January 30, 2018

Restoring a Montana Auto Shop with a One-Track Mind

  • By: Nicholas Som
The north exterior of Zip Auto.

photo by: A&E Architects

The north exterior of Zip Auto in Missoula, Montana.

With a distinctive beige and baby blue color palette and the words “SERVICE,” “LUBRICATION,” and “ALINEMENT” [sic] displayed on its north facade, Zip Auto is a difficult building to miss when cruising through downtown Missoula, Montana. But without the preservation efforts of its owner, turning a blind eye to the Art Moderne-style auto repair shop might have become all too easy.

Zip Auto was constructed in 1937, just as the automobile craze was sweeping through Missoula. Car enthusiasts began offering automobile tours of western Montana based out of Missoula, and according to Paul Filicetti, project architect of the Zip Auto renovation, Missoula’s Main Street became something of an “Automobile Row,” with dealerships and repair shops springing up at a remarkable rate.

Rick Nash was acutely aware of Zip Auto’s historical significance when he acquired the building, and decided in 2006 to restore the deteriorating structure to its former glory. Above all, Nash was determined to retain its historic usage.

“[Nash] really wanted to keep the building as an auto body shop, so based on that, we thought about what we could do to make sure this building retained as much historic character as it could,” says Filicetti.
Zip Auto's wash bay before restoration.

photo by: A&E Architects

One of Zip Auto's wash bays before restoration.

Zip Auto's wash bay after restoration.

photo by: A&E Architects

Zip Auto is filled with classic cars undergoing repair work almost every day.

The result was a subtle, sensitive restoration that, despite its seeming modesty, has guaranteed Zip Auto’s future. Filicetti’s plan included replacing the repair shop’s entire concrete floor, bringing its mechanical and electrical systems up to date, repairing skylights, and making the front desk and bathrooms accessible according to ADA standards.

The most challenging aspect of the renovation, however, was replacing the building’s three broad, wooden garage doors. Few companies were capable of replicating the doors’ intricate detailing or handling a project of such magnitude. Fortunately, Filicetti successfully located a Montana-based company that could build the in-kind replacements they were looking for.

Renovations were completed in late 2007. All told, the project carried an $850,000 price tag. But thanks to federal and state Historic Tax Credits (HTCs), the numbers turned out much more favorably for Nash. About a quarter of the project’s total cost was supported through HTCs.

Today, the auto repair shop continues to thrive, tending to vintage and ordinary cars alike. Filicetti believes that the success of Zip Auto’s restoration and use of tax credits may have served as a catalyst for similar projects at other historic properties nearby. Former auto shops in Missoula have been adaptively reused as office buildings and pizza shops. Though several notable buildings in town have been lost in recent years, including the Missoula Mercantile Building, Filicetti can take solace in the sublimity of the Zip Auto restoration, which offers hope for the future. The project won a preservation award from the Missoula Preservation Commission in 2008.

“It’s always interesting to walk by [Zip Auto], because there’s always some period cars up on the racks being restored,” says Filicetti. “It just goes so well with the architecture of the building.”

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Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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