Glacier’s grand old hotel celebrated

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Superintendent of Glacier National Park Jeff Mow, gives opening remarks at a media day which celebrated the years of renovations completed at the Many Glacier Hotel on Tuesday, September 12.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

In the late 1990s, the fate of the Many Glacier Hotel hung in the balance.

The 211-room guesthouse situated on a rocky ledge on Swiftcurrent Lake in Glacier National Park was structurally unsound and afflicted with a host of health and safety problems. Integral components such as the foundation, walls and floors of the building were failing and a few unwanted guests like asbestos and bats called the historic landmark home.

But over the past 17 years, the hotel has undergone $41.85 million in renovations to bring the Swiss-style icon up to modern code. On Tuesday afternoon, the parties behind the historic facelift gathered around the double-helix staircase in the main lobby to celebrate the culmination of years of hard work.

“These are the family jewels of this nation and they really do deserve protection — and protection sometimes needs to come in the form of dollars,” said Barbara Pahl, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The restoration of the hotel was made possible with funding from Congress, the National Park Service, and public and private philanthropy, including $358,251 from the Glacier Park Conservancy.

Many Glacier Hotel houses an average of 46,000 overnight guests per year and 500,000 daytime visitors. But the Park Service considered closing the hotel in 2004 due to dire interior conditions, including a rotting wood structure, potentially flammable knob and tube wiring and a clogged fire sprinkler system. The hotel had also earned a spot on the National Trust’s “America’s Most Endangered Places” list in 1996.

In 1999, the park came up with two solutions: Seek funding to repair the hotel or keep it open until deterioration or safety issues forced its closure. But support for saving the hotel was high, so the park pursued the first option.

Some of the earliest improvements included reroofing and re-siding the building and restoring the windows, said Anderson Hallas principle architect Nan Anderson.

“We turned ‘stagger alley’ into ‘swagger alley’ .. it still leans a little,” she said, of an uneven hallway that once led to the hotel bar.

The biggest achievements aren’t visible from the surface — but improvements such as leveling the foundation and walls, and updating plumbing, wiring and replacing a 50-year-old fire sprinkler system will help the structure live on for the next generation.

Other updates are hard to miss: the double-helical staircase, which was removed in the 1950s, was recreated to comply with modern code standards, as were the original Japanese lanterns, which were constructed using sustainable materials and energy-efficient lighting. The dining room was also restored to its former glory based on a combination historic photos and forensic investigation. Many Glacier Hotel’s “flying friends” or brown bats, which had moved into the dining hall during the 1940s, were relocated to custom bat homes of the eaves of the hotel outside.

The interior rehabilitation was completed by Anderson Hallas Architects over a 13-year period, while Northwest Cabinet Works of Kalispell constructed the staircase and Swank Construction, also based in Kalispell, handled the remodeling of the lobby and south annex.

“Why is this place important? It’s because it tells so many uniquely American stories,” Anderson said. “These are places that belong to none of us and all of us and they weave us together as a great nation.”

Many Glacier Hotel’s legacy began in 1915 when it was built by the Glacier Park Hotel Company, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway. The rail company, hoping to lure more passengers aboard its trains, invested in a number of hotels, including Many Glacier, said longtime park interpretive ranger, Diane Sine.

Company president Louis Hill was the visionary behind the Swiss-style guesthouse.

“He was trying to attract clientele used to going to Europe for their summer holidays,” Sine said.

Hill was also part of a group of tourism businessmen that developed the advertising slogan, “See Europe if you will, but see America first.”

“Louis Hill capitalized on that and thought well, he would provide the Swiss Alps right here in the Northern Rockies of Glacier National Park,” Sine said.

He also introduced Japanese lanterns illuminating the main lobby, which have since been recreated and modernized as part of the renovations. The lanterns, some round and others cylinder-shaped, were covered in Japanese characters that conveyed messages of good fortune and prosperity. Some also carried an homage to the rail company, reading “Big North,” Sine said.

In the late 1950s, the railway decided to bow out of the hotel industry, which hadn’t turned out to be as profitable as they’d hoped.

Construction contractor Don Knudsen was named general manager of the Glacier Park Hotel Company and went on to lead a major renovation of the hotel which some dubbed the “reconstruction” or alternatively, “the reign of terror,” according to the Glacier Park Foundation. The helical staircase was torn out during this period and original hardwood flooring was replaced with tile.

Once the renovations were complete, Great Northern sold the property to Glacier National Park.

In 1961, manager Ian B. Tippet’s passion for the dramatic arts ushered the hotel into a new era. Tippet recruited drama students from across the country to work in Many Glacier. Choirs sang in the dining room during dinner hours or performed in the lobby, while Broadway productions were hosted every August for 23 years.

Sine herself is a product of that period.

“I came here as an 18-year-old cellist to work as a singing waitress,” she said. “I’ve been here ever since. ... There’s something about this valley and this view and this place.”

As the ribbon-cutting ceremony came to a close, the crowds filed out and lobby foot traffic resumed its usual ebb and flow.

The hotel was, and still is, a melting pot of visitors and locals of all ages.

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