Rolling back the years at Sun Valley


The Lodge and its surrounds in 1937. This image was found in Averell Harriman's papers at the Library of Congress - you can see the handwritten notes on it detailing plans for the grounds.

When Joe Burgy first laid eyes on Sun Valley Lodge in 1937 he thought to himself, “This is the most horrible looking thing – a dingy brown cement building stuck out in a hayfield surrounded by sagebrush.” The future sports director for the resort just couldn’t imagine what in the world they intended to do with this luxury hotel in the middle of the Idaho wilderness.

The transformation that occurred when Averell Harriman hauled in hundreds of trees from the surrounding mountains to spruce up the sagebrush flats around his million dollar gamble, is a testament to the power of landscaping.

The same view of the Lodge taken in 2012

Fast-forward to 2012 and the old lady was in need of a bit of a facelift. “That first landscaping went in 75 years ago and most of the trees then were collected off the mountain and Trail Creek,” said Mike Turzian, owner of Sun Valley Garden Center and the man in charge of the resort’s horticultural design for more than 35 years. “A lot of those trees have lived their life cycle and are at a point where they can no longer fight off disease. All the trees we removed this year were heavily infected with scale.”

So it’s a case of out with the old and in with the new as the diseased trees make way for approximately 350 young spruce trees, 500 new aspen, 2,000 sprightly shrubs, as well as hundreds of flats of flowers. The resulting look has opened up new views of the Lodge and let light back into the historic building, stripping decades off the grande dame of American skiing.

“It’s definitely brought the architecture of Lodge back as a focal point and not the trees,” said Turzian. The change is quite remarkable. I remember when I first saw Sun Valley Lodge almost a decade ago, I was surprised at how difficult it was to see the wooden facade for the trees. Today the sight is not dissimilar to that Burgy saw all those years ago, but instead of being surrounded by dusty sagebrush, the Lodge now stands tall amidst healthy young trees and the largest planting of flowers ever seen in the valley.

“The impetus for the change was both the age of the existing landscape as well as the  goal of bringing it back to the standards Mr. Holding so enjoyed, when he first took charge of the resort.”

According to Turzian, in his younger years Mr. Earl Holding loved tending to the landscaping, sometimes working side-by-side with the gardeners. “It was definitely his recreation,” Turzian said. “Holding used to insist we wait until he arrived to start and would stay until the end of the day.”

Mike Turzian and his landscaping crew hard at work around the resort. More than 75 people are working on the project, which is estimated to be completed in 2014

However horticultural historians need not despair, some of the oldest trees still remain. “The big trees on each side of the Lodge, and on the north side of the Inn were probably moved here by Harriman when they were 10 feet at the most. Now they are approaching 120 feet,” Turzian said. That could make them over 100 years old.

Going forward, the biggest challenge for Turzian and his crew is trying to create some diversity in the landscape using the minimal amount of northern hardy nursery stock available to them. It’s a tough job in a climate that routinely drops to -20. But the fresh look has also presented an opportunity to modernize. The new landscaping has been designed to minimize water use through installing more efficient sprinkler heads and a drip system, as well as selecting more drought tolerant plants, all while still maintaining the setting worthy of this special place.

Here are some images I snapped around the Lodge since the transformation began this spring. But don’t take my word for it, come up and see for yourself.

Happy trails!

Mrs. Sun