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EPA, owners discuss possible 2010 cleanup on historic Hotel Libby

by Brad FuquaWestern News
| November 30, 2009 11:00 PM

One of the few structures that dates back to the town’s beginnings, the Hotel Libby has appeared on a list of potential asbestos cleanup projects in the coming year.

Mike Cirian, Environmental Protection Agency field leader, told county commissioners that the historic building will be the subject of an upcoming preliminary design investigation. The agency will then meet with the hotel’s current owners about the possibility of a cleanup.

“It’s got it in the walls, ceilings … I don’t know which walls on each floor,” Cirian said. “It was used in some pipe wrap – a paste – and in the boiler down there. It’s been built onto a couple of different times … we’ll do a complete PDI to isolate where it is and hopefully come to an agreement next spring.”

The Hotel Libby, located on the corner of California Avenue and West Third Street, dates back to the community’s earliest days. In fact, three men – J.A. Coram, Frank M. Leonard and A.J. Maltman – were instrumental in the founding of Libby as well as the hotel’s beginnings.

Coram was a Boston capitalist with interests in Montana – including the Butte City Water Co., Kalispell Water and Light Co., and Montana Coal and Coke Co. Leonard served as an agent for Coram on the ground in Libby and his involvement led to Coram’s purchase of the townsite in 1892. Maltman was a Chicago-based capitalist who went in with Coram on the hotel venture.

Architectural plans for the hotel were drawn up in 1899 by the Des Moines, Iowa firm of Liebbe, Nourse and Rasmussen. The original plans called for 46 bedrooms on the second and third floors, steam heat, general bathrooms, dining room, billiard room and a bar at a cost of $15,000.

Excavation began in mid-September 1899 but then the mining industry hit a low and investors began to panic. The hotel’s frame and roof had been built but the work stopped. Incredibly, the structure remained in that same condition for a decade – even surviving the devastating Libby fire of 1906.

According to one Libby pioneer, the hotel’s frame served as a shelter for cattle and local boys would often take delight in surprising the animals to watch them struggle to get out of the window frames, which did not yet have glass installed. In addition, local businessmen would “shovel out every week” and use the space for civic meetings.

Finally in 1909, C.E. Lukens and John H. Town purchased the building at about the same time period that the mining industry was finding new life. Investors again showed interest and construction resumed with Guy C. Manning of Portland, Ore., now in charge of the plans. This time around, the cost hovered around $40,000.

According to The Western News, the hotel – known as “The Coram” – opened for business on March 24, 1910.

Later that summer, Manning designed plans for a $2,500 addition that included a refrigerator room, store room, fuel room and laundry room. Also included was the installment of an auxiliary heating plant to furnish hot water for baths and laundry.

Historical references to the business called it the “show hotel” in town for years after it had finally been completed. A fine dining room was included in the back, complete with cloth napkins and tablecloths. Libby’s first functioning bank in town – First National Bank – was located on the first floor until it moved into its own building.

The hotel continued to operate in the coming decades under various owners – including a long stretch by Don and Edna Rice. Sometime during the 1950s, noted local artist Roy Porter painted landscape murals that can still be seen today.

Through the years, projects were done at the hotel that included the use of vermiculite. Cirian said one of the most interesting uses was as a paste to insulate pipes.

Victor Ketellapper, the EPA’s Libby team leader, said that in the recent past, the hotel got a new roof after the interior had sustained water damage.

“It might be an opportunity to re-develop that project. If we go in and clean it up, it might be available for use,” Ketellapper said, adding that the current owners are interested in selling the property.

Some of those in town with a true love for Libby’s history were delighted to hear that the hotel may be saved. After all, it survived a decade of serving as a cattle shelter along with the great fire of 1906 and has overlooked the community from the corner of California and Third for decades.