A monumental effort is underway to rebuild Glacier National Park’s historic Sperry Chalet dormitory building, which for more than a century braved the elements from its perch high above the Lake McDonald Valley, until last summer when the Sprague Fire destroyed its fir-and-lodgepole framework, leaving behind only the native-rock shell hewed from a nearby mountain quarry by Italian stone masons during the summer of 1913.
On April 17, the park released its environmental assessment, “Sperry Chalet, The Next Hundred Years,” opening the 61-page document to public comment and announcing an informational public meeting with park officials on Monday, April 23 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Flathead Valley Community College in the Arts and Technology Building, Room 139, in Kalispell.
The environmental assessment lays out three alternatives, with the National Park Service recommending its preferred option, proposing to rebuild the chalet dormitory, the heart of the complex, at its original site within its original stone walls, which are still standing. The design would restore the chalet dormitory reflecting its period of significance between 1914 and 1949.
Critical upgrades are included in the proposal, such as complying with current building codes where applicable, and making improvements to “life safety features.” Those include using seismic bracing and fire-resistant materials to minimize the impact of avalanche and wildfire that have tested the chalet’s mettle.
The visitor experience would be very similar to what it has been for decades by using as much of the remaining historic fabric, and replicating historic finishes where feasible. Construction would be completed in two accelerated phases, proposed for the summers of 2018 and 2019.
Cost considerations and other unforeseen events or weather conditions could affect the construction schedule, set to begin July 1 and continue to the end of October.
If the preferred alternative is adopted, crews of between 12 and 25 workers will live onsite in temporary tents while helicopters and pack-strings ferry supplies weighing up to 400,000 pounds (200 tons) to the remote location, located six miles by trail above the Going-to-the-Sun Road at an elevation of 6,640 feet.
The chalet has served visitors to Glacier National Park continuously since 1914 with only a short break in service during WWII and another break in service between 1992 and 1999 to address human waste management and code compliance. Pre-fire, the Sperry Chalet hosted an average of just under 50 visitors per night, and operated approximately nine weeks each summer.
The 104-year-old Sperry Chalet was lost on Aug. 31, 2017 after the 17,000-acre Sprague Fire 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.
Over the past five years, Sperry Chalet accommodated an approximate average of 2,340 overnight guests each year, or just .07 percent of the record 3,305,513 visitors who flocked to Glacier Park in 2017.
But for those who have enjoyed the “Sperry Experience,” or even visited the site, the chalet left an indelible impression, as evidenced by the more than 400 public comments that poured in during the park’s scoping period conducted from Feb. 28 to April 2.
Approximately 72 percent percent of commenters favored some combination of two concepts proposed by the National Park Service in February, which outlined scenarios to use the existing remnant walls of the Sperry Chalet dormitory building to rebuild the chalet with some modernization, while retaining defining historic features and character.
Much smaller percentages of commenters favored proposals to construct a new dormitory in a different location away from hazardous avalanche paths while preserving the exterior stone walls as an historic ruin, or to offer overnight accommodations in tent-like structures.
The National Park Service has secured a contract with Anderson Hallas Architects of Golden, Colorado to conduct the design and alternatives, and the firm is currently estimating the cost of the project by calculating the weight of materials and the expense of hundreds of helicopter flights, pack-string trips, employment, food, and other costly logistics inherent to working in a backcountry environment surrounded by recommended wilderness, threatened and endangered wildlife, flora, and fauna.
Funding for the project will come from a mix of federal and private channels, according to Lauren Alley, a spokesperson for Glacier Park. The Glacier Park Conservancy, the park’s nonprofit fundraising arm, has committed to the cause, while Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native, has said rebuilding the chalet is a top priority.
While the impacts of the project will be significant to its surroundings and the critters who inhabit them, the environmental assessment says in most cases they will be “temporary and transitory,” including noise pollution that could compromise the visitor experience as a result of construction activities, helicopter flights, and human presence, which will drive away wildlife during the periods of activity.
Another consideration is piloting helicopters through a raptor migration corridor that each September supports 2,000 hawks, falcons, eagles, and accipiters, according to the environmental assessment.
During the first phase of construction, the environmental assessment estimates that approximately 150-220 helicopter trips (depending on the size of the helicopter) would be required to transport construction materials. There would likely be days of 40-50 flights and other days with fewer or no flights.
Approximately 35-60 pack-string trips would transport the remaining construction materials and food for the crews for phase one.
The second phase of construction would run from June 1 to Oct. 30, 2019, and would require a similar size crew and support. Approximately 200-300 helicopter flights would transport construction materials that could not be brought in by stock, while 35-60 pack-string trips would transport the remaining materials and food.
Beginning in 1911, the Great Northern Railway constructed nine Swiss-style chalets throughout Glacier National Park in an unimaginable engineering feat. Combined, the buildings amounted to the largest collection of Swiss chalet-style buildings in the United States.
“It is the only instance in which one distinct architectural style is used on such a massive scale for a concession development and the only instance in which a European system of hostelries built a day’s hike or ride apart is used,” the National Park Service wrote in 1986.
The Great Northern Railway sold the chalet to the National Park Service in 1954 for $1.
The current 10-year concession contract is held by Belton Chalets, Incorporated, which is owned by a family who has operated Sperry Chalet for three generations. The only other remaining structure is Granite Park Chalet.
In October, crews mounted a Herculean effort to stabilize the stone-masonry remains of the dormitory. 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.