Home & Design September 11, 2008

Taming the Wild

Why the Wood River Valley is One Big Public Space.

If you were to take the bike path south toward Hailey on a sunny summer day from either the city of Ketchum or the Sun Valley Lodge, you would notice that the bike path, in a way, is a microcosm of the area, because its purpose will meet whatever expectations anyone places upon it.

You would come across pedestrians either walking, or taking a break from it by resting on the nearby benches. You would see cyclists, both the leisurely kind, soft peddling nowhere in particular, and the serious kind, swerving in and out of human (and often, canine) traffic on their daily exercise routines.

Cross the wood-planked bridges and see the swimmers jump into the river below. And if you move slowly enough, you can watch the pollinators go from flower to flower and back again.

If you disembark, and park your bike at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center, you’ll find at the building’s south end a small and well-maintained garden, built as a tribute to the memory of Lynne Cohen, who died 10 years ago, at the age of 54, from ovarian cancer.

According to Hilary Furlong, St. Luke’s executive director for the Wood River Foundation, Cohen was a longtime, part-time resident who loved living in this area. A few years after she passed away, her family and the foundation’s board of directors came together to landscape a garden, at the center of which is a labyrinth, patterned in a circle of gray and red pavers. A nearby sign explains that if you enter the labyrinth seeking insight about yourself or a loved one, you’ll emerge from it with some idea of recourse.

Philanthropy like this, Furlong says, does two things at the same time: it enriches and nourishes patients and their friends and families, while allowing the hospital to focus on the more immediate needs of the patients.

Gallery DeNovo, “Kind Met Handaan Gezicht”, 2007, Sjer Jacobs, Netherlands.


Across the highway and a little farther south there’s another memorial garden nestled in downtown Hailey, a couple of blocks off Main Street at the corner of Second and Croy. Jimmy’s Garden opened to the public on the Fourth of July, 2007, and has since become a favorite place, especially among children, to take in the shade or to run through the fountain.

For 25 years, Jimmy Gelskey used to live in a house at that corner, as did his mother, Ruby. Gelskey was a master gardener, an iconoclast, and a self-described “old hippie.”

A few years ago, when Gelskey was still alive, he welcomed his new next-door neighbors, the Pilaros, who’d just moved from Oakland, California. When Phoebe Pilaro, a yoga instructor, told Gelskey that she and her husband, Chris, a photographer and documentary filmmaker, were “expecting,” he was excited for them. As Gelskey’s girlfriend, Premrup, told Phoebe, “Although Jimmy never had any biological children, he was a force to be reckoned with in many children’s lives. He helped a few grow up who still resist that, and he loved a whole lot more.”

But only months after the Pilaros moved in, and just as they were getting to know their neighbors, Gelskey suddenly and unexpectedly died. He was only in his mid-50s.

After a period of mourning, the Pilaros and Gelskey’s family came to an agreement that they would purchase his lot, turning part of it into a public park. >>>



It wasn’t long before the Pilaros raised enough funds, through letters to the community and by cold-calling local businesses, to pay for half the park’s costs. The city of Hailey agreed to pay the other half, as well as maintenance fees, which meant installing plants, flowers, benches and grass, and building an interactive water fountain.

“There’s noise here, but it’s all happy sounds,” Pilaro says. “It gives kids a place to cool off in the water on hot days; the only other places in Hailey are the public pool or the river.

Jimmy’s Garden in Hailey is a park that grew out of an “old hippie’s” love for children.


“I think parks in general give people a feeling that they live in a nice town where they have places to go. It enhances the quality of life. Instead of having a town full of strip malls using every available space, some space has been set aside for pure enjoyment.”

And while it helps to dedicate a space to someone’s memory, whether through raising funds for a project, or determining how that project will look, many public spaces are designed and funded with the nourishment of the general public in mind.

“Giving money is a very private thing for many donors,” says Hallie Kelly, a development associate for the Wood River YMCA. One thing that makes the Y unique, she says, is that major donors can direct exactly how they want their money spent.

When the building finally opened, the Y wasn’t just a gym, but had an office space, a sound studio, a video editing studio and several learning centers designated for children of various ages. For instance, the donor of the Y’s toddler room directed that all materials used in building and finishing that room, including the air, be non-toxic and clean, right down to the shiny paint. 

“It gets a person involved in the process and that allows them to take ownership of it and remain invested in it,” Kelly says of the donor’s dedication. “It also brings in different ideas. Hearing different suggestions and ideas makes the Y a more interesting space.

“It isn’t just a gym, it’s a place where people can sit and talk. It’s a community space,” Kelly says. While it is often difficult for communities to provide minors with activities that aren’t just productive, but activities in which they’ll want to participate, she says, the same can be said of adults. For some, after dinner and maybe a movie, the last place left to meet is the watering hole.

“There aren’t that many places for adults, either, so it’s important for this community to have a space like this,” Kelly says. >>>



Yet, perhaps the greatest of all public spaces, the most democratic, are those civic spaces in which we gather for commerce, to dine, to meet up and to simply stroll.

Ben Young, a local landscape architect, says his favorite public places are not planned by government or committee, but are ones that change spontaneously and daily. Since people seem to gravitate toward food and refreshments, Young says, he enjoys hanging out in front of Tully’s or the hill where Irving’s hot dog stand is located at the corner of Fourth and Main streets.

“The Irving’s lot is inviting to me in that it provides the best place in town to view what is going on without having to be out in it,” he says. “People-watching and feeling involved is key for urban open spaces.”

It’s possible that nowhere are those ideas more evident than on the newly-refurbished Fourth Street in downtown Ketchum.

Architect Royce Milaskey served on a team that envisioned Harriman Square, at Fourth and Leadville, as the town’s center, which would feature a large sundial that cast a shadow across the intersection.


There has been talk about doing something with what’s now the Fourth Street “Heritage” Corridor for at least 15 years. Ketchum has been playing catch-up; in essence, planning a downtown that slowly and leisurely sprang up over time without much of a solid plan at all. But in two years, through grants and financial support from the Ketchum City Council and its master plan, the Downtown Design Committee, an arm of the city’s Community Development Corporation (CDC), has been able to rejuvenate four full blocks of Fourth Street with rotating sculptures, benches, bike racks, trash receptacles, streetlights, public restrooms, a safer bike path and sidewalks that swell at the corners, making walking and street-crossing easier for pedestrians and cyclists.

Still, even though some hail the project as a continuing success (there are still many blocks to spruce up), the complaints have seemed as legion as the praises, from lack of parking to fiscal irresponsibility by elected officials.

And some concerns were accommodated. Architect Royce Milaskey served on a team that envisioned Harriman Square, at Fourth and Leadville, as the town’s center, which would feature a large sundial that cast a shadow across the intersection.

While the project remained unfinished for decades, Milaskey, who reasoned that you couldn’t preserve heritage without recognizing the pioneers who’d envisioned a similar ideal, was able to convince the city government to allow him to gather the donors needed to finish the project. The sundial should be casting its shadow this fall.

“It’s interesting to me because people either love it or they wonder why it was done,” says Gail Severn. Severn, who’s lived in Ketchum since 1974 and owns Severn Gallery at the corner of Fourth Street and Second Avenue, earlier this year joined the CDC’s design team, and applauds the city for getting behind the CDC’s plan. Before it was implemented, she says, the city had to study traffic patterns and take into account things like snow removal along the corridor.

If you cruise Fourth Street during a summer day, the evidence is there: people are using the benches and the park across from the market. Retailers are setting up tables and chairs, too.

“If you look at cities around the world, the most vital and successful cities are very pedestrian-friendly environments,” Severn says. “And very few people buy anything sitting in their cars.”

These improvements, she says, can help the local economy because people walking as they shop tend to shop more, which leads to greater tax revenue for the city to continue investing in what they hope is a winning plan. And if business booms, retailers and restaurant owners are busier, attracting more business to fill any empty shops, drawing more employees to fill jobs created from a better economy.

In the meantime, she says, as the city invests in its appearance, so do home-owners and retailers. If one shop-owner displays flower baskets, another is likely to as well, until the city’s blooming with flower baskets.

“Just because we have a beautiful environment 15 minutes away,” says Severn, “doesn’t mean we can’t have a beautiful environment right here in our core.”

Still, architect Young bets his money on the open spaces we discover along the way. Whether it stems off the bike path or off the beaten paths of well-worn trails, those places set aside for our use remain integral to how we live.

“Open space is that land that is left over. It can be seen as an important part of a fabric of land containing many parts. The more different the parts, the more we see each, like Central Park in New York, an open plaza in a crowded, dense city or a giant park in the middle of suburbia,” he says. “In a sense, successful open spaces are in that state of contrast that allows one a different experience or respite from the ordinary than would otherwise exist.”

Chad Walsh is a freelance writer living in Ketchum, Idaho, who’s come to realize that the suburbs, and not the heart of a busy city, are probably the noisiest places. He wears cotton in his ears when he writes to fend off the noisy leaf-blower.




This article appears in the Fall 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.