John Chilson’s fingerprints are all over downtown Longview’s historic Merk building.
He and his wife, Mary, owned the Merk for more than three decades and spent roughly $1.3 million to restore the building, which was Longview’s first commercial structure built downtown.
Last month, Mary Chilson’s memorial service was held in the Merk’s lobby.
Now Chilson, 75, is passing his life’s work onto a new generation. He sold the building to Cassava owner Barry Isenhart on Aug. 31 for $1.5 million. It had been appraised at $2 million.
Chilson has had many offers for the building over the years, but he said he wanted to sell it to someone who shared his passion for the Merk’s history and place in the community.
“To me, it was important to have somebody that was raised in Longview and had an interest in the history. If anyone can do this, I think (Isenhart) can,” he said.
Isenhart, who attended R.A. Long High School, said his goal is to make the transition between owners as smooth as possible for the current tenants.
“I really see this as not about ownership; it’s about stewardship and taking care of that piece of history and being there for the people in Merk,” he said. “It’s got a whole bunch of people in there who make their livelihoods off of it and I don’t want to mess that up for them.”
The moment he fell in love with the building was when Chilson took him into the room with archives of The Daily News dating back to 1923, Isenhart said.
“(I was sold) when I smelled that smell of old books and saw the history from 1923,” he said. “Preserving the historical nature (of the building) is paramount to me and also preserving the historical artifacts, newspapers and logs. I consider it a treasure. That’s the real treasure of the Merk: the history.”
The Merk’s saga
The Long-Bell Lumber Company built the Merk, originally called the Columbia River Mercantile Building, in 1923 to serve as its company store and headquarters.
The Bon Marche (a former Seattle-based department store chain) purchased the building in 1950 and dramatically changed many of the building’s historic features, Chilson said.
When the Bon Marche, Sears and JCPenney’s all left Commerce Avenue in 1987 to move to the Three Rivers Mall in Kelso, downtown Longview lost 33 percent of its occupancy, he said.
Chilson, then a successful construction contractor, said he decided to purchase the building for $237,000 as a way to save downtown Longview and preserve an important historic building.
“The whole purpose was to spark other development. Maybe if we could get something started, the Penny’s building would be sold; the Sears building would be sold,” he said.
The restoration effort turned into an eight-year project. The Chilsons gutted the inside of the building, removed an escalator, moved the facade back 3.5 inches to its original location and restored the windows on the second and third floors. They also installed a new elevator, new roof and 27 ventilation units.
“It’s just a horrendous amount of money it takes to throw into that sort of thing. I easily tipped over $1.3 million by the time the first couple tenants came in January 1989,” he said.
But the effort paid off: Within a couple years, the other buildings quickly sold and vacancy dropped from 33 percent down to “almost nothing,” he said.
Yet, Chilson’s Longview preservation efforts were far from complete. Over the years, he has restored the 1924 Shay locomotive gifted to the city by Long-Bell Lumber Co, renovated the old Lumberman’ Bank Pedestal Clock in downtown Longview, refurbished the old Long-Bell steam whistle that once signaled shift changes, and commissioned the statue of R.A. Long in the Broadway median and the Sacajawea statue at the lake.
“It became clear to me ... that Longview was forgetting its uniqueness,” he said. “To this day, I’m afraid we’re still struggling with that. By restoring historic artifacts and historic buildings, it’s a constant reminder that this is a unique city.”
Chilson’s journey to Longview
Surprisingly, Chilson is not a Longview native: He was born in Olympia in 1942.
He met his future wife, Mary, at 12-years-old when her father was hired as the Director of Revenue for Gov. Albert Rosellini’s cabinet. She refused to move from Colville, Wash., to Olympia unless her horse could come, too, so Chilson’s dad offered to keep the horse on his five acres.
By 13, the Chilsons were dating, and by the last day of high school, they were engaged. But her mom said they couldn’t get married unless he went to college, so Chilson enrolled in Centralia College. One year later, in 1961, they were married.
Chilson attended Centralia College for two years before transferring to Western Washington University in Bellingham where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1964 in industrial arts. He then earned his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and returned to Washington to teach at Centralia High School for two years before pursuing his doctorate in adult education at Ohio State University. He was one of two people to graduate from his class of 150.
“I’m pretty cut and dry. I’m a person who never drank, never smoked. I’m all work,” he said. “I’m a very controlled individual when it comes to certain things.”
The Chilsons moved to Longview in 1969 when Lower Columbia College recruited him to be a dean of continuing education, but he left after three years to become a general contractor.
They bought Stylemasters College of Hair Design in 1979, which is now located at 1224 Commerce Ave. in Longview. Mary Chilson was in charge of the school and their three other cosmetology schools in Portland, Astoria and Hillsboro while John Chilson ran Stylemasters Construction.
But the pair “operated as one individual. We were life partners. She was my strength and I was her strength,” he said. They had two children together and three grandchildren.
Chilson said he shut down his contracting company when Mary Chilson was diagnosed with dementia in 2008. She died at home on Aug. 14.
Now, Chilson says, he is “wrapping things up.” His health is declining; he receives transfusions multiple times a week and has had 33 operations stemming from a botched surgery in 1998.
Lisa Kayser, vice president for career development at Stylemasters College, said many Merk tenants are sad to see Chilson sell the building.
“Every staircase, every railing, every door molding is from John doing it himself,” she said. “It’s just a really hard thing to see a building (sell) and you hope the next person puts as much love into it as John and Mary did.”
Isenhart said he would like to see a little more “energy” going back into the Merk with more retail shops, but he doesn’t want to push out any current tenants.
“Historically speaking, the Merk has always been the heart of downtown,” he said. “After John and Mary revitalized the building, they did a great job of bringing businesses back. ... Now I’m tasked with not messing it up. My job is to maintain that and have good stewardship and pride to carry on the torch. That’s pretty simple.”
Chilson said it’s hard to walk away from the Merk, but it’s the right time to do so.
“My wife and I used to say, ‘What is our existence?’ ” he said. “The real purpose of our existence in this life is stewardship. You’d like to think that when you pass away, you have left the world in a better position than when you found it.”