Restoring the Sperry Experience

Glacier National Park maps out future of historic chalet destroyed by wildfire

A wildfire that destroyed the beloved Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park last summer also ignited a spirited campaign to restore the century-old Swiss-styled structure, the loss of which prompted an outpouring of support as advocates describe the indelible “Sperry Experience” that the iconic wilderness lodge impresses upon its guests.

Nearly six months after the chalet burned in the 2017 Sprague Fire, Glacier National Park and its official fundraising partner, the Glacier National Park Conservancy, have unveiled a suite of options to restore the “Sperry Experience” for visitors to enjoy over the course of the next century, including restoring the structure to its historic state.

“One hundred years from now Glacier Park will be here. The Sperry experience will be here for people 100 years from now,” Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, told an ebullient crowd of more than 200 people who recently convened for a public scoping session to guide the National Historic Landmark’s rebuild plan.

In October, crews mounted a Herculean effort to stabilize the stone-masonry remains of the iconic chalet, situated high above Lake McDonald near Comeau Pass. Using two-dozen massive wooden joists weighing up to 180 pounds each, workers spent 12 days bracing the walls during a project that required 15 helicopter trips. According to information gathered during a recent flyover of the site, the main dormitory building has survived the winter intact, despite the pressure of heavy winter snow, strong winds and the threat of avalanches.

Now, the park is developing its next steps to restore the chalet, with planners outlining four preliminary concepts that will be subject to a public scoping period and subsequent environmental assessment.

The first option is to rebuild the chalet’s dormitory — the heart of the complex — to match its original design, an historic engineering marvel carried out by the Great Northern Railway beginning in 1911 to serve guests who stayed at the wilderness chalets as part of weeklong horseback tours through Glacier.

The approach of restoring the dormitory to “as close to as it was” would also provide critical updates to current building codes and improve safety, but the visitor experience would be similar to what it has been for decades, according to Park Superintendent Jeff Mow.

“We’re excited to kick off our schematic design process for the Sperry Chalet rebuild,” Mow said. “This is the first of several opportunities for the public to engage and comment, and we hope it will be informative to our selected architects as they engage in the design process. Come and tell us your Sperry Chalet story.”

A second alternative involves restoring the dormitory using as much of the historic fabric as possible, but modernizing the structure with additional engineering and design work, and by adding insulation between interior walls.

A third option is to construct an entirely new structure in a slightly different location to avoid avalanche danger, while stabilizing the historic structure’s ruins to serve as a visitor attraction.

And still a fourth option considers an entirely different approach using canvas wall tents or yurts to house guests while using existing structures like the historic dining hall to complement the experience.

Park officials will weigh those four options based on public input and following future assessments of the dormitory’s stability.

According to Mitchell, more than 1,000 individual donations from every state in the nation amounted to nearly $200,000 to preserve the chalet, about $120,000 of which was used in the stabilization project last fall.

The National Park Service has secured a contract with Anderson Hallas Architects of Golden, Colorado to conduct the design and alternatives, while construction is expected to begin in 2019 and run into 2020.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native, has said rebuilding the chalet is a priority.

Although the Sperry Chalet complex’s dining hall survived the wildfire relatively unscathed, it will not be open this summer due to trail rehabilitation efforts, according to Kevin Warrington, the concessionaire for the Sperry Chalet and the Granite Park Chalet.

The 104-year-old Sperry Chalet was lost on Aug. 31, 2017 after a 17,000-acre wildfire doubled in size in a matter of hours. Five firefighters and four helicopters made what National Park Service officials called a “valiant” effort to save the National Historic Landmark, but in the end those efforts fell short.

The main two-story dormitory was destroyed, while a number of outbuildings were saved, including the stone kitchen and dining room.

The chalet fell victim to the lightning-caused Sprague Fire that tormented the Lake McDonald Valley since the middle of August. Soon after the fire was discovered, the Sperry Chalet was evacuated and closed for the season. A sprinkler and pump system was set up around the chalet, and a portion of the building was wrapped in fire-resistant material. For weeks, officials said the Sprague Fire didn’t pose an immediate threat to the building.

But as the lightning-caused fire made a run up the mountain, on-scene firefighters lost the battle to an ember shower that sparked the structure fire and engulfed the building.

Public scoping comments are due by April 2, 2018 and can be submitted online at parkplanning.nps.gov or in writing to Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn: Sperry Chalet, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, 59936.