Glacier National Park recommends rebuilding Sperry Chalet at historic site

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

Glacier National Park wants to rebuild Sperry Chalet at its original site, within its 100-year-old stone walls, officials said Tuesday.

In an environmental assessment, the park said its proposal would restore the chalet dormitory, burned in a wildfire last summer, to reflect its “period of significance” from 1914 to 1949.

Some “critical updates” would be included to acknowledge modern building codes and needed seismic bracing and fire-resistant materials.

In the end, “the visitor experience would be very similar to what it has been for decades,” said Lauren Alley, Glacier Park’s information specialist.

The reconstruction would utilize as much of the remaining historic fabric as possible, and would replicate historic finishes where practicable, she said.

Construction would be completed in two phases, proposed for the summers of 2018 and 2019.

A number of factors could change that schedule, however, including cost considerations, weather and other natural events including wildfires and avalanches, and other unforeseen events or conditions, the park warned.

Sarah Gargac shared this photograph of Sperry Chalet on Facebook last Aug. 31, after learning it had been destroyed by fire. (Shawn Gargac)

An architectural firm was hired last month to oversee the project and attempt to manage the many variables. Anderson and Hallas, the same Denver-based firm that spent more than a decade working on the renovation and stabilization of Many Glacier Hotel.

Glacier Park has worked to fast-track the environmental analysis and decision making on Sperry Chalet’s future, hoping to preserve as much of the remaining structure as possible to reuse in the new building, Superintendent Jeff Mow said recently.

Virtually all of the dormitory was incinerated in the Aug. 31 blowup of the Sprague fire, except for the building’s 2-foot-thick stone walls quarried from a nearby talus field.

At a public meeting in Columbia Falls carried live on Facebook, Mow warned of the challenges of reconstruction.

The site is remote – a six-mile trek that will require helicopter shuttles for building materials. The construction season is short, owing to Sperry Chalet’s high elevation and alpine climate.

The previous dormitory sat in an avalanche path and was not built to withstand earthquakes. The site’s water source has diminished in recent years, a problem that must be addressed for the chalet to continue welcoming overnight guests. The chalet’s concessionaire had to modify operations because of water supply issues in two recent summers.

The Glacier National Park Conservancy raised private donations so Sperry Chalet could be stabilized before winter. (glacier.org)

In addition, the construction and placement of the new structure in the backcountry could impact the park’s wilderness qualities, as well as impact grizzly bears and Canada lynx, both protected species.

And more information is needed on the state of the stone walls remaining after the fire. Overflights conducted this winter showed the walls still erect, surrounded by an increasingly heavy snowpack, but the actual quality of the stone itself has not yet been assessed.

And finally, while Montana congressional delegation and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have all pledged their support for the chalet’s reconstruction, federal funding is anything but certain, given the gridlock on Capitol Hill.

The Glacier National Park Conservancy is partnering with the park to raise funds for the reconstruction. The conservancy provided all the funding for last fall’s emergency stabilization work at the site and is financing this winter’s overflights to ensure that the dormitory walls are still standing.

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,” said Doug Mitchell, executive director of the conservancy.

To date, more than 900 individuals have donated about $200,000 to the Sperry Action Fund, of which $120,000 was used for the pre-winter stabilization. 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 Hotel, 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 conservancy did not advocate for a specific option at Sperry, 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.”

Sperry Chalet was destroyed by fire on Aug. 31 despite what was described as a “valiant” effort by firefighters. (National Park Service)

All of the documents released Tuesday, as well as earlier reports from the National Park Service, are available online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/SperryChalet2018.

The environmental analysis will be available for public review for 20 days; comments are due by May 7.

A public meeting to provide comment on the environmental assessment and ask questions about the project will be held on Monday, April 23 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Flathead Valley Community College, Arts and Technology Building, Room 139 in Kalispell.

During a public scoping period earlier this winter, the park received 403 comments, the majority of which favored rebuilding Sperry Chalet at its historic site and utilizing the remaining stone walls.

Other options included rebuilding at a different location on the same general site, in a glacial cirque high above Lake McDonald, or not rebuilding the dormitory and instead going to a system of canvas tents or yurts for housing guests and employees.

Comments on the park’s recommended plan of action can be submitted online at:  http://parkplanning.nps.gov/SperryChalet2018.  Comments also can be submitted by mail to Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn: Sperry Chalet, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, Montana 59936. The EA may also be requested by calling 406-888-7898.