The Alta Lodge
At the Alta Lodge, guests can become part of a larger family and often trace their mark on the place two, three or even four generations back
By Everett Potter
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Alta Lodge in Utah, which just celebrated its 75th birthday, is unlike any other ski hotel in the world. It resembles a 1940s prep-school dorm with Bauhaus touches—cement-block walls, mid-century industrial Bertoia chairs — but also has floor-to-ceiling windows with eye-popping views of the slopes.
There’s no blaring music or fashionably attired staff. It is friendly, relaxed and decidedly untrendy. If you want action, just step outside and click into your bindings: You are now skiing Alta.
In the lobby, which feels like a comfortable graduate-school lounge, guests may be 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 can become part of a larger family and often 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. Listen to the conversations in the lobby or the dining room – the litany of births, deaths, divorces and delights shared among people of a certain age — and it’s clear that they’re among friends, even if they see these “friends” for just one week a year, every year, for decades.
It is a remarkable place. The origins of the lodge date to the late 1930’s, 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 and championed Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Samuel Beckett—came up with $25,000 to finish construction. Laughlin was brought into the project by his friends Dick and Miggs Durrance, who were overseeing the concurrent development of the ski slopes. Laughlin became the Alta Lodge’s first owner, along with lift manager Fred Speyer.
The Alta Lodge opened on November 29, 1940—“according to Alan Engen,” says Dippo. He’s referring to the former Alta skiing director and son of the legendary Alf Engen, who established the ski school there. “But it was officially dedicated on December 14, 1940. There’s a record of a special permit issued to Alta Winter Sports Inc. in August 1940 to build the lodge, which would have made it a speedy building project.”
In 1958, Chic Morton bought out Speyer. Morton had started working at the lodge as a bartender in the 1940s and ended up becoming the manager. He held that job until 1964, when he became manager of the Alta Ski Lift Company.
Over the years, it was Bill Levitt who had the greatest impact on the lodge.
Born in Brooklyn, Levitt came of age in the Depression and had several careers. He was first a union organizer for United Auto Workers, working with Walter Reuther. He joined the Army during WWII but when he returned from service, he couldn’t get his old job back. He ended up doing documentary film work with his sister, the celebrated American photographer Helen Levitt, and his soon-to-be second wife, Janice Loeb, a member of the Loeb banking family of New York. Both skiers, they first visited Alta on a Thanksgiving weekend in the early 1950s and fell in love with the rustic, snowbound ski area.
Bill and Janice were married shortly after that, and although they lived in Manhattan, they continued to visit Alta and built a house there in 1956. Levitt got to know Jay Laughlin and Dippo says the pair were like-minded in their love for Alta and the lodge.
“The joke he used to tell,” Dippo recalls, “was that he came out so often, he should either buy American Airlines or the Alta Lodge.”
The latter was his realistic choice, and in 1959 Levitt bought out Laughlin’s interest—using the financial clout of Janice’s family to secure a loan. He bought out Morton in 1969.
Levitt, who married his third wife, Mimi Muray Levitt, in 1982, fought hard to protect Alta from development and preserve its beauty. He served as town mayor for 34 years, from 1971 to 2005, the longest-serving consecutive mayor in the history of the state. He served on numerous regional committees and in 1981, with Mimi, founded the Alta Defense Fund (now Friends of Alta). Levitt died in the lodge’s dining room in December 2009 at the age of 92. Mimi remains part of the family partnership that continues to own the lodge.
“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 Club, a locals’ favorite for après ski, with a stone fireplace and mountain views. Eighty percent of those guests return each year, and friendships form and last over decades.
For many years, until her death two years ago, 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, 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 his publisher Laughlin’s rustic lodge.
Change comes slowly to the Alta Lodge. When they redecorated the beloved lobby seven years ago, Dippo admits they were afraid of a guest outcry (but it all went smoothly). Last winter, 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.”
The Alta Lodge, Alta, UT