The old post office building at 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue is about to begin a new life, with a new owner taking the reins and restoring it.
Marc Whitacre moved to Havre this summer from the Kansas City, Kan., area to work as an ophthalmologist at Northern Montana Hospital. While moving, he and his wife Erica Farmer, an ophtometrist for the hospital, were looking for a place to live with their three sons.
“We looked around for a bit, and it was perplexing to us that this building had sat empty for a long time, ” Farmer said.
Whitacre said he lived in an apartment near downtown while looking for something more permanent. After walking by one of the largest and most interesting buildings on the Hi-Line consistently, he decided to take a look at it.
It was perfect.
“I think it’s a great, beautiful building, ” Whitacre said. “It’s a magnificent structure. I thought it was a crime to let that building languish. ”
Whitacre closed on the building on Nov. 4 and is already working on restoring the building, repairing the damage of years of disuse and not having heat for the past two years.
He and his wife plan on using the third floor of the building as their personal residence, while eventually leasing out the first and second floors for a variety of possible uses.
The first priority though is the heat.
The building’s single-pipe radiator system hasn’t been turned on in two years, Whitacre said. Though, he added, that type of system was “its salvation, ” by allowing pipes to drain out rather than just freeze or burst.
“Had it been a cold water or two pipe system, so much damage would have occurred that recovering it would have been impossible, ” Whitacre said. “It wouldn’t have been economical for anybody to repair. ”
Other work needs to be done to repair peeling paint and plaster on the buildings walls, damage, Whitacre said, that is the result of two winters that it had no heat.
Whitacre hypothesized that one more winter may have also rendered the building irreparable.
All of that work will cost a lot of time and money, though Whitacre will receive some help in that area, from a $100,000 federal grant called “Save America’s Treasures” that the building qualified for in 2009 before the program was cancelled in 2010 and from a $100,000 match offered by Opportunity Link, Inc., in the form of an in-kind labor contribution.
Any changes Whitacre and his family make will be watched closely, not just by local history-conscious residents but also by officials from Montana State Historic Preservation Office and the U. S. Park Service, who have to approve any changes to the historic structure.
Whitacre doesn’t anticipate making any major changes to the building, as it is already “built like a tank, ” with the concrete floors and pillars, terra cotta walls and major electrical and plumbing systems remaining in “pretty good shape” after all these years.
Before he could even worry about any of the issues that might be inside the building, Whitacre had to work his way through the issues surrounding it.
The post office was built in 1932, designed by James Wetmore, and served as both post office and federal courthouse for decades. The courthouse on the third floor ceased use before the post office did and will, with a bit of needed insulation, now be a part of Whitacre and Farmer’s living space.
In 1986 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The building stopped being a post office as well when the new one opened in the mid-1990’s. At that point it was sold to the city, which allowed it to be used by the Havre Hill County Historic Preservation Commission and the H. Earl Clack Memorial Museum.
Nearly a decade later, the building was caught in a dispute over the payment for repairs to the roof, and the building ended up being owned by Hi-Line Roofing and its owner William Welch, under a lien.
Last June Welch died, and the building went to his estate, from which Whitacre has now purchased it.
After years of dispute and neglect, Whitacre feels that, “being an outsider helps not take the building for granted.
“It’s just a really rare opportunity to take care of something like that, ” Whitacre said. “I know many people talk about the many memories they have with the building. But for the building to survive it’s got to be more than a memory. We’ve got to give it that relationship that will allow it to continue to live. ”