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More than buildings?

As the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival and the Whistler Museum and Archives Society prepare to stage the second annual Icon Gone debate at Millennium Place on April 13, various Whistlerites share their views on what constitutes an icon in the

As the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival and the Whistler Museum and Archives Society prepare to stage the second annual Icon Gone debate at Millennium Place on April 13, various Whistlerites share their views on what constitutes an icon in the slick resort town. Are there any icons left? Are the old icons, if they still exist, worth saving? Are there any new icons to be proud of that reflect what Whistler has become?

Lisa Richardson, one of the organizers of the TWSSF, says the name of the contest was designed to provoke dialogue within the community.

“Whistler is a place, like the Lower Mainland, where land values are so high that there isn't a lot of room to protect built heritage,” she said. “There have been a lot of changes in the resort — anyone who has been around for more than three years starts to develop nostalgia for the way it used to be. But then the resort itself is so iconic on the world stage, and every new thing is being pitched as iconic, that there are constant new contenders for the title.”

Icon Gone is being promoted as “a verbal gladiator match” with a healthy dose of humour.

“The idea of the storytelling event was to let heritage become something live,” Richardson continued. “Something we gather around the bar to shoot the breeze about, as opposed to something we somberly walk through dank trailers to explore.”

With Whistler’s history as a ski resort only 40 years old, the museum hopes events like Icon Gone will encourage both long-time residents and relative newcomers to share their stories.

“The Museum wanted an opportunity to connect with people who don't typically think that Whistler history has any relevance to them,” Richardson explained. “(The Museum wanted) people to realize that the experiences they are having right now will, at some future point, be part of that collective heritage.”

G.D. Maxwell is game for another round of verbal sparring as one of the contest’s returning participants.

“Personally, I'd like to see it evolve (devolve?) into a more raucous evening where people stomp and whistle and throw fruit to show their support or opposition to the various presentations/presenters,” said the Whistler writer.   “What's more fun than arguing whether naked hippies/jocks are more iconic than Whistler Peak?”

Heather Paul, who has resided in Whistler for ten years, likens the Icon Gone event as “the Pique letters section in the context of entertainment”.

“Everyone is so passionate about this town,” Paul said. “Whether the subject is municipal taxes, or what your neighbours are doing with their garbage, everyone has an opinion. For me, those strong opinions and that passion are iconic to Whistler.” Paul is participating in this year’s debate but is keeping her choice of icon for the verbal slug-fest close to her vest.

“I do think there are icons left in Whistler.”

Colin Pitt-Taylor, Whistler resident since 1971 and owner and operator of Riverside Junction Café in Spring Creek, thinks Hugh Smyth is Whistler’s greatest icon.

“He’s unpretentious,” said Pitt-Taylor. “He went from ski patroller to being in charge of all mountain resorts for Intrawest. He has been in Whistler for a lot of years and really shaped the resort. The reason we are all here is to ski and some people lose sight of that. Hugh never has.”

Pitt-Taylor arrived in Whistler for “a look around” in his early twenties and decided to stay after experiencing a ski season of epic proportions. Is he one of those Whistlerites who yearn for “the old days” when the resort was relatively undeveloped?

Pitt-Taylor is matter of fact when faced with the question. “Whistler became what it was meant to become,” he said. “It has great ski conditions. Word got out. It was inevitable.”

Michele Bush, a Whistler resident for 26 years, feels the icons in Whistler are centred around Alta Lake. “That’s where it all started,” said Bush, referring to the valley’s Myrtle Philip years when it was primarily a summer destination — before Franz Wilhelmsen and other investors opened Whistler Mountain. Bush thinks Whistler’s greatest icon is “the party barge”, an old dock on Alta Lake owned by Roger Moxley and “co-captain” Dave Galt, which was fitted with an old outboard motor enabling the craft to “go about two kilometres an hour,” she said. The barge is still in operation, picking up people along the docks of Alta Lake in the summer months, and has been the site of many parties over the past 35 years – complete with compulsory “upholstered outdoor furniture”.

Bush’s icons all happen to be “water and lake related” and include the Edgewater Lodge, the Youth Hostel on Westside Road, and Alta Lake itself.

While the physical icons remain, Bush is unhappy with other changes that have taken place in Whistler over the years.

“Not seeing other locals every day is sad,” she said. Bush attributes the change to the day “the town got two liquor stores. It really split up the community,” she said, half-jokingly.

Ornulf Johnsen ran the Ski School when Whistler first opened in the winter season of 1965-66. He also started the first summer ski camp in the summer of 1966 and has skied at the resort every year since. Looking to the future at the potential of new Whistler buildings to perhaps become iconic, Johnsen admires the new Nita Lake Lodge. “It’s very impressive in terms of setting, its classic lines and attention to detail. It is very photogenic,” he said.

Mark Beaven, a Whistler resident of 20 years, considers the Peak Chair on Whistler Mountain to be the resort's greatest icon. When the chair first opened “it was a huge thrill,” said Beaven. “To be able to access that part of the mountain was incredible. It really changed skiing up there.”

“To me, the Whistler peak is a lasting icon, corny as it sounds,” said long-time Whistler resident Sara Leach. “Every time I look at the view of West Bowl from my window, I think of the "Big old softie" posters and imagine it smiling down on me. So yes, I do think there are icons left in Whistler. Even as we tear down the old buildings, this town is still about being outside, and revelling in this magnificent place, and the mountains still stand as icons to remind us of that.”

Many have lamented the loss of the Boot Pub and the old Roundhouse, but some believe the resort is developing new icons, such as the new Whistler Public Library building that opened in January.

“I hope the new library will become an icon,” said Leach. “I think that will depend less upon the building itself as what happens inside it.”

Maxwell is indifferent to the iconic potential of the new facility. “I'll be happy if the library is simply a good library. So far the jury's out. It's an expensive building, a larger building, a functional building... but it ain't gonna win any design awards unless we get a small herd of goats to tend the green roof. If we do that, people will be snapping more Kodaks of the library than of Whistler and Blackcomb combined. That might make it iconic... but it'd smell like goats.”

“There is nothing wrong with nostalgia”

Leslie Anthony, editor of SBC Skier magazine, and a Whistler resident of nine years, thinks Whistler is suffering from “a loss of history.”

“The idea that history is erased here is an unfortunate reality,” he said, adding that the changes have accelerated since Vancouver and Whistler won the 2010 Olympic bid.

As far as physical icons go, Anthony laments the demolition of the Boot Pub.

“And it won’t be long before the South Side Diner is gone too,” he said. “At least with Dusty’s there is a semblance of the old bar. They have got old photos up on the wall and they made an effort to keep elements of the past. Updating an establishment is very different from bulldozing an old place. Paving over the whole area where The Boot was is unfortunate. There will never be a bar like that here again.

“When you go to a ski resort in Europe, there is a mix of the old and the new, because there is not a big scramble for real estate like there is here. Some of the establishments over there are legendary. They become the stuff of legend and fable. They become woven into the character of the resort. You hear about them. You read about them. Then when you actually get there, you can still visit them. These are family-run places that have been around for a hundred years, fifty years. In Whistler you can read about a place or hear about a bar, and by the time you actually get here, it’s gone. And it hasn’t necessarily been replaced by anything better.

“People are here for a few days or a week and they won’t see any of the old Whistler,” Anthony continued. “They are here to have a good time, and there is nothing wrong with that. But it is a sad fact that there is no mind for preservation here.”

Preserve the rickety cabins of the seventies in Alpine Meadows or the Southside Diner? Some people are not nostalgic for Whistler’s early hangouts and homes.

“I don't imagine Whistler will ever produce an iconic building,” said Maxwell. “That’s not a bad thing. Iconic buildings have their place. Their place is in cities. An iconic building in Whistler would seem as out of place as three feet of snow in Barcelona. We have iconic mountains, iconic forests, and, for most of the rest of the world, iconic lifestyles. Don’t lose sight of what outliers we are, those of us who live here. This is one weird place.That having been said, I'd like to see the word 'iconic' banned. It’s in danger of becoming as meaningless as ‘sustainability’.

“I don't think Icon Gone is about old buildings,” Maxwell continued. “Whistler has never produced a building worth preserving, with the possible exception of the mushroom house. That's a good thing because the overall quality of construction around here means we’d soon become a town of preservationists.”

For Pemberton photographer Dave Steers, Whistler’s early buildings do have sentimental value and obviously hold many memories for those who have called the valley home for a few decades. Iconic Whistler buildings to Steers include Hoz’s Pub (which used to be JB’s) the Rim Rock in the Highland Lodge, and finally, the pro patroller/volunteer house in Creekside.

Buildings aside, Anthony also feels that “your basic average ski bum” deserves iconic status in this valley. “Some history will always be preserved,” he said. “Rob Boyd winning the gold medal in the World Cup. The early history is fairly well documented. But there is a middle ground that hasn't been.”

Anthony is referring to what he calls “the zero heroes”; the personalities that carried the torch from the early pioneers who laid down the original groundwork. They “are the essence of why this place became anything,” he said.

“They were here for the simplest of reasons: not to make a fortune, but to ski, to live somewhere inspiring. There was not a lot of emphasis on developmental mania.

“The bigger this place gets, the more dilute that community becomes,” added Anthony. “I have been coming to Whistler long before I moved here, for work, etcetera and I always knew who the players and personalities were. It was a network that I could tap into, always. In many ways, Whistler exists because of that itinerant population. They are faced with a lot more difficulties with affordability and housing. Since I moved here, that community has fissioned into a thousand pieces. They have moved to Pemberton or Squamish. There was a critical mass of that group in the late 90s. I only moved here nine years ago and since then I don’t recognize the Whistler I moved to.”

Like Whistler architecture, Maxwell is not sentimental about the ever-changing resort population. “If anything, Whistler is all about moving on,” he said. “The ebb and flow of people through town is constant. The focus is always on the present (Is it snowing?) and the future (Will it snow?). We hardly have a past to celebrate; we can certainly give it a few hours once a year.”

“There are always going to be people who complain (about the constant change in the resort),” said Steers, who arrived in Whistler from Ontario in 1976.

“People thought that five hundred people living in Whistler was way too crowded and busy. It’s all relative.” Back then Whistler village “wasn’t even a dream” so what could these people be complaining about?

Steers said many of these disgruntled Whistler residents made their way to the Okanagan “to become fruit farmers” after declaring that Whistler was becoming “too crowded and commercialised” back in the mid-1970s.

Are the people who lament the past not embracing the new reality that is Whistler? “There is nothing wrong with nostalgia,” he said.

“The people who were in Whistler during those early years experienced something extraordinary,” Steers said. “It was way too good to last.”