Reflections on The Merk's Restoration

By John S. Chilson Ph.D. , President

Columbia River Mercantile, Inc.

On Monday, October 5, 1987, I submitted a sealed bid to the City of Longview for the purchase and restoration of the Bon Marche Building at 1339 Commerce Avenue in historic downtown Longview. The bid equaled the minimum amount of $234,000 that Price Development Company of Salt Lake City, Utah had agreed to accept. To my knowledge, there were no other bidders. It would prove to be a difficult project in terms of financing, controlling construction costs, and generating lease-ups. A successful Merk restoration could pay big dividends toward the revitalization of downtown Longview and add to the district's revival momentum. A failed project could leave downtown Longview looking like so many other downtowns with vacated buildings from loss of anchor stores to new retail malls.

The first six months were the most frustrating: building the financial package, applying for low interest loans, and organizing an LID improvement for the adjacent alley and parking lot. First, one plan would derail, then another. Finally, in May 1988, Price Development Company agreed to finance the building for a five year period. The City of Longview and the State of Washington arranged a total of $440,000 in low interest loans for the same period of time. With the balance of funds coming from our personal assets, the 1.3 million dollar project was up and running. During the summer months of 1988, architect and engineering plans were prepared and demolition of old Bon Marche improvements completed. The building permit was issued in September, 1988, and the first retail tenant (The Green Thumb Planter) moved into suites 101 & 102 on February 1, 1989.

Soon after construction started, it was obvious that there was not enough money in the world to support all of the construction trades now working in the building. As a general contractor with the skills and experience necessary, I decided to lengthen the construction period from 1 year to five years, increase our "sweat equity", and slow down and eliminate sub-contractors. To this day, I'm not sure if the community understood this decision and why it was taking so long to complete the restoration. Rent values in downtown Longview simply could not support a conventional construction cycle nor construction cost overrides. It was critical to downtown Longview that this project succeed with near full occupancy, thereby stimulating neighboring projects for continued revitalization of the historic commercial district.

To nurture the building into the 21st century, all of the building's mechanical systems had to be upgraded: new plumbing, new electrical, HVAC systems, seismic standards, fire protection, a new elevator, and ADA accessibility. With nearly 70,000 square feet in the building, my son, David, and I with the help of friends and family installed 51,696 square feet of floor coverings, 6,462 ceiling tiles, 500 lighting fixtures, built 50 suites, hung 100 solid core doors, removed a 100 ton escalator system and freight elevator, installed a new elevator, installed 25 miles of copper plumbing, 27 HVAC 3, 4, & 5 ton units, 50 miles of electrical conduit & over 100 miles of wire. I often felt like the one little pig who built a brick house, never able to leave the site for a second. David and I easily logged in 15,600 construction hours each during this 5 year restoration period.

One final difficulty we faced concerned the building's exterior columns. These 12 columns were steel beams encased in concrete for fire protection and decorated with terra cotta tile. During the Bon Marche remodeling jn 1951, this terra cotta was removed and thrown away. The building's first two floors along Commerce and Broadway were actually moved toward the street 3-1/2 inches. Construction then passed over the outside surfaces of the columns giving a simple, "contemporary" look that the Bon Marche desired. In 1988, we moved these two building faces back to their original location, once again exposing the 12 rough concrete coated columns. Locating matching terra cotta tile that would face these columns proved impossible. Then, in 1993, Architectural Reproductions of Portland, Oregon examined historic photos, constructed matching molds, and cast a reproduction to match the building's existing terra cotta design. Its installation in 1993 marked the completion of the five year restoration project.

The visitor Guide to the Merk is intended to take you back in time to capture a glimpse of Longview's history, and restoration efforts necessary to carry on into the 21st Centyry. On behalf of the Merk, I would like to encourage the public to visit the building, participate in our special events, and take a walking tour of the building. We also offer presentations to groups interested in historic restorations of commercial properties: financing, actual construction, and historic preservation.

The Merk

1339 Commerce Avenue
Longview, WA   98632

Building Hours:
8am - 6pm Monday - Friday
8am - 5pm Saturday
Closed on Sundays

Holiday Closures:
New Year's Day
Memorial Day
July 4th
Labor Day

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