Primarily working alone, retired aerospace engineer John Hinchey has restored three historic buildings in downtown Kalispell

Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
John Hinchey, a man whose active mind prevents idle hands, was never going to be good at retirement. So, after calling it a career following 32 years as an aerospace engineer for Hughes Space and Communications in Southern California and moving to the Flathead Valley permanently in 1998, he started looking for projects.

He couldn’t have guessed the search would lead him 20 years later to boasting an impressive showcase of refurbished historic buildings encompassing the better part of a city block in downtown Kalispell.

Hinchey discovered his first project when he heard that a restaurant owner was selling his Main Street location. He struck up a conversation with the owner, who handed him an order pad and told him to write down a price. Hinchey jotted down a number.

“He said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Hinchey recalled recently with a laugh. “I should’ve probably written down a lower number.”

Thusly, his first renovation was underway, in 2000, not exactly the height of a downtown real estate boom.

“People said, ‘What are you doing? Main Street Kalispell is dead. You’re wasting your money,’” Hinchey said. “I just said, ‘Well, I like doing it.’”

“I bought that building,” he added, “and just kept going. I realized, ‘I can actually make a little money doing something I really love.”

“The Palm,” located at 120 Main Street in Kalispell

Even before his Kalispell endeavors, Hinchey had long found ways to put his creative construction instincts to use outside of his formal engineering job, which primarily involved working on satellites. In California in the late 1970s, state law required him to earn a general contractor license in order to build an addition on his home. Afterward, he wrote a book and sold it as a primer for other people studying to get their license.

Hinchey’s initial downtown Kalispell remodel, the first of three turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, transformed the former restaurant space into Sassafras on the main level, which has been a tenant for 16 years, and law offices on the second story. Hinchey’s son, Sean Hinchey, initially used the upstairs for his law firm before moving to a different location. Other attorneys now use the offices.

Behind the law offices is a ballroom with a track-like mezzanine overlooking it. The hidden architectural gem once hosted boxing matches in the 1940s and ’50s but is now rented for events. The weekend before Hinchey gave a tour of the ballroom to a reporter, a wedding there had hosted 150 people.

Hinchey did the lion’s share of work by himself on that project and the two others on the same block: the former Shorty’s Barbershop location and the Heller Building, which previously housed Think Local and is now home to Montana Marie. In doing so, he has carved out a unique niche as both a preserver of history and a champion of progress in the heart of the Flathead Valley’s largest city.

The buildings are among Kalispell’s longest standing, originally constructed within roughly a decade of each other beginning in 1894. The oldest, the Sassafras building, was one of Kalispell’s first brick structures and home to Charles and Henry Lindlahr’s Brewery Saloon, which served beer brewed at the Lindlahrs’ nearby Kalispell Malting and Brewing Company.

The Lindlahrs added the second story in 1900 for the “exclusive, men-only Kalispell Club,” which, following subsequent additions, would offer billiards, card rooms, reading areas and Kalispell’s first bowling alley. In 1919, James Jorgenson and Albert Dreesen converted the building into The Palm, which survived Prohibition by selling fishing and smoking supplies, gifts, candy, lunch and fountain drinks, and by opening up the bowling alley once a week to women.

A renovation in the 1970s covered the exterior with modern metal and brick. Hinchey used old photos as guides to restore the original Victorian façade. He has received federal historical preservation tax credits, which requires him to follow certain guidelines in preserving the structure’s traditional characteristics. The guidelines, however, don’t provide advice on removing feathered squatters.

“When I bought (the Sassafras building,) there were pigeons roosting upstairs,” he said. “The windows were pretty much broken out. So it was a big step to get the pigeons out.”

The Sassafras project also came with non-bird challenges. The previous owner had stripped tin from parts of the ceiling to sell it, leaving a patchwork of disconnected ornate metal. The owner had done the same with lumber, which led him to gut the upstairs floor. Hinchey recalls walking on nothing more than floor joists, with open air all around his feet providing clear views to the main level below.

Later projects presented their own obstacles. Namely, shortly after Hinchey purchased the Heller Building, it was burned by a fire at neighboring Glacier Bank in 2005 and damaged by the subsequent water used in dousing the flames. The upstairs, which formerly housed Glacier Symphony and Chorale’s offices, was in especially rough shape.

The Heller Building’s original occupant, the Heller Saloon, opened in 1900 and later featured Kalispell’s first cement sidewalk outside, as well as a interior finishes purchased in Chicago and a Stubber’s gas lighting system. With widespread spittoons, backroom poker games, rough clientele and rumors of unseemly behavior occurring upstairs, the saloon gained enough of reputation for Carrie Nation, a well-known temperance crusader, to deliver her gospel message in front of the building in 1910.

During Prohibition, John Gus Thompson, a former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who pitched in the 1903 World Series, opened a pool hall in the Heller. Later, the Pastime Bar offered “fishing tackle, beer, tobacco, and hot meals,” according to the National Register of Historic Places. The Pastime lasted until 1988.

The ballroom above Sassafras at John Hinchey’s property at 120 Main Street

Undeterred by the considerable tests each project posed, Hinchey methodically went about his business, chipping away without rushing and with the primary goal of simply doing the job right, which entailed preserving historical character as much as possible. Working mostly by himself or with one other partner, as well as periodic subcontractors, Hinchey took from 2005 to 2010 to refurbish the Heller Building’s main level. And it took him a few more years to finish transforming the upstairs space — the former Glacier Symphony offices — into a gorgeous 2,000-square-foot vacation rental.

The vacation rental shows off Hinchey’s creative resourcefulness, featuring windows salvaged from the demolition of the old Missoula County courthouse, as well as a clawfoot tub. Hinchey is proud of his keen eye for clawfoot tubs, and for a separate project, he found one gathering dust in a lawnmower shop in California and hauled it by car to Montana.

“I always scrounge up a clawfoot tub somewhere,” he noted.

Hinchey also owns an old cabin that he renovated along the Middle Fork Flathead River, as well as a handful of residential income properties that he refurbished throughout Kalispell, including two on Fourth Street in the historical eastside district.

The now-vacant Shorty’s Barbershop location was originally Rexall Drugstore in the early 20th century. Since Hinchey purchased it roughly a decade ago, it always had a tenant until Shorty’s moved to another location, providing him his first chance to work his magic. On any given day, he can be found hunched over a table saw inside, likely alone or possibly with a right-hand man, preserving yet innovating, stabilizing yet creating, and, most importantly, enjoying every second of it.

“I just like working on these old buildings and getting them fixed up,” he said. “It’s so rewarding.”

He added: “I love Kalispell.”