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Mystery of miracle Glacier Park Lodge murals may live on, but so will paintings

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KALISPELL -- It’s a story that is certainly part mystery, perhaps part miracle, and had its start more than a century ago.

Maybe it would be best, however, to pick it up at the most recent turn of a century.

That’s when Leanne Goldhahn and her husband, Alan, were cleaning out a garage in Billings after Leanne’s father had passed away.

As the Goldhahns sorted through boxes and emptied shelves, they came across a large, dust-covered roll of canvases.

“If you could have seen where they had been stored, you’d be amazed,” Leanne says.

Unsure what they had found, they carried the canvases out to the driveway and began unrolling them.

“It was obviously something wonderful,” Leanne says. “There were so many of them, and they were so big.”

As the Goldhahns unfurled the canvases on that driveway in Billings, a family story Leanne remembers hearing at some point came rushing back.

These were, she realized, some of the lost, and almost-lost, murals from Glacier Park Lodge.

Remodeling

Let’s back up another half century or so.

Leanne’s grandparents, Robert and Leona Brown, had owned a grocery store in East Glacier called Brownie’s.

The story has it that in the 1950s, the massive Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier underwent extensive remodeling, maybe after frozen pipes had burst and damaged the building. The lobby of the hotel, built in 1913 by railroad tycoon Louis Hill, was modeled after the Forestry Building at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon.

Hill had micromanaged the design and construction of Glacier Park Lodge, just as he later would with Lake McDonald Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel. He commissioned an artist to paint murals of various Glacier Park scenes to fit in specific spaces above the wainscoting -- wooden paneling that lines the lower part of walls of a room -- in the hotel.

Whatever remodeling was going on 40-some years later, it apparently didn’t make allowances for most of what a 1939 hotel inventory had put at 51 such murals commissioned by Hill.

And so, in the 1950s, workers cut the murals out of their built-in frames and tossed them onto the lawn outside the lodge with other scrap from the work.

Pulled off the trash heap

Whether her grandparents knew this was going on and set out to rescue some of the murals, or whether they simply happened upon them, Leanne Goldhahn doesn’t know.

But the Browns saved 15 original murals otherwise destined to be hauled off to the dump. Many more may have been thrown out, or maybe other people in East Glacier grabbed them -- no one knows. But only a small number of the 51 -- ones deemed to provide “needed color accents” -- apparently survived the remodel and remain in the lodge.

There wasn’t much more the Browns could do than rescue the paintings. Some of the 4-foot-deep murals are as wide as 13 feet, so it’s not like they could have hung a bunch of them in their living room.

The 15 canvases, rescued from a trash heap, were rolled up and stored away in the Browns’ garage in East Glacier.

And years later, when Robert and Leona Brown sold Brownie’s, retired and moved to Kalispell, they took the murals with them. The large paintings found a new home, in a new garage.

After her grandparents died, Leanne Goldhahn says her father cleaned out the garage in Kalispell and obviously discovered the long-forgotten murals. He took them home to Laurel, and put them in his garage.

When her parents moved to Billings, the murals made another trip to another garage.

Finally, in 2000, another garage cleaning revealed them to another generation of the family.

By then, Leanne says, the paintings “were in pretty bad shape. They were dirty and had water damage. But I knew I couldn’t throw them away. I took them home to Bozeman, but I didn’t really know what to do with them either.”

Tracing their origins

Eventually, Leanne turned to Jim Brown, owner of Old Main Gallery and Framing in Bozeman.

“When she first called, she asked if we had experience framing large paintings,” Brown says. “I told her we did, and she said she was going to bring some things by.”

Brown says the 15 murals included three or four that were in pretty good condition, given their history, and all, in his opinion, were “good, quality pieces.”

But who painted them? Not a one contained an artist’s signature. The only writing was on the backs of the murals, which were numbered and contained their intended display spots in Glacier Park Lodge, such as “dining room.”

So Jim Brown set about looking for people who might help him untangle the mystery. It wasn’t long before someone suggested the artist might have been John Fery, a well-known painter who Hill had hired to capture countless scenes from inside the park.

“They would have been worth a small fortune if they’d been done by Fery,” Brown says.

They weren’t, but still, the collection -- even in the condition it was in -- was probably worth something in the neighborhood of $50,000. Brown’s research eventually led him to a 2010 article in Montana: The Magazine of Western History.

Titled “The Miraculous Survival of the Art of Glacier National Park,” it was written by University of Montana art professor H. Rafael Chacon.

Brown contacted the professor.

Sharing with the public

From his description of the murals -- and, later, photographs Brown took of all 15 -- Chacon was able to verify that all had once graced the walls of Glacier Park Lodge. He matched them up with historic photographs taken of the hotel’s interior prior to the 1950s-era remodeling.

There was even evidence Fery had once intended to paint the murals -- he had drawn up preliminary sketches of some of the scenes -- but apparently Fery had so much other Glacier work on his plate, that Hill turned to a different artist to expedite the process.

Who that was, has been lost to the ages.

“They may have been done in New York City, by someone with a studio, and painted from photographs taken in the park,” Brown says.

The Goldhahns had initially been interested in framing one mountain scene for themselves and selling the rest, but the more they learned about the history of the murals, the more they wanted to keep the collection together -- and make them available to the public for the first time in more than half a century.

Brown and Chacon helped them find a new home for the lost murals of Glacier Park Lodge.

Make that homes. Leanne Goldhahn, who donated them to the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, loves the plan the museum came up with for the paintings her grandparents saved from a trash pile decades ago.

Restoring the pieces

Once the Goldhahns decided they wanted to donate the murals in memory of Leanne’s grandparents, Brown helped find them a suitable place.

They first, Brown says, contacted the park itself, which has a museum program that was very interested in the murals -- but no budget for restoring the large artwork.

That led them to the Hockaday, whose mission in part is to preserve the artistic legacy of Glacier National Park.

The Goldhahns donated 14 of the 15 murals to the Kalispell museum in 2012. The other -- the mountain scene Leanne had picked out for herself -- will eventually return to the collection through the Goldhahns’ will.

The Hockaday, communications director Brian Eklund says, is restoring the murals as money specifically for that purpose is raised. The cost is running from $3,000 to $5,000 per painting.

So far, six of the 14 have been restored by art conservator Joe Abbrescia Jr. of Kalispell, owner of Abbrescia Gallery and Fine Art Restoration Studio.

Abbrescia’s own father was an acclaimed painter of Glacier Park scenes.

“They do look like they were all possibly done by the same hands, and they were done well,” Abbrescia says. “They are composed nicely. Somebody knew what they were doing. But the only markings are on the backs of the murals, where they say things like ‘Dining Room No. 42’ or ‘Dining Room No. 27.’ ”

The murals, done in a water-based medium, are in various conditions, he says, ranging from “really bad to not so bad.”

“Being rolled up, they got creases and scuff marks,” Abbrescia says. There’s also water damage and decades worth of dirt and grime to deal with. Abbrescia is restoring, mounting and framing the murals under plexiglass to protect them from here on out.

Around the state

The first four that have been restored are on permanent display at the Hockaday, and include scenes from Lake McDonald and Grinnell Lake.

Short of adding a wing, however, there’s really no way for the museum to display all the murals. Eklund says the museum wasn’t interested in simply storing the rest of the collection, given that it’s already been hidden away in garages spread far and wide across Montana for decades.

So after the BNSF Foundation funded the restoration of the fifth and sixth murals -- another Lake McDonald scene, and one depicting high-country glaciers -- the Hockaday recently installed them at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish.

That’s the plan: to find public places across the region where people can enjoy the artwork that once decorated the walls of Glacier Park Lodge. Eklund says the museum’s board of directors will consider proposals from as far away as Missoula and Great Falls to display one or more of the murals in public places as money comes in to restore the paintings.

It could be courthouses, city halls, theaters, colleges. The challenge, Eklund says, will be in finding places with big and prominent spaces to accommodate one of the murals.

“They’re so big, they need a special place,” Leanne Goldhahn says. “The Hockaday could have put them in storage, but they’re really making the effort to put them back where the public can see them. I applaud what they’re doing.”

The mystery of the murals -- who painted them? -- may never be solved.

But the miracle of the murals is now nearly complete. The paintings have gone from a lawn just steps away from Glacier National Park, to garages in East Glacier, Kalispell, Laurel, Billings and Bozeman.

“At any point, they easily could have been thrown out,” Leanne Goldhahn says.

Instead, the rescue mission her grandparents started in the 1950s is now in its final phases.

Vince Devlin can be reached at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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