Winter Park Balcony House

Historian B. Travis Wright, MPS advocates for the historic preservation of the Winter Park Balcony House in this 2021 documentary.

This is one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places for 2021: the Balcony House at Winter Park Resort.

I am honored to advocate for this building, its history, and its place in our community. It is a privilege to work alongside others who saw this building’s past and have the expertise and passion to create its future.

The success of Winter Park Ski Area—later Winter Park Resort—was really a matter of being at the right place at the right time.

It was clear the temporary rail line that routed trains up and over the Continental Divide by way of Rollins Pass was woefully inefficient, so it was with much jubilation when the Moffat Tunnel finally opened in 1928—gliding trains through a shoulder of James Peak within a matter of minutes, as opposed to hours in the best of cases or up to 60 days when the worst of conditions aligned with the worst of luck on Rollins Pass. About the same time the Moffat Tunnel opened, alpine skiing saw a dramatic rise in popularity across the United States, particularly in Colorado.

Shortly thereafter, in the mid-1930s, the US Forest Service allowed for a rope tow to be installed at the Berthoud Pass Ski Area, but period newspaper articles spoke of overcrowding, congestion on the pass, and more. The US Forest Service and ski enthusiasts scouted a new location for a ski area and the solution became obvious: West Portal. It was near the West Portal of the Moffat Tunnel that supplied a unique opportunity for outdoor recreation.

By combining the ease of accessing mountains by train, growing interest in alpine skiing, and plenty of national forest—the result became the perfect setting for a ski resort to become Denver’s winter playground: Winter Park. In 1940, Winter Park Ski Area first opened, and the ski train provided efficient rail service from Denver to snow-covered slopes.

As Winter Park Ski Area gained popularity, Stephen Bradley designed the Balcony House to serve as the central hub—the beating heart at the base of the mountain. Architect Jim Johnson wrote, “The two-story Balcony House, with its panoramic views from cascading balconies, is a unique example of mid-century modern architecture, popular from the 1940s to 1960s in the United States and characterized by upswept roofs, geometric shapes and bold use of glass. The design scheme was further influenced by the Fraser Valley agrarian architecture by protecting itself from cold winter winds and embracing the warm southern sun. One of America’s very first passive solar ski lodges, its south-facing balconies offer panoramic views to Winter Park’s competition and recreational slopes. Its mid-century modern style represented America’s fascination with and marketing emphasis on futuristic designs and the coming space age.”

Coloradans are familiar with the renovated and revitalized Union Station serving as Denver’s Living Room. There is a thread—or rather, track—running between Denver’s Union Station and the apron of fresh snow leading to the Balcony House. In the winter, the Ski Train—now the Winter Park Express—departs Union Station, travels under the Continental Divide through the historic Moffat Tunnel, and passengers detrain steps away from Winter Park’s Living Room: the Balcony House. This building has been crucial to the setting of Winter Park Ski Area for 66 years: it has been a meeting place, a Ski Train station, ticketing hub, coffee house, lunchroom, ski competition center, and so much more.

There’s not a lot of land at the base of the resort and the challenge with this structure and its future becomes integrating needs of a growing resort with the adaptive re-use of this building. Historic preservation of the Balcony House should not be viewed as ‘either/or’—either the building is kept or it’s demolished; but instead seen as ‘both/and’—both the historic Balcony House and new growth can be accommodated, and both made complementary to each other. Historic preservation experts see a ‘both/and’ solution including architectural restoration and strengthening of the existing historic building and its balconies, envelope, HVAC and electrical systems, ADA accessibility, lighting and more. After all, even the finest skiing equipment in the world needs to be tuned: waxed, sharpened, and regularly maintained. Colorado historic preservation legend Dana Crawford sees a vibrant future in this building because there’s always a way to protect and preserve historic buildings while accommodating healthy growth. I’m confident that its best years are ahead.

Losing this building would mean financial and experiential success steamrolls history, culture, setting, and identity. For so many, this building is home—or home away from home. Heartwarming stories abound of the Engel daughters riding their bicycles inside of the Balcony House during summer rainstorms, or of a functional soap factory that once operated in the basement, to nuptials that transpired outside of this historic structure. Countless photographs by locals and tourists alike have the Balcony House as a backdrop; culturally, a community is abundantly richer for having the tangible presence of the past as well as historic architectural styles central to the authentic mountain skiing experience. As Balcony House experts point out, “Younger Colorado resorts would have guests believe that Colorado skiing started after World War II with roots in other places such as Bavaria. Not Winter Park—it’s identity is genuine.”

History and the appreciation of the past in Grand County is unique—its residents and its visitors are surrounded by timeless landscapes—where it may be too easy to take history for granted. That would be a mistake: this building is part of our shared history and gives voice to those early decades when a fledgling resort was placed in the perfect setting between two great gates on the Continental Divide that Marshall Sprague once wrote about: Rollins Pass and Berthoud Pass.

Winter Park Resort offers a long history of authenticity and this building of almost seven decades remains central to that charge: this ski lodge like no other forms a destination like no other. This still beating heart of the resort—arguably an international destination—needs the Colorado community to say, “This place matters. This building is vital to telling the story of skiing in Colorado and it’s irreplaceable.”

—B. Travis Wright, MPS | President, Grand County Historical Association

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