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Colorado's Endangered Places 2021: Winter Park's Balcony House Brings Together Past, Present

WINTER PARK, Colo. (CBS4)- A redevelopment plan for Winter Park could put one of the town's oldest buildings in jeopardy. Preservationists have set their sites on the Winter Park Balcony House in hopes of making it a success story.

balcony house
(credit: CBS)

"There's so much ski history here, everything from alpine skiing to ski jumping," said B. Travis Wright, president of Grand County Historical Society.

In 1940, the top of Berthoud Pass had recently been developed as a ski area. But narrow, winding mountain roads make getting there difficult.

"Ski enthusiasts scouted a possible location, where can we put a ski resort? And the answer was pretty obvious, it was West Portal," said Wright.

West Portal was where the railroad emerged from the Moffat Tunnel. Winter Park Ski Resort quickly sprang up at the tunnel entrance.

"We had something that no other ski resort had, which is access to a rail line that dropped passengers off right here at the base," said Wright.

winter park2
(credit: Grand County Historical Society)

With skiers able to easily make the trek from Denver on the train, Winter Park Ski Resort grew quickly. Resort founders needed a suitable base camp to provide skier services and in 1955, they build Balcony House.

"It was designed by founders of the ski area who weren't even quote-unquote architects, but they certainly had the talent," said architect James Johnson.

Johnson said the building's style reflects Winter Park's unique vibe, "It resonates with the spirit of Winter Park in terms of inventiveness, ... of bold ideas... creative, playful windows, balconies... what I call cascading, and large windows opening to the south side that feels indigenous to the context of the mountains."

Janet Engel and Wendy Christensen grew up right next door to the Balcony House.

"What fabulous architecture, the mid-century modern. The Balcony House has been the anchor for everything that's gone on," said Christensen. "This was our front yard. We grew up playing around, learning how to ski."

winter park3
(credit: Grand County Historical Society)

"Our parents owned the ski shop and ski school here," said Engel.

For them, Balcony House was part of their everyday life.

"It was built the year Janet was born," said Christensen.

The building designers relied on the girls' father for advice while designing Balcony House.

"He grew up in a plumbing family, so Steve Bradley talked to dad on some of the wherefores on how to do some of the building, said Christensen.

The Balcony House served many roles over the years.

"It was a ticket booth, it was the cafeteria," said Christensen.

"The place to go in the morning was the coffee and tea market," said Engel. "Our parents at one time owned a soap company, and it was where the men's bathrooms are now."

"And then it became the Winter Park day care center," said Christensen.

winter park4
(credit: CBS)

"So many reincarnations and reinventions have happened to it, but all along it has always been the place where you meet at the end of the day," said Engel.

Currently, the coffee shop still showcases the building's unique architecture, but renovations have covered over the building's once prominent role in Winter Park's history.

"Part of history, too, is evolution, right? So as things need to change with the changing needs of our market and demographic and skiers," said Winter Park President and CEO Sky Foulkes.

Foulkes says competition drives change, "What's core to our DNA we need to keep, but when you think about services and facilities, it needs to evolve with the customer base."

"We've always done things to honor our history," said Gary DeFrange, former president of Winter Park (1997-2017). "Part of history is architecture, etc. but the real basis of history is the culture."

(credit: Colorado Preservation Inc.)

DeFrange oversaw the creation of the master plan which will shape Winter Park's future. The existing Balcony House does not figure into that plan.

DeFrange said the building is nearing the end of its useful life, "If you look at this building, number one, structurally it's a real challenge."

"I can't tell you how many times since I've been here we've had to go in and reinforce the foundation of this building," said DeFrange. "The building itself just does not function or accommodate what we need to do to take care of skiers and visitors and families year-round."

He said the plans pay tribute to the history of the site, "There's a way to rebuild this building and a way to maintain the history and show that we're respecting the history, not only of the building but of Steve Bradley who built it."

Those wanting to save the building see things differently.

Eagle Wind at Winter Park skiing generic
(credit: CBS)

"There's no bad time to save a classic building," said Johnson.

Johnson worked on the renovation of Denver's Union Station. He sees the same potential in Balcony House, mixing the old with new construction behind it.

"There's definitely a win/win approach to this thing where the great parts of the balcony house can be saved, the less functional parts can be eliminated but you keep the essence of the design and you get some magic out of the result," said Johnson.

"Many view historic preservation in terms of either/or. Either we keep this building or we demolish it. It really needs to be reframed as both/and. We can have both this historic building and have thoughtful additions to it that service the needs of a growing ski resort," said Wright.

winter park snowguns
Snowguns turned on at Winter Park Resort. (credit: Winter Park Resort)

For those who grew up on the front porch of Balcony House, preserving the building maintains the vision of Winter Park's developers.

"We both knew and grew up with the man who designed and built it. He was amazing in himself. It's a tribute to him and his vision, too. I don't want to lose that."

Foulkes said the ski industry has changed since the master plan was first put together, so many aspects of the plan are open to re-evaluation as they work to meet the evolving needs of skiers.

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