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Old federal courthouse gets new name while maintaining its ‘great bones’

March 3, 2017 GMT

Part engineer and part archaeologist, Quentin Eggart and his crew have unearthed some treasures as they’ve begun redeveloping the Stillwater Building, the new name for the former James F. Battin Federal Courthouse at 316 N. 26th St.

A Billings child won the naming contest for the building, purchased last July by an Alaska company for $3.2 million in a foreclosure sale.

“I like the name,” Eggart said, because of the proximity of both the Stillwater River and the mining company that bears its name.

Among Eggart’s archeological finds: Former U.S. District Court Judge Jack Shandstrom signed his name on the back of wood paneling in his fifth-floor courtroom.

And, in a nod to their safety, judges were protected by bullet-proof material that EEC, the Billings firm Eggart heads, uncovered behind some paneling during work that began last fall.

Eggart said the fourth floor, which formerly housed the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the first-floor lobby — with its iconic Lyndon Fayne Pomeroy sculpture — will be ready by late summer or fall.

He’s had inquiries from prospective tenants intrigued by the building’s more than 165,000 square feet of what will be Class A office space and available for about $15 per square foot.

The timing of the renovation may be fortuitous. An October 2016 NAI Business Properties report indicated that Billings’ office vacancy rate tumbled last year, from about 11.2 percent in January to about 9.2 percent in the fall.

The building’s not yet been listed to attract prospective tenants. Instead, “we’re relying on word of mouth,” Eggart said.

He said he’s not concerned about the potential of up to 100,000 square feet of office space that the proposed One Big Sky Center may add to the downtown office mix.

“That’s a totally different market,” he said, with rents that will be at least double the cost of renting office space in Stillwater Building, depending on the level of finish the tenant requires.

While the building’s owner has not yet pursued tax increment finance help, that could be the case once it’s time to construct a parking garage, according to Eggart, who is in negotiations over four possible nearby parking lots that could hold a 400-slot garage.

To date, about 50 workers from an Arizona asbestos abatement company have removed 1,020 tons of asbestos-affected material from Stillwater Building. The abatement is scheduled to conclude in June.

The material is placed in a double set of bags held up by large boxes. The bags are first sealed and then transported to a designated section of the Billings landfill.

Even as abatement work continues, EEC plans to begin improving the building’s exterior, which features long rows of more than 700 windows. Some windows have been temporarily removed to vent the building during the abatement process.

A rendering of what the exterior will look like is underway but not complete, Eggart said.

“It’s very linear,” he said of the current view of the exterior, adding that those improvements “will make it less repetitive.”

“We had a pretty nasty winter and we weren’t able to do any exterior work,” he said. “We’re eager to get out and do that, clean up the landscape and get the look of the new building started.”

Once the abatement work is complete, the building’s owner, Joe Holden, plans a public open house this summer to allow curious residents — and prospective tenants — to see how far along the work has progressed.

One exterior project that engineers will have to mull carefully is whether to design solar panels for the roof. They’d have to be angled properly so that the sun’s rays aren’t reflected into the windows of other tall downtown buildings, Eggart said.

Stillwater Building will be outfitted with four times the insulation that the former Battin Building had, he said. Fire suppression sprinklers are going in, and other fireproofing throughout the building is being updated. The building, constructed in 1963, will also receive all new plumbing and wiring.

Those improvements will update the building and will be convenient for tenants, but they won’t alter the historic feel of the building, which “has really great bones,” Eggart said.

Together with a handful of electricians and plumbers, about eight EEC employees are working on the redevelopment, a number that will swell in the coming weeks as the weather turns nice and exterior work ramps up, Eggart said.

“It’s a lot to keep on top of,” he said with a grin.