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Two years after devastating fire, rebuilding of Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park nears completion

Construction workers during phase two of construction on Sperry Chalet. (Renee Noffke, Glacier Conservancy / Courtesy)
Construction workers during phase two of construction on Sperry Chalet. (Renee Noffke, Glacier Conservancy / Courtesy)

After one of the most iconic buildings in Glacier National Park was destroyed by fire in 2017, the Sperry Chalet restoration project is expected to finish on time and under budget this fall.

Montanans and other admirers of Sperry Chalet watched as the Sprague Fire approached and ultimately badly burned the dormitory building at the chalet complex that August.

As soon as progress was made in containing the fire, restoring and rebuilding the chalet was a community focus, said Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy. The conservancy is the official nonprofit of the park and fundraises for special projects.

Mitchell jumped into action as soon as he heard the building had burned.

The morning after the fire reached Sperry, he met with the park superintendent and simply asked, “What can we do?” Mitchell recounted.

The initial problem was that the chalet’s walls could come down due to the fire damage, Mitchell said.

Engineers wanted to go up quickly to stabilize the walls because snow had already begun to fall in the area, he said.

“We just said yes. We knew that we had to be involved and we knew that our donors were going to come to the party.”

So he took the conservancy credit card, walked down to Western Building Center, and bought 100 6-by-6 timbers that were helicoptered into the park the next day, he said.

“We didn’t have any money for it. We didn’t have a grant request from the park,” Mitchell said. “But we just said yes because we knew that the people who cared about the park would rally behind it.”

Those timbers became the framework for stabilization that got the remains of the chalet through the winter.

“Had we done nothing, the likelihood is those walls would have come down and we would have been in a very different discussion on if Sperry could be rebuilt,” Mitchell said.

In June 2018, Dick Anderson Construction was awarded a $4.1 million contract for phase one of reconstruction.

Construction began that summer to complete stabilization efforts and protect the chalet from another Montana winter.

Anderson Hallas Architects, of Colorado, worked on the renovation of Many Glacier Hotel from 2004 to 2017, about the time the “heartbreaking” loss of the chalet occurred, lead architect Liz Hallas said.

“The folks at the park just have so much care for their buildings,” Hallas said.

The firm specializes in historic and high-altitude preservation and has an ongoing contract with the Denver Service Center of the National Parks Service that helps national parks with large projects.

“It was quite unique in the outpouring of support by the community,” Hallas said. “The chalet is just beloved by so many.”

The rebuild is technically challenging, mixing “basically a new build” and the preservation of the historic stone walls, Hallas said.

Many of the major changes to the chalet won’t be visible to the average guest.

“We’ve tried our best to really balance our code changes with the historic integrity of what was there,” Hallas said.

The building had to be brought up to code, not only through small steps like making the stairs less steep and adding handrails but also through structural changes, Hallas said.

Steel beams are hidden in some of the logs to laterally stabilize the chalet against potential earthquakes. The roof may appear to be the historic wood shingles of the past, but underneath, fireproofing will help protect against fires, Hallas said.

In May 2019, Dick Anderson Construction also was awarded the phase two contract for $4.7 million to complete the construction, including masonry work, interior finishes and the permanent roof, according to a Glacier National Park statement.

The architect firm added a few touches from public feedback to make the chalet more functional, like extra-sturdy hooks for the heavy backpacks hikers often bring with them, Hallas said. They also added shelves for a flashlight if a guest needs some light after the sun goes down, she said.

The chalet still will not have power or plumbing, to maintain its historic rustic feel, Hallas said.

One change that Hallas called a “happy accident” is that the new fire-rated walls will reduce room-to-room noise, a problem notorious among guests at the chalet, Hallas said.

“The speed at which it was able to occur by getting a roof on it last summer season really spoke to the collaborative efforts between the parks service, the contractor – Dick Anderson, the conservancy, and our design team,” Hallas said. “It was really just a wonderful example of everybody together toward this common goal of getting the chalet rebuilt.”

The dining hall has remained open to the public and construction crews throughout the rebuild, with Belton Chalets operating the restaurant.

“So many people have had this – what we call – a Sperry experience,” Mitchell said. “They’ve gotten engaged there. They’ve told their significant other they’re going to have a baby there. They’ve had these significant life experiences there.”

The conservancy created the Sperry Action Fund to help pay for the restoration. It has raised $603,000 from 1,200 donors, the majority of whom are not from Montana, Mitchell said.

The National Park Service allocated $12 million for the rebuild but Mitchell said they may not use it all. Another $1 million came from insurance.

Sperry Chalet was completed in 1913 for the Great Northern Railway as one of many grand hotels and chalets after Glacier National Park was established in 1910, according to documents from the National Register of Historic Places.

The Swiss-style chalet, elevation 6,560 feet, is about a 12-mile round-trip hike on the South Circle Trail.

The Sprague Fire burned 16,982 acres over a two-month period, according to the National Park Service.

The chalet restoration is expected to be completed this fall, but a celebration has yet to be planned.

“Clearly, there will be a desire to have some kind of celebratory activity,” Mitchell said. “We are a bit superstitious and not getting ahead of ourselves but when it gets real, be ready to celebrate.”

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