The Murray Hotel in Livingston. Photo by David Reese
Elegance and history in downtown Livingston
Story by Genevieve Marie Schmitt
There's something about Montana and chain hotels that just don't go together.
I'll reserve a room at a chain joint the next time I'm passing through Carbondale, Ill., or Plainfield, Ind. When I'm traveling in Montana, I feel like I should cozy up in a historic inn, a bed and breakfast, or a hotel oozing with character. There are plenty of places like that all over Montana if you do a little research before your trip.
I'd driven by the Murray Hotel in downtown Livingston tons of times on my many visits to the 112-year old city. The old, four-story brick building and neon sign had seen better days. I always noticed the ads for it in travel magazines and its billboard on Interstate Highway 90 bragging how "Even cowboys like big, fluffy pillows." Hey, I like big fluffy pillows too. If they have big fluffy pillows, that usually means, they have big fluffy towels and fluffy comforters. I thought I'd give it a try.
The Murray Hotel is the best-kept secret in town. The 100-year-old Murray is a wonderful mix of the old and new for those of us who like modern creature comforts, but enjoy daydreaming about living in the old days. The hotel went through a major renovation starting in 1991 when former Minnesota residents Dan and Kathleen Kaul purchased the hotel. The Murray had fallen into disrepair during the last several decades and was in desperate need of a new owner willing to sink some serious cash into making upgrades on the building.
The Kauls, with their interest in historic buildings, were challenged to restore the Murray to its original old west décor while incorporating modern amenities demanded by today's traveler. As I stepped over the threshold of the aged doorway leading into the bright lobby of the Murray, I was welcomed with a warm smile beaming from Kathleen Kaul, who stood behind the original marble-walled check-in counter. Immediately I sensed something special about this place with its high ceilings, terrazzo flooring and old-fashioned Victorian style furniture and rugs.
As I stepped in, I had a moment where I envisioned hotel guests before me - Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, even Whoopi Goldberg (the Kauls' first celebrity guest), walking the hallways. Today, all guests are shown to their rooms by the desk clerk. It's like a bed and breakfast approach to a hotel, Kathleen says. My two-room suite on the third floor, with its finely appointed furnishings and modern amenities, was such a contrast to the unassuming exterior of the building. Since the Murray Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places the Kauls must adhere to strict rules when altering the exterior. "It's real difficult to spruce it up to make it so it has more curbside appeal, while still maintaining the authenticity of the building," she said.
Eight percent of Livingston's buildings are on the Historic Register. So, the Murray, as it stands now, really fits into the downtown décor well with its dated brick walls and neon sign. In the bathrooms, the original white square tiles still grace the floor, and the original sink was accented by new faucets. The red birch flooring throughout the suite was restored to its original luster. Donna White, a front desk clerk who has worked at the hotel for 20 years, says each room contains at least one piece of vintage furniture, some from the 1940s glory days of the hotel. Each of the 30 rooms, starting with a queen-sized bed (priced at $59 a night, double occupancy) on up to a suite with a queen or a king-size bed (from $96 to $150 a night double occupancy), are decorated differently with attention given to every detail. Some of the rooms are decorated simply with country-style furnishings, bedding and artwork, while others run the gamut from rustic to retro. One suite is adorned with dark red leather couches, a big framed map of the world above the bed, and a red satin duvet cover that glowed at night in the red nostalgic light cast from the neon sign hanging outside the window.
Downtown Livingston, Montana.
I was expecting John Steinbeck and Charley to appear from behind a corner. There is a wide array of historical styles represented in each of these resting chambers. Just pick one that matches your soul, close your eyes and envision yourself as a cowboy, a socialite, or a renaissance travel writer just passing through. The most expensive suite, at $150 a night, is the one movie director Sam Peckinpah owned and lived in part time from 1979 until his death in 1984. The 1,500-square foot suite is now owned by a writer who lives in Cuba. When he's not using it, the suite is available to hotel guests. The Murray Hotel, named after Montana Senator James E. Murray, who lent the original owner, Josephine Kline, money to open the inn, is on the corner of Park and Second streets directly across from Livingston's historic Northern Pacific Railroad depot. In the morning, the Murray offers coffee in the lobby downstairs. There's also a workout facility in the basement. The guest rooms are all equipped with televisions, and telephones that have dataports for Internet access.
The Murray is within walking distance to all the best restaurants, bars and shops in town. The Murray Hotel, 201 West Park Street, Livingston, 406.222.1350, murrayhotel.com Genevieve Marie Schmitt is a freelance writer and a resident of Livingston. Diversions: Things To See And Do In Livingston Livingston boasts a wide array of activities that will keep everyone from the outdoorsy types to the cultured types interested. For starters, the town is only 52 miles from the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the only one open all year. Paradise Valley, just south of Livingston, is one of the most breathtaking valleys in the state with the Yellowstone River meandering through it.
Fly-fishing is a major activity there and the folks at Dan Bailey's Fly Fishing Shop can help get you started (209 W. Park Street, 800.356.4052, www.dan-bailey.com). Livingston is home to the International Fly Fishing Center and Museum at 215 E. Lewis Street (222.9369, www. livingstonmuseums.org). Bear Paw Outfitters can take you on a scenic horseback ride or an overnight pack trip through Paradise Valley and neighboring areas (222.6642, bearpawoutfitters.com. Or, try Wineglass Mountain outfitters (www.montanatrailrides.com or 222-5599) for horseback ride to a remote mountain tipi or daytrip on their private ranch, which includes Wineglass Mountain. You can float the beautiful Yellowstone River on a rubber raft courtesy of Rubber Ducky River Rentals (222.3746, riverservices.com). More than 10 art galleries dot the downtown area.
The art walks are a popular activity during the summer. Visit livingstongalleries.com for more information on these. There are also plenty of cool gift, clothing, furniture and antique shops mixed in with the galleries downtown. Two museums will enlighten those interested in the history of the area. The Depot Center Museum is housed in the old historic railroad depot across the street from the Murray Hotel at 200 W. Park St.. It has an interesting display of historical railroad and western exhibits, and it also hosts a variety of community events throughout the year, including a blues concert showcasing national acts about every other month (406.222.2300, www.livingstonmuseums.org).
A few blocks away at 118 W. Chinook is the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, located in an old schoolhouse. It contains artifacts and history of Yellowstone National Park and Park County (406.222.4184, www.livingstonmuseums.org). The museums are open from June to September. In winter, Bridger Bowl ski area is a fantastic local ski hill just 25 miles from Livingston (406.587.2111,bridgerbowl.com). There's cross-country skiing at Bohart Ranch in Bozeman not far from Bridger Bowl (406.586.9070, www.bohartranchxcski.com). Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa, about 25 miles south of Livingston in the heart of Paradise Valley, is a place to kick back all year long. You can relax in the soothing water of the hot spring pools, indulge in a massage or a facial, or have an upscale, gourmet dinner (800.HOT.WADA, www. chicohotsprings.com).
Not to be missed is the Old Saloon in Emigrant, about 23 miles south of Livingston in Paradise Valley. It's been around for more than a century and is the place to hob knob with the colorful locals while chowing down on a mean burger. AFTER HOURS: Dining and Partying Under the Neon Lights of Livingston Don't be fooled by the nostalgic neon lights that illuminate downtown Livingston after dark and beckon a thirsty traveler to check out the nightlife. This city is relatively quiet during weekday evenings (most bars and restaurants are open though), but definitely shifts gears on the weekends. The bar scene is very eclectic, and ranges from blues and jazz to cowboy and karaoke. Kathleen Kaul, owner of the Murray Hotel, recommends The Owl Bar as a place to rub elbows with local eccentrics.
A stuffed owl perched high inside overlooks the dark, small rectangular lounge area. The Mint was the first lounge in Montana to receive its liquor license after prohibition. It's also the only place in town with live keno. Speaking of gambling, a few doors down, the Whiskey Creek Saloon is the place in town to get in on a live poker game on weekend nights. Tom Mason, the new guy over at Dan Bailey's Fly-Fishing Shop, recommends the Murray Bar (attached to the Murray Hotel) as the best hangout for a taste of old-time Livingston with vintage surroundings and a diverse clientele.
Despite its small size, Livingston has a distinct well-heeled element to it that can be sensed in the quality and scope of restaurants in town. The Livingston Bar and Grille, owned by artist Russell Chatham, has a very upscale feel to it with its long, ornate dark wood bar, dimly lit interior and white tablecloths.
The Rib and Chop House is no less spectacular on food, but has a more social, casual atmosphere with a friendly, busy bar area that appears as if everybody knows your name. For delicious steaks served down-home style, stop by The Stockman. You'll have to walk through the dark, smoky bar to get to the small dining room in the rear, and you may be taken aback by the diner style table, chairs and vinyl table cloths. But the steak, baked potatoes, salad and breadsticks will satisfy even the hungriest of appetites at a cost your wallet will appreciate.
The most expensive steak I saw on the menu was around $16. Dusty Boots Restaurant has a diverse and affordable menu of steak, fish, chicken and salads and a log décor befitting of the area. Owner Dave Waylander labels it the working man's gourmet restaurant.