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Vail

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Vail (1962, 8,150 feet) is the largest ski area in North America. The Gore Creek Valley was remote ranching country in 1940 when Colorado Highway Department engineers built a paved road over a pass named for Colorado Highway Department Chief Engineer Charles D. Vail.

During the 1950s Peter Seibert, a veteran of the U.S. Army's Tenth Mountain Division ski troops and a ski school director at Loveland Basin, discovered the slopes of Vail Mountain. Seibert, with friends and investors, paid $44,000 for the 520-acre Hanson Sheep Ranch and opened it five years later as Vail. Seibert enlisted Milwaukee architect Fitzhugh Scott, who in 1961 built the first house in Vail, a chalet that served as the corporate headquarters for the development partnership and also housed the town's only indoor bathroom.

Scott designed much of early Vail, developing a composite Alpine style, using white stucco with dark wood trim, balconies, window flower boxes, setbacks, crafted details, and steeply pitched roofs. The style seemed appropriate: skiing was then more European than American, and foreign-accented émigrés staffed the ski school and many of the lodges and shops. The Aspen Ski Area, which had been open since 1938, also looked to European ski resorts as models for its early development. Vail's version of the Alpine Style survives in the pioneer 1962 gas station at the southwest corner of Frontage Street and Vail Road. This stuccoed, half-timbered affair even has a stone chimney and a fireplace. The $1 million Lodge at Vail (1962, Fitzhugh Scott), 174 East Gore Creek Drive, next to chairlift no. 1, experienced unexpectedly sudden success. It inspired construction of Christiana-at-Vail (1965, Fitzhugh Scott), 356 East Hanson Ranch Road, and Gasthof Gramshammer (1964), 231 Gore Creek Drive at Bridge Street, operated by Austrian skiing star Pepi Gramshammer and his wife Sheika.

Critics snickered at Vail as “instant Alpine,” “pseudo- Bavarian,” “Swiss schmaltz,” and “transplanted Tyrolean.” Others called it—in honor of Fitzhugh Scott—“Milwaukee Swiss.” This ersatz style, as even Peter Seibert admitted, “may not have been brilliant, but it was fairly safe.” The somewhat standardized forms with individuality in details provided what architect Scott called “a background for outdoor activity.” Winding pedestrian streets drew people to the town center, aiding this New World resort in its pursuit of Old World ambiance.

Trucks waddled over Vail Pass carrying giant cranes and huge slabs of precast concrete to erect a city that quickly eclipsed Eagle and Red Cliff. A major 1969 expansion—Lionshead at Vail—introduced ski runs, gondolas, and a concrete commercial cluster reminiscent of the work of Le Corbusier and the Modernist architecture of French Alpine resorts such as Chamonix. Development pressures grew so great by the mid-1970s that Vail put a moratorium on building until design guidelines could be fully articulated. The resulting Vail Village Urban Design Guide Planconstrained some architectural creativity to help control growth and promote continuity of style and materials. It imposed height limits and promoted housing in the upper stories of shops in the village center. Succumbing to developers, Vail has since allowed eight-story condominiums to overshadow its landmark three-story Alpine clock tower and covered bridge.

Vail has pioneered state-of-the-art ski technology. Its four-passenger Bell gondolas, made in Lucerne, Switzerland, were the first used in America. During the 1980s four-passenger Vista Bahn chair lifts were installed to whisk skiers 2,000 vertical feet in nine minutes. To help pay for these conveyances, lift tickets, which cost $5 in 1962, have soared to more than $50.

The town is plowed with Unimogs, snowplows made by Mercedes-Benz, and policed by officers driving Saabs. Vail Mountain is blessed with an average of 300 inches of snow a year but was nearly bare of snow for the 1962 grand opening. Desperate, Seibert and his fellow investors called in Southern Ute Indians from Ignacio, Colorado. The Utes, led by Minnie Cloud, did rain dances, and a blizzard followed. Since then Vail has pioneered the use of snow-making machines.

King of the ski hills, it boasts 15 square miles of champagne powder, varied terrain, and famous back bowls that have attracted world championship races. With more than 4,000 permanent residents and 25,000 tourists at the Christmas peak, Vail is a city with taxes, potholes, air pollution, and Colorado's third largest urban bus system. Shangrila now has a Safeway supermarket and a cemetery. Vail's phenomenal success inspired many other resorts, including Beaver Creek and Arrowhead at Eagle, where Peter D. Seibert, Jr., strove to do what his father did with a remote mountain sheep ranch. Vail's early architectural style, borrowed from Europe, has become a springboard to the Post-modern and avant-garde styles which now predominate.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Thomas J. Noel

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