GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – As “Sweet Home Alabama” blares outside from a nearby boom box, Kameron Kidrick affixes a metal base plate to a quarried stone landing, where it will meet up with a deck post and soon-to-be-built wooden stairs that will lead to the entrance of the historic Sperry Chalet dormitory.
Since June 30, Kidrick has shared a wall tent outside the iconic chalet with most of his masonry crew, who are half-jokingly called the “rock stars” of the site. It’s a dream job for the team, even though they’re sleeping on cots and working six days a week. Sunday is a day of rest, when they can hike almost seven miles to grab a shower and an icy cold beer before hiking back up the 3,400-vertical-foot trail.
“We have never been in as good of shape as we are now,” Kidrick says with a chuckle. “I’ve been training for an ultra-marathon, so I run down and back. Most of the time after work, we climb the mountains, or go over to Lake Ellen Wilson and fish.
“My team has been really good; the biggest difficulty from being here six days a week is the isolation. But our work is so specialized, there’s not enough manpower to switch out shifts. Plus, it’s hard to maintain the quality of the work; it’s easier with one team with a single-minded focus.”
He pauses and looks around at the view that stretches from 9,072-foot Edwards Mountain to the north, with Lake McDonald 6,000 feet below the peak. “But to work on this building, in this location, you see the scale and the grandness of it.”
Yet Kidrick is coy when asked if he’s left a signature on the stones, which is a tradition among masons.
“All I can say about that is I will not say I did, and I will not say I didn’t,” Kidrick says with a sly smile. “But it wouldn’t be taking much pride in your work if you didn’t.”
The pride here is readily apparent among all of the crew members who are helping to rebuild the 105-year-old wood and stone chalet, which was heavily damaged after an “ember storm” from the 17,000-acre Sprague fire rained down on the log and stone structure on Aug. 31, 2017. Afterward, only the shell of the stone walls and two chimneys remained of the dormitory, which was the crown jewel of the Sperry complex.
The stone walls were stabilized in 2017 with wooden cross-members to ensure they would weather the winter, and during the past two summers, the dormitory was rebuilt to reflect its “period of significance” from 1914 to 1949.
Kidrick’s chat is interrupted by Ben Heppe, an architect with Anderson Hallas in Golden, Colorado, who is on his sixth site visit. Heppe wants to know if the base below the stairs shows evidence of their origin so they can be reconstructed using the same materials and style.
His firm did the Many Glacier Hotel restoration and was celebrating its grand reopening two years ago, just two weeks after learning Sperry Chalet was consumed by fire. Heppe was adamant about being involved in the Sperry rehabilitation effort and ensuring its historical accuracy.
“I cut my teeth on Many Glacier, which was a 10- to 14-year phased project for our team. I loved coming up here from Golden for that project,” Heppe said, shouting above the roar of a table saw and occasional blast from a nail gun as a Van Halen love song rings through the interior of the structure. “This work brings out the best in people; there’s something about the story of that structure, and now you’re involved in that structure. Something about it is very cool.”
Initially, they worked from old drawings and photographs to try to ensure historic accuracy. Heppe noted that what was built miles away from civilization often differed from the architectural plans, which is why he’s curious about the mason’s professional opinion. It’s one of Sperry’s many secrets that’s puzzled him.
He also had wondered early on whether the interior siding was simple tongue and groove, or if it had a wooden “bead” between the vertical lines.
He pauses and points to the new siding next to the original stone chimney. Not only does the woodwork include the bead, it also is “scribed” around each stone to blend the two seamlessly. He takes a few steps into the next room, and he notes how the windows are six individual glass panes that fit into the wooden “muntin,” or strip of wood separating the panes.
“These days, they do just one main pane and put a muntin onto it. Those are a no-no in preservation land because it’s not authentic,” Heppe said.
He’s quick to acknowledge that visitors will notice some changes in what's at least a $10 million rehabilitation. The two former steep staircases now have landings and a 90-degree turn part-way down to make them safer. The firewalls and insulation will make it quieter for overnight guests, who no longer should be able to hear their amorous next-door neighbors.
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The roofing materials include specially treated fire-resistant cedar shingles. The interior doorways are slightly wider, with a 32-inch minimum. Little black boxes on the walls outside of each room provide the equivalent of a 1-foot candle of light. And one room on the main floor is handicap accessible under the Architectural Barriers Act Accessibility Standard, which is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It’s a delicate balance. We’re rehabilitating it because the Secretary of Interior standards allow different methods to be employed. That rehabilitation allows code upgrades,” Heppe said.
In keeping with the historic preservation aspect of the work, the delicate aesthetically pleasing wood grain patterns on the flooring once again will be covered with orange paint.
“That was one of Sperry’s defining features; Sherwin Williams in Kalispell has a color called ‘Sperry Orange’ for the guest rooms,” Heppe said, shaking his head ruefully.
Toward the south end of the dormitory, Justen Hickman of Great Falls pauses to chat quickly, saying it’s not easy to spend 24 hours a day for eight days with coworkers. He’s on a crew that’s working eight days on, with six days off. They switch out with a second crew.
The lack of communication with his family also is difficult since there’s no cell phone or Internet service here. So they spend their off hours playing cards, reading books and tossing a football. He’s hiked to the job site six times so far this year.
“It’s like going to hunting camp for four months,” Hickman said. “No showering for eight days; what you get is a baby wipe bath.”
And even though they have modern tools and gas-powered generators, Hickman said they sometimes have to resort to old-time skills when they’re building decks that attach to rocks that aren’t square.
“It sure fine-tunes your carpentry skills,” he said. “It’s like going back in time, but you have amenities like power tools.”
Despite the difficulties, Hickman said he wouldn’t give up the experience for the world.
“Sperry has special meaning. You know that you will go down in history as one of the small groups of people who rehabilitated Sperry and tried to do things in a historic way,” Hickman said.
That sentiment was echoed by Rafe Friede of Drummond, who gets up at 2 a.m. on the day his shift starts to drive to Glacier, then hikes for almost three hours before starting his eight-hour work day. On this crisp autumn morning, however, Friede’s crew is hitching a ride from Mike Mamuzich, who is piloting one of Minuteman Aviation’s helicopters to drop off supplies and pick up accumulated detritus from the job site.
The flight takes less than 10 minutes as Mamuzich expertly rises from Nyack Flats through the morning’s light ground fog and whisks by Walton Mountain, which appears perilously close. Friede points to Lake Ellen Wilson and the waterfall that pours into Lincoln Lake. He’s taken the flight before and says that sometimes, it looks like the upper lake is draining into the clouds.
“Not many people get to see this,” Friede says quietly, staring out the helicopter window.
Sperry Chalet comes into view unexpectedly quickly. Mamuzich swings his Bell 407 helicopter wide to the left and banks a hard right before gently setting down on a rocky knoll near a hitching post for mules. Within minutes he’s in the air again, this time ferrying out trash on a long line below the Bell.
Later, Travis Neil, the project manager for Dick Anderson Construction, praised the dedication of all the people working to make Sperry Chalet whole again. The work is expected to wrap up in early October.
“When times get tough and you’re worn out, you take a deep breath and remember where you’re at and what you’re doing,” Neil said. “It’s a huge morale booster.”