Explosion Rips Hole in Downtown Bozeman, Montana
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Mar. 19, 2009
An explosion in Bozeman, Mont., two weeks ago killed a woman and destroyed four historic buildings on Main Street.
Today the city of 35,000 is still recovering from the March 5 blast, the result of a natural-gas leak. Three other buildings in the National Register Historic District were heavily damaged.
"For 20 years we planned and trained so that nothing like this would happen to our downtown, and in the blink of an eye, a huge part of what makes Bozeman Bozeman is gone," says Chuck Winn, assistant city manager, who was the city's fire chief for more than 20 years. "It's like a bad dream that you can't wake up from."
In seconds, the town lost structures dating to 1891, 1889, 1912, and 1929. Three other heavily damaged buildings—a 1928 former Montgomery Ward, a c. 1890 house of prostitution, and an 1882 edifice that housed a deli and toy store—are threatened as a result.
"In terms of preservation, our number-one priority is securing the two buildings on either side of the destruction and making sure that they reopen. We believe that they can be repaired," says Allyson Bristor, an associate planner and historic preservation officer at the city. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Mountains/Plains Office, based in Denver, has offered Bozeman a grant from its Intervention Fund to assist in assessing the damage, and a representative will be making an onsite visit next month to provide further assistance and resources.
"The sad thing, from a preservation perspective, is that downtown Bozeman had such a vibrant, close-knit ambiance," says Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance, based in Helena. "It was a great historic district, and now there's a hole right in the middle."
Because of the economic downturn, however, this year many storefronts on Main Street had become vacant. "We had been so spoiled in Bozeman; we always had a fully occupied downtown," Bristor says. "Over the last two months, we have had a lot of our downtown stores close. Now you're seeing people downtown that were never there before, people who are curious to see what happened. The community is realizing, even more than they had before, why downtown was important."
As for fixing the hole, Bristor says, "It's too early to tell. Property owners don't really know what to think right now. They don't know if they can rebuild. There are lots of 'what ifs' floating around." Either way, though, she says, "the rebuilding process needs to be a community process because we're all involved. We've all been affected by this."
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