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Sun Valley Visitor Center Wins on Design & Serves Coffee Too

North American ski towns take note: Sun Valley's Visitor Center is cooler than the one in your town. Why, you ask? Working with Ketchum architect Susan Desko, the local marketing alliance Visit Sun Valley transformed a decaying, vacant bank building into an award-winning piece of architecture and visitor center, all on a shoe-string budget. Curbed Ski has the details and a cup of joe, to boot.

Before its renovation in 2011, the existing building was dated to say the least. Tacky stone work and gaudy red trim made for quite the eye-sore in the center of downtown Ketchum. Local officials knew the building needed an upgrade, but had a "painfully small budget." Luckily, architect Susan Desko offered to work for Visit Sun Valley on a pro bono basis and even helped raise funds to complete the project.

Desko worked miracles with local materials, including reclaimed and "deadfall" logs. Gone went the tacky stone exterior and in its place visitors are now greeted by steeled-framed panels of stacked wood, an ingenious (and cheap!) way to capture the mountain-town spirit. She added massive wood totems at the entrance to provide visual interest, and incorporated interior totems to the original wooden rafters. Well-made wooden tables, countertops, and benches round-out the timber-heavy design, freshening up the previously uninspired space.

Perhaps the coolest element of the redesign honors Sun Valley's most famous part time resident, Ernest Hemingway. The Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1939 and 1940 in Sun Valley and is even buried in the town cemetery. Desko transformed the old bank vault into a hip meeting space, displaying larger than life photos of the author, all centered around a modern glass table with tree stumps as seating.

Throw in some multimedia technology, including iPads and video screens, and Sun Valley had itself a serious visitor's center. Because the town also wanted the building to be a gathering spot for locals and tourists alike (not the deserted space of so many other visitor centers), they integrated a Starbucks coffee shop into the plans. Curbed Ski isn't the biggest fan of Starbucks (we much prefer these local ski town coffee purveyors), but this just might be the coolest Starbucks we've ever encountered. Not only do they sell beer and wine (score!), but there is also free Wifi and plenty of comfy seating.

The new visitor center won abundant local praise when it debuted in November 2011, but Desko and company hit the jackpot when they got word almost a year later that the Sun Valley Visitor Center project was the recipient of the highly prestigious American Architecture Awards for 2012.

So let's review. A budget redesign reinvigorates a vacant building, uses local materials, honors a ski town's storied history, creates a community gathering space, and then wins an international architecture award? Well done, Sun Valley, well done.


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