MANY GLACIER — In the spring of 2000, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was speaking before a House appropriations subcommittee about the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog when he made an off-script comment about Glacier National Park’s rundown Many Glacier Hotel. Babbit said the 84-year-old hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake had deteriorated so much that the only solution involved “a can of gasoline and a match.”
A week later, before a U.S. Senate appropriations committee, he reiterated, “This is a building that really ought to be torn down.”
Montana’s Washington D.C. delegation and legions of Glacier Park fans were enraged at the thought of tearing down the hotel once called “The Jewel of the Rockies,” but there was no denying the building’s sad shape. The pillars that held the building up were rotting from the inside, bats infested the walls, and the entire structure was slowly starting to fall into the lake.
Seventeen years later, if Babbitt were to walk into the lobby of the Many Glacier Hotel, he would hardly recognize it. This year, the National Park Service completed a 17-year, $40 million renovation of the Many Glacier Hotel. But it did not come easy.
“This place was a showcase in how not to do plumbing and electrical work,” said Nan Anderson, an architect who has been involved with the project for more than a decade.
The Great Northern Railway built the Many Glacier Hotel in 1915 as part of its effort to increase visitation to Glacier and encourage more people to ride its trains. Railway President Louis W. Hill dedicated much of his time to developing the park’s lodges and chalets, even focusing on minute details like the type of soap that would be stocked at Many Glacier.
“Louis Hill was passionate,” said interpretive ranger Diane Sine. “He was president of a massive corporation that controlled a railroad, mines and steamship companies, and yet he left most of that to others so that he could focus on micromanaging the development of Glacier Park.”
For decades, the Many Glacier Hotel weathered fires and floods in the northeastern corner of Glacier Park. But by the 1990s, it was falling apart. The state of Glacier Park’s historic structures were so dire that the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the park’s buildings on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places in America.
In 2000, the Park Service started working with Anderson Hallas Architects and concessioners to refurbish the hotel. Anderson said it was an especially challenging project because the work seasons are short and the Park Service and its concessioners — first Glacier Park Inc. and later Xanterra — did not want close the hotel to guests. During much of the project, architects spent time behind the scenes figuring out how they would rebuild a decades-old hotel one wall at a time. The physical work came during two major pushes — in 2011 and 2012, the dining room and north annex were rebuilt, and in 2016 and 2017, the south annex, lobby and public areas were restored.
The National Park Service’s main priority was ensuring that the building was safe for visitors, while also restoring some of its more iconic features. In the 1950s, when the railroad sold the hotel to private operators who were looking to cut costs, the hotel’s classic spiral staircase was removed to make room for a gift shop. The ceiling in the dining room was also lowered to reduce heating costs, covering up the beautiful high wooden ceiling.
“Some pretty hideous things happened in the 1950s,” Anderson said.
In recent years, the lobby of the hotel was a poorly lit space taken up by a cramped gift shop. Now, the gift shop has been moved downstairs and the spiral staircase is back, with the help of a large donation from the Glacier National Park Conservancy. The Asian-inspired light fixtures that were once a key feature of the lobby — a subliminal advertisement for the Great Northern’s Oriental Limited passenger train — have also been restored.
Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow praised the work of the architects, contractors, National Park Service, Glacier Park Inc., Xanterra and the conservancy for all playing a critical role in getting the project over the finish line.
“It really takes a team to pull off a project like this,” he said.
Guest rooms were also upgraded, with seven restored to how they would have appeared in the 1910s, a project that required extensive research. While there were black-and-white photos of the rooms, no one knew the exact color scheme of the space until someone opened up a long forgotten maintenance closet that had the original wall colors. Anderson said the seven refurbished rooms could serve as a model for future restoration efforts.
Officials said visitors will now not only have a comfortable place to stay at Many Glacier, they’ll also get to experience the park as it was a century ago.
“Most historical objects get put under a glass display cas,e but because of all the work that has gone into this building, people will be able to enjoy it the way it was intended,” Sine said.