Sun Valley Resort’s historical walking tour is a must-do for anyone visiting Sun Valley. But for those who can’t wait until they’re here to discover the secrets behind this historic resort, here is Part One: The Sun Valley Lodge. Parts two and three are coming soon.
In March of 1936, on the spot where the Sun Valley Lodge now stands, a short, stout New York publicist surveyed what was to become his next project: a barren cattle field, waiting for the birth of a luxury ski lodge. Despite the snow filling his Fifth Avenue loafers, Steve Hannagan felt warm. The intense heat of the deep-winter Idaho sun was remarkable. In that moment, Hannagan knew how to convince the rich and famous to travel to the middle of nowhere and risk their necks hurtling down a mountainside in the decidedly uncivilized pursuit of skiing. He was going to lure them with the promise of “Winter Sports Under a Summer Sun.” He was going to call it Sun Valley.
Sun Valley Resort exists because of three men: Hannagan, William Averell Harriman and Count Felix Schaffgotsch. The brains, the money and the brawn behind the project respectively, this trio turned the then crazy idea of building a magnificent palace in the snow into a reality. Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, was a famous playboy whose passion for glamorous pursuits inspired the idea of creating America’s first destination ski resort at the end of one of his railroads. The promise of passenger traffic on the freight-heavy line was enough to convince UP’s board and, after a snow-seeking odyssey across the Wild West, Count Schaffgotsch found the perfect spot. Then, with Hannagan’s marketing genius, Harriman’s cash and connections, and the charming Count’s direct line to the best ski instructors in Europe, a legend was born.
STOP ONE: Stand on the path at the edge of the duck pond and take in a panoramic view of the Sun Valley Lodge. The X-shaped building is virtually unchanged from when it was constructed in the summer of 1936. Four stories high, with 220 rooms (now 148), the building rose from the ground in less than eight months and cost $1.5 million. You could be forgiven for assuming it’s a traditional wooden lodge. In fact, the walls are made from concrete, to ensure it would not suffer the fate of its architect’s previous project, the Grand Canyon Lodge, which burned to the ground three years earlier. Each “log” was made by pouring concrete into wooden molds and then staining and stenciling it to resemble wood.
STOP TWO: Walk around the pond and let one of Sun Valley’s genial doormen welcome you into The Lobby. Here you will stand in a room not much changed since Gary Cooper stepped inside on opening day, December 21, 1936. On your right is a portrait of Harriman, Sun Valley’s founder. Harriman had the Lodge furnished and decorated by Newport socialite Marjorie Oelrichs Duchin, the best friend of his wife Marie. Marjorie banished the color white from the interior, even from the linens. Instead, yellows, oranges and greens, complemented by rich red carpets and navy blue upholstery dominated the decor. When it first opened, alongside the usual requirements of a hotel, the Lodge also boasted a barber shop, a beauty parlor, a surgery department, a bachelor’s lounge (which quickly became a game room), writing rooms and, of course, a ski room. Saks Fifth Avenue also opened a store, selling the latest in skiing fashions from Manhattan that combined the style of the era with the practicalities of the unladylike pursuit of hurtling down a mountainside on two planks of wood.
STOP THREE: Step through the lobby and to your left into The Duchin Lounge. The Lodge’s premier nightspot, the lounge was originally located where Gretchen’s Restaurant is today and the Saks Fifth Avenue store was in lounge’s current location. Contrary to a popular myth, The Duchin Lounge was not named for famous forties’ bandleader Eddie Duchin, who played at Sun Valley many times, but for his wife Marjorie, in recognition of her work designing the Lodge’s interior.
STOP FOUR: Cross the lobby to Gretchen’s Restaurant. Opened in 1985 after the lobby was remodeled, it was named for America’s first Olympic skiing champion, Gretchen Fraser. Fraser was the star pupil of Sun Valley ski school director Otto Lang, who had her stand in for his friend the ice-skater Sonja Henie in the skiing scenes of Thin Ice (1937) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941). Fraser and her husband Don lived in Sun Valley for many years until their deaths in 1994. Fraser’s ashes were scattered over Gretchen’s Gold, the Baldy run named in honor of her victories at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz.
STOP FIVE: Exit the lobby through the northern corridor, otherwise known as the Hall of Fame. Also installed in 1985, this gallery of photographs showing off many of the Lodge’s rich and famous guests was the brainchild of Earl Holding, the resort’s owner since 1977. Look for photos of the Kennedy family vacationing on Sun Valley’s slopes, local residents Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, classic crooners such as Louis Armstrong and Bette Midler, and legends of the silver screen including Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert, all of whom were regular visitors to the resort.
STOP SIX: Continue down the hallway to the Lodge Pool. Originally intended to mimic Idaho’s natural hot springs, Union Pacific was unable to strike a deal with the State to pump its water into the pool. So the management decided to make its own. Large vats were installed in the basement to mix precisely the required minerals into the water. However, the resulting sulphuric stench was considered unbearable, and rapidly the mineral concentration was reduced just to a few teaspoons, still technically hot springs to draw people to the resort, but no longer obnoxious for those already here.
STOP SEVEN: On your way back to the lobby there is a doorway on your right that leads downstairs to the Bowling Alley. Installed in the summer of 1940, the bowling alley had been part of the original plans for the in-house entertainment of the Lodge. It joined a game room, which featured a very popular ping-pong table and a not so popular piano. One of the first guests at the resort, Gone With the Wind producer David O’ Selznick, was slightly appalled at having to pay for his ping-pong balls, especially as he kept losing them.
STOP EIGHT: Return to the lobby and take the elevator to the second floor. In front of you is the Sun Room. Offering excellent views of the ice rink and Bald and Dollar Mountains, it was once called the Redwood Room. In here, on July 17, 1954, Groucho Marx, 63, married actress Eden Hartford, 24. It was the groom’s third wedding.
STOP NINE: From the Sun Room turn left down the hall and walk towards the Lodge Dining Room. Glance down the hallway to your left. At the far end is Room 206. Arguably the most famous room in the resort, it was here Ernest Hemingway wrote the majority of For Whom The Bell Tolls on a wooden desk specially installed for the author. He first came to Sun Valley on September 20, 1939 with soon-to-be-wife number three, Martha Gellhorn. A passionate hunter, Hemingway was lured to the resort by publicist Gene Van Guilder as a way to promote the new fall season. He fell in love with Idaho, returning most years to his “Glamour House.” He finished For Whom The Bell Tolls on October 10, 1940, and sent the galleys to his publisher right from The Inn’s camera shop.
STOP TEN: Sun Valley’s grand opening dinner was held in the Lodge Dining Room on December 21, 1936. A lavish affair, Life magazine said the Lodge opened with “As fancy a crew of rich socialites as have ever been assembled under one roof.” Along with a menu featuring Beef Tea des Viveurs and Ananas Surprise Union Pacifique, guests were treated to a good old-fashioned fistfight. David O’Selznick threw a punch at a Chicago banker who presumed to ask Claudette Colbert for a dance. The resulting headline, “Sun Valley Opens With a Bang,” cemented the hotel’s place in history as the most talked about destination ski resort for decades to come.
Written and researched by Jennifer Tuohy
Click here for Part Two: The Sun Valley Village
Click here for Part Three: Sun Valley Resort