When the dormitory of Glacier National Park’s historic Sperry Chalet burned to its stone foundations in a wildfire last summer, people in the Flathead Valley and beyond mourned the loss like a family member.
Now, six months later, park managers and fundraisers are unveiling their ideas to restore what they call the "Sperry Chalet experience" for the next hundred years.
“In this room, we're actually living history. Right now, at this moment tonight,” Doug Mitchell said.
Mitchell is the executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy. He spoke at the Park’s first scoping session about the potential rebuild of the National Historic Landmark, built by the Great Northern Railroad in 1913. More than 200 people came to the event at Flathead Valley Community College Wednesday.
When Mitchell asked the how many in crowd had been to the Chalet, 150 hands went up.
“One hundred years from now Glacier Park will be here. The Sperry experience will be here, for people 100 years from now. And what it looks like is going to start being planned right here, by you, tonight,” he said.
Recent flyovers show stabilization efforts put in place late last fall have been successful at keeping the outer stone walls of the scorched dormitory building standing. But, park Superintendent Jeff Mow pointed out, the extent of damage remains unknown.
“We don't know that those walls are structurally stable enough to reuse, either structurally or even as a facade,” he said.
With this big question mark in mind, park planners came up with four preliminary concepts.
One: rebuild the stone-and-timber dormitory to match its original design of Swiss-Alps-Meet-The-Rugged-American-West.
The second idea, as park director of planning Mary Riddle explained, is to keep the same footprint and design, but modernize the chalet.
“So there would be some upgrades done, like insulation between the walls that have been talked about, and some additional engineering and design work to make sure it will last another hundred years,” she said.
Option three assumes the original stone walls are not structurally sound enough to use in a rebuild. In that case, an entirely new dormitory could be built that complements the historic landscape in a slightly different location clear of historic avalanche paths. The standing walls would be stabilized, and interpreted for visitors as a ruin.
"And then the fourth concept is to consider an entirely different approach to providing that chalet experience, hearkening back to the early days of canvas wall tents," Riddle said.
Public input and future assessments of the dormitory, possibly including x-rays and sonograms, will help determine the park’s eventual preferred option. Recent assessments determined the nearby dining hall sustained minimal damage from the fire.
The Glacier National Park Conservancy, which funded stabilization efforts, is poised for another round of fundraising for the rebuild, but park staff say a federal appropriation will also be needed to cover costs.
Sperry Chalet has been managed by the Luding family since 1954. Their website* for the chalet encourages guests and chalet visitors to participate in the Park’s planning process and donate to the Glacier National Park Conservancy’s fundraising effort.
“I would just like to see it the way it was, for the most part, as much as possible,” Joyce Moon said.
Moon, of Kalispell, stayed at the Sperry Chalet years ago to celebrate a wedding anniversary. I caught up with her as the meeting broke up and attendees clustered around park staff to share memories and make suggestions for the Chalet’s future.
The bulk of the evening’s program read like a love letter, with speakers and attendees reminiscing about the cool lemonade handed to them upon arrival, communal dinners in the dining hall and conversations and activities overheard through the dormitory’s notoriously thin walls.
Glacier National Park will accept scoping comments now through April 2, before preparing an Environmental Assessment this summer. Schematics of the four alternatives are expected for public review this June.
Scoping comments can be posted online at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/sperrychalet2018 or in writing to:
Glacier National Park
Attn: Sperry Chalet
PO Box 128
West Glacier, MT 59936
Scoping comments must be received by April 2, 2018.