Sperry Chalet’s iconic dormitory should be rebuilt by the National Park Service at its original site with its original walls, according to an Environmental Assessment released Tuesday morning.
The Park Service says the preferred alternative’s design would restore the chalet dormitory to reflect its “period of significance” from 1914 to 1949, but with some critical upgrades including seismic bracing and fire-resistant materials.
“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 practicable,” the Park Service wrote in a press release. “Construction would be completed in two phases, proposed for the summers of 2018 and 2019.”
Unforeseen events or conditions, as well as the as-yet-unknown costs, could affect the construction schedule. The 2018 phase would include an investigation of the masonry walls, construction of a roof, and installation of seismic lateral walls in the interior. During the summer of 2019, crews would finish the roof, construct interior floors, framing, and finishes, and complete any remaining exterior work.
"Throughout this planning effort the public has been deeply engaged,” said Lauren Alley, a spokesperson for Glacier National Park. “We look forward to hearing more and answering questions about the project next week at the public meeting in Kalispell."
The meeting on the Environmental Assessment will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 23, in room 139 at the Flathead Valley Community College’s Arts and Technology Building in Kalispell. Public comments are due on May 7.
The National Park Service expects to use photo documentation, as well as architectural drawings from 1913, 1940, 1996, 2011, and the 2017 stabilization effort to guide the rebuild.
During the two construction seasons, both the Sperry Backcountry Campground and trails from Lake McDonald and Gunsight Pass would remain open to visitors, but could be temporarily closed for construction reasons. Officials anticipate the horse concession may continue to offer day rides to the chalet complex, but with similar restrictions due to construction activity.
Construction would take place from July 1 through Oct. 31, depending on the weather. Because of its remote location and limited construction season, the 12- to 25-person crew and support staff would live on-site for about 12 weeks, with meals prepared and provided either in the dining room or in a hard-sided temporary structure that would be flown in via a helicopter. Mules and a helicopter would bring in about 200 tons of construction materials and equipment.
While the National Park Service is trying to keep the noise levels low, it anticipates that 150 to 220 helicopter trips would be required, with 40 to 50 days of flights. About 35 to 60 pack strings would bring in the rest of the construction materials and food for both construction seasons.
The dormitory is part of the Sperry Chalet complex, which also includes a historic dining hall, and non-historic employee quarters, a trails cabin and toilet facility. The dormitory burned during an “ember storm” from the Sprague fire on Aug. 31, 2017.
The complex is 6 miles from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and combined, the buildings are the largest collection of Swiss Chalet-style structures in the United States, according to the National Park Service. The dormitory and the nearby dining hall are considered part of the Great Northern Railway National Historic Landmark District. They’ve served hikers since 1914, with the Sperry Chalet able to provide overnight stays for about 50 people.
“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 noted in 1986.
Two stone chimneys, interior masonry footings and four exterior masonry walls are all that remain of the dormitory after the fire. The nearby dining hall sustained minor fire damage to its roof and deck.
The Glacier National Park Conservancy — the nonprofit fundraising branch of Glacier National Park — raised money last year to help the park complete a stabilization effort in October to protect the dormitory walls from snow loads and high winds this winter. Recent flyovers show the walls remain intact.
Doug Mitchell, the conservancy’s executive director, said that while his organization didn’t take a position on the alternatives, the one preferred by the National Park Service reflects what he heard from the public. Now that the EA is out for public comment, he’s gearing up for a $500,000 fundraising push for the 2018 construction season.
“We hope people will get involved. Read the options. Make comments. This is important,” Mitchell said. “This is an opportunity for the public to talk about what their park should look like. This is our national landmark, and people should feel free to express their opinions.”
The conservancy is flying over the Sperry Chalet once a month to see whether the stabilization efforts are successful. Mitchell said the structure is full of snow, and while one of the chimney’s appears to be leaning to one side, overall the dormitory appears to be holding up.
“You can see the snow is settling, and that’s one of the tests — when the snow goes away, does it pull some of the structure with it? I think the next set of photos will be telling,” Mitchell said.
The next flyover is in early May.
Officials are calling the restoration effort “Sperry Chalet: The Next 100 Years,” meaning that while they’re looking at the historical features that make the chalet unique, they also want to look toward the future. They want to retain the visitor experiences of sharing family-style meals at the dining hall and overnight lodging in the structure, while providing a remote backcountry chalet experience in Glacier National Park’s wilderness.
“Improvements would ensure its use for the next 100 years barring unforeseen events and take into account changing use patterns, long-term sustainability and climate change,” the Environmental Assessment notes. “Improved design and fuels management techniques would be used to protect it from wildland and structural fire; and water storage, conservation measures and collection of rainwater would be used to increase water availability at the site.”
The stairs to the second floor would be modified to reduce their steepness, and one room would be made accessible for visitors with disabilities. If necessary, rock from the nearby original quarry would be used to repair the historic walls.
A second alternative included in the EA involves building a new dormitory in a nearby location, while preserving the remaining walls as a ruin. The new location would avoid potential avalanche strikes. Rock from the nearby quarry could be used for the structure, which would be “architecturally distinct but compatible with the historic district and the remaining historic structures, yet modernized.” Part of that would include soundproofing between the rooms.
The third, "no action" alternative — which is a part of every Environmental Assessment — would preserve the remaining walls and other features as a ruin, with an interpretive trail and viewing area. Wall and chimney stabilization, or the potential removal of compromised walls, would take place during only one construction season.
Replacing the dormitory with tent cabins or yurts for visitors was an idea initially floated during the initial public scoping, but dismissed for consideration in the EA after the National Park Service determined that would substantially change the visitor experience and have long-term negative impacts to soils and vegetation.
Other ideas dropped from consideration included adding solar and WiFi to the building and rebuilding other chalets that used to be in the backcountry system. But those were dismissed because they were technically or economically unfeasible.