Kalispell’s Museum Mansion gets a Face-Lift

By Beacon Staff

Standing under the eaves of the Conrad Mansion, Hal Trost cups in his hand one of the original, odd-looking nails that held up the shingled siding.

“Modern nails are all off a wire roll, and they have a machine that just goes snip, snip, snip,” says Trost.

This old nail tapers to a point like a long, narrow triangle and has an imperfect flat top. It was forged more than 100 years ago, and came out with the shingles during this latest phase of renovation at the mansion-museum.

“[The shingles] were falling off,” says Conrad Mansion Director Kate Daniels. “I mean, they’re 112 years old; they were original to the house.”

The south and west sides of the mansion have weathered the worst since 1895. The sun faded and cracked the shingles, the bugs moved in and the woodpeckers followed. Ford Construction is in charge of taking off the old shingles and wrap, and putting up modern house wrap and new shingles. Then the whole house will be painted so each side matches. For a history buff, the work unveils treasures.

Hal Trost navigates scaffolding on the West side of Conrad Mansion while replacing the over 100-year-old shingles.

“It’s real dusty and dirty when you’re stripping the walls,” says head carpenter Trost, “but you’ll find the original carpenters’ chalk marks.” Trost also points to the original handsaw marks on the wood. The old, pink house wrap feels a lot like the thick construction paper found in elementary classrooms. Where it has been pulled off, you can see through to the interior walls.

“They put this on to stop air from flowing through cracks,” says Trost. The new wrap stops water and air from getting in, but also lets moisture out.

The re-shingling happened sooner than expected, but is part of a greater overall improvement and maintenance plan for the Conrad Mansion that started with funds left over after a 2006 electrical improvement project. Eighty-five light fixtures were rewired and lighting set up along the mansion’s garden paths – renovations that could not be put off.

“That was pretty urgent because one of the fixtures started smoking. The cloth wiring burned off,” says Daniels. “When we saw that we thought, ‘Let’s do it now.’” They secured a grant for $41,400 from the Tourism Infrastructure Improvement Program to which they added $20,700 from private donations, fundraisers and Friends of the Mansion membership fees. Money was left over and had to be used by July 2007, so they started sprucing up the mansion’s exterior.

Pat Rooker uses a table saw to trim a shingle for the Conrad Mansion’s exterior renovation.

Ford Construction’s $90,000 bid was accepted and work began in mid-January. Conrad Mansion is on the National Historical Register and Daniels needed to maintain the historic integrity of the building.

“This home is one of the most authentic in the Pacific Northwest,” Daniels says. Alicia Conrad-Campbell, Charles Conrad’s youngest daughter, donated the home and its furnishings to Kalispell in 1974. Daniels says, unlike the Conrad Mansion, other museum-homes have to hunt down furnishings original to the house, or just the era. Preserving the historic nature of the home means using the same materials – cedar shingles – and installing them in the same style. Trost says they take “before” pictures to ensure details, like the placement of a horse hitch or a shingle pattern, are maintained.

Re-shingling required asking for funds from the city of Kalispell, something Daniels says is rare for the museum. The city came up with $46,000. On top of the TIIP Grant, funding came from visitors’ fees, Leadership Flathead’s annual “Death by Chocolate Murder Mystery,” the American Heritage Home Trust Grant, paint donated by Sherwin Williams, and private endowments. Future rehab includes the garden, the basement, and a conservation assessment of the museum’s furniture and paintings.