Glacier Park: Sperry Chalet will be rebuilt within its historic stone walls

The iconic Sperry Chalet, gutted in an ember storm last summer, will be rebuilt at its site high above Lake McDonald. Access to the site is via a six-mile trail that begins near Lake McDonald Lodge. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)

Glacier National Park will rebuild the iconic Sperry Chalet dormitory, beginning this summer and with the endorsement of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Gutted last Aug. 31 in an ember storm from the Sprague fire, the backcountry chalet will be restored within its original 100-year-old stone masonry walls but updated with seismic bracing and fire-resistant materials.

Glacier Park officials released their completed environmental analysis and decision Thursday afternoon, including an analysis of 72 letters received during a month-long public comment period.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hailed the decision in a written statement:

“Rebuilding historic Sperry is a priority,” he said, “and I applaud the quick efforts of the Glacier Conservancy, the park, and the park community to move this project forward. “We are one significant step closer to celebrating future Sperry adventures.”

Of the 72 letters received during the environmental assessment’s review period, 58 specifically supported the park’s preferred alternative – the decision to rebuild Sperry’s dormitory utilizing the 2-foot-thick stone walls.

Had this winter’s overflights shown the chalet’s destruction, the Park Service’s options likely would have changed. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)

One commenter supported rebuilding the chalet in an alternate location and six wanted Glacier Park to take no action.

In general, park officials said the comments “strongly stated their support for rebuilding the chalet and restoring the Sperry Chalet experience in Glacier.”

However, a few commenters did express concerns about the impact that construction at the high-altitude site would have on recommended wilderness, wildlife populations and park visitors – given the noise associated with helicopter shuttles and construction equipment.

Still other commenters expressed concerns about the cost of rebuilding a relatively remote structure that serves a small percentage of visitors each year.

Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said the comments were given careful consideration, and those that raised substantive issues were specifically addressed in the document released Thursday.

“We discovered many important design and resource considerations in our conversations with the public throughout the planning process this spring, and look forward to carrying many of them forward,” Mow said.

“Today we are one significant step closer in restoring the Sperry experience for the next 100 years of park visitors,” he added.

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

In Thursday’s decision, the National Park Service said the rebuilt chalet’s design will reflect its “period of significance” from 1914 to 1949 – and the visitor experience will be “very similar to what it has been for decades.”

Architects and builders will use “as much of the remaining historic fabric” as possible and will replicate historic finishes where practicable.

Construction will be completed in two phases, beginning this summer and concluding in 2019. The cost has not yet been determined, although the decision document warned that cost considerations could delay the project’s completion.

Already, Glacier Park has contracted with Anderson Hallas Architects to oversee the project, beginning this month with bid solicitations for construction contracts.

Anderson Hallas also is preparing the design and construction drawings for the rebuild.

The firm played a similar role in designing and overseeing construction for the lengthy renovation and stabilization of Many  Glacier Hotel on the park’s eastern side. That work was finished in 2017.

The other major player in Sperry Chalet’s reconstruction is the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which will lead the private fundraising effort needed to supplement federal funds.

The conservancy did not weigh in on the environmental assessment, but rather focuses its efforts on the private philanthropy.

For example, it provided the $120,000 needed last October to stabilize the surviving masonry walls before winter’s snows set in – work that could not have been completed on time without private dollars.

The stabilization work was a success, even with the record snowfall received in Glacier’s backcountry this past winter. Three overflights – also financed by the Glacier Conservancy – kept park officials updated on the chalet’s condition.

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.

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

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 set a tentative 2018 fundraising goal of $500,000 for work that might happen at the site this summer.

Mitchell expects 2019 to be the year of the “big ask” and the bulk of the construction. He expects private philanthropy will be needed for $1 million to $2 million in construction costs.

That’s an achievable goal, he said, given that interest in and excitement for the chalet’s future continues to grow.

“In the fall, we saw a lot of concerned interest and sadness,” Mitchell said. “But now it’s excitement in terms of possibly being involved in the restoration and rejuvenation process.

More details on this summer’s work plan and overall cost projections will be known later this month, when Anderson Hallas puts the first contracts out to bid.

Thursday’s Finding of No Significant Impact – the Sperry Chalet decision documents – is available online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/SperryChalet2018.