Great Lodges of the National Parks
Glacier Lodges: Lake McDonald
Today, Lake McDonald Lodge is one of the finest remaining examples of a Swiss-chalet hotel. By virtue of its location and visitor appeal, the Lodge played a key role in the development of the Park's western region.
Erected on the site of the Park's oldest hotel, this venerable landmark was not built by Louis Hill – but a Great Northern subsidiary would eventually control the Lake McDonald Lodge.
Hill had always hoped to have a lodge in the area, and he sited a railroad depot for easy access to the Park's largest lake. But Hill's plans were derailed by John E. Lewis, a Montana businessman and fur trader.
In 1930, Lewis sold his lodge (under duress) to the NPS. The peculiar financial deal included the Great Northern Railway, so Hill finally got his wish but it was an empty victory.
For John Lewis, the first order of business was to remove the old Snyder Hotel from the site. This was followed by concrete and foundation work, completed before the winter of 1913. Since there was no road or rail access to the site, all material had to be ferried several miles up the length of McDonald Lake. When the lake froze in winter, supplies were hauled across the ice on skids. Given the bitterness of Montana winters, the construction crews must have worked in miserable conditions.
The 65-room hotel opened in June 1914, less than a year after construction began. It had cost $48,000 to build – a pittance compared to the sums that Louis Hill was investing on behalf of the Great Northern.
Lewis hired architect Kirtland Kelsey Cutter in 1913, and asked him to design a hotel that would be "something worthy of the Park." At that point in his career Cutter was a prominent architect with a flourishing career in the West.
Cutter had trained in New York and Europe, where he encountered the Swiss-chalet style. He used Swiss motifs several times in the first part of the century. Although Victorian style was in vogue, Cutter was interested in using local building materials to connect his designs with the landscape.
Capable of producing award-winning rustic architecture, Cutter was equally comfortable planning residences for the cream of society. In some cases he was able to combine the two spheres, as he did when designing an Adirondack camp for the Carnegie family. This building also had a distinctly Swiss flavor.
From the beginning, John Lewis' lodge had a striking interior that presented visitors with a surprisingly successful blend of hunting lodge and art gallery. Stepping into the lobby, guests walked on concrete floors crafted to look like flagstone. The "stones" were incised with messages in Blackfoot, Chippewa and Cree languages, meaning "welcome," "new life to those who drink here," "looking toward the mountain," and "big feast."
Indian designs were also scored into a huge hearth. Above the chimney, the sun came through a 2-story, multi-paned window. The space was open, airy, and perfectly square, with columns made of large Western-cedar logs. Balconies and balustrades featured bark-covered cedar and burled wood.
Guests with a taste for fine art were no doubt impressed by the Lodge's many paintings, including original oils by Stick, Fery and Bartlett.