Premium Classification III

current image of lobby at lake mcdonald lodge

Lobby lanterns and detail, 2004. Photo courtesy Wing-Chi Poon.

current image of the original front of lake mcdonald lodge

All guests arrived by boat prior to 1920, so the lake elevation seen in the photo above was designed as the "front" of the lodge. What guests now see as the front from the road was originally the back, and in many respects it still has that appearance. Photo courtesy The National Park Service.

vintage view of lake mcdonald

Panoramic photo of Lake McDonald circa 1915. A portion of the resort development is visible at left. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Lake McDonald Lodge • Glacier NP • 1914
Originally the Lewis Glacier Hotel, built on the site of the Glacier Hotel
Classification III
West Glacier, Montana
Theme: Swiss Chalet & rustic cottages; National Park Rustic "Parkitecture".
Structure: Three and a half storeys; foundation and first floor walls are built of stone, with a wood frame superstructure. Multiple gables and balconies, veranda. Jigsaw scrollwork. Some balcony railing timbers have been replaced by milled lumber. Heavy timber framing in the lobby. Lower stone exterior (originally exposed) now finished in white stucco. Upper exterior is wood clapboard painted brown. Dining room wing has concrete foundation. Swiss detailing in hallways and guest rooms.
Original Architect: Kirtland Cutter, Cutter & Malmgram, Spokane WA
Construction: Contracted by John Lewis, Columbia Falls MT
Known Timeline: (all references are to Lodge except as noted)
Original Glacier Hotel built by James Snyder, 1895
Some cabins and structures constructed between 1895-1905
Property purchased by John & Olive Lewis, 1906
Some cabins and structures constructed, 1907
Barber shop & bath house (now laundry facility) constructed, 1909
Snyder employee dormitory, originally a recreation hall, constructed 1911
Department of Interior provides permit for new hotel, 1911
Construction circa 1912-1913
Lewis Glacier Hotel officially opened June, 1914
Cobb House employee dormitory constructed, 1918 Entry road constructed, 1920
Carpentry shop constructed, 1922
Recreation/Auditorium building constructed, 1927
Garden Court employee dormitory constructed, 1927
Complex sold to Glacier Park Hotel Company (Great Northern Railway) 1930
Name changed to Lake McDonald Hotel, circa 1930
Guest rooms added to second and third floors on west side of lobby, 1934
Transportation desk and newsstand added, 1934
Loop road and flagstone steps added, 1935
Service road constructed, 1936
General store constructed, 1937
Name changed to Lake McDonald Lodge, 1957
Bathrooms renovated, 1958
Kitchen renovated, 1959
Gas station constructed, 1962
Kitchen and dining room destroyed by flood, rebuilt, 1964
Dining room expanded, 1964
Coffee Shop building constructed in Mission 66 style, 1965
Lodge listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 1987
Carpentry shop remodeled, 1989
Current room count:

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.

original interior of the lewis glacier lodge

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.

early view of the lobby at lake mcdonald lodge

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.

one of the oldest known photos of the lewis glacier hotel

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.

the back of the lewis glacier hotel, front of the Lake mcdonald lodge

entrance sign over the ersatz front door at the lake mcdonald lodge

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.

original furnishings in the lobby

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.

arts and crafts style was pushed aside for modern furnishings during the 1970s

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.

typical cabin at lake mcdonald lodge

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.

The Experience

Location Matters

Aside from Cutter's remarkable design, the three most important things about Lake McDonald Lodge are location, location, and location.

First, it's important to remember that it is located on the key entrance on the west side of Glacier National Park. Roads can be a bit more congested than some parts on the east side, and the overall atmosphere is a little different as well. That's neither good nor bad; it's just different.

Second, the setting of the Lake McDonald Lodge on its namesake body of water is simply stunning. This provides for a number of special amenities, including brisk swimming after a day of hiking, evening cocktail cruises, or just beautiful morning strolls along the lake.

Finally, the third location-related factor to keep in mind is your location in the complex. In the Lodge proper? Fantastic. In the cabins? Rustic, but generally outstanding. In the motel? Did we neglect to mention the motel?

Therein lies the knock on Lake McDonald Lodge; guests who are relegated to the motel are generally disappointed with their quarters. The rooms are spotless, bedding is top-notch, and the lodge benefits are at your fingertips. But if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like a duck...there's no mistaking that this is a tired, uninspired motel outbuilding. It just happens to be on the grounds of one of the most incredible lodges ever built, in one of the finest settings imaginable, so it will cost a lot more than a similar room in downtown Missoula.

Obviously the rooms in the main lodge are the most desirable, for the atmosphere is uninterrupted. Some guests happen to prefer the cabins, although it is a much different experience. By contrast, the motel rooms provide access to the atmosphere -- but nothing noteworthy on their own. Rates are structured accordingly; but keep in mind that the top price of a lodge room is not terribly higher, and therefore represents a significantly better value. In fact, compared to other historic National Park Lodges, the rooms within Lake McDonald Lodge are much less expensive and therefore an exceptional value overall. As a result, the Lodge rooms generally sell out months in advance, while cabin and motel units are often available on short notice.

Keep in mind that the experience is about Glacier NP, Lake McDonald, and Kirtland Cutter's fabulous main lodge. Like most historic park lodges, rooms are spartan, with minimal amenities. The lobby at Lake McDonald may be one of the best in the National Park system -- comfortable, cozy, and absolutely delightful. Spend as little time as possible in your room, find a comfortable spot in the lobby, and you'll probably come away thinking of Lake McDonald as your favorite National Park Lodge.


Premium Classification III

The Lake McDonald Lodge will enhance a visit to Glacier National Park. The design, decor, location, and historic value are incredible and an overnight stay will be memorable. Judged solely on public or common areas and ambiance, the Lodge would easily earn "criterion" status. Because we must consider all aspects of the facility, which includes the cabins and motel units, Lake McDonald Lodge is ranked "premium," the third highest classification by the National Park Lodge Architecture Society.

Top of PageLake McDonald Lodge Page 2 — The Cabins & The Coffee Shop

NPLAS • Dedicated to the Preservation and Appreciation of National Park Lodges

NPLAS Home PageClassificationsLobbyBellhopBookstoreConcierge

the lake mcdonald coffee shop

The Coffee Shop is a nearby Mission 66 design that attempted to blend with the Swiss styling at Lake McDonald. Although it falls short of this claim, it is an interesting structure in its own right and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. The Coffee Shop is described in greater detail along with other Lake McDonald structures on the Lake McDonald Lodge — The Cabins & Coffee Shop webpage.

The American Indian symbols throughout the lobby represent various aspects of life in the region. Markings on the floor and (shown here) the fireplace were part of Cutter's original design.

Glacier NP Lodges

Glacier Park Lodge Resources

Recommended Reading

walkway lake mcdonald cabins

The grounds at Lake McDonald do a nice job of carrying the character of the Lodge out to the cabins along the walkways. Photo courtesy the National Park Service.