Montana's Many Glacier Hotel Is Revitalized Against the Backdrop of a Changing Landscape
On the hot, smoky afternoon of September 12, 2017, I follow a silver-haired architect named Nan Anderson on a tour celebrating the completion of major rehabilitation work at the century-old Many Glacier Hotel. The building sits high up a majestic valley inside Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, just below the Canadian border.
In its heyday, the hotel hosted famous guests such as comedian Groucho Marx and an inspired President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited in 1934 and pronounced to a radio audience of millions, “there is nothing so American as our national parks.” The hotel’s Swiss-influenced architecture shone inside more than a million acres of wilderness—a landscape so spectacular that naturalist and conservationist George Bird Grinnell christened it “The Crown of the Continent.” Architectural historians judged the Many Glacier Hotel as quintessential an example of rustic architecture as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Hotel, and Yosemite’s Ahwahnee (now the Majestic Yosemite) Hotel.
But age and brutal winters slowly crippled the wooden, chalet-style building. In 2000, United States Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told a high-ranking congressional committee he thought the best tools to repair it would be “a can of gasoline and a match.”
This afternoon, as Anderson—of the Golden, Colorado, architectural firm Anderson Hallas—leads her tour into the hotel’s Ptarmigan Dining Room, people twirl to see it in 360-degree panorama. She recalls the moment she dedicated herself to the hotel’s preservation.
While exploring an upper floor during her initial assessment of the structure, she had discovered a doorway above a drop ceiling that the hotel’s original builder, the Great Northern Railway, had installed in the dining hall in the 1930s to hide the little brown bats that colonized its heights. Stepping on guano, Anderson looked up and beheld a sight hidden from public view for eight decades: an elegantly engineered system of trusses, struts, and cleats holding the vaulted roof in a perfect A-shape. She decided the Many Glacier Hotel would “absolutely not” shut down.
“It was like a cathedral,” she says.
The Many Glacier Hotel was built because of the obsessive vision of one man, Louis W. Hill. In 1907, Hill inherited the presidency of the mighty Great Northern Railway from his father, James “Empire Builder” Hill. Period photos show the junior Hill looking owlish in flat cap and round glasses, wearing tweed sport suits and jodhpurs—jaunty, compared to his scowling father.
Great Northern tracks ran from Minneapolis to Seattle, parallel to (and just north of) the route that Americans Lewis and Clark blazed in 1805. James Hill considered his railroad the Gilded Age culmination of those efforts. He saw the American West, though, as little more than a quarry of extractable resources.
His son, however, saw a Western resource that couldn’t be logged, mined, or grazed: beauty. Louis Hill envisioned the Great Northern Railway capitalizing on the northern Rocky Mountains’ splendor, if he could entice passengers to visit. On the shore of scenic Swiftcurrent Lake, at the hub of two alpine valleys, and near a mountain revered by the Blackfeet Nation (the region’s indigenous inhabitants, many of whom believe the U.S. government swindled the eastern side of the park from them), Hill chose to locate the Many Glacier Hotel.To boost the property’s real estate value before he broke ground, Hill is reputed to have used his corporate clout to cow holdout senators into establishing Glacier National Park in 1910. The railway eventually built Glacier Park Lodge, Belton Chalet, and eight backcountry chalets in the park, as well as the Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada’s neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park—all Hill’s visions. But he was so fixated on the Many Glacier Hotel that it dominated his correspondence. How large should the chimney be in the Ptarmigan Dining Room? What diameter the skylights? Which variety of decorative plants to accent the lobby’s exquisite double-helix staircase? In 1912, he resigned as railway president, possibly to micromanage construction of the hotel. The 2001 book Glacier’s Historic Hotels & Chalets: View With a Room, by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison, quotes Hill as saying, “I loathe to entrust the development to anybody but myself.”
Construction on the Many Glacier Hotel began in 1914, pausing only when temperatures hit 53 degrees below zero. For its columns, 20 towering Douglas firs cut near the Pacific Ocean were carried by train to Montana and skidded into the Many Glacier Valley. The rest was built of Englemann spruce trees logged inside the park and granite quarried from neighboring mountains. The grand opening came July 4, 1915. Two years later, the annex was finished. A five-story, 214-room Valhalla of Swiss-style architecture, Japanese lanterns, and Blackfeet pictographs, the hotel was the largest in Montana.
The Great Northern Railway, with Hill still on its board, underwrote a national ad campaign called “See America First.” It showcased the Many Glacier Hotel, jewel of the Rocky Mountains. In a 1928 ad, one visitor raves, “The Alps have never had this lure for me … these mountains are my own.”
With the 1932 completion of Glacier’s vertiginous showstopper, Going-to-the-Sun Road, its maturation into a tourist mecca was complete. In just a few years buses called “Red Jammers” began to wind up and down the road along with cars full of wide-eyed, white-knuckled families. They still do.
But the automobile ended the Great Northern’s effective monopoly on Glacier transportation, along with any residual assumption that the park was its fiefdom. In 1925, the first National Park Service director, Stephen Mather, decided to eradicate the park’s still-operable lumber mill, which Hill had used in the construction of the Many Glacier Hotel. Mather ordered it loaded with dynamite and hit the detonator.
The Great Depression dealt the railway another blow. By the time Hill died in 1948, five of his backcountry chalets were destroyed, either by wrecking crew or forest fire. Meanwhile, the Many Glacier Hotel turned into a money pit.
In a 1957 attempt to sell its interest in the hotel, the railway leased it to the braggadocious Donald T. Knutson, owner of a Minneapolis construction company. Knutson gave the building a retail makeover. Out went the double-helix staircase. In its place went a gift shop. Knutson’s slogan: “This is the year we melt the glaciers.” Park historians have called his tenure a “reign of terror.”
The railway did transfer its park interests in 1961, to a corporation led by a former mayor of Tucson, Arizona. It hired Ian Tippett, an unconventional Englishman, to manage the Many Glacier Hotel, and eccentricity had a melodious renaissance. The tall and gangly Tippett adored music. He hired workers from music schools and had them serenade guests and put on shows. Until Tippett left in 1982, the Many Glacier Hotel annually staged a Broadway-style show—for one summer night, the valley named for glaciers would transform into the Great White Way.
But the sound of music muffled the groans of the old hotel creaking apart. Balconies sagged, and some outside fell clean away. Snow and rain seeped inside. The entire building tipped, inch by inch, toward Swiftcurrent Lake.
Although the National Park Service began paying for repairs on the park’s properties, the Many Glacier Hotel’s future still looked grim. But public support for it, and for the two remaining backcountry chalets, Granite Park Chalet and Sperry Chalet, surged. In 1987 the Many Glacier Hotel was listed as a National Historic Landmark. In 1996 the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed it (along with other historic structures in Glacier National Park) on its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
“If we were to lose this, there’s no way a building like it would ever be built again in a national park,” says Barbara H. Pahl, a senior vice president with the National Trust.
The renovation project cost a total of about $42 million, most of which was appropriated by Congress. (The rest of the funding was raised privately.) In 2000, renovations began. Contractors wrapped cables through the building and up over the roof. The cables pulled east, while hydraulic jacks pushed west. This corrected the tilt. Crews also strengthened the exterior balconies.
In 2004, Anderson Hallas joined the project. Immediately, the architects discovered that despite what Hill’s original blueprints showed, several Douglas fir columns did not stretch the full five stories from lake level to crow’s nest. They were bisected at the first floor, with the top section merely stacked atop the lower. Workers clamped these columns together and fortified them with metal braces. The wood inside the column bases, meanwhile, had rotted from decades of absorbing water running beneath the hotel. Building crews chainsawed them open, replaced the rot with steel beams, and glued back the outer wood to preserve the aesthetic: new marrow for the hotel’s old bones.
Wildlife sometimes made work difficult; contractors kept finding hotel soaps hidden by packrats. One day, after they removed a board protecting a plate-glass window, a passing bighorn ram saw its reflection and charged. The ram was uninjured. Not so the glass.
“If we were to lose this, there's no way a building like it would ever be built again in a national park.”Barbara H. Pahl
In the Ptarmigan Dining Room, workers inserted beams through the tall stone fireplace, down into solid bedrock, to anchor the hotel against seismic activity. Engineer Robert B. Hunnes calls it “some of the best work we’ve ever done that you’ll never see.” For all to see, the team straightened the interior balconies and rebuilt the wooden pergola that had shaded FDR.
Seven guest rooms were redecorated with stained wainscoting and white trim, matching the original finishes; Anderson had found the last remnants of them in a housekeeping closet. Original Kohler room sinks were shipped back to the company town of Kohler, Wisconsin, re-enameled, and then returned and re-installed. The original knob-and-tube electrical system was replaced, and the fire alarm system, plumbing, and accessibility were modernized.
At the same time, the team restored or renovated major showpieces. They removed the drop ceiling from the dining room, re-exposing its original, cathedral-like heights. Sixty recycled plastic lanterns—green teardrops, golden cylinders, and pink-veined capsules—were hung from chains in the lobby in homage to the Japanese originals. Beneath them the graceful double-helix staircase was rebuilt, with the gift shop tucked behind it.
Still, the celebration at the Many Glacier Hotel in September of 2017 is tinged with anxiety and mourning. Two weeks earlier, a giant forest fire called the Sprague Fire had virtually destroyed Sperry Chalet, despite the best efforts of firefighters. (See page 16 of the Winter 2018 issue of Preservation for more details). That fire, on the west side of the Continental Divide, also forced the evacuation of one of the park’s other two historic hotels, Lake McDonald Lodge.
During the 17 years of the Many Glacier Hotel renovations, some 20 percent of the park burned. The warming climate that scientists say exacerbated the wildfires is widely predicted to melt the last 26 glaciers between 2030 and 2080, to a point where they will be too small to be categorized as glaciers. One of the hotel’s hallways is lined with photos Hill had commissioned of glaciers in the park. Beside them hang modern photos, from the same vantage points. Guests stare at how much ice has vanished.
In a morbid way, the situation is stressing historic buildings by cramming them with tourists. In July of 2017 Glacier, whose hotels and restaurants have been operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts since 2014, hosted a million visitors in one month for the first time. Officials attributed this surge to a sentiment expressed by Many Glacier Hotel guest Cheryl Bosley of Bainbridge Island, Washington.
“I wanted to see Glacier before the glaciers are gone,” she tells me.
The day after the Many Glacier Hotel celebration, I don the wildland firefighter uniform of yellow shirt, thick green pants, and hardhat, and join Forest Service workers on a tour of Lake McDonald Lodge. All around, firefighters have set up giant, portable irrigation sprinklers powered by a whirring generator marked “Rain for Rent.” No real rain has fallen for two months. Above us on Mt. Brown, lodgepole pines ignite like torches. Steve Christman, the barrel-chested leader of the crew protecting the lodge, watches smoke rise a mile away. “It’s nerve-wracking,” he says.
In the end, fire never touched Lake McDonald Lodge. And the National Park Service signaled it would rebuild Sperry Chalet. But the landscape will keep changing, and the park’s story—as well as that of the Many Glacier Hotel—will continue to unfold.
“I wanted to see Glacier before the glaciers are gone.”Cheryl Bosley
One particular part of the hotel’s story delights Park Ranger Diane Sine, a valley fixture since Tippett hired her as a singing waitress in 1980.
During the renovations, a man from Hawaii bequeathed $323,000 to the park, giving the beautification of the Many Glacier Hotel a crucial windfall. Federal dollars came with the condition that they only be spent on safety renovations; money for cosmetic renovations came from funds raised by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. But the unexpected gift from across the Pacific Ocean came from the will of a 76-year-old benefactor who died in 2011.
His name was Laurence H. “Baron” Dorcy, Jr. His grandfather was Louis W. Hill, the visionary behind the creation of the Many Glacier Hotel a century ago.
Says Sine, “It’s like Louis Hill’s passion continued on through the generations.”