The College Park Plaza has been many things over the years, from a hospital to office space to filled with mold beyond healthy use, but after a few years of revitalization the building is filled again with a new spirit that makes it one of Havre’s most unique places.
It opened for the first time nearly a decade after it began, Aug. 31, 1926, 86 years ago today.
An expansion in 1958 added more space and patient care facilities.
When the other hospital in Havre, the Catholic Sacred Heart Hospital, announced that it would close in 1967, the leadership behind both hospitals joined together, dropped their ties to their respective churches, and became Northern Montana Hospital, treating patients out of both buildings until the current hospital was built in 1975.
Jason VanVoast had not been to the Hi-Line before coming to look into buying the College Park Plaza from Dagmar Mcelroy in 2010.
VanVoast’s grandfather, a Turner native who moved to farm in Polson years ago, heard the building was for sale and suggested that Jason buy it to turn into a fraternity house for Northern students.
Jason, who had split his youth between Seattle and the farm in Polson, had a different idea.
Under his ownership — and after a few months of cleaning, restoration and roof repairs — the building has become an inclusive amalgamation of residences and business space for everyone from new college students to railroad retirees.
And at the head of it all is Jason, who serves as the building’s “RA, big brother, dad sometimes, janitor, everything” as he put it.
“We have this eclectic group, and somehow we’ve made it work, ” VanVoast said.
How it works
Because most of the rooms were originally built to house hospital patients, they already resemble small apartments or dorm rooms. Some have bathrooms. Some share bathrooms. They all share the kitchen and living space on the third floor.
On the second floor, just inside the door from the parking lot off 11th Street, is a glass room filled with parakeets.
All residents of the building are required to buy a parakeet for the room to move in, like a deposit.
When the restoration was more intense, tenants could earn a ticket per hour of work they put into the building. At the end of the month, a ticket was drawn and whichever tenant was chosen had their rent payment halved that month.
The communal kitchen and living room, with its theater-like pile of seating and multiple TVs, are not only the social center of the building, but the home to activities in the buildng, like the weekly Taco Tuesday potluck dinner.
Who lives there?
The building has drawn a number of diverse occupants over the past two years from many of Havre’s walks of life.
Dan Marino, who is pretty sure he was named after the legendary Miami Dolphin despite his parents’ denial, has lived in the building since moving from Missoula to attend Montana State University-Northern two years ago to study computer information systems.
“For an apartment building its like a big house, ” Marino said. “I’ve never been in a situation like that. Neighbors coming in and chatting like roommates. People are always in each others business, but in a good way. ”
Marino said that the communal living space has enhanced his, and other Northern students’, academic performance, as they pull collective all-nighters in their common living room.
“The students that live here, almost all have gotten Dean’s List since moving here, ” Marino said.
Dan Pizzini, KNMC’s Handsome Dan, has lived in the College Park Plaza since January 2011. He likes that the building is “closer to school than the dorms are. ”
“It’s central, ” Pizzini said. “I can walk to football games. The folf course is across the street. I play folf every day. ”
Bob Borst works at Northern, baking in the Student Union Building’s new dining hall. A Havre native, Borst left for years, returned six years ago and moved into the building last November.
“I love it, ” Borst said.
Unique among all tenants, the first tenant, the proto-tenant, is Kim Benboe, known through the building only as Doc.
Doc is a 55-year-old former railroad worker and Navy veteran who showed up at the building shortly after his retirement and just got to work, carving out a home and crafting a living.
“I just noticed things getting done, ” VanVoast said. “Until one day I caught him fixing the washer.
“I couldn’t have done this without him. ”
“He’s a real-life MacGyver, ” Marino said.
Who works there?
When VanVoast bought the building in the spring of 2010, Hi-Line Recovery was still offering substance abuse treatment on the bottom floor. Since then they changed their name to Unity Road Recovery, and then they went out of business.
VanVoast also inherited the business of a small collection of women who offer therapeutic services out of a few rooms on the third floor.
Cindy Kafka has been practicing cranio-sacral therapy in the plaza since 2006. The “gentle hands-on method of … enhancing the functioning of … the membranes & cerebrospinal fluid that surround & protect the brain & spinal cord, ” according to a pamphlet she provided, worked so well for Kafka as a patient that she became a practitioner.
Other treatments offered in the plaza include foot detox with “energetic footbath” for “peritoneal dialysis” (from another pamphlet), and upcoming footzonology treatments, which shows “how to repair, rejuvenate, balance and remove disturbances via the signal-system on the feet. ”
Marino is also planning on adding to the plaza’s commercial endeavours with a computer repair and software design company called Soniram Computers, Marino’s backwards. He also hopes to become a licensed judge and distributor of the popular competitive card game Magic: The Gathering.
Less than a year ago there was another group who was renting space in the plaza that claimed to be developing a renewable fuel cell that would allow cars to run on only water.
The group went by many names and disappeared from the building as quickly as they came, with little to no indication of where they went or came from.
But that’s how the building works. New people and organizations move in an out, leaving pieces of themselves that are picked up by those that follow and added to the lumpy mixture that defines and is the buildings culture. Its personality. Its character.
This group, led by VanVoast and following more than a century of Hi-Line tradition, have joined together from different times and places, put themselves into what used to be another moldy oldie of a building and built a community.
It almost makes you wish use of the word groovy was acceptable in this day and age.