Joe Norris' daily commute is brutal, and chances are he's going to be late for work.
His one-hour frigid snow machine trek into the Old Faithful Inn reflects the race against time by construction crews to make Yellowstone National Park's century-old icon structurally sound again, with the ability to withstand the next major temblor in the seismically active area. An earthquake, coupled with heavy snow loading in the winter when the building is closed to the public, could cause major problems.
‘‘If there was another earthquake today, it would probably go down,'' said Chris Martison, an associate with A&E Architects in Missoula, who helped create the drawings for the renovation. ‘‘But we'll bring that 100-year-old building up to code and people won't even know that it's changed.''
Norris usually lives in Helena and met Martison when the two had primary roles in the $25 million restoration of the State Capitol a few years back. In that job, Norris was the liaison between the state and the architect. Now, he's a temporary resident of West Yellowstone, and while employed by A&E Architects, he is the on-site representative of the National Park Service for what's formally known as the ‘‘Old House Renovation.''
On a recent morning, as the mercury hovered near 18 degrees, Norris fired up his snow machine and headed toward the rising sun for the 30-mile commute from West Yellowstone into the Old House.
At the speed limit of 35 mph, the crisp morning air quickly clears any cobwebs from the brain. But only five miles from the office, Norris has to shut off his snowmobile, kick back and ‘‘enjoy the view'' in the words of the national park ranger, while he waits for a herd of rowdy buffalo to clear the road near Biscuit Basin.
Finally, the animals amble off and Norris resumes his cold commute, chilled but still slightly awed as the bisons each give him their baleful stare, known by Yellowstone regulars as ‘‘the old stink-eye.''
DELVING INTO THE PAST It's a job that clearly thrills Norris, as well as the 50 or so other construction workers on the three-year, $22 million project. Their mission is to update and hide the mechanical and electrical systems in the 100-year-old inn, a structure that for many people epitomizes the rugged beauty and grandeur of Yellowstone National Park. They'll also install a new roof and siding, replace rotting logs and make seismic upgrades to the entire structure.
‘‘Things were done kind of hodgepodge over the years, and a lot of the stuff was all visible,'' Norris said, pointing to electrical wires tacked onto interior walls and sprinkler pipes hanging in hallways. ‘‘A big part of the project is to hide the mechanical and plumbing conduit, as well as all the sprinkler pipes. We want to make it look more like it did 100 years ago.
"This is the best crew I've ever worked with," adds Norris. "They know what they're doing and we have a pretty smooth operation here." About 50 craftsmen began work on the main structure of the Old Faithful Inn — known as the Old House — in June 1903, with the inn's double doors swinging open in June 1904 to welcome visitors. The adjoining wings were added later and throughout the past century, upgrades were installed.
"They tell me that you can see the history of plumbing in that building," says Peter Galindo, project manager for the National Park Service. "There's galvanized piping that goes into cast iron that goes into copper piping — every technology that's been used for the past 100 years." But a renovation of this magnitude hadn't ever been undertaken, and the enormity of the job initially was daunting.
"We had endless meetings with the concessions operating agent — Xanterra — and our business management office in the park. We also met with the Wyoming State Historical Preservation Office and the Park Service's national historic architecture people," Galindo said. "This project was in the design phase for almost four years." Martison said their architectural team began by pouring over copies of the original drawings by architect Robert C. Reamer and comparing it to what had evolved over the years.
Reamer's plans were drafted on about five sheets of paper.
By comparison, Martison's renovation plans are 430 sheets deep.
"We spent a good 21/2 years just going into the building and verifying what was there with the drawings," Martison said. "We'd stay there for a week straight, then come back home and update our drawings for a week, then go back for a week." While spending that amount of time in Yellowstone National Park may sound appealing, it was difficult at times.
"You'd be surprised how the isolation wears on you," Martison said.
Still, that was offset by the ability to go into areas off-limits to tourists, like the interior Crow's Nest that rises 70 feet above the lobby floor, where orchestras used to serenade waltzing guests.
A COORDINATION CONUNDRUM Undertaking a major renovation at a heavily used tourist destination — which also is miles from any lumber yard or hardware stores — also posed logistical dilemmas for the National Park Service.
Replacing the hardwood floor in the main lobby has to be done in the winter when the inn is closed to the public. But the inn isn't insulated and can't be heated in the winter because of concerns over how it the temperature change could contract and expand the wood. The heat also could pose problems with snow melting on the wood-shingled roof, which has sagged under snow loads in excess of 100 pounds per square foot.
‘‘We knew that with melting snow, the roof would leak,'' Galindo said. ‘‘The whole structure isn't very weather tights, so we would get a ton of water damage if we heated that space.''
So while today's construction workers didn't have to go quite as far as the original winter carpenters, who heated their nails so they wouldn't shatter when pounded in the temperatures that can drop to 30 degrees below zero, crew members say they sometimes have to go outside the inn to warm up in the afternoon sunshine.
Another construction constraint involves the road into Old Faithful, which is closed to traditional vehicles for about three months in the winter. That meant the bulk of the pipes, wiring, lumber, insulation, nails, generators, electrical cords, ducts and just about every other type of construction supplies had to be brought in early and stored on site.
Today, those materials are stashed in the porte cochere, nearly blocking the main entryway where guests used to disembark from dusty stagecoaches.
And rather than have all the construction workers commute each day, a ‘‘man camp'' was built near the inn, which provides housing and catered meals to the crew.
‘‘We work from 7 in the morning until about 6:30 at night for four days a week, then take snow machines out of the Park,'' said Shawn Ferron, who works for Phd Mechanical Systems in Helena. ‘‘We've got a VCR, TV, a foosball table and ping-pong, and we play a little bit of poker. It's really kind of nice.''
The National Park Service will only open the inn for business for two months this summer, from July 1-Sept. 1, and for three months next year. The inn will resume normal operations in 2007, opening to guests from May to October.
BEGIN AT THE BOTTOM As with most construction projects, the renovation effort began in the basement. One of the first projects was to increase the size of the crawl spaces, which is where the plumbing and electrical wiring are located. They also built a new mechanical and electrical room.
Working among the maze of pipes in the crawl space is Mike Ewing of Big Sky Plumbing. He notes that they've got pipes for hot water, for cold water, and for the heating system, which is being converted from steam to hot water heat. Also in the utility tunnels are hundreds of electrical wires, which distribute power throughout the structure.
Norris heads up a stairway to the main lobby. Usually, the room is filled with tourists gazing up in awe at their surroundings, but today the view is toward the floor to navigate a labyrinth of construction equipment.
Most of the flooring is gone, replaced by joists covered with plywood. Atop the plywood lie air compressors, electrical cords, ductwork, conduit, a wheelbarrow and lengths of orange construction barricades.
Below the plywood near the fireplace, Steve Krogh with Phd Mechanical is wrestling a tin piece of ductwork into place. His timing was off, so today his job involves crawling underneath the joists for about 20 feet dragging more ductwork — work he had hoped to complete before the sub-floor was laid in place.
But Krogh is clearly enjoying the job.
‘‘I'm writing my name on the tin, so when they come back here in 50 years they'll know who did the work,'' he says with a smile.
About 20 feet in the opposite direction, Barth Schretenthaler with Valley Electric in Missoula can be seen peering up from the lower crawl space through a tangle of wires.
‘‘They still have the electrical stuff that's 100 years old in here,'' Schrententhaler says as he grunts from the exertion.
Norris points out that when the new maple flooring is set in place, it will step down about 7 inches near the fireplace.
‘‘Originally there was a sunken floor here, but over the years they had taken it out,'' Norris said. ‘‘So part of the historic renovation is to drop it back down.''
They'll also refinish the hearths with obsidian sand and rework both the reception and registration desks.
Ironically, the best part for those working on the project is that in the end, no one should notice what they've done.
"The beauty with this renovation is that a lot of stuff in the building that was put in during the past 40 years takes away from the building's character, like the exposed sprinkler pipes," Martison said. "Our goal is to hide, encapsulate and enclose the system, so (the inn) looks like it does when it was built." Reporter Eve Byron writes for the Helena Independent Record and may be reached at 447-4076 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.