As a yearslong dream to remodel and reopen the Northern Hotel in downtown Billings becomes reality, Mike Nelson said he’s feeling like a kid again, waiting for his 1 p.m. birthday party to start.
“At 12:55, I start worrying. I just know no one will show up,” he said, with a laugh. “Everything is on a grand scale and everybody is looking at us.”
When his opening jitters pass, Nelson beams confidence that the new Northern Hotel at the corner of North Broadway and First Avenue North will be successful when it reopens on March 16.
“We think we’ve got that level of flair and sophistication that the old Northern did,” he said.
As surprise bidders on the old building, Mike and his brother, Chris Nelson, handed over a nearly $3 million check in 2009 to buy the padlocked hotel at a sheriff’s auction. Then in a stop-and-start effort, the Billings natives invested their own money gutting the 70-year-old hotel down to studs and beams while hunting for the money to rebuild. The recession kept U.S. lenders wary of investing, particularly in hotels.
One intense year of construction and about $30 million later, The Northern will reopen in time for Chris Nelson to pour a St. Patrick’s Day Guinness at their bar.
“We wanted to be super cool and sophisticated and four-star, yet I wanted to make everyone feel welcome,” said Mike Nelson.
Reopening the hotel is like opening six businesses at once, he said: the fine-dining restaurant called TEN; an adjoining lounge and bar; Bernie’s Diner for breakfast and lunch; a catering kitchen for the banquet rooms; plus 160 rooms and a gift shop.
Even the banker, who came through with the creative financing a year-and-a-half ago, is happy the makeover came in on time and on plan.
“That’s just the impressive part. For a project that was pretty complex, there were no surprises,” said U.S. Bank vice president Bill Gottwals.
U.S. Bank wanted the Nelsons to hire an experienced general contractor to rebuild the interiors and they chose Langlas & Associates of Billings.
Helping to take the Northern from trashed to treasured again was one of the most satisfying projects in his 25-year career, said Billings architect Dennis Deppmeier.
“It was a very difficult journey, taking Mike’s and Chris’ dream and boiling it down in a tough economy to a project that was actually going to pass muster with the bankers and give back to the downtown community,” he said.
During the Northern project, Deppmeier left A&E Architects and started his own firm, 2 North, but he continued to work on the hotel as the owners’ representative.
During remodeling, A&E associate and construction manager Kris Koessl would hear stories of the hotel's glory days. Being involved in forming its future was the best part of his job, he said.
“That’s a once-in-your-career deal for a lot of people,” Koessl said.
Up from the ashes
On Sept. 12, 1940, a St. Vincent’s nurse helped 4-year-old John C. Rogers, stuck in a body cast after leg surgery, watch the demise of the original Northern, which was built in 1902.
“I just remember her coming in and cranking up the bed, wheeling the bed across the hall to the window,” said the Billings historian. “I watched this pretty big bonfire downtown. I thought it was a really big deal.”
The hotel was rebuilt and reopened in 1942, but started fading in the 1990s. After several ownership changes, some remodeling efforts, years of back taxes and two foreclosure sales, the Nelson brothers took over.
Chris Nelson founded Zoot Enterprises of Bozeman, which facilitates quick credit checks. He owns two dozen other companies and several other historic buildings in Billings. Mike Nelson worked in management at hotels in Las Vegas.
But the Billings natives dreamed of following the path of their civic-minded parents by reviving the Northern. Their sons named the two restaurants in honor of their late parents: Bernie’s Diner and TEN for Thomas Edison Nelson.
The job of furnishing the 10-story hotel went to a former Montanan, Jeff Kaspar, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., and owns JK Logistical Operations.
As a boy, Kaspar would eat breakfast at the Northern with his grandfather, who owned the Heart Bar X ranch southeast of Big Timber.
“When this came up, I said, ‘I’ll take this one on myself, boys,’ ” Kaspar said, even though Southerners were laughing about him moving to Billings in January.
The dishes alone filled about eight semi-truck loads.
Executive chef Eric Stenberg, who has 30 years culinary experience, is bringing back the Monte Cristo sandwich to Bernie’s Diner and is offering a shredded bison burrito to the regular diner fare.
In TEN, his specialties include bison short ribs and Muscovy duck.
“We’ll do steaks and a lot of fresh seafood, halibut in season and wild salmon, Stenberg said. “We’re getting it together. No pressure.”
During the March 1 orientation for more than 150 employees, catering captain Sharon Hogue said she left another Billings restaurant for an opportunity at the Northern.
“It’s great to be a part of history. We’re making it right now,” she said.
King of the hill again?
On the Northern’s homepage, the Nelsons proclaim, “The best hotel in Montana is back!”
Like his brother, Chris Nelson said Langlas and the subcontractors carried out their vision from the wheat stalk panels on the doors, to conference rooms with high-tech sound and lighting capabilities not equaled in five states.
“Our goal was to create a place where people come, hang out, do business, relax with friends and family,” he said. “It just came together like that.”
Being the best hotel in town was easier back in the early 1900s, when the original Northern competed against only a few hotels and the city limits ended at the Moss Mansion.
Today, the Northern must compete against more than 40 hotels and motels and another handful are getting started this year. But investors are spending money building more lodging because Montana’s largest city has a high occupancy rate, according to Bozeman hotel consultant Chris Kraus with PKF Consulting.
Room rates at the Northern run from $129 to $350 per night for a suite.
In addition to being on all the Internet travel sites, the boutique Northern is being marketed by the Preferred Hotel Group.
“They represent more four- and five-star hotels than any other company,” Mike Nelson said.
When the Northern opens, a two-block area in downtown Billings will have about 600 rooms, plus more conference facilities, said Steve Wahrlich, an owner in the Best Western Clocktower Inn. During the initial rush to see the new hotel, he expects bookings for the Clocktower and the Crowne Plaza to temporarily drop.
“Then as they bring in new groups of people for meetings and conferences, they will actually bring more people to downtown for all of us,” Wahrlich said.
Billings interior designers Mitch Thompson and Ann Replogle used earth tones, brushed metals, custom carpet and lodge pole pines under a light fixture in TEN to convey the feeling of the high plains meeting the mountains. Large wall coverings of landscapes around Billings cross behind the headboards.
Bringing the look of contemporary Western hip style prevalent in the 1940s to the Northern took four years of planning, Thompson said.
“It’s the best project we’ve ever done,” said Thompson. “It will be the finest hotel in Montana.”