BILLINGS — After securing a $400,000 grant from a bill passed by the 2019 Montana Legislature, staff at the Moss Mansion Museum were able to complete some major renovation projects to the downtown Billings home built in 1903, said Aly Turner, fundraising manager for the museum.
“Every penny that we make, we fundraise from the ground up. We don’t receive any money from the state or the city. That (bill) was a huge help because we were gifted that essentially and were able to do a lot of the renovations that were on our bucket list for a long time,” Turner told Q2 on Tuesday.
The grant money came from the Montana Museums Act of 2020. Through the bill, the Daly Mansion in Hamilton also received $400,000 for restorations. The grant was one-time-only and is not renewed annually.
At the Moss, staff were able to put the money to good use on projects that are considered deferred maintenance.
Ongoing and complete renovation projects at the museum include: refinishing the flooring on the second floor, fixing water damage in the second floor guest room, patching up the roof, modernizing electrical wiring throughout the entire house and replacing the flooring in the basement.
The slew of renovations kicked off in 2020. Staff had already planned to close the museum for March of 2020 to refinish the second floor flooring, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It was kind of odd timing, but it was kind of a blessing for us because we were prepared to be closed anyway. So, we weren't affected right away as much as everyone else. That really gave us some time to understand what we wanted to do about COVID and the safety precautions we wanted to take," Turner said.
The museum opened back up in the summer of 2020, but tour numbers dropped significantly compared to previous years with fewer people traveling to see the mansion.
“Tours probably took the biggest impact for us when it came to COVID. We had one of our biggest tour years in 2019, then to have 2020 hit and it wasn’t as successful because people weren’t traveling as much. That was pretty hard for us, but we got by just like everyone else did," Turner said.
Last week, staff opened the basement of the museum back up. The space houses the gift shop, volunteer area and is the first place guests see when they enter the home. Work started on tearing out the old floorboards in September and was completed last week.
Many folks in Billings associate the Moss Mansion with Halloween and Christmas, due to the museum's popular events held during the holiday season. It was a challenge for staff to find different ways to cater events without the use of the basement, Turner said.
"It was really tough because we had to be creative and figure different things out," Turner said.
During the time without use of the basement, staff moved the front desk outside and people snaked through the house in one-way traffic.
Turner said the old floorboards were made of a soft wood and were rotting from underneath, thus their need for replacement. There were some spots in the basement that weren't very trustworthy when placed under a heavy load.
The new floors are made from a hard wood, and a vapor barrier was placed underneath to stop them from rotting again. The new basement floorboards were constructed using the same techniques builders used in 1903.
Return visitors will be happy to learn the historic aspects of the floor have been preserved, namely the chop marks on the floor from where the family used to cut wood and makeshift bowling alley the Moss children made in the basement.
“It was good enough to keep and it had historical content too. If we had lived in an ideal world, we could have kept all of the floor, but it just wasn’t possible," Turner said.
The overhaul of the electrical system left an opportunity to add some fancy technology to the 118-year-old house, that previously used knob-and-tube wiring. Crews with Yellowstone Valley Electric were tasked with rewiring dozens of light fixtures in the home.
In the past, staff would have to flip breakers in the basement to give the house power, then go through every room to flip every light switch. Since the year is 2021 and not 1903, voice-activated lights are now installed in the Moss Mansion. Now, a staff member just has to ask Google to turn on the lights, rather than taking a walk through the entire house.
One project that isn't quite yet complete is the restoration of water damage in the guest bedroom on the second floor. Turner said when the home was first bought by the Billings Preservation Society in the late 1980s, the guest room had water damage that was eventually restored. A floral pattern on the top of the walls around the perimeter of the room was originally hand painted by the home's matriarch Mattie Moss.
In the past few years, water damaged the walls of the guest room again, necessitating the restoration. The guest room walls are all linen on plaster. Greg Marsters, owner of Idaho-based Custom Plaster, has been tasked with bringing the room back to life.
“(The walls) actually come off in panels. Imagine pieces of drywall, but these huge panels. (Marsters) brought them all the way down (to the basement) and he created a room in this corner to work on those in a private space," Turner said.
Turner said the hope is to have the guest room back open to the public at the start of June.
With this selection of deferred maintenance projects complete or nearing completion, hopefully the mansion will stand for another 100 years.