History & Architectural Concept
When compared to the purpose-built Great Northern lodges and chalets, the origins and history of the Lake McDonald Lodge is far more fascinating, complex, and harder to document. While Louis Hill was a railroad baron determined to sell more rail tickets by building lodges as a destination, John Lewis was a land developer who sought to operate a profitable hotel and parcel off the rest of his Lake McDonald tract to private homeowners.
above, the original appearance of the lobby circa 1914. Furnishings were then-contemporary "arts and crafts" with a rustic influence, probably based on an interior design from architects Cutter & Malmgren. Although all of the grand Glacier Lodges now feature furniture in this style, the photographic evidence generally indicates that Lake McDonald was the only hotel that had it originally. In the historic photo below, a close look reveals that small "Chinese Lanterns" were originally used. This style was prominent at the larger Great Northern Railway lodges; although the lanterns were more substantial and colorful.
The first lodge built at the site was typical of late 19th Century hotels constructed in wilderness areas: a charmless box with a shallow roofline and no attractive characteristics. Materials and labor had to be shipped across the lake, so the end product was cheap, drafty, and hastily assembled. Windows were few and small; bath facilities were in a separate building.
This original Glacier Hotel was built by James Snyder, a wealthy furrier who just happened to operate a ferry service on Lake McDonald. Snyder profited nicely from the launch service, so he never considered building a road into the site.
The Glacier Hotel was a destination resort, and like most summer camps it had a hodge-podge of recreation buildings, cabins, and other structures. Few records exist concerning these structures; photographs are even fewer. It is typical that when a business changes hands, succeeding owners have a reduced interest in old photos. With two such transfers by 1930, it is not surprising that photos and documents are rare. The hodge-podge layout of lodge and cabins at Lake McDonald continues to this day.
While most historians report that Snyder sold the property to Lewis in 1905, the popular legend is that Lewis won it in a poker game. Lewis was an energetic individual who probably just wanted to cultivate his image as a gambler. In all likelihood the only "gambling" involved was his decision in 1910 to raze the existing hovel and build a new hotel worthy of the setting.
By the time Lewis obtained a permit in 1911, some of the Great Northern structures were well underway. It is likely that he also saw plans and/or models of the larger hotels, as Hill was promoting his efforts wherever and whenever he could. The fact is that Lewis recognized that whatever he built would be competing with the railroad's grand lodges, and that his facilities would need to be equal to those. He even chose to match the railway's architectural style, and turned to the foremost designer of rustic lodges to tackle the task, Kirtland Cutter.
Cutter had a knack for blending Swiss chalet styling with the new world landscape. He designed Adirondack Lodges for the rich and famous, and created another for the Chicago World's Fair. By retaining Cutter, it is clear that Lewis was interested in building a top quality destination lodge, with little regard for the expense. The result would be light years beyond the original Snyder hotel.
On first approach today, the Lake McDonald Lodge is not nearly as impressive as the Glacier Park Lodge nor the Many Glacier Hotel. Cutter designed the lake side elevation to be the "front" of the hotel; keep in mind that the entry road did not exist at the time. All guests originally arrived by boat, and it was only natural that they should be welcomed at the front door. So while the auto approach today seems somewhat "off", it is best to reserve judgement until the Lodge can be viewed from the lake shore, as it was originally intended.
Above, one of the oldest known photos of Lake McDonald Lodge, viewed from the lake. After the loop road was completed and the Great Northern Railway purchased the facility, they began to publish photos and postcards of what is really the "back" of the building, below.
Above, when the "back" of the hotel was pressed into service as the "front," the entrance was not immediately apparent to visitors, so a sign was hung over the door. Notice the stick balustrades on the railing, which has since been replaced with a "lozenge" style.
From the true "front" lakeside, the Lodge is impressive yet still fits the landscape beautifully. Cutter's arts and crafts design ethic demanded harmony with the surroundings; the ideal was to have a structure appear as if it were one with the land -- almost as if it sprung from the ground, as opposed to being constructed on top of it. Lake McDonald Lodge does this better than any of the Great Northern buildings.
Once inside, the design cohesiveness continues. Like the other grand Glacier Park lodges, Lake McDonald has a soaring, multi-story lobby decked out in timbers and rustic trappings. But it is a much more cohesive, intimate experience, where its counterparts on the east side of the park are spectacular in large part because of their enormity.
Above, the original furnishings were in use through the 1950s. Although some of the original pieces remain to this day, Lake McDonald Lodge followed the other Glacier Park properties with a move to contemporary hotel furniture in the lates 1960s, as seen in the photo below.
Although the guest rooms have been continuously upgraded and redecorated over the years, the atmosphere in the common areas -- hallways, lobby, dining room, etc. -- is essentially the same "vibe" as it was when John Lewis cut the ribbon on June 14, 1914. Many lodges are timeless, while Lake McDonald Lodge seems more like a quieter, gentler place that is definitely from some time in the past. Pelts and trophy mounts have long since vanished from Glacier's eastern lodges; at Lake McDonald, Lewis' hunting spoils remain fixed to the lobby walls and timbers. While it does rise three stories, the lobby somehow feels "intimate," again a testament to Cutter's artistry.
Above, one of the typical cabins at Lake McDonald Lodge. National Park Service historians date most of the cabins from 1907, although it is likely that some were built before and after that date. Each of the cabins has been modified and renovated over the years.