Preservation grant. The meeting will be Thursday at 4 p.m. You can find information on how to participate here.

The tower, overlooking Downtown Helena, was originally built in 1874. Leaders have been looking at ways to repair it since it was damaged by a suspicious fire in 2016. Since that time, engineering reports found it needed more work than originally thought.

According to the Historic Preservation grant application, leaders plan to replace some timbers, strengthen the tower’s foundation and bring the structure closer to its original appearance.

Analysis found a number of the tower’s timbers have seen significant rot. Over the years, people tried to repair some of the damage by holding timbers together with steel plates. However, Helena-Lewis and Clark County heritage preservation officer Pam Attardo said that may have actually contributed to the decay by trapping water around the beams.

“It’s been so long since any really correct repair has been done on it,” she said.

In order to qualify for historic preservation grants, leaders will have to make sure any rehabilitation work follows national standards for repairing historic structures. That would include splicing in new wood to replace decayed sections, using wooden joints instead of steel to hold the structure together and replacing the stairs and parts of the top cabin that were built with historically-inaccurate pressure-treated wood.

Attardo said the goal is to bring the tower to a “preservation baseline.” She said the Helena Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department will then develop a maintenance plan to make sure the structure stays in good shape going forward.

“Once you get it to a point where everything is connected, everything is sound, you don’t have rot that spreads, then you can have a very good maintenance program,” she said.

The city will learn later this year whether they receive the Rural Heritage grant. The Historic Preservation grant will be awarded next spring. Attardo said any restoration work would not happen until 2021.

“I think we’re going to get a really good product here,” she said.