Ski town architecture may be gorgeous, but it’s not without its cliches. Behind every subtly designed timber structure is a 15,000-square-foot log monstrosity full of bad Western kitsch. Even though recent trends in design skew toward more eclectic contemporary architecture, these cliches ensure a certain predictability in the high country.
You won’t find many Cape Cod-style retreats, and there’s nary a thatched beach house in sight (thank goodness). But as much as we harp on all the antlers, taxidermy, and log-home overload, we’d be nothing without ski country’s most revered architecture traditions. So without further ado, may we present the seven types of high-country buildings you’re sure to encounter in North American ski towns from coast to coast.
Victorian architecture in ski towns is a holdover of life in the mountains before there was skiing. From the 1850s onward, people flocked to towns like Aspen, Crested Butte, Park City, and Telluride to stake their claims in mining, searching for silver, gold, or whatever precious metal was most prominent.
Many of the oldest bars, restaurants, and hotels in ski towns date to the late 19th century, when the Queen Anne style was all the rage and brightly colored, two-story homes were on trend. Today, you can still find original Victorian houses in ski towns across the American West, characterized by their wraparound porches, occasional octagonal towers, and steep, multi-faceted roofs.
Because of their history, Victorians are usually located in prime locations downtown, so those that survive have sometimes been renovated with additions and modern styling.
Austrian, German, and Swiss-Inspired Chalets
North American design has always been influenced by skiing’s cultural origins in Europe, which explains the prominence of what is rather blandly designated as the “Alpine” style of architecture. Whether with a decorated gable-end or multiple balconies complete with flower planters, from the 1930s onward ski resorts and towns wanted to transport visitors to a “genuine” Alpine experience.
The trend gained traction when architects in the 1960s in Vail, Colorado, and Stratton, Vermont, envisioned the newly opened ski resorts as compact mini-European villages with lodging, restaurants, and shopping. Through Bavarian painted shutters, Tyrolean-style facades, and a whole lot of Disneyland kitsch, ski country became known for a whitewashed European aesthetic that was part Austrian, part Swiss, and all American bravado.
Perhaps the most iconic American ski house, the A-frame saw its golden age coincide with the proliferation of ski areas in the 1950s and 1960s. Cheap, easy to construct, and built for lounging on their outdoor decks, the A-frame was part treehouse and part funky teepee.
They can come in any size, from big to large, but the equilateral triangle-design was known for its full-height living areas, cozy sleeping lofts, and bathrooms and utilities in the basement. Popularity peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when backlash over mountain sprawl started to curb what once appeared to be an insatiable desire for the quirky structures.
Today, the A-frame is a relic of a ski past often mourned and never replicated: When skiing was affordable, the dream of having a mountain vacation home seemed within reach, and the mega-mansions of the future had yet to be built.
Rarer than A-frames, geodesic kit houses are minimalist architecture at its best. They flourished with the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s and became part of the “return to the land” movement.
Although this type of architecture was never a huge part of ski town life, nearly every high-country hotspot counts at least one or two dome homes in their architectural repertoire. If you’re lucky, inside the interlocking triangles you’ll find groovy shag carpeting, plenty of wood paneling, and a wood-burning stove as centerpiece.
Today, yurts are much more common than geodesic domes, both as part of the growing tiny home movement and as an easy-to-assemble, easy-to-maintain option for shelter in high-alpine environments. Circular in shape, yurts are usually tent-like structures with a collapsible lattice framework.
While you’ll find plenty in the backcountry that caters to skiers and snowboarders on hut trips, there are also a surprising number of yurts being lived in full-time or used as nightly rentals for vacationers.
The Log Cabin
Once a symbol of independence and simplicity, the log cabin was almost extinct until the 1970s, when environmentalists’ interest in natural materials revitalized the style. Later, the log cabin steadily gained favor in ski towns throughout the 1980s and seemed to take over high country in the 1990s.
But gone were the modest, one- or two-room cabins of yesteryear; everything about the timber structure since the mid-1980s has been about excess. Today’s log cabins are massive, luxurious mansions full of oversized boulders, two-story fireplaces, exaggerated logs, and even streams. These days, when the occasional “small” log cabin appears (i.e., fewer than 2,000 square feet), it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Today’s ski homes blend elements of many architectural styles to create something that is uniquely contemporary. At times, houses harken back to the 1950s to 1970s, when architects and ski areas looked to glass, geometric forms, and reinforced concrete to innovate design.
In other cases, the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture is clear. Contemporary stylings eschew the log-cabin excess so favored in the 1990s, preferring sleek lines over 18-inch logs and indoor/outdoor living areas over massive stone fireplaces. Of course, this doesn’t mean that contemporary ski homes aren’t large. To be sure, there is often an excess of amenities, including wine rooms, gyms, theaters, and even indoor basketball courts.