IN THIS SECTION
NATURE OF WORSHIP
The Language of Sun Valley’s Sacred Architecture
“We don’t expect our homes to last for centuries—we expect our churches to,” Father Justin Brady said during a tour of Our Lady of the Snows, Sun Valley’s award-winning Catholic church. Included in that expectation is the hope that a well-designed church will also captivate us, its architecture an enduring expression of our deepest values. As with any house of worship, the architect must be conscious of a unique spiritual function and the means through which his or her decisions will facilitate the religious experience, something that varies from faith to faith.
In the last decade, the resort communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley have been blessed with three modern expressions of the traditional church building: St. Thomas Episcopal (2001), the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood (2005) and Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church (2006). All three share an organic architectural approach, one that ties each building spiritually to the surrounding beauty of the mountains, valleys and rivers.
LEFT: The altar of St. Thomas’ beautiful church offers awe-inspiring views of Baldy. RIGHT: An architectural illustration of St. Thomas Episcopal’s nave, packed full of parishoners.
For years, St. Thomas Episcopal was smaller than some neighboring mansions. Around the millennium, the growing parish and its interfaith guests, including the Wood River Jewish Community and Alcoholics Anonymous, needed room to breathe. But the project faced a dilemma in that “everyone felt very comfortable with the church they had and didn’t want it to change,” remembered John Stewart, the Bellingham, Washington-based architect charged with the task of designing a new place of worship. The original building was a soft but noble design, which had “good bones” that everyone agreed should remain unchanged and simply be added on to.
The heart (and bones) of St. Thomas is a slightly convex A-frame sandwiched between a rock foundation and a sweeping shake roof, cut short to expose a cedar skeleton. In the gap is an artistic spate of windows, with a cross spanning the center and a commanding view of Mt. Baldy anchoring the background. Considering the roof’s angles, as well as the use of natural color and materials, the building achieves a fitting alpine vernacular. “Without a doubt, it represents the mountain,” said Stewart of the original aesthetic, all he had to do was add 6,000-square-feet.
The solution involved keeping the integrity of the old church on Sun Valley Road and expanding downhill: adding administrative space, a concrete patio and a children’s school. As in the sanctuary, none of the additions are awash with light, keeping the atmosphere intimate. The beams that do filter light through evoke a celestial energy. Stewart’s ability to make inspiring connections with St. Thomas’ surroundings is also expressed in the maze of patio, which wraps around the church, joining it with a throng of welcoming cottonwoods.
Our Lady of the Snows
At Our Lady of the Snows, located just up Sun Valley Road from St. Thomas, the liturgical priority of the Eucharist is manifest in nearly every aspect of the design. “A problem with some churches,” said Father Brady, “is not knowing where to be directed.” Upon entering Our Lady, the focal point of the altar comes slowly but surely. Designed by local architect and long-time member, Jim McLaughlin, the church is an emphatic work, characterized by a dormered steel roof that thrusts its cedar beams over a stone facade blanketing the exterior. A circular window above oversized doors punctuates the entry, beckoning the eye inward.
The open sanctuary of Our Lady is similarly hypnotic. In the middle of its cruciform layout, directly above the altar, hangs a mystical glass and fiber-optic sculpture that truly centers the interior’s energy. Designed by artist Sharon Marston, the piece is widely interpreted; for some it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit, and for others it’s simply a collection of snowflakes.
Regardless of what one sees above the altar, McLaughlin devised the sanctuary to be as dramatic as the structure itself. “I wanted people when they walked in to feel that they were in a very special space,” he said. Between the high ceilings, a glass perimeter and Marston’s sculpture, Our Lady feels sacred. “It’s one of those things where people don’t know why they’re responding to a building in a certain way,” observed McLaughlin. “They just know they like it.”
The alluring chandelier, the lovely hidden gardens and the drama of the building itself all serve this end. McLaughlin’s work is the articulation of an attitude that places art above “flow space.”
Church of the Big Wood
Likewise, around 2001, the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood (CBW) needed to expand. “The vision of this congregation,” explained Pastor Bob Henley, who moved from the Midwest at the time of construction, “was that they wanted this space to give back to the community.” The completed building, which currently occupies 33,000-square-feet on the banks of the Big Wood River in Ketchum, includes a gymnasium, offices, a full commercial kitchen, a teenage worship space and a versatile sanctuary.
According to the Ketchum-based architect Janet Jarvis, there was a desire to keep the design, despite its enormous scale, fairly quiet. “They wanted it to be low-key and to not have the architecture be too imposing,” she said. When approaching the Church of the Big Wood, this is precisely the feeling: earth tones color the rambling exterior, where the focus is on a hybrid portico, the columns of which Jarvis constructed using local river rock. To the right, a tower of the same stone harbors a simple cross, the only clear indication of the building’s purpose.
Inside, the sanctuary is a clean and acoustically brilliant space that can accommodate anything from Sunday sermons to the Sun Valley Opera. Light fills the room through large windows, offering a moving portrait of the Big Wood River. An equally symbolic feature is the sanctuary’s fan shape, added Pastor Henley, because “when we gather, it’s about the community of people.”
For CBW, the building’s spiritual function is highly social, providing space for uses beyond Communion. The breadth of its outreach, as a result, goes beyond that of its smaller counterparts. As Henley explained, CBW was intended to be “a people’s church,” meaning its size and versatility were essential to its spiritual purpose.
“There is a window onto the beauty of God’s creation that we experience here in the Valley, like few other places,” remarks Pastor Henley. What he sees at work in Jarvis’s design of CBW is an intentional nod to the Wood River Valley’s natural cathedral. Of his years behind the Big Wood’s pulpit, Pastor Henley remarked, “One of the joys of being a preacher is looking out the window to see God’s handiwork.”
Organic Religious Architecture
Considering their spiritual function, church designs should encourage what Henley describes as delighting in “creation,” and thereby the Divine, by virtue of good architecture.
At St. Thomas, the most remarkable feature is a matchless view of Bald Mountain, framed perfectly in the sanctuary’s opus of windows. At Our Lady, it is also an indoor-outdoor stroke that defines the experience, as one is drawn to the altar past scenes of horses at pasture, lush gardens and evergreens. As Father Brady acknowledged, “You can see the outside world and are therefore called to remember our relationship with it.” Finally, at CBW the sanctuary connects the congregation to nature through immense windows that reveal surging waters, profoundly symbolic, coursing past the pews.
“There are corresponding values,” insisted Father Brady, among the religious communities here, like “the recognition that art and worship, the invisible and the visible, that these things aren’t diametrically opposed. That they all fit together.”
Pastor Henley erchoed the sentiment: “Aesthetics and art are a part of the beauty God gives us.”
For decades to come, the incredible architecture of the area’s newest churches will speak to the value that Ketchum and Sun Valley put on beauty, particularly that of the natural world. Although an unmistakably mixed bag, St. Thomas Episcopal, Our Lady of the Snows and the Church of the Big Wood come together as three organic designs that celebrate the paradise in which their members live, play and worship.-Alec Barfield
CAME A TRIBE FROM THE NORTH
The Tradition of Vandal Architects in Sun Valley
Over a century ago, under the gloomy skies and rolling wheat fields of the northern Idaho Palouse, the state’s first and oldest university was built. In a style reminiscent of leafy East Coast campuses, architects laid sweeping lawns, brick-and-mortar clock towers, busting Gothic structures and stained-glass windows flanked in limestone. With a style that visually referenced tradition and time, they created a pastoral genius loci, or “sense of place,” that would shape the state, and its namesake college, for years to come.
Now overgrown with ivy and bustling with students, the University of Idaho has been continuing to grow on this foundation. The College of Art and Architecture program (CAA), established in 1920, has been consistently producing some of Sun Valley’s most talented and notable architects.
Local Vandal alumni include Jim McLaughlin of McLaughin & Associates Architects, Mark Pynn of Mark Pynn Architect LLC, Nick Latham, Buffalo Rixon and Michael Bulls of Ruscitto | Latham | Blanton Architectura (RLB), Michael Doty of Michael Doty Associates, Architects, and Mark de Reus of de Reus Architects.
Having won national awards and fellowships for their work in Sun Valley, these Idaho graduates are the brains behind many of our landmark buildings. With projects like the Sun Valley Pavilion, the Bald Mountain lodges, Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church, Whiskey Jacques, Moss Gardens and many award-winning residential homes, they have designed the spaces that have shaped our community, our identity and our landscape—in other words, our “sense of place”—for the last 40 years.
There are currently over 20 graduates from the University of Idaho’s CAA program living and practicing in the Wood River Valley, meaning Vandals comprise almost half of the architects registered with the Mountain Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
LEFT: The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architectural drawing of the Idaho House in East Fork by Mark Pynn. RIGHT: The striking steel “Idaho House” was designed by Mark Pynn.
“There is a strong community of Vandals here,” said Mark Pynn (Class of ’79), who was an important member of the foundation that rescued the CAA back in 2005 (after it had been absorbed into the College of Science and Letters) and is currently a member of the advisory council for the college.
“It’s a great design-oriented school,” he said, adding, “a college of art and architecture.” Based on the idea of theorists like Walter Benjamin, the program focuses on having no division among artistic disciplines.
CAA Dean Mark Hoversten explained, “We are unique in that we have programs of art and design, architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, virtual technology and design, graphic design, fine arts and information design all under one roof. It’s rare to have them as one integrated program, but we feel that each of these departments informs, and is informed by, the other.”
“It’s a great program that produces a lot of fine architects,” said Jim McLaughlin (Class of ’71). “It provided me with a well-rounded education that really prepared me for the field.” When he arrived in Sun Valley in the early ’70s, fresh from Moscow, Idaho, he was the first Vandal to start practicing architecture locally. Since then, he has brought in many U of I graduates to work for him, including 25-year employee Bernie Johnson.
Similarly, after Nick Latham (Class of ’73), a few years behind McLaughlin, established himself in Sun Valley, he brought up young Vandal bucks like Michael Bulls (Class of ’02), Buffalo Rixon (Class of ’93), and professional engineer Scott Heiner (Class of ’86), now all three are partners and/or principles at the firm. Both Bulls and Rixon credit Latham as “a huge mentor and influence.” And now they are showing the dormer-and-drip-molding ropes to architectural intern Mike Smith (Class of ’09). Only a few months from taking his test to become a licensed architect, Smith will complete a three-generation legacy of Vandals working at RLB.
“It was quite a shock stepping out of the academic environment and into the professional world of architecture. Academia and the professional practice are two very different animals,” explained John Rowland (Class of ’05) who works at de Reus Architects. But having U of I alumni like John McLaughlin and Mark de Reus (Class of ’77) to turn to for advice and support made all the difference. As John explained, “Having a close-knit community of peers is invaluable.”
There is an important element of mentorship among the Vandals of Sun Valley, between the inexperienced and the established architects, that keeps younger graduates rotating in—an element that is hard to find in larger firms in the city.
As Nicole Ramey (Class of ’06) of Michael Doty Associates explained, “I could have gone to work for a corporate firm in Boise. In fact, I did for a while. But I would have been swallowed up by such a huge conglomerate. I wouldn’t have had the freedom of experience or the working relationships I have here.”
Ramey first started her career as an intern for Michael Doty (Class of ’81), straight out of high school. She took a few years off to get her Masters of Architecture at U of I, and when she graduated, Doty hired her back. “He supported me the entire time. He’s been a great mentor and obviously a huge influence on my career,” she said.
When asked why he preferred to hire U of I grads, Doty explained, “There is a loyalty and camaraderie among Idaho students. I choose to hire them because I know the education system they went through—I went through it myself—and I know they will come out well-equipped and well-rounded.”
The main employment markets for U of I grads nowadays are Seattle, Portland, Boise and northern Idaho. But for such a small community, Sun Valley has a highly concentrated number of talented graduates-turned-architects.
McLaughlin, who was on the Idaho Licensing Board for 10 years, explained: “In the ’90s, we had 25% of the architects in the state—over 100 architects—living in our little community. I think we’ve lost a few over the years to the economic downturn, but the numbers are still up there.”
LEFT: Architectural drawing of the spectacular proscenium arch of the Sun Valley Pavilion. RIGHT: The Sun Valley Pavilion was designed by Ruscitto | Latham | Blanton Architectura.
Even with the housing market crash, architects in Sun Valley have “stuck together,” as Dean Hoversten stated. “The program at U of I is small enough that it creates a sense of allegiance,” he said, almost like a family. “It’s no wonder why many of our best graduates end up in Sun Valley. It’s a great place to work and a great place to live.”
Working on fascinating projects, with a sophisticated awareness of design and concept, these Idaho architects have created an aesthetically meaningful genius loci for our home in Sun Valley—a strong sense of place and community, at once traditional and contemporary, cultured and yet comfortable. And one that is still “keeping it in the family.”-Kate Elgee