Glacier to begin Sperry Chalet reconstruction with January open house

The rebuilding of Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet will begin with a public open house on Feb. 28.

Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said the meeting will launch the schematic design process for reconstruction of the 103-year-old high-country dormitory, which was destroyed in a firestorm last Aug. 31.

Thousands of park devotees and past visitors to Sperry Chalet have called for its rebuilding since the fire, and the Glacier National Park Conservancy has financed both a stabilization of the building’s remnant stone walls and a flyover earlier this week. The flyover was needed so park officials know the structure’s status as they begin work on its future design.

Photographs and video from the flyover showed the stabilization effort has, so far, succeeded in preserving the walls, which are 2 feet thick and were the only part of the dormitory remaining after the intense blaze.

Now comes the rebuilding process, endorsed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who owns a home in Whitefish and was previously Montana’s representative in the U.S. House.

“Rebuilding historic Sperry is a priority,” Zinke said in a statement released Friday. “I’m excited the work is moving along. The Conservancy and the park put in a lot of work to stabilize the building for winter, and now we can start to rebuild for future family adventures at Sperry.”

Anderson Hallas Architects of Denver will lead the concept design phase. The company also led the design process for the renovation and rehabilitation of Many Glacier Hotel, a multi-year project completed in 2017.

In fact, the Many Glacier project has many similarities with the new effort at Sperry Chalet, said Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier Park Conservancy.

Both, he said, rely upon a public-private partnership, are steeped in historic significance,  have generated considerable public interest and involvement, and require a multimillion-dollar commitment of government and privately raised funds.

“We are the private part of it,” Mitchell said. “We are committed to helping raise money for the rebuild solution and the restoration of the larger Sperry Complex, the trails and the larger site.”

A structural analysis found the remaining stone walls of Sperry Chalet to be sound. (Glacier.org)

The Sprague fire left an estimated 1,200 trees down and lying across the six-mile trail from the trailhead near Lake McDonald Lodge to Sperry Chalet. Many other trails within the fire’s perimeter have a like number of downed trees, or more.

“We will be the philanthropic partner to this project, just as we were to 50-plus other projects in the park this past year,” Mitchell said Saturday.

Sperry Chalet is, of course, a significant addition to the conservancy’s to-do list, he said. In 2017, the conservancy funded reconstruction of the last mile of the Hidden Lake trail, bus transportation for schoolchildren to visit Glacier Park in the off-season, trail maintenance and construction, and work to prevent the invasion of mussels in Glacier’s pristine waters.

Then came the wildfire and Sperry Chalet’s destruction.

Already, the nonprofit organization has raised more than $190,000 for its Sperry Action Fund, about $120,000 of which financed last October’s rapid stabilization of the building’s façade. Over 10 days, a crew of National Park Service workers placed 100 16-foot 6-by-6 beams, 24 24-foot 6-by-6 beams, and 24 sheets of three-quarter-inch plywood in and around the structure.

“Clearly, in scope of magnitude, Sperry Chalet is a huge undertaking in terms of the dollar amount and the historic significance,” Mitchell said. “While we can consider it our 52nd or 53rd project, the challenge is to make sure we can do that in an appropriate way. It could double the magnitude of our work. But we are up to the challenge and we believe the public is up to the challenge.”

The Glacier National Park Conservancy funded this week’s flyover of Sperry Chalet, and will fund two others as well. (GravityShots.com via the Glacier National Park Conservancy)

Since the fire, “the outpouring of support from people across the country who weren’t involved in the conservancy’s work before has led me to see that this project will expose more people to our work, people who maybe didn’t even know the conservancy existed before,” he said.

More than 900 individuals have donated to the Sperry Action Fund, and even more contributed to the effort following this week’s flyover of the site. Those donations are essential, Mitchell said.

“We want to be able to say yes when the park needs help,” he said. “We can be nimble and help the park as they think through this project.”

As was true at Many Glacier, federal funding will provide the core dollars to rebuild Sperry Chalet, Mitchell said, as the building is owned by the U.S. government. “We’ll wait for the park to tell us what contribution they need the conservancy to make. It will be a significant investment.”

The Glacier National Park Conservancy will not advocate for a specific outcome at Sperry Chalet, according to its director. “Our expertise is not in developing the project.”

But as with other park projects, “we will play more the role of looking at what they are proposing and helping them think through how attractive that will or won’t be in terms of private philanthropy,” he said.

“That’s a role we play on lots of projects,” Mitchell said. “They’ll say, we have an issue or a project, and we’ll say that’s something people really care about and we’re all in, or possibly we’ll say explain more about how that is attractive or important to the general user and the park experience. We’ll be advisory, but won’t advocate for a specific outcome.”

No timeline or potential cost figures have been determined, although Sperry’s rebuilding has been clearly stated as a priority for Zinke and the state’s two U.S. senators, Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

The process is complex, requiring not only public involvement but a National Environmental Policy Act review because of the chalet’s location in the roadless backcountry. It is accessible only by trail – on foot or horseback. Helicopters delivered the raw materials needed for last fall’s stabilization work.

Sarah Gargac shared this photograph of Sperry Chalet on Facebook late Thursday, after learning it had been destroyed by fire. (Shawn Gargac)

The Feb. 28 open house will run from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the Flathead Valley Community College Arts and Technology Building, Room 139, in Kalispell.

It will begin with a 20-minute presentation by park museum curator Deirdre Shaw on Glacier Park’s chalets, their national historic significance and the Great Northern Railroad’s influence on tourism and park infrastructure, still in evidence today.

Then park officials will discuss preliminary concepts for rebuilding the Sperry dormitory building, followed by a Q&A with Mow and Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith.

Mitchell will provide an update on fundraising efforts and opportunities in support of rebuilding the chalet. Then those in attendance will have an opportunity to share their thoughts about the reconstruction, either in written form or with park staff members who will be stationed around the room.

For those who cannot attend the meeting, the park will post a newsletter on the National Park Service Planning Site on Feb. 28, describing the preliminary rebuilding concepts and providing an opportunity for public comment, either online or via written letter.

In addition, Mow said additional public meetings will be scheduled this spring.

Both Mow and Mitchell encouraged the public to get involved in the design process.

“This is an exciting time,” Mitchell said. “How many times have you thought back to 1913 and said, ‘Man, I wish I was a part of that.’ Well, we now have an opportunity to be part of something that is truly historic. At what other point in history will we have an opportunity as a people to participate in something this iconic?”