Glacier’s Mysterious Murals

By Beacon Staff

About a year ago, Leanne Brown Goldhahn was cleaning out her mother’s garage in Billings when she saw a cluster of rolled up canvas in a dusty corner. Yet what she found wasn’t a stack of old trash, but rather an important piece of Glacier National Park’s art history.

Stashed away in that forgotten corner were 15 canvas murals that once lined the walls of the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier Park. Goldhahn knew instantly that she had found something important.

Now, one of those murals has been restored and is on display at the Hockaday Museum of Art in downtown Kalispell through Feb. 23. Executive Director Elizabeth Moss says the mural is the first of 14 the museum hopes to restore in the coming years.

How the murals ended up in a garage 350 miles from Glacier National Park is a story shrouded in mystery, Goldhahn said. Even more of a mystery is who painted them.

In the early 1900s, Great Northern Railway president Louis Hill commissioned a series of murals for the famous chalets and lodges being built in the newly created Glacier National Park. Evidence suggests that noted Glacier artist John Fery was originally commissioned to paint the murals that would line the walls. But Hill wanted them faster than Fery could produce and so he hired another artist who eventually made 51 murals. The identity of that artist and when exactly he or she painted the landscapes of Glacier National Park has since been lost to time.

In the 1950s, the Glacier Park Lodge was being remodeled and the murals were unceremoniously cut out of the walls, rolled up and discarded, according to Moss. Some were saved from the dumpster, however, including 15 that were picked up by Leona and Robert Brown, who ran a grocery store in East Glacier Park.

Somewhere along the way, the murals were passed through the family and ended up in the garage in Billings where Goldhahn found them years later.

“The fact is having them in a dusty old garage couldn’t be good for those paintings,” Goldhahn said. “I knew they had to be preserved.”

After taking the murals out of the garage, she contacted an art dealer in Bozeman who began researching them. Realizing the importance of the murals to Glacier’s history, he turned to the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell.

Last summer at an art show in Great Falls, Moss had the chance to see three of the murals up close. It was there she realized how much of an undertaking it would be to restore the century-old paintings.

“Those (three) were in some of the worst condition and it gave us an idea of what we were up against,” Moss said.

In September of 2012, Goldhahn and her husband Alan donated all 15 murals to the Hockaday and soon after 14 were brought to Kalispell. The family kept one to be restored and displayed at their home in Bozeman.

Once the murals arrived, Joe Abbrescia, a Hockaday board member and a local art conservator, got to work restoring one of the smaller pieces that is now on display.

Bigfork resident Elsa Putzier inspects the current installation at the Hockaday Museum of Art near where a recently acquired Glacier National Park mural, left, is hung near the museum entranceway. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

“It’s great to bring this back to what the artist intended,” he said.

Because of age and water damage to some of the paintings, Moss estimates it will cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 to restore each one. She hopes to secure donations to complete the next one and said it will be a long-term project. Eventually Moss hopes enough of the paintings can be restored so that some can be displayed around the Flathead Valley.

Moss said restoring the murals is an important project and one the museum is proud to be a part of.

“I get goose bumps (about these murals), because it’s all about the legacy of the region,” she said. “Glacier National Park is such a huge part of this area and it’s a privilege and an honor to have been selected by the donor to preserve them.”

For more information about the Hockaday Museum of Art, visit www.hockadaymuseum.org.

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