The Montana Historical Society’s Ellen Baumler started us off on our tour of High-Style Railroad buildings. Railroad entrepreneur James J. Hill worked closely with his friend and successful Montana businessman, Charles Conrad to develop the Great Northern Railway through the Flathead in 1891. Although the small hamlet of Demersville and Columbia Falls were already established, Conrad platted the town of Kalispell and made it the major rail division point in the area.
Our tour of the Conrad Mansion revealed a remarkably designed and furnished period home in the Norman revival style. The house, designed by prolific Pacific Northwest area architect, Kirtland Kutter, had indoor plumbing and electricity (and backup gas lanterns) and the most modern conveniences of the day, including household communications system and indoor fire hoses on each floor. Conrad died in 1902 and his wife Lettie died in 1928. Alicia Conrad struggled to maintain the large home and it fell into disrepair by the 1970s. The home was lovingly restored to its original grandeur in the 1980s, including a vast majority of its original furnishings and personal items.
Conrad Mansion, Kalispell all decked out for the summer.
Although our bus couldn’t navigate through Conrad Cemetery, we were lucky to drive in part way and hear from Montana Historical Society Interpretive Historian, Ellen Baumler about Charles Conrad’s last resting place — a beautiful, lush, and expansive designed landscape on the east side of Kalispell along the Flathead River.
Charles Conrad’s wife, Lettie was instrumental in designing the cemetery. Along with her youngest daughter, Alicia, she visited cemeteries across the country and in Canada and Mexico to find the right design. A.W. Hobert of Minneapolis, a landscape architect and superintendent of the famed Lakewood Cemetery, designed the Conrad Cemetery with a park-like setting, featuring sweeps of expansive lawns “studded with inconspicuous embedded markers, providing a stunning framework for the Conrad Mausoleum and the stones and upright monuments that are spread over the grounds.”
A quick visit to the Hockaday Museum of Art told the story of one of Kalispell’s architectural masterpieces. Originally, the building was the Kalispell Carnegie Library. It opened on Jan. 12, 1904 with a mind-boggling 4,000 volumes.
It was designed by Montana architect George H. Shanley, and is one of 17 Carnegie libraries that were built across Montana. The library continued to house books and periodicals within its walls until 1969, when the library moved across the street and the Hockaday Museum took up residency.
If you’re visiting excellent architecture in Kalispell it can make you hungry for burgers and malts. So, our lunch stop at the McIntosh Opera House building and Norm’s News Soda Fountain was just the thing. It took us back in time to a real old-fashioned ice cream shop with the best fries and the creamiest shakes . . . and a hidden opera house upstairs. Owners Gordon Pirrie and Susan Munsinger were so kind to tour us through the unrestored Opera House space, which had many people fawning over it’s wonderful potential.
John McIntosh built Opera House Square in 1896 in bustling downtown Kalispell. The building to the north housing Norm’s News was added in 1903.
The Opera House seated 1,000 and served the community as a lodge hall, ballroom, theater, high school auditorium, and even a roller skating rink. Plays like Little Lord Fauntleroy and Uncle Tom’s Cabin drew big crowds. Eugene Debs, labor leader and Socialist candidate for President lectured here in 1902.
The former sleeping rooms sharing the second floor of the Opera House are now modern apartments. In the hallway outside the heavy opera house door, the Pirrie’s have a history wall with photos and newspaper articles about the McIntosh Opera House.
The soda fountain at the McIntosh Opera opened in 1938 when Norm Schappeaker bought Mr. Tucker’s Pool Hall. The beautiful oak and cypress “Los Angeles” style Brunswick back bar had originally cost $369 in 1902. It was shipped to Kalispell in 1930 from Chicago at a cost of $3000.
Julie Dougherty of the Glacier National Park Conservancy and Deirdre Shaw, Glacier National Park Museum Curator met us at Belton Depot to fill us in on this most important station on James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad.
Inside Belton Depot visitors will find a nearly intact 1910 depot with beautifully restored wood paneling and original windows. This is where all visitors to the brand new Glacier National Park disembarked on their adventure until car travel was more widespread in the 1920s. The station continued to be active despite the Great Depression, and was expanded in 1935. The depot sat empty in the 1980s and 1990s, until it was donated to the Glacier Natural History Association in 1993. Architect Ken Williams (center) oversaw the restoration and spoke of the many alliances and partnerships that came about as a result of the Belton Depot restoration. Today, the depot houses the Glacier National Park Conservancy Bookstore and offices.
Track side at the Belton Depot.
Just a quick walk across US Highway 2 from Belton Depot are the historic Belton Chalet, Belton Lodge, and Cottages. James J. Hill envisioned a Switzerland in America along his Great Northern Line and embarked on building a system of rustic Swiss-style hotels. The Chalet was built in 1910.
The Belton Lodge was built up the hill from the Chalet in 1913.
Between 1910 and 1915, nine chalets were built at Belton, St. Mary, Sun Point, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Sperry, Granite Park, Cut Bank, and Gunsight Lake. Only Belton, Two Medicine, and Granite Park survive today. Sperry burned in 2017, but will be rebuilt by 2020.
After World War II the Great Northern sold the property and it changed hands through several owners and fell into disuse and disrepair. Locals remember the dilapidated building through the 1980s, doors unlocked, full of junk, and rain pouring in. A harsh winter in 1997 nearly destroyed the buildings, but Cas Still and Andy Baxter came to the rescue and restored the chalet and lodge to their original Arts and Crafts character beginning in 1998.
Enjoying the view at Belton. Charlene Porsild of the Montana History Foundation and Deb Mitchell of the Montana Historical Society on the balcony at Belton Chalet.
It’s a special treat to spend an evening in the Belton Tap Room.
Touring the Belton Bar & Tap Room with Manager, Matthew Tousignant.
A spot by the cozy stone fireplace is a coveted seat during the cool Spring and Fall months.
From Belton Chalet our bus made the trip into Glacier National Park to visit the majestic Lake McDonald Lodge. The lodge started out as the Lewis Hotel in 1914 and was later sold to the Great Northern Railway in 1930. The hotel name was changed to Lake McDonald Lodge in 1957. All visitors in the early days arrived by boat, so the more decorative side of this Swiss-style lodge faces the lake, even though most visitors today arrive by car or bus on the “service” side of the hotel.
John Lewis, a land speculator from Columbia Falls commissioned prominent Spokane, WA architect, Kirtland Cutter to design the Lewis Glacier Hotel in keeping with the railroad-built Swiss-style chalets already underway in the new park. Cutter also designed the Conrad Mansion in Kalispell.
MPA Board member, architect, and father of preservation in Montana, Jim McDonald, was our guide at Lake McDonald Lodge (no relation). McDonald has worked on numerous National Park Service hotel renovations and was involved in a 1980s architectural survey of the Lake McDonald area cabins. He explained much of the history of the hotel and the thought behind the rustic style architecture. Natural materials like split logs, branches, and rough-sawn wood was used inside and out to give genteel travelers of the early nineteen hundreds the feeling of being outdoors even when they were inside.
Inside the Lake McDonald Lodge lobby, the hanging lanterns are reproductions of original work made by Kanai craftsmen for the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada, which had been moved to Lake McDonald in the 1960s.