HAVRE — If nothing else, it's affordable housing. They could fix it up and rent out part of it.
That's what Marc Whitacre and Erica Farmer thought when they purchased a three-story former post office and federal courthouse in downtown Havre, population 9,700, located on the Hi-Line less than 50 miles from the Canadian border.
The two eye doctors and their three children have been living in the basement since 2012, as they worked to repair the 35,000-square-foot building, constructed in 1932 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
This summer, they'll move into the former courtroom on the top level. The first and second floors are home to professional office spaces, and the grand mail sorting room and lobby serve as an event center.
Fixing it was an undertaking paid for with private money, some grant assistance and countless hours of personal work.
Altogether, they saved a structure decaying from the inside — burst pipes had sullied the walls, ceilings and floors throughout.
"I basically felt it would’ve been criminal – an act of community neglect – not to buy the building," Whitacre said. "How could you let something like this deteriorate?"
The family's efforts earned them the 2015 Preservation Award for Outstanding Preservation Rehabilitation Project, an honor distributed every other year by the Montana State Historic Preservation Office.
"He's sort of a rare example of someone who has the wherewithal to do a project like this," said Pete Brown, a historic architecture specialist with the office. "Not just the vision, not just the money, not just the patience and the willingness to get dirty. He has all of those things, which is rare."
The building, which sits on Third Avenue in Havre's historic downtown district, was originally constructed as a two-story post office.
During Prohibition, Whitacre said, this Hi-Line town close to the Canadian border saw such a high volume of bootlegging and related arrests that a third floor was added for a federal courthouse, since it was cheaper than bringing the accused to Great Falls to face justice.
It served as the city's post office until 1995, when a new building was constructed and the U.S. Postal Service gave the building to the city.
A heritage center occupied the space for a time, followed by a somewhat tangled chain of ownership before Whitacre's arrival in Havre.
The city sold it to a private individual, who subsequently lost the building to a roofing contractor during a court dispute. That contractor died, and Whitacre purchased it from the estate in 2011 for about the same amount, he said, as a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house.
In the interim, extensive damage was done.
"It had basically sat abandoned for 2 1/2 years through two of the worst winters that had occurred in this region – and without heat," Whitacre said.
The building has a roof-drain system that employs rain leaders to funnel all the water and snowmelt down through pipes in the walls.
"Those pipes froze, and so every drop of water that landed on the roof drained into the building, and not through the building in the pipes," he said.
Not only was there six figures' worth of broken pipes, but plaster walls were wrecked and paint from the ceiling and walls was shed across the floors like oversized confetti. Winter had come indoors, and ice would build up like a waterfall in the interior stairway from the lobby to the upper stories.
The floors, too, were destroyed in numerous places. The entire surface of the mail sorting room, once a fine tongue-and-groove maple, had to be replaced.
The building came with a $100,000 matching grant from the National Park Service via the Save America's Treasures Act.
Beyond some help with plaster and paint, Farmer and Whitacre have done the bulk of the work themselves.
The National Park Service reviewed Whitacre's plans before awarding the grant, with Brown's office acting as a liaison.
Brown said there's a set of architectural rules that any modifications, additions or repairs must comply with.
"The standards kind of jog your thinking, so you make a decision that retains the historic character of the building," Brown said, and retain the qualities that earned a building a spot on the Historic Register.
When Brown said Whitacre was willing to get his hands dirty, he was referring to the "Swiss Family Historic Preservation" skills that Whitacre has learned.
The Kansas transplant did have prior experience with renovating and maintaining older homes – his previous house was built in 1887.
"This is practically new construction by my standards," he said.
He said preserving a home of any age in the Midwest is more difficult. In contrast to the arid Hi-Line environment, there’s the humidity, termites and other pests, mold, fungi and other natural detriments that can deteriorate a home rapidly without proper remediation.
While the post office wasn't a shell by any means, maintaining it required skill sets expected of a superintendent.
He's now a state-certified low-pressure boiler engineer, a skill he learned to care for the two massive boilers in the basement.
He keeps his license posted and has a copy of “The Lost Art of Steam Heating,” by Dan Holohan at the ready. There are, after all, more than 100 radiators to deal with.
“I paid a guy in Great Falls, actually $1,200, to come and teach me how to diagnose and repair thermostats and the pneumatic systems," he said.
In the basement, he has the kits to maintain the system, such as testing equipment and chemicals to ensure no rust develops in the cast-iron steam pipes – an essential buildingwide feature too costly to replace.
Before even purchasing the structure, he had a plumber ensure the pipes were intact.
“That’s what saved the building, ‘cause if they’d been broken, the steam pipes, it would’ve been a mess," he said.
Historic preservation is an exterior project as well, including hard-to-reach storm windows. Some remain inaccessible without scaffolding, but others he can access via a handy tool parked outside.
"That’s a $7,000 repo bucket truck that I had to buy just so I could work on the windows," he said.
Farmer said she enjoys learning new skills, but running the 1979 GMC bucket truck with her husband up two floors was "still very nerve-wracking."
Whitacre also does the upkeep on the elevator, a 1960s-era addition.
“The part that’s maintainable is the logic. It’s all relays,” he said. “There’s no solid-state electronics here. It’s all relays, transformers or fuel resistors and capacitors. It’s all technology that’s well-described. You can buy books on the subject, which I own. And I do all the maintenance work on the elevator that I can.”
By state law, he keeps schematics posted in the mechanical room above the elevator shaft, where you can also manually raise or lower the elevator.
(It's labeled in case he's the one stuck in the elevator: "Remove cap to winch.")
In addition to his books on elevator repair, he has authentic documentation.
"The Post Office always maintained its own elevators," he said. "So I’m fortunate in that I actually have an original U.S. Post Office elevator maintenance manual, which is not something most owners of elevators are privileged to have."
He said the old-fashioned design has made his duties as super relatively easy.
"The technology behind the building is very simple. It’s a building, that like many older buildings, was designed to be maintainable," he said.
And he deflected with some humor the notion that an eye practice keeps him busy enough as-is.
“It’s my day job," he said. "You’ve gotta have something to think about while you’re at work.”
"It’s good to have a hobby," he said. "But it’s educational, too, frankly. How many people have the opportunity to learn how to service and operate a boiler, you know? Or the mobile appliances attached to it?"
He has a long history of tackling demanding or technically difficult subjects. He started college at age 15, earned his B.A. at 19 and M.A. at 21, both in Japanese and Chinese classics. He then started medical school at 22. He's earned a small land private pilot's license, and as an ophthalmologist has written a book. ("Principles and Applications of Intraocular Gas," available on Amazon.com.)
The family moved to Havre for work. Whitacre said the Kansas City metropolitan area is "saturated with specialists," while Havre sorely needed a full-time ophthalmologist.
"Until my arrival, patients had to go to Great Falls for even the simplest procedure," he said, including monthly treatments for macular degeneration.
Farmer said Northern Montana Hospital heavily recruited Whitacre, which led them up to the Hi-Line, a part of the country Farmer said they never imagined moving to before.
They'd thought they would buy an older ranch house with some acreage.
Now, though, they have an elegant mail sorting room, host to weddings, receptions and gatherings.
The arches are intact, as is the long wall with 1,369 original mail slots, some with name-plate plaques in honor of a relative.
"Many people have memories of the building from their childhood," Whitacre said. They remember coming to pick up the mail with their families, or maybe buying candy from the blind man in the lobby.
He's had a positive response from the community and accolades on the Havre Daily News editorial page.
Farmer said they don't regret the decision at all. They could walk away now, she said, and the building would be preserved.
“I’d like to think it has set an example,” Whitacre said, and he believes others may follow suit as the economy improves and if banks take larger risks on such properties.
Six businesses rent office spaces, and more will open as the second-floor renovations continue.
He bills the rooms as "quality, quiet office space," and the historic digs must surely be a selling point.
The terrazzo walls in the entryway and lobby are lined with cuts of marble, arranged in a subtle mirrored sequence discernible through its patterns – utterly unique ribbons of white branching through a dark gray base.
"Someone took a slab, cut it in half and folded it like leaves in a book that you can spread apart," he said. They continue from the entryway through the lobby, and in some sections of the floor. Because they came from the same batch, they're irreplaceable.
"You could not buy that today," Whitacre said.
As a former post office, the building has quirks left from the days when the economy relied on physical mail, securely delivered like clockwork.
Several offices on the main floor have not one but two safes, one on the ground level and another halfway to the ceiling.
"The lower safe is a fire safe," Whitacre said. "The upper safe is where they actually store cash – the theory being that you’d have to get a ladder and there’d be more of a scene if you were going to retrieve anything from that safe."
In the mail sorting room, what appears to be a large air duct complete with small ventilation slots runs parallel to the ceiling.
No air system runs through that duct. Those slots are observation ports for the postal inspector. There's one hidden entry point on the first floor and another on the second, where the inspector, a member of the law enforcement division of the USPS, had an office.
The hidden eyes of the inspector extended down to the basement, where there's an employee break room and men's bathroom. In grand fashion, it also has a marble shower (still functioning, Whitacre points out.)
Due to the Postal Service's "trust issues," as Whitacre called them, there were no stalls to divide the toilets.
"These were my modern addition," he said, pointing to the new dividers and stall doors. They were removed at some point in the past, and no surviving postal employee Whitacre has spoken with can remember enjoying the privacy of a stall.
Would a lack of dividers prevent two employees from conspiring against the USPS? Apparently not. And so the postal inspector had an observation port built into the wall next to the sink.
By the summer, the family will move to the third floor into the former courthouse digs. (Yes, there is still a holding cell. It will likely be a clothes closet.)
In preparation for the move, some rooms are filled with boxes and mattresses and other items.
"That magnificent arched ceiling at one time was covered up," he said, pointing to the 21-foot space in the former courtroom.
He discovered the cove lighting with 96 original light fixtures with reflectors that project toward the ceiling on the east and west sides. He rounded out the "Depression-era mood lighting," as he calls it, on the other walls with fluorescent light banks that brighten the room with 21-foot-high ceilings.
In the rear corner will be a kitchen. The judge's chambers will be a bedroom, the adjacent court reporter's office a large walk-in closet.
In accordance with a historic structure, all of the features they add can be removed by the next owners – Farmer refers to themselves as the "light-keepers" of a sort.
Former offices elsewhere on the floor will serve as children's rooms.
Simply living in the building has its own quirks for Victor, 5, Marc, 9, and Grant, 12.
“Of course, every bathroom has a urinal. These kids just don’t know when they have it good," he said.
Farmer said they're like many kids, in that they get accustomed to new surroundings quickly.
She said it "doesn't even strike them as unusual anymore" that they live in a building with a jail cell, mail sorting room and other unique features.
Even the observation tunnels have become old hat, she said, although neighbor kids want to go through them when they come in.
She said they've enjoyed the community – the kids can ride their bikes to the candy store and partake in other all-American small-town activities that weren't possible anymore in the suburbs.
Whitacre caps off a tour of the building by retrieving his laptop, which contains folders and folders of photos of the building before they moved in and began work.
“It’s like one of those ‘House Hunters’ things," he said, while perusing the files to find the most dilapidated images. "Like, ‘Oh, honey, a little fresh coat of paint and it’ll be fine.’ ”
"We sort of make fun of those shows, because those people have no idea what trouble is," he said.