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Alta Lodge: The Ultimate Ski Lodge

Published: 09/24/2017
By Everett Potter, Forbes — The coolest ski lodge in the US is a 78 year old building in Utah that resembles a 1940s prep-school dorm with a few added Bauhaus touches. Imagine cement-block walls, mid-century industrial Bertoia chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows with eye-popping views of the slopes. Then imagine that it’s booked solid for much of the ski season with Park Avenue families and well-heeled West Coasters who’ve been coming for generations.

It’s called the Alta Lodge, and it has the catbird seat at Alta Ski Area, famed for the 500 plus inches of powder that falls from the skies above the Wasatch every winter.

In the lobby, which feels like a well-used graduate-school lounge, guests are debating the finer points of foreign policy and reading print copies of The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal. Or they might be having a lively discussion with the adult grandchildren of someone they skied with in the 1960s. At the Alta Lodge, guests trace their mark on the place two, three or even four generations back.

“For many of our guests, this is their spiritual home,” says general manager Marcus Dippo, who’s married to Cassie Levitt, daughter of longtime owner Bill Levitt. He utters these words in dead earnest, and he’s on the mark. Eighty percent of the guests return each year, and friendships form and last over decades.

For many years, Ruth Rogers-Altmann—a Viennese-born painter and skiwear designer—would take up a residence for weeks at a time and the staff would transform her room into an art studio.  William F. Buckley, Jr. and economist Milton Friedman used to vacation there at the same time. Errol Flynn and Claudette Colbert used to visit back in the day, and Alfred Hitchcock used the lodge as a location in his film Spellbound. If you were here on a hot summer’s day in 1943, you might have spotted Vladimir Nabokov, his famed butterfly net in hand, exulting over his captures while staying at the rustic lodge.

There’s no electric pop or hip hop to greet you, no fashionably attired staff, no one bearing a welcome cocktail. Who needs that? You came for one reason, so just step outside onto the snow bank, click into your bindings and point 'em. You are now skiing Alta.

The origins of the lodge date to the late 1930s, when the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association (which later became the Alta Ski Lifts company) decided to develop Alta as a ski destination. They enticed the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad to build a lodge there, not long after the Union Pacific Railroad had developed a ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho. The railroad agreed, but then ran out of money.

That’s when James Laughlin—an heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune who founded the iconic New Directions publishing house—came up with $25,000 to finish construction. Laughlin became the Alta Lodge’s first owner, along with lift manager Fred Speyer, and the Alta Lodge opened on November 29, 1940. Later, it was Bill Levitt, a former union organizer and film maker, who had the greatest impact on the lodge, first visiting on a Thanksgiving weekend in the early 1950s and falling in love with the rustic, snowbound ski area.

“Bill used to come out from Manhattan so often that he said he should either buy American Airlines or the Alta Lodge,” Dippo says. The latter was a more realistic choice, and in 1959 Levitt bought out Laughlin’s interest. Levitt and his wife, Mimi Muray Levitt, fought hard to protect Alta from development and preserve its beauty for decades.

“Bill was the ultimate proprietor,” Dippo says. “He had great staff and great management, but he and Mimi were the stars of the show. Mimi has a photographic memory for guests and faces; she headed reservations and made sure that everyone’s special needs were remembered every year, when they returned. Way back before there were computers, there was Mimi.”

Levitt would add onto the 1940 structure three times, in 1963 and 1964, and most dramatically in 1968, with the addition of the so-called East Wing. Designed by architect John Sugden, who had studied under famed Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe, it brought mid-century modernism to Alta. To this day, the simple, dramatic walls of glass in these rooms allow a guest to feel as if they are literally standing on the mountain.

The Alta Lodge has grown from 12 guest rooms to 57, some with private balconies and even fireplaces. The luxury touches are humidifiers and boot dryers in the rooms—and high-speed wifi in a nod to the 21st century. The best feature of the original lodge is the Sitzmark Bar, a locals’ favorite for après ski, with a stone fireplace and mountain views. Ski package rates include breakfast and dinner.

Change comes slowly to the Alta Lodge. When they redecorated the beloved lobby a decade ago, Dippo admits they were afraid of a guest outcry (but it all went smoothly). More recently, they replaced the ancient rope tow that brings guests from the base area with “a poor man’s Poma,” as Dippo calls it. What won’t change is the welcome they extend, which Dippo says “is like the theme from Cheers, where everybody knows your name.”