Consultants survey Helena Fire Tower ahead of proposed rehab

Posted July 26, 2022

This article originally appeared in the Helena Independent Record. It was written by Nolan Lister.

A trio of historic timber structure experts surveyed the Helena Fire Tower Monday as part of a push to rehabilitate the downtown icon.

The more than $200,000 project aims to repair the structure’s decayed timber beams and at least a half dozen joints around its base.

Dick Schmidt, a structural engineer specializing in timber structures, runs the fittingly named Fire Tower Engineered Timber, based in Wyoming. Schmidt is one of the three experts brought in Monday to look over the Guardian of the Gulch.

The structure’s current problems, he said, are “principally decay.”

He said that since its construction in the 1870s, moisture has collected in the mortise-and-tenon joints, the checks and splits, breeding fungi that eats away the wood fiber.

As a result, at least six of the joints will likely need to be replaced along with the end segments of the timber beams and their tenons.

The project also aims to address some of the previous repair efforts, that were made in good faith but were not exactly best practice when it comes to both historic preservation and timber framing.

Doug Porter runs Porter & Associates in Burlington, Vermont, and specializes in historic timber framing. Porter was also part of the team inspecting the tower.

“It’s so typical of these types of structures. We never arrive to find something pristine,” he said with a chuckle. “But we also have to acknowledge that without the earlier repairs, it might not be here today.”

In addition to Mike Cotroneo, a timber framing and historic preservation specialist based in Morrisville, Vermont, the men spent most of Monday going over the tower.

Porter said he utilized a pin-penetration wood density meter that charts the relative resistance of the each layer of wood as it is inserted into a beam.

The careful examination of the tower now ensures the city does not pay for unneeded repairs and as much of the tower as possible is retained.

The city will need to take bids on any contract for the actual rehabilitation work, but Porter said they were there to determine how much replacement timber and what sizes are needed.

“At this point, we’ll come up with a plan that meets strict preservation requirements that a company can make a proposal based on,” Porter said. “We’re inching toward a repair plan.”

The city has budgeted $150,000 of its funds for the project since 2020. Helena and Lewis and Clark County Heritage Preservation Officer Pam Attardo was also able to secure a $10,000 grant from the Montana History Foundation and is working with a local family foundation to raise the additional funds needed.

In 2020, staff planned to use dollars from Helena’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Lands budget in conjunction with community donations and a Montana Department of Commerce Historic Preservation grant of $25,000 to begin rehabilitation work.

The anticipated department of commerce grant fell through. Helena’s Fire Tower rehabilitation ranked 12th out of 94 projects that applied for the grant money, but the Montana Legislature killed the funding for it because it is located in Helena.

According to Attardo, years of neglect and the lack of a maintenance plan from the city has left the icon in “pretty dire straights.” The last significant repair work done to the tower was in 1998.

But the project may have taken on a greater, national significance.

While conducting research for the project, Attardo’s team uncovered a newspaper article from 1970 that claimed the Helena Fire Tower was one of only five such structures, a timber fire lookout tower in an urban setting, left in the United States, prompting the team to track down any others.

Downtown Port Townsend, Washington, boasts a fire bell tower, however, it is only a bell tower and is made of planed lumber, not heavy timber like Helena’s tower.

They also learned of a fire tower in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, but it is made of metal.

After hearing from contacts in 47 states, Attardo’s team believes it is quite possible Helena’s is the last remaining timber fire tower in an urban setting in the country.

“Then it becomes nationally significant,” Attardo said in a previous interview. “That would open up the door to more grant opportunities and federal funding.”

To back up the city’s commitment, Attardo said the Helena and Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council is working with nonprofit organizations Preserve Montana and Friends of the Fire Tower to drum up an additional $100,000 to seed a permanent endowment for the fire tower administered by Montana History Foundation.

“The hope is it won’t get back to the point it’s at now,” she said previously.

The city’s parks department is accepting donations for the tower by check. Those can be mailed to or dropped off at the parks department on the fourth floor of the City-County Building, 316 N. Park Ave. The check must specify that the donation is for the Helena Fire Tower repair in the lower left-hand corner.