MISSOULA, Mont. -

Construction crews are finally cleaning up the interior of the old Mercantile Building in Missoula. It's the first phase of its historic reconstruction.

Martel Construction of Bigfork is heading the project. It's getting rid of lead paint and non friable asbestos, or asbestos that's bonded or locked in place.

The owners, Octagan Partners of Virginia, are converting the vacant department store into mixed uses for offices, shops and restaurants. Crews are gleaning the Merc's modern finishings, mostly from the 1960's on. "Gut the interior of the building, " said a subcontractor for Home Resources Lauren Varney, " dismantle carefully the inside of the building, leaving the structure intact so they can remodel it."

Home Resources is a non profit that sells used building materials. Lauren Varney loves the building's historic beauty. But the Merc, for him, and generations of Montanans is also personal. "My grandmother worked here in the 30's," said Varney.

Crews are chipping away, piece by piece, remodeling ventures from years ago. The original is exposed in amazing detail, from the massive stone walls to the tin ceilings. It's the heart of Missoula's historic downtown.

"That corner is the reason Missoula is where it's at," said senior project manager, architect, Jeff Crouch. For an architect who deals in historic structures, it's a gold mine. From the fir floors and ceiling beams, we can see Missoula's timber heritage.

"It was built in stages, starting about in 1893," said Crouch, "the building we love and are re-doing was all there prior to 1900."

Developers have a lot of space to fill. They say as many as half a dozen tenants have signed leases.