From the Alps to the Flathead Valley via Glacier National Park

by JAIX CHAIX

There’s a connection to Swiss Chalet architecture in the Flathead Valley – an ironic connection that may surprise you. A connection that harkens back to Glacier National Park and “Ol’ Jim Hill.”

While dozens of men, like George Bird Grinnell, Thomas H. Carter, Louis Hill, and members of the Blackfeet Nation, are responsible for creating Glacier National Park, there is one man responsible for the Swiss Chalet architectural style of its buildings: James Jerome Hill, railroad magnate and former president of the Great Northern Railway, who sought to establish the park as a tourist destination along his railroad empire.

In 1893, James J. Hill and his Great Northern Railway used Marias Pass to complete the only transcontinental railroad that was privately funded, used relatively few land grants, and didn’t go bankrupt (no small feat).

As a true “Empire Builder,” Hill was a “hands-on; ass-in-the-saddle kinda guy.” For example, he often chose many of the railroad routes himself, but only after carefully surveying them on horseback. And when Hill made the sojourn to Marias Pass, he was awestruck and instantly reminded of the beauty of the Swiss Alps. He declared the area that would later become Glacier National Park as the “American Alps,” which for him was a literal interpretation.

And it’s no wonder that within days after the U.S. Senate bill creating Glacier National Park was passed by the House of Representatives on April 13, 1910, the Great Northern Railway launched a “See America First” advertising campaign to lure wealthy Americans away from traveling abroad to Europe and instead board Great Northern Railway trains west to see the beauty of the “American Alps” first.

And as history proves, whenever a one-eye blind, empire-building, railroad magnate and monopolist, known for such assertions as “give me snuff, whiskey, and Swedes, and I will build a railroad to hell,” promises the “American Alps,” he means the American Alps – Swiss Chalet style architecture included.

Hill boldly insisted upon making Glacier Park an “architecturally cohesive tourist destination.” This may help explain why Glacier Park buildings look similar and why Hill literally – and deliberately – chose an architectural style loosely based upon chalets found throughout the Swiss and German Alps.

Hill resigned from the helm of his railroad empire and stepped down as president to exact his vision of the “American Alps” and architectural cohesion by overseeing the hotel building projects in Glacier National Park (perhaps nowadays, this would be akin to Mark Zuckerberg resigning from Facebook to build corporate activity centers throughout Silicone Valley and decorate the lobby). And Hill was no stranger to building large structures, as he oversaw construction of his own 36,000-square-foot “home” in St. Paul, Minn., completed in 1891.

In creating the American Alps experience, consider the design and style of Glacier Park Lodge. Samuel L. Bartlett, a St. Paul, Minn., architect, had been commissioned for the Glacier Park Lodge. However, Hill controlled (read as: dictated) every major facet of the design – including taking stylistic liberties.

While the alpine Swiss Chalet style would predominate the hotels, chalets, and even outbuildings built the Great Northern during 1913-1917, Hill incorporated another source of inspiration, namely the Forestry Building at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Ore.: Swiss Chalet meets the massive, pioneer log style.

In simple terms, most of the pioneer log style from the 1905 Forestry Building can be seen on the inside of Glacier Park Lodge (e.g., the logs with their bark still attached) and much of the Swiss Chalet style can be seen on the outside. An over-simplification, sure, as elements of both influenced the interior and exterior.

Moreover, it was the fusion of these two styles – Swiss Chalet and pioneer log style – that created the unique style of the lodge, and a unique, often-referenced architectural style throughout the Flathead Valley. After all, this is a place where hotels and chalets were not meant for staying but for hiking and exploring the landscape in between them. Terms like “back-country chalet” and “in-town base camp” make perfect sense.

So it’s hardly a coincidence that the railway depot, the Izaak Walton Inn (a former railroad worker boarding house), Glacier Park Lodge, the chalets, and other buildings and outbuildings all look similar, and have elements of this unique style.

Hill also understood that Glacier National Park was the ancestral and sacred land of the Blackfeet Nation. After all, he had to ask Congress for a special grant to negotiate with the Blackfeet to buy the land for the Glacier Park Lodge. Hill fortunately embraced Blackfeet culture into some of the design and décor of the Glacier Park Lodge and other buildings in Glacier.

As the Flathead Valley developed, it was likely difficult for local architects of the day to resist adopting exterior architectural elements from the nearby, iconic hotels and chalets of Glacier National Park.

For example, consider the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Kalispell. Its National Register placard reads: “Architect Fred Brinkman designed the church … and many local craftsmen made the Tudor style church a true community project … reminiscent of Glacier National Park’s rustic chalets.”

Wait, “Tudor style?” Yeah, Swiss Chalet versus Tudor Revival style references can be much debated. The origins of the Swiss Chalet (early 19th-century Germany, Switzerland) and Tudor Revival (medieval England) are distinct. However, many of their visual characteristics may seem quite similar. And nowadays, meaningful lines between the two may seem even more blurry as home owners and builders choose styles to their own liking and budgets.

Distinctions may seem even more confounded, considering that arguably the simple geo-metric patterns and repeated motifs, found on the front exterior of the church and other buildings, have perhaps less to do with the Swiss Chalet style (typically more ornate) and Tudor Revival style (which rarely, if ever, involves a circle) and more with Blackfeet aesthetics.

But just to be clear, the Swiss Chalet style came first; the Tudor Revival style – that has many similar characteristics – came later. Eclectically inspired mixes of both can be found in older and newer construction in the Flathead Valley.

You can find homes that seem to have elements of both. For example, the house at Sixth Street East and Sixth Avenue East in Kalispell features both a clipped-gable, or “jerkinhead” roof (a hallmark of the Swiss Chalet style), and a full, pointed gable (a hallmark of the more angular, Tudor Revival style).

Hill implored patriotic, wealthy Americans to visit the “American Alps” and “See America First” – and deplored any notion of going abroad to the Swiss Alps. Yet therein the disconnect lies a connection – a connection to Swiss Chalet style that has become a unique part of the Flathead Valley architectural landscape.