MANY GLACIER — Nan Anderson will tell you the 1950s weren’t kind to the interior of one of Glacier National Parks’ historic gems.
“In the '50s, some pretty hideous things happened to this hotel,” Anderson said, as she stood in the newly renovated interior of the Many Glacier Hotel during last week's grand reopening celebration.
By the 1950s, no one could have said for certain that the 211-room five-story architectural masterpiece built along the shoreline of the stunningly beautiful Swiftcurrent Lake had much of a chance of standing the test of time.
By then, its builder and greatest promoter, Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, was long gone.
With its short 100-day tourist season, it was hard for anyone to make a buck there. Even in its heyday when the railroad made a point of luring tourists from all over the world, its operations had to be subsidized by the industrial giant.
After a fire in 1936 threatened Many Glacier, hotel employees sent a telegram to Great Northern headquarters with the exciting news that they had saved the hotel from the flames. The reply was a single word. “Why?”
So when it came to any remodeling, finding ways to make an extra dollar or two was always a driving force.
It was probably an easy choice for the concessionaires back in 1957 to tear out the double-helical staircase that wrapped around a handmade waterfall in the hotel’s lobby to make room for the gift shop. And the Japanese lanterns that for generations had provided the great interior expanse an interesting ambience had to go, too. There certainly wasn’t any need for guests to see the artistry of the huge logs that served as roof beams inside the dining room. Those were hidden for decades by a drop ceiling that eventually was buried in guano from the bats who made their home in the rafters.
For an architect with an eye for beauty of the past, the modifications made to this historic icon over the year were horrific.
Anderson would spend much of her professional architectural career working to return the building’s interior to its original grandeur.
She wasn’t alone.
For close to 20 years, a public and private partnership spent about $42 million to first shore up the hotel to ensure that it wouldn’t crumble into the lake, and then restore the hotel’s interior as close to possible to its historic roots while incorporating current building codes.
Last week, many of those people who have been involved in the restoration project gathered at Many Glacier to celebrate its completion.
Anderson of Anderson Hallas Architects can remember what she and others from the firm found when they first toured the building back in 2004.
“We discovered all sorts of interesting issues,” Anderson said. “Wiring had charred some of the rafters. The structure was severely in distress. There were bats in the walls. It was a showroom on how not to do plumbing.”
And when the staff charged up the fire sprinkler system, the entire space turned into a fountain.
A week after the company’s architects and engineers returned to Colorado to begin drawing up reports, they received a call from the National Park Service with a request for a cost estimate — by the end of the week — for the repairs of the Many Glacier Hotel.
Anderson said they pulled out their dart boards and put together their best guess that it would cost about $21 million.
“Little did anyone know that would have to stretch out for 13 years,” Anderson said. “That would have been a different calculation.”
That number proved to be incredibly close.
Over the course of 13 years and two different phases, the cost of returning to the building’s interior to something more akin to what people first fell in love with when its Annex opened in 1917 came in at $22.5 million.
None of that would have been possible without the work that began back in the late 1990s and early 2000s that included stabilization projects that launched the process to save the historic hotel from an early demise.
At one point, the building was found to be leaning forward toward the lake and had been pulled back into place using massive cables and a good deal of engineering know-how.
One spring when the staff came here to open up the building, they found the balconies were all tipping off the building. They all had to be pinned back on to allow the hotel to open.
“It’s the teamwork that made this project possible,” Anderson said. “Not just our team. The park. The vendors. The Denver Service Center. Congress. It takes a village and it took a village.”
The preservation of the Many Glacier Hotel can trace its roots back to human waste at a pair of Glacier’s backcountry chalets.
When officials began to ponder closing the Sperry and Granite Park chalets because of the challenges the park service faced addressing the issue of human waste, a group of people came together to do whatever it took to save them. The “Save the Chalet” group reached out to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for help spreading the word.
The trust brought the nation’s attention to the two backcountry chalets and the other historic buildings constructed by the railroad by adding them to its list of most endangered historic places back in the mid 1990s.
That’s how Barb Pahl of the Trust first became involved in helping spread the word for the need to preserve these uniquely American pieces of history.
“My experience working with the federal government — it starts off being a lack of will and then it’s a lack of funding,” said Pahl. “In this case, there were a lot of champions to help save this building, including the park superintendent.”
The park superintendent back then was Dave Mihalic. Pahl said it was his idea to include all of the historic structures on the Trust’s most endangered list after she inquired about the future of the chalets.
His support back then, just like the current superintendent Jeff Mow’s support today, is crucial in preserving the historic buildings that remain in the park, Pahl said.
In 1999, Congress appropriated $3 million to address waste management at Sperry and Granite Park chalets. More funding followed to begin the needed stabilization of the Many Glacier Hotel.
“The Park Service has an immense collection of historic places and these are the family jewels of this nation,” she said. “They do deserve protection. Protection sometimes needs to come in the form of dollars.”
Deferred maintenance in national parks is about $12 billion. (In Glacier, it’s about $184 million.) The 700 buildings, of which more than 400 are designated historic, have about $31 million in deferred maintenance.
While most of the funding to restore the Many Glacier Hotel came from the federal government, a number of private entities working through the Glacier National Park Conservancy stepped forward to fund specific projects like the new double helical staircase and the lighting that mimics the old Japanese lanterns.
Nearly $1.5 million in philanthropic funding has been spent so far on the project.
The private funding for the restoration doesn’t stop there.
The concessionaire that operates the hotel, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, chipped in about $4 million for a variety of upgrades that run the gamut of new carpet to room restorations.
“It’s been really nice to see this public/private project come together as well as it has,” said Marc Ducharme, the hotel’s general manager.
Visitors have noticed the difference.
Standing in the dining room with its impressive wooden trusses that soar high above the tables, with windows that offer views of mountains that seem to go on forever, Ducharme said returning guests are almost stunned at the difference that followed the removal of the drop ceiling.
“They say, ‘Wow, it’s a totally different space,’ ” Durcharme said.
For generations, the Many Glacier Hotel has woven its way into people’s lives.
Glacier National Park’s lead interpreter at Many Glacier, Diane Sine, first saw the place when she was a child while on a camping trip with her parents. Its scenic beauty, rich history and the young worker back then who put on nightly shows for the guests would draw her back after she graduated from high school.
“I was a kid who had started playing cello,” she said. “I decided I was going to work at the Many Glacier Hotel. So my senior year in high school, I wrote to the park service and asked, 'How you get a job at the Many Glacier Hotel?' "
For four summers, she and her cello returned to the hotel where she worked as a singing waitress, playing her cello in the pit orchestra for the Broadway musicals and performing chamber music in the lobby at night.
“It was quite an extensive musical calendar,” she said. “We would work hard and play hard. It was a very bonding experience.”
Along the way she developed friendships that have lasted a lifetime and found a career that has placed her right smack in the middle of the place that she loves most.
“It’s been fun to see so many people come back this summer and be excited to see how it looks now,” Sine said.
Sine has been there through it all. There were tough times as the construction stretched out over the years.
“For years, I would show the public pictures of the historic circular staircase and tell them stories at how it was removed and really lament that,” she said. “It was this dream that it could come back someday, but no one really thought that could ever really happen.”
And that wasn’t all.
When Sine first started working at the hotel, there were doors that people could see from the outside that led to nothing. There were balconies that had fallen down and were gone. Other balconies were being held up by cables.
She remembers the years when people wondered if the building could survive. Everyone knew it was going to take a lot of money to restore it and people with a passion to make that all come together.
“The whole place was just very tired and wearing,” she said. “And now to be able to look into the future and see that now it’s not just this old historic decrepit building, it’s vibrant and alive and it has a future. It’s exciting to think about what’s to come.”