A stroll through downtown Ketchum reveals that the town is taking on a new look. Until a few years ago, most new buildings proposed for downtown had some design connection to the valley’s 19th-century mining era. More recently, they have veered in a new direction—unabashedly modern. For some people, at least, the new direction raises the question of whether Ketchum will lose its mountain-town identity and begin to look like towns being built all over the world.

    A weekly poll in the Idaho Mountain Express’ Oct. 10 issue asked, “Do you favor a trend in the valley toward more modern architecture?”  The results of the completely unscientific poll were 160 in favor, 288 opposed.

    A random sampling of 17 opinions on the street produced an almost even mix of support and opposition. Some examples:

    “I like the eclectic look of the town. I kind of like the mixture.” (Ketchum resident)

    “They’re too modern. It’s not Ketchumy. It’s not Western.” (Ketchum resident)

    “I actually like more modern buildings. I think the Limelight is lovely. It feels like it’s more open and welcoming because of all the glass.” (Ketchum resident)

    “I’m a traditionalist, so I kind of like sticking with the theme of the old mining community. I guess the whole character of the town is being changed forever.” (Ketchum resident)

    “In Park City, we see the same thing happening. I don’t like it. It’s changing the character of the town.” (visitor from Salt Lake City)

    “Be modern but be sympathetic to the past.” (visitor from Australia)

    “Ketchum doesn’t have a character that’s as clearly defined as lots of other mountain towns that have a lot of Victorian buildings. To try to hold on to something that wasn’t very prevalent in the first place is all for naught.” (Ketchum resident)

    “It’s just a hodge-podge here. It always will be. But there’s nothing wrong with that.” (Ketchum resident)

    Ketchum architect Jim McLaughlin designed two downtown buildings whose designs connect to mining-town days—the US Bank building on Main Street and the Galleria Building on Leadville Avenue. Both have brick exterior walls. The bank building is fairly true to an early 20th-century design, while the Galleria has a more contemporary look.

    “We were trying to create timeless buildings that fit into the fabric of Ketchum,” McLaughlin said. “We were trying to complement that architecture. We were trying to complement what brought us all here. Most people who live here or visit find Ketchum a friendly, welcoming town. We were trying to continue that feeling.

    “It doesn’t mean modern doesn’t have its place. The question is whether it will give the same feeling to the community.”

    Mclaughlin notes that the modern trend is countrywide.

    “The challenge we’ve got is to not look like everywhere,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s a bad direction, but the question is how do we make it appropriate for our area?”

    Retired architect Dale Bates, a proponent of energy-saving buildings and designer of Ketchum’s first three affordable-housing projects, is more critical. He fears that Ketchum is succumbing to what he calls “the globalization of taste.”

    “I think sensibilities [in Ketchum] have changed, particularly the sensibilities of second-home owners,” he said. “It shifted to what’s cool in certain circles.”

    The “global modernism” he sees expressed in current downtown architecture, he says, comes largely from architectural magazines, which showcase design in big cities.

Modernism defended

    Architect Jeff Williams, who designed the recently constructed (and modern-looking) Kneebone Building on Fourth Street, questions appeals for uniqueness in Ketchum architecture. He notes that there was nothing about the old brick buildings in Ketchum that was not seen in brick buildings throughout the country at the time they were built.

    Williams attributes the modern trend in Ketchum partly to the kinds of businesses putting up the buildings.

     “Many of the projects previously built in the center of downtown were financial institutions, which were looking for the traditional symbols of stability and longevity,” he said. “New projects like the Kneebone Building are being built to project the image of a business being on the cutting edge or of one moving toward the future, embracing openness and change, engaging in defining the future of the community.”

    He said that “time marches on and the successful future of a place depends on openness to change. Otherwise the place will slowly lose relevance to the present and die.”

    Williams noted that one might design one style of building on Main Street and another style a couple blocks off Main Street.

    His Kneebone Building recently won a Citation Award for professional excellence from the American Institute of Architects-Idaho.

    A prominent modern-looking building under construction on Main Street is the Argyros Performing Arts Center, scheduled to open Nov. 23. Tim Mott, vice chairman of the board of directors of Sun Valley Performing Arts, the nonprofit that owns the building, said the process for creating it started about two and a half years ago by querying about 70 people in the local arts community—board members of arts organizations, performers and theatergoers. Mott said some of the words included in their conceptions were “dynamic,” “arts-related,” “welcoming,” “intimate” and “open.”

    “They wanted a building that was modern looking, given that the arts are often forward-looking,” he said.

    He said people also expressed a desire for “authenticity.”

    “That suggested that a contemporarily constructed building made to look like an old one probably wasn’t the way to go,” he said. “If you try to make it an old-style building, you probably don’t have that authenticity.”

    However, he said, people wanted a building that would fit well on Main Street.

    “What we didn’t want was a wildly contemporary building,” he said.

    Toward that end, the building uses a variety of materials, including an engineered wood product on a good portion of the exterior and cement panels.

    Mott said generous use of glass on the ground floor will make the interior “animated to people on the outside.”

    He predicted that “it’s a performing arts space that’s not just going to be compared to those in other resort towns, it’s one that’s going to get compared favorably to any other performing arts space in the world.”

Design code

    Ketchum’s design-review code doesn’t mandate or prohibit any styles of architecture.

    “The council always talked about it but couldn’t agree on a particular design parameter—do we need it and if so, what is it?” said former Mayor Jerry Seiffert, who served from 1975 to 1987 (and now works at the Idaho Mountain Express).

    The Design Review ordinance does state that one purpose of the code is “to ensure that new development is complementary to the design of existing City neighborhoods.”

    Former Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Jeff Lamoureux, who announced his resignation from the commission in August after having served for about eight years, said that provision has been used in conjunction with public comments to urge developers to modify their designs, but he said he couldn’t think of any examples of a developer being told, “No, you can’t build that—it’s just too modern and doesn’t fit here.”

“It’s hard to mandate one thing or another, or you really paint yourself into a corner,” he said.

Though he objects to blindly following the global trend of modernism, architect Bates agrees that dictating a historical local style leads to a dead end.

“The trouble with vernacular architecture is that it turns out to be fake,” he said. “That is the pitfall you fall into—that architecture is what you perceive on the surface. It’s not, it’s an environment that you actually walk into, it’s a sensory spatial environment.”

    Bates says true vernacular architecture consists of local materials and an authentic construction process—for example, real wood, actual thick walls and big wooden beams. An example of an unauthentic process, he said, is using fake rock siding stuck onto a building’s exterior.

    Instead, he advocates that the Wood River Valley develop its own style.

    “The challenge is finding a form that expresses a vernacular, a regional climate and a culture,” he said.

    The goal, he said, should be to “get beyond the global application of high modernism—not by going back, but by moving forward into something yet unseen.”

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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