Western Bar building in downtown Billings to become apartments

Posted at 4:11 AM, Jun 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-20 06:11:58-04

After sitting vacant for more than five years, the building that once housed the Western and the Wheel bars has been bought. The plan is to convert it into an apartment building. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The building that once housed the old Western and Wheel bars, located side by side on the 2700 block of Minnesota Avenue, has been sold, and the new owners plan to convert it into residential apartments.

Jack English and Jeff Payne, principals of Illuminations Systems Inc., an electrical construction business in Denver that has an office in Billings, closed on the property in December and hope to start demolition on the building this summer.

English told Last Best News on Tuesday that they had previously done some relatively small-scale developments in downtown Denver, buying and renovating older properties and turning them into office space.

In downtown Billings, English said, there isn’t a great need for office space, but for some downtown apartments there is an eight-month waiting list.

“I just felt like downtown Billings is turning, and there’d be some opportunities there,” he said. “It’s pretty ripe down there.”

The building on Minnesota Avenue has roughly 12,000 square feet, English said, and he and his partner intend to put apartments on the ground floor and second floor. Until they get together with an architect — whom they intend to hire locally — they won’t know how many apartments the project might yield, he said.

Whatever they do, English said, they plan to restore the historical look of the old building, in keeping with the character of other Minnesota Avenue projects.

“We want to maintain the integrity,” English said. “We’ve done that with our other properties.”

Chuck Platt, of Diamond Real Estate, said the building has been vacant for about five years. Before that, he said, he tried finding a new owner for the bars and ended up selling the liquor license to The Vig, a bar and restaurant in the Heights.

The owner of the Western and the Wheel, Barb McKay, had an original asking price of $357,000, Platt said, and the property sold to the new owners for just under $300,000.

“I think they’ve got a pretty good building to work with,” Platt said. “It’s going to make a real nice place to live for somebody.” He said the two partners have renovated buildings in worse shape than the Western and the Wheel.

The tavern was originally called the Western Bar, Platt said, until McKay’s late husband, Terry McKay, made a separate bar, the Wheel, out of half the building. The bars shared on an interior wall and were connected by a door, but they operated under just one liquor license, Platt said.

English said he and Payne are also in the process of acquiring a vacant lot just to the east of the Western, which they hope to convert into a grassy common area for use by  residents of the building. There is a brick-and-wood facade in front of the lot, which English said they would also restore, and then put in a door on Minnesota Avenue through which residents could access the common area.

Behind this old facade, just east of the Western Bar, is a vacant lot that the building’s new owners hope to convert into an outdoor common area for residents. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

There will be some challenges in renovating the building, English said, the main one being the aggregate concrete applied over parts of the building.

“If we can unwrap them, that will be a giant step for us,” he said, adding they they want to “make sure we don’t mess the neighborhood up.”

He said interior demolition work will probably start in July or August. There are some non-load-bearing walls in the Wheel that will have to come down, and they want to modernize all the infrastructure, bringing everything up to code.

According to “A Walking Touring of Historic Downtown Billings,” a brochure published in 2001 by the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board and the city’s Community Development Division, the Western Bar was originally a wood-frame building, constructed between 1886 and 1889, that housed a barbershop and confectionary.

It was replaced with a brick structure between 1898 and 1903 and operated as a saloon from about 1902 on. The owner, Joshua Fogg, started advertising the Globe Theater in 1907, “which became linked with the notorious red light district along Minnesota Avenue.”

English said it was his understanding that the bar was in the basement, with living quarters on the ground floor and second floor.

Next door to the Western, at 2710½ Minnesota Ave., where English and Payne hope to create a common space, the original building was constructed in 1882-84 and was known as M. Henihan Cigars and Saloon.

“This site was the origination of Billings’ first and only lynching,” according to the brochure. “Joseph Clancy, the owner, lived here and operated a saloon until 1891 when he was killed by a vagrant who, when asked to pay his bill, picked up a beer mallet and crushed Clancy’s skull. Vigilantes had a body swinging from a telegraph pole within 12 hours.”

The ornate Western Bar sign that used to hang in front of the building was sold a couple of years ago to Billings native Steve Henry, who planned to display it at Henry’s Garage, his corporate conference center on Garden Avenue. Last summer he bought the old Oasis Bar sign, which was just west of the Wheel.

This photo was taken when the Western and the Wheel bars (and the Oasis Bar down the block) still had their signs out front. Carroll Van West