BILLINGS — With some gasping and wheezing, a crew of workers on Friday morning moved an elegant piece into the giant construction puzzle that is the new Northern Hotel.
Mark Sevier, owner of Dovetail Designs, delivered a 24-foot-long maple bar top to the lounge of the Northern, which is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation and is on track to reopen on the target date of March 15.
The 250-pound bar top, which has 6-foot extensions on each end, was made of 14 pieces of maple. Sevier said his company is making "every bit of wood in the place," including the see-through wine racks that will divide sections of the fine-dining restaurant adjoining the lounge.
Despite the straining, the bar top went in without a hitch, much like the top-to-bottom renovation of the hotel, which brothers Mike and Chris Nelson purchased in 2009.
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"It's been going at a surprisingly smooth and quick pace," Mike Nelson said.
Mary Ann Keenan, sales and marketing director for the Northern, said about half the 160 rooms are done and the rest are nearing completion. Room furniture is scheduled to begin arriving Jan. 28.
A long fireplace in the lobby is faced with limestone slabs salvaged from the old Montana-Dakota Utilities building on Second Avenue North. Above the fireplace is an assemblage of wood squares meant to suggest sections of cross ties, reflecting the city's railroad heritage.
Nelson said they considered using real cross ties, but placing creosote-soaked wood above the fireplace seemed unwise. Elsewhere, they were able to stick with authenticity.
Nelson said the exterior of the hotel was missing 50 or 60 square feet of granite facade. Using old blueprints, Nelson found granite from the same Minnesota quarry, even the same vein, that was used when the hotel was built in 1942. That was actually the second Northern, rebuilt following a fire that destroyed the original hotel, built in 1904.
"There's some cool history here that we're really excited about," Nelson said.
Other people in the community are excited about the history, too. Nelson said one person brought in some vintage Northern table linen, and another person brought in a cash box that survived the 1940 fire, complete with a fire-blackened key.
State Senate President Jeff Essmann gave them a collection of Northern memorabilia collected by his late mother, who worked at the hotel for 40 years, Nelson said.
Also on the scene at the busy Northern on Friday morning was executive chef Eric Stenberg, who will be managing food and beverage operations for the hotel. He showed off Bernie's Diner, named for the Nelsons' mother, a breakfast-and-lunch spot with big windows looking out on First Avenue North and North 28th Street.
The fine-dining restaurant, which will be open only for dinner, will be called TEN, for the Nelsons' father, Thomas Edgar Nelson. In addition to a kitchen for the restaurant there will be a big production kitchen for banquets and special events.
The banquet room-ballroom on the second floor, with seating for 750, has been completely renovated and has a stunning carpet, emblazoned with the Northern logo, designed by Mitch Thompson of Thompson Interior Associates.
Stenberg, who has worked at Moonlight Basin near Bozeman and Paws Up resort near Missoula, said he is still working on the menus for TEN and Bernie's, but both will mix traditional American food with modern touches.
He said one thing he's sure of is that TEN will serve bison short ribs and will feature "local ingredients -- as local as we can get them." Eventually the restaurant will make its own sausages and salami, he said.
Stenberg said he's looking forward to working in the new kitchen.
"In my mind, it's kind of a chef's playground," he said, "because there's equipment here I've never used before."