Conservancy looks to restore historic park structure

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | June 17, 2020 7:20 AM

Glacier National Park Conservancy recently applied for a state grant totaling nearly $500,000 that would go toward the restoration of the historic Lulu Wheeler Cabin on the eastern shore of Lake McDonald.

Efforts to rehabilitate the Wheeler Cabin for adaptive reuse by the public have been underway since 2016, but were put on hold after the 2018 Howe Ridge fire consumed several of the park’s historical structures, including the iconic Sperry Chalet. While the fire also destroyed outbuildings and a boathouse on the Wheeler site, firefighters were able to salvage the main cabin, but the flames did cause exterior and interior damage.

The Conservancy, the nonprofit fundraising arm of Glacier National Park, applied for the grant through the Montana Historic Preservation Program offered through the Montana Department of Commerce. The program was created by the 2019 Legislature and is designed to support public or private entities with the preservation of historic sites, historical societies and history museums.

Glacier National Park Conservancy Executive Director Doug Mitchell said the application is in its very beginning stages. Awards will be made during the 2021 legislative session and once the bill passes, it is then submitted to the governor for a signature to become effective.

According to a proposed project schedule, the official grant award date and subsequent access to program funding is expected to occur on July 1, 2021. If everything goes as planned, the schedule shows the entire rehabilitation project will wrap up before 2022 should the conservancy and partners be awarded the grant.

“We are at the very start of this whole process,” Mitchell said. “We have been working on this rehabilitation for a number of years now and when this program became available, we felt the Wheeler Cabin project was an obvious fit for possible funding.”

According to the grant application, construction tasks deemed “critical,” or top priority, include roof repairs, plumbing improvements and electrical upgrades for smoke detection, light and heating. Other more urgent fixes include foundation repairs, sill log replacement, door and window upgrades and the restoration of the cabin’s second floor balcony and exterior stairs.

The Conservancy has requested $493,200 in grant funding and an additional leverage amount of $117,105, bringing the total project cost to $610,305.

“We are delighted by the opportunity to put this structure back into its original state; it’s a truly historic cabin,” Mitchell said. “To be able to renew and reinvigorate that cabin for future generations is really clearly our mission at the Glacier Park Conservancy and this is within the wheelhouse of the Department of Commerce as well.”

The Lulu Wheeler Cabin’s history dates back to 1916 when former Montana Sen. Burton Wheeler and his wife Lulu purchased a cabin on the eastern shore of Lake McDonald where their family would spend summers. Wheeler, an outspoken Democrat and avid supporter of Montana labor unions, served as a U.S. Senator from 1923 to 1947.

According to the Montana Historical Society, Wheeler, who also ran for vice president in 1924, authored some of his most important bills at the cabin, including legislation establishing self-rule on Indian reservations.

The Wheeler cabin burned down in 1941 and was rebuilt shortly after, along with four other buildings on the property that are no longer there. According to the historical society, “the new cabin captured the spirit of the family’s lost landmark while swallowing the signature rustic style of the National Park Service.” The cabin was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

Decades later, Glacier National Park assumed ownership of the cabin in 2014 by way of a long-standing contract. In a 2015 post on the Glacier National Park Conservancy’s website — three years before the Howe Ridge fire — the organization stated “through the reuse of this historic and inspirational property, Glacier National Park seeks to provide unique youth experiences for students and tribal members while demonstrating excellence in historic preservation.”