Phoenix Rising: The Town Hill

Four years ago, The New York Times chronicled the uncertain future of Snow King Resort under the ominous headline, “In the Shadow of Grand Resorts, a Town Hill Struggles.”

The article told of the Town Hill’s history as the first ski area in Wyoming and one of the oldest in the nation. “The ski slope that rises up the mountain just off downtown, called Snow King, dates from the 1930s, when this corner of the West all but folded up in winter, isolated and dark, and local people needed something to do,” wrote Times reporter Kirk Johnson. Snow King has long been loved by locals for the runs its close proximity to downtown allows them to sneak in before work, during lunch, and after hours.

“‘It was never meant to make money,’ said Bill Ashley, 89, [in the Times article] who owned and ran the Snow King ski school for many years and met his wife, Mary, at the top of the mountain in the early 1950s. “‘It was meant to be for the town.’”

“For the town” remains the motto of the resort, even now under new ownership. When the Timesarticle was published, the long-time owners of Snow King had quietly put the resort up for sale because the math just didn’t add up: With less than 400 acres of steep, skiable terrain (miniscule by modern resort standards), Snow King operated at a $800,000 winter deficit, a loss partially recovered by steady year-round convention and hotel business and popular summer activities like the alpine slide. After several years on the market and much civic discussion, Jackson resident Max Chapman took over as Snow King President last November. His goal: To create a ski hill that serves locals but also holds its own against other first-class resorts in the region and beyond.

Snow King’s phoenix rising can be felt on any given summer day as the base buzzes with activity. From the weekly Wednesday People’s Market to the periodic free concert series JacksonHoleLive!, from the intrepid hikers crisscrossing its steep slopes to the revolving door of athletic competitions, Snow King plays host to a panoply of activities open to locals and visitors alike.

In addition to cultivating the resort as a community hub, the new Snow King leaders are busy redeveloping. Phase one improvements include the brand new Rafferty lift, the under-construction ropes course, and – coming very soon – the Mountain Coaster. Boasting Teton views and corkscrew loops, the rollercoaster will race through the forest along 3,000 feet of fixed track. Having raised nearly $20 million from investors, Snow King has currently focused on beefing up profitable summer operations so as to grow winter activities in the future. To underscore Snow King’s summer potential, approximately 70,000 people ride the alpine slide each summer compared with 40,000 skier days. That said, Snow King remains committed to winter having installed new lighting and snowmaking machines last winter to allow for early-season race training. Beyond servicing the alpine slide, the new Rafferty lift will provide access to two new intermediate ski runs. And a new base lodge will boast a restaurant and bar.

The recently-revealed yet years-off phase two includes a gondola, a summit restaurant, lift-accessed mountain bike trails, a summit-to-base zip line and a boundary expansion that would make the resort two-thirds larger (from 370 acres to 614). “The vision is to make Snow King a world-class mountain resort right here in Jackson Hole,” Chapman said in a June 17 feature in the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “We’re really trying to build a whole new Snow King.”

Back in 2011, Kirk Johnson questioned the future of tiny resorts like Snow King: “What place do ski hills like Snow King have in the modern world?” he wrote. “What are they worth to a community or an economy? Has the chemistry between town and town hill been changed by tough times?”

Johnson’s rhetorical questions can now be answered in the affirmative. The chemistry between Jackson Hole and Snow King has indeed changed with tough times, but not in the way Johnson may have imagined. Instead of diminishing in importance, the bond between the Town of Jackson and its Town Hill has only grown stronger.


WRJ Design: Aesthetic Immersion

After cultivating careers in London and New York, Rush Jenkins and Klaus Baer chose to root their lives and their firm, WRJ Design, in this rare landscape. Now profoundly inspired by place, they channel their experience with the sublime into every home they design.

From their roost in Wyoming, Rush and Klaus remain connected to international currents through exhibition design for Sotheby’s, private commissions and international sourcing trips. Boundlessly curious, they immerse themselves simultaneously in nature and the traditions of art, architecture, antiques and design. Whether hiking or traveling, the acclaimed designers translate their interactions with beauty into interiors as inspired as they are individual.

Befitting their global orientation, Rush took time from touring Italy to sketch his unique trajectory from Sotheby’s to the Tetons.

What is the history of WRJ’s relationship with Sotheby’s?

I studied fine art with Sotheby’s in London. While in London, I worked in Sotheby’s European furniture department and they introduced me to Sotheby’s in New York, where I worked in business development of European furniture for a year before becoming the Director of Design – a role that came about because my boss in New York was in charge of pitching new sales and placing artwork throughout the building. While doing a significant amount of the internal installation work, I recognized a need for someone to fill that role full-time. As Director of Design, I essentially designed all of the exhibits for Sotheby’s single-owner sales. After a year and a half, I opened my own firm and Sotheby’s became my client. All told, I’ve designed more than 40 exhibits for Sotheby’s. My relationship with Sotheby’s also led to work outside the auction house, most notably the exhibition I did for First Lady Nancy Reagan at the Reagan Library featuring Mrs. Reagan and her fashion aesthetic. Highlights of my tenure with Sotheby’s include: Kennedy Family Homes, Brooke Astor, Bill Blass, Mrs. Paul Mellon, Mrs. Jane Wrightsman, Laurance Rockefeller, Katharine Hepburn and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” which sold for a record-breaking price.

What inspires your exhibition designs? How do you get inspired? 

For us, every collection is different and what we design reflects the unique character of that collection and the family or individual who cultivated it. We try and pull out the core elements of each collection. For instance, for Mrs. Mellon, the core of her collection was her gardens; her passion for horticulture could be seen in everything she collected from jewelry to paintings. In designing the exhibition for her collection, we identified two key sites on her beloved Virginia estate: an espalier connecting the house to a gardening pavilion and the potting shed itself with its astounding trompe l’oeil wall paintings. By recreating both places within the exhibition, we created an experience of beauty that unfolded piece by piece. The importance of design is to create something that is compelling and intriguing. An exhibition should unfold like a story, with a sense of discovery present at every turn.

How does experience with exhibition design inform your interior design projects? 

Through my work with Sotheby’s, I have developed an innate understanding of art, antiques, objects, sculpture and porcelain. I know how objects relate in space and the placement of pieces in interiors. The essence of an exhibition is the architecture; you must get the architecture of the space right and only then can you suitably showcase pieces. The architecture of Brooke Astor’s home was very different than the Mellon estate. We try and create a sequence of rooms that reflects back to the original collection. We do the same in our interiors: We understand the architecture and how rooms flow into each other. We understand the proportion of the room and the proportion of objects and furniture in relation to the space. We understand balance, volume, space and harmony, and how it all comes together. And then we layer in other elements: color, texture, historical significance, artwork. The latter is crucial to our expertise: through Sotheby’s, we have probably placed or directed the placement of more than 40,000 works of art. We understand how everything works together to achieve harmony.

Whether approaching an exhibition or a residence, we embrace the challenge of articulating the aesthetic particular to that person, place or family. No two exhibitions are the same, just as no two clients are the same. Everyone has a different sense of harmony and balance and beauty. We know we have done a good job when we hear people saying, “This feels like the home of Bunny Mellon or Bill Blass.” That’s when we know we have succeeded with an exhibition. A home presents a different paradigm for success: We strive to express our client’s layered lives through their environments, and we know we have achieved that when they see their personal history and lifestyle reflected all around them. It’s one thing to recreate the spirit of someone’s collection in a fresh way, but quite another to capture the dynamism of a life as its being lived. We rise to the honor of both design challenges.


Made in the U.S.A: A Pair of Creative Entrepreneurs

Christian Burch and John Frechette are the JH archetype of creative entrepreneurship. Both changed the course of their careers by launching retail venture at once inspired and integral to the community. MADE and Mountain Dandy attest to their pairing of vision and dedication.

John moved from the East Coast to Jackson in 2007 to be the sales manager for a real estate development south of Town. Always artistic, he took a fused glass class at the Art Association – a lark that he loved (little did he know glass art would become his mainstay). After transitioning away from the luxury development in 2009, John embraced the opportunity to try something new. “I had to reinvent my life in order to stay here,” he said. Inspired by his art class experience, he launched Strapped Glass, a line of fused glass belt buckles and jewelry. He honed his retail pitch over the course of a summer selling his wares at art fairs; by September, when a hallway space opened up in the Broadway Shops in September 2009, he could quickly pull together a one-month pop-up shop. A banner success, the pop-up inspired John to search for a permanent roost.

That spring, while road tripping with Christian, John got a call saying his ideal space in Gaslight Alley could be his if he said yes on the spot. So he did. Since the call found the pair in Las Vegas, they rented a U-Haul and converted their drive home into a buying trip for store fixtures. Christian, a published author, high school literature teacher and valley bastion of style, shaped the new store’s aesthetic. On the drive, John called artists he’d met at as peers at fairs and gift shows, and asked for any product they had on hand. “’What can you send me in three weeks?’” John remembers pitching. He signed the lease on April 1st, got the space May 1st and opened six days later. “It was a whirlwind,” Christian said.

MADE’s tornado start was grounded by John’s conviction in the concept of showcasing handmade, repurposed and found objects. “MADE came out of ideas we cared about and things we loved,” he said. Immersed in the Maker Movement, John recognized an open niche for artist-made gifts tailored to Wyoming, appealing to both locals and tourists.

MADE’s early days were a training ground, a learning experience supported by other small business owners in Jackson. “We were piecing it together,” he says. “I borrowed a cash drawer from Lily & Co.” Lee Gardner of Lee’s Tees served as a “part-cheerleader, part-mentor.” Much of Lee’s early advice has become standard operating procedures at MADE and Mountain Dandy, like abiding by stated retail hours and staying open in the off-season. “It’s important for locals to be able to buy a birthday card every day of the year,” John said.

Invaluable advice also came from John’s dad:

“You can’t sell it if you don’t have it,” – as in always be well-stocked and spend money to make money.

John’s willingness to jump at opportunities is a hallmark not only of his start but also his success. “All of our stores have been shotgun starts,” he said. Two winters ago, Hotel Terra approached him with the prospect of filling the Teton Village void of a vibrant gift shop. A small margin of risk, John agreed to create a MADE outpost in the eco-resort. “It acts like a big billboard for the town shops,” John said.

When Shayne decided to shutter her skin care shop across the alleyway in Fall 2013, John and Christian saw their chance to launch a more refined men’s store. Locking down the lease within five days of Shayne’s announcement, they staged a Stocking Bar in December and then renovated the space in the spring to make way for Mountain Dandy. Small retail spaces are hard to come by downtown, John said. “We didn’t have the leeway to deliberate.”

The concept for Mountain Dandy grew out of the John and Christian’s domestic aesthetic: when people step inside their home, they often coo, “This is cool!” Related to MADE but not identical, Mountain Dandy continues the American-made theme with a focus on goods for gentlemen. Items deemed too luxe for MADE now define Mountain Dandy. Eclectic vintage pieces are central to the concept.

To minimize risk, John and Christian do not borrow money to begin their ventures, instead sourcing within their means. John describes early MADE as “bootstrap,” a cost-consciousness that synced with the capacity of his American artists; he’d buy tiny amounts, which is often all the artists had available. “American makers understand what we are trying to do,” he said.

Beyond the wares they sell, John and Christian have become concierges. “People often say, ‘We love your shop, what else will we love?’” Christian said. By greeting everyone who walks in the door, they create a friendly ambiance conducive to conversation. When John and Christian reflect on their four years in business, they see the enduring imprint of the JH brand.

“When people fall in love with Jackson Hole, they want to take a piece of it home with them,” says John.

MADE and Mountain Dandy stock souvenirs that remind visitors of their unforgettable experiences in the valley, and their booming web business speaks to the breadth and depth of Jackson Hole’s reputation: orders come from all over the world.

Each business builds upon the accumulated knowledge base. Mountain Dandy’s strong sales of vintage furniture was made possible by the expertise they gained shipping all sorts of things at MADE. “If people fall in love with something, they figure out a way to get it home,” John said. “We didn’t know how to ship leather armchairs to LA, but now we do.”

Having grown so quickly, John is keen to focus the near future on bolstering their internal infrastructure. That said, they are always scheming new concepts, whether replicating MADE and Mountain Dandy in other mountain communities or small cities, or nurturing new projects as design consultants (they helped outfit Persephone Boulangerie and Café). To have achieved so much in less than five years speaks to the valley’s embrace of budding entrepreneurs. “This town is incredibly supportive of small, local businesses,” John said.

John Frechette [Left] and Christian Burch [Right] are the entrepreneurs behind MADE and Mountain Dandy.

John Frechette [Left] and Christian Burch [Right] are the entrepreneurs behind MADE and Mountain Dandy.

Reimagining High Country Gastronomy: Gavin Fine

One of the key elements of fine dining is plating. How the food is presented to the diners plays an integral role in setting the atmosphere and character of the restaurant. Through the skill of the chef, the plate will ideally highlight star ingredients and balance colors and textures. He or she also must ensure that the dish fully embodies the spirit of the restaurant and manages to encourage diners to return.

Gavin Fine, the gastronomic mastermind behind Fine Dining Group in Jackson Hole, understands plating on an entirely different level. In partnership with culinary savant and Snake River Grill founding Executive Chef, Roger Freedman, Gavin and Roger’s restaurants have been established as the most characteristic and consistently balanced restaurants in the valley.

The triumphant 2001 opening of their first restaurant, Rendezvous Bistro, encouraged a trend of Jackson Hole restaurants that served high-quality, comforting American bistro fare in an unpretentious atmosphere. Since then, Fine Dining Restaurant Group’s establishments have become synonymous with quality, value, comfort, and innovation.

“Back when we started Jackson needed options… It still does,”
Gavin says. “We try to find and provide the dining experiences that
Jackson needs.”

Building on the instant success of “The Bistro”, Gavin and Roger went on to create the Fine Dining Restaurant Group, including Bistro Catering (2003), the Q Roadhouse & Brewing Co. (2006), Il Villaggio Osteria (2008), The Kitchen (2011), Park City’s Silver (2011), Bin22 (2012), and most recently Bodega in Teton Village. The carefully crafted menus emphasize simplicity, authenticity and the utilization of seasonal flavors and ingredients.  If each of his restaurants were presented on a single plate, Fine Dining’s ability to balance aesthetics, highlight worldly cuisines, and sustain consistency and exceptional service illustrates that they are culinary artists as well as a restaurateurs.

“Finding and working with great people is the key,” Gavin says. “I try to create a culture where everyone is excited to come to work.”

Sure enough, if Gavin walks in the room, his employees light up. This love and respect for the man and his restaurant is showcased the moment diners walk through the door to the moment they wipe the sides of their mouths.

“Eating is the most intimate thing we do in public,” Gavin says. Luckily, diners at Fine Dining Restaurant Group restaurants can be comforted by the fact that this comforting level of intimacy is only one of the elements that have been strategically placed to ensure a unique, incomparable dining experience.