Academy wants to restore the Old Main

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Farming for the Future Academy hopes to restore the Old Main Building on the Montana Veterans Home campus. This is an interior room, shown in this file photo from 2015.

A non-profit group that already runs a garden at the Montana Veterans Home now hopes to restore the oldest building on the campus.

Farming for the Future Academy is eyeing the structure for a Columbia Falls Arts and Cultural Center, said Farming director Sherry Lewis-Peterson.

The building is the oldest structure on the campus. Old Main was built by prominent Montana builder and politician Fred Whitesides at a cost of $9,800. The cornerstone, made of Butte copper and filled with artifacts that included a $100 Confederate note, was laid in 1896. The grand brick building opened in 1897 to serve Civil War veterans and was last occupied in the late 1960s.

About 10 years ago, a new roof was put on the building and the windows were secured. But not much has happened since. The Columbia Falls Historical Society considered working on it, but is now working on the Ol’ River Bridge Inn in Columbia Heights.

Lewis-Peterson said during a city council public hearing on community needs Monday night that she envisioned a place where people could practice a variety of arts, — fine art, performing art, culinary arts and the like. She said she’s currently reaching out to the University of Montana, Montana State University and Flathead Valley Community College.

The city doesn’t have direct funding to help the project, city manager Susan Nicosia noted, but it does have the ability to secure grants for planning and public facilities through the Community Development Block Grant Program.

Being involved in such a project would not impact the city’s economic side of the block program, she noted, which has been used to support a host of business expansions over the years in Columbia Falls through a revolving loan program.

Several residents spoke in favor of the project. Sue Haverfield, a member of the Academy board, noted the program has already proven successful with the garden project, which serves veterans as well as holds camps for youths in the summer months. In addition to a garden, it has a llama, a miniature pony, and two sheep as well as a few rabbits, ducks and chickens. The pony and llama often visit the veterans at the home. There’s also a program where veterans can pet the rabbits as they wear special protective smocks.

“This would just be another program through the organization,” Haverfield said, adding, “It’s a historical building. We’d hate to see it go to waste.”

Academy board member Kate List, also favored the project’s historic significance.

Additionally, artist Nick Oberling spoke in favor of the project.

“I love the light,” he said. “It has fantastic huge windows. You’re just not going to get buildings like that anymore.”

Council took no action on the matter. The hearing is continued until next month.

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