MISSOULA -- Jim McDonald was just another ranch kid visiting Yellowstone National Park with his family in the 1950s.
Like most of the tens of millions of tourists in Yellowstone over the years, the McDonalds of Cascade placed Old Faithful geyser near the top of their list of attractions and, afterward, their memories. But for young Jim, there was also the Crow's Nest.
A series of catwalks and stairs led to a perch in the rafters of Old Faithful Inn, where a four-piece orchestra played. The story goes that Robert Reamer, the inn's architect more than a half-century earlier, had built it to fulfill a childhood fantasy for a tree house.
"Before the earthquake in '59 you could go to the top of it," McDonald said last week. "That's one of the things I remember is climbing up those stairs."
Look where he's climbed to now.
McDonald was the principal historic architect for a $26 million restoration of Old Faithful Inn, a project that entailed five winters of work from 2004-2009.
"It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime projects, working with a major architect, Robert Reamer, and working with his building and trying to bring back some of the things that he put into these structures that really made part of what Yellowstone's all about," McDonald said. "Besides the geysers and things, you have these great rustic buildings, like Old Faithful Inn."
"I might be partially biased, but I think it was one of the most historically important renovation and restoration projects that the National Park Service has undertaken," said Peter Galindo, the project manager for Yellowstone National Park. "Jim certainly gave that project the care and attention it needed."
The more extensive restoration, of what's known as the "Old House," was spurred by the inn's centennial in 2004. It was funded by the Park Service and Xenterra Parks and Resorts, Yellowstone's concessionaire, which contracted with A&E to design the project. McDonald was part of an A&E team that included principal architect Christopher Martison and Dennis Johnson. Johnson is back at the inn this winter on a follow-up project, updating the kitchen to safety, sanitary and historical standards.
The architectural team worked closely with Beaudette Consulting Engineers, a Missoula firm specializing in renovation projects, and Associated Construction Engineers of Missoula, which handled the mechanical and electrical engineering.
McDonald is an easygoing man, difficult to exasperate. He long ago developed a good working relationship with the National Park Service and its bureaucratic ways, sometimes to his colleagues' amazement. It served him well in a difficult and multifaceted project at Old Faithful.
"It's not easy working on a giant log structure that's over 100 years old and that's been messed around with a bunch of times," Galindo said. "It had been re-muddled over the years."
Indeed, some work on the inn over the years caused damage to the building, McDonald said. Additional trusses actually pushed the walls out.
"We had to take those out and restructure it and bring it back more to the way it was originally, so we could protect the building and retain the original character," he said.
Adding to the significance and complexity was the fact that Old Faithful Inn is one of a half-dozen structures in Yellowstone designated as National Historic Landmarks. That comes with exacting standards for renovation.
A major part of the project was to bring the inn up to seismic standards.
"Nothing was really connected together, and it hadn't been structurally upgraded to protect it from another major earthquake," McDonald said.
The 1959 earthquake that killed 28 people while damming the Madison River near the park's northwest edge wreaked some damage, mostly to two stone fireplaces.
McDonald said the tremors from the quake hit the building at an angle.
"That's probably what saved it. If it would have come directly in the front door, it would have probably collapsed the structure," he said.
Among the new earthquake safety features: the original interior log columns, long since shorn of the bark that Reamer left on during construction, were split lengthwise and reinforced with steel columns, then put back together.
McDonald found pictures and records of the inn's original rugs and had replicas made to match their color and design. Historic light fixtures were removed, cleaned and rewired. Exterior logs were repaired, cedar siding and roof finishes replaced and windows restored.
Then there were the green-stained wash basins that Reamer installed in 1904.
"In the '60s they made these godawful gold sinks in most of the rooms, so we got rid of those, redesigned it, and made new stands with a copper top and put bowls in it like the original," McDonald said. Now, however, there's water piped in.
"The rooms are beautiful," Galindo said. "The window coverings are redone, the sinks and mirrors, the furnishings. ... It just looks great compared to what it was before."
The proof of a great restoration project, however, comes in what you don't see.
Updated mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire suppression systems were painted, implanted or hidden to give the inn its original early 20th century rustic feel.
"Amazing, you cannot recognize the difference between the old and the new," gushed one member of the American Institute of Architecture panel that judged A&E's role in the project.
Though he turns 65 in March, McDonald figures he has at least a couple more years' worth of work to complete before he retires. Some of the remaining projects are in Glacier and Zion national parks, as more and more of his later years have been devoted to park projects. A&E has done projects in 11 or 12 national parks, he estimated.
"I'm really just interested in parks and working with the people and trying to save these structures that are very important, not only to the parks themselves but to the nation," McDonald said.
Looking back, however, Old Faithful Inn stands above the rest.
"Right now I'd say it's the most important project I've worked on," he said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime project that a lot of firms don't get to do."