Gustafson: It’s the “Vision Thing”
Editor’s note: Britta Gustafson was one of three contributors to “The Story of Snowmass.”
Gazing across the valley at Mount Daly from his ranch on McLain Flats in 1958, Kingsbury “Pitch” Pitcher began to fantasize about an uncharted adventure. He saw the unspoiled landscape of what is now Snowmass Village and the skiing possibilities of Mount Baldy. Within a decade and with the help of his developer friends Ed and Bill Janss, his daydreams became a reality.
Pitch was not alone, Tommy Thomas experienced that same feeling of the skiing potential when, during the ’50s and early ’60s, he would land his Cessna 180 on the slopes of Mount Baldy to allow his thrill-seeking friends to ski some of the finest snow in the world. People like Pitch, Tommy, the Janns brothers, Fritz Benedict, Jim “Sneaky” Snobble and others shared the vision.
Appearing in an astonishing Herculean feat, in “just nine short months,” as Paul Andersen put it in “The Story of Snowmass,” the resort, town and community came to life, bursting into existence as if it were the Big Bang. The naturally isolated, rustic ranching community that had sat peacefully for over a century, virtually preserved in time, became the backdrop to the new marketing masterpiece.
From paving the roadway up the Brush Creek Valley to the trailblazing and the groundbreaking in April 1967, the Snowmass-at-Aspen resort simply erupted onto the scene. Opening day, Dec. 16, 1967, was accentuated by the explosive moment when ski legend Stein Eriksen burst through a paper hoop christening the visionary vacationland, and a new era of ski resorts was born.
A siren’s call somehow echoed out on the winds, singing promises of paradise — Snowmass, the Shangri-La of the Rockies, it trilled. And like moths to a flame, entrepreneurs and intellectuals, musicians and artists, adventure seekers and nature lovers, visionaries and dreamers, rebels and nonconformists all began to migrate here from around the world. Escaping from their city lives, in search of a fresh start and running away from traditional towns and lifestyles, this eclectic cast of characters came to Snowmass in search of a dream.
People came, and they could not leave. Why would they? The spectacular beauty of the place sold itself, an ageless playground with endless potential in a pristine natural setting.
The original planners and architects began to implement the vision. They set up strict guidelines in an effort to minimize sprawl and to keep the structures from overwhelming the landscape. The simple designs were intentionally straight-lined and of like height and density, clustered together where no one building would dominate, blending harmoniously and visually becoming one unit of human habitat, contrasting and thus, in a way, highlighting the natural, rugged curves of the mountainside landscape.
“The Story of Snowmass” documents the narrative of how the dream came to fruition:
“Architectural renderings of the Janss vision in a 1966 master plan prescribed an idyllic template for the golden age of skiing. In this vision and in their words:
“■ Nature should be the dominant feature on the landscape.
“■ The rural character of the Brush Creek Valley should be preserved.
“■ Villages should be small, distinct, and quaint.
“■ A regional transit system should minimize car traffic and link to Aspen, which would remain ‘the dominant center’ for business and commerce.
“The Janss vision was grandiose. But all ski-area developers were dreamers in the 1960s, as Pete Seibert attested while developing Vail. Dreaming went with the Western landscape: The bigger the development, the bigger the dreams. Skiing on the grand scale of Snowmass was new to America, and it invited the innovation of the Janss team,” Andersen chronicled in the chapter titled, “Dreams and Realities: A Visionary Perspective on the Ideal Snowmass.”
Ed Janss reached out to Sam Francis, a contemporary and quite famous pop artist, to come to Snowmass and give his thoughts on what the company should do. After spending a month in Snowmass, he sent Ed Janss a very substantial bill for a month’s time and gave a one-sentence recommendation: “As little as possible.” Ed Janss later said the advice was “priceless.”
The Janss vision laid the groundwork, and the lucky and talented few who joined the team in those early years shared in the unique opportunity to sculpt this place with creativity and innovation. Though once the secret was out, a scramble to secure a slice ensued, and it was then that the original vision and dreams clashed with reality. They have been at odds ever since.
Here, the dream is an easy sell, when sold for the right reasons. If even a hint of the original vision and efforts to preserve these pure natural environs and rural character are kept intact, it will always be appealing. No marketing necessary.
However, if we continue to allow the slow and insidious suburbanization, if we lose sight of the allure of the rural charm that brought us here in the first place, if we scar the landscape with architectural monuments to individual expression, if we continue to build structures that no longer feel harmonious but begin to compete for our focal attention, if we chop up and fractionize the real estate, selling only to flip for profit, if all of the mansions fill their footprints right up to the property lines and then sit ominously empty, little green monopoly buildings on a great game board, then the effortless marketing will cease.
Character is an intangible thing, but we know it when we see it, when we feel it, and as long as it exists here in Snowmass, it is our job to preserve the magic, the dream, the vision.
While listening to the presentation at the recent “Upload for the Download” event at Elk Camp, I was reminded of the original Janss vision. And I believe as we approach our 50th anniversary next year, we are entering a new era of maturity. And with that maturity comes a responsibility for the future, which also must include respect for those who paved the way here. I believe that those of us who agree with the founding visions, and who have fallen in love with the charm of our village, want to maintain the character that had attracted us. In order to preserve this Shangri-La, we must remain in harmony with these mountains and the unkempt wilderness surrounding our public spaces. We must respect them and care for them as a vital part of our ever-evolving community, and if we do so with care and consideration, we can still progressively grow while continuing to enjoy a village that virtually sells itself. A resort of dreams. A place of vision to which, as the new marketing campaign says, you would want to “run away” and then stay forever.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours with her at brittag@ ymail.com.
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