Community September 17, 2009
The Brick Identity
The Struggle to Preserve Main Street’s Remaining Relics

The Old West is vanishing in Ketchum, but Megan and Eric Vorm are doing what they can to preserve what remains. The Ketchum couple recently purchased a hundred-and-twenty-five-year-old building on the west side of Main Street, one of just three historic buildings that collectively comprise the last vestiges of the town’s original architectural identity.

The Vorms bought the old Lewis & Lemon General Store (later Griffith Grocery, the Golden Rule Market and Iconoclast Books) in August and are planning to open a restaurant, the Cornerstone Bar and Grill, in December, 2009. Despite the inevitable costs and sacrifices, they plan to protect the historic integrity and ensure that the frontier-era building is not razed to make way for a larger, modern-day structure.

“Everybody who lives here knows innately how special Ketchum is, and everybody who’s born here figures it out as soon as they go somewhere else,” Megan Vorm said. “This building really deserves to be a community gathering place. It’s Ketchum. It’s one of the oldest buildings in town, and everyone deserves to come celebrate that.”

Like the old mining town itself, Ketchum’s efforts to preserve its original buildings have gone boom and bust. And though a handful of historic buildings are still scattered throughout town, three brick buildings in particular tell its early stories.

Ketchum’s early settlers, the pioneers who designed the orientation of its streets and stacked its first bricks, wrote the opening lines of the town’s history.

Albert Griffith was a Montana mining engineer who, in the summer of 1879, trailed rumors of Idaho’s mining riches to the sagebrush-swept hills of the Wood River Valley. He met a trapper and miner named David Ketchum, and the two built a cabin near the banks of Trail Creek. With the onset of a bitter winter, they left, but Griffith returned the following spring with banker Isaac Ives Lewis, of Butte City, Montana. On their journey, the party was anxious to establish mining claims on the valley floor, but struggled over Trail Creek Pass. On the morning of May 3, 1880, they abandoned their wagons, loaded supplies onto four horses and descended into the present-day resort town.

In his 1891 autobiography, Lewis reflected on the day: “At about 11 o’clock, we pitched our tent, the first tent on the present site of the town of Ketchum.”

This might be considered the first settlement of Ketchum, but history has its contradictions. According to Lewis’ unpublished autobiography (on file at the Regional History Department of The Community Library), a separate party of men arrived just a day before, but had not raised a single tent. Rather, they marked a kind of town plat and placed stakes in spring’s receding snow to establish where a main street should be built. This early group conferred among themselves and christened the place Leadville. >>>

1879
Albert Griffith and David Ketchum mine near the confluence of Trail Creek and the Big Wood River.

 
 

1880
Isaac Ives Lewis pitches the first tent on the future Ketchum town site in April. Within months, settlers “flocked in by the hundreds.”
 
 
1880
The Idaho Statesman reports that the Wood River Valley has drawn “men from every corner of the globe” and that “gamblers and desperados crowd the sidewalks and throng the saloons.”

 

1881
Lewis erects his first building in Ketchum, a wooden drug store on Lot #2, Block 20, later site of the Bald Mountain Lodge. The lot is empty today.

 

1887
Lewis’ three brick buildings dominate Main Street.

 
 

 

 


Left to right: This picture, taken in the 1940s and looking north, shows Griffith Grocery, which Al Griffith opened in 1927 after retiring as the area’s mining superintendent; Arriving Sun Valley Resort guests are met at the Ketchum Train Depot in the 1940s. Those wishing to visit Ketchum at night were often accompanied by a Union Pacific armed guard, according to Dave Hanning, executive director of the Ketchum Sun Valley Historical Society Heritage & Ski Museum; Built in 1884, the First National Bank of Idaho is one of just three remaining original brick buildings in Ketchum. Now home to Chapter One Bookstore, its alterations over the years disqualified it from the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Lewis described the first meeting with these men in his journal: “They appointed a man by the name of Sterling as secretary and town recorder with the power to record one lot for each resident for the sum of $2.00. We took four lots, and I paid Mr. Sterling $8.00.”

On the mining-happy Western frontier, Leadville was a popular name, and the men soon learned that a post office could not be obtained under such a common title. Searching for something more unique, the settlers got to talking about David Ketchum, Griffith’s popular pioneer friend who had since drifted off into unknown parts of the Northwest. They agreed that the colorful Ketchum would make a fine namesake for the new town.

“Ketchum was the first town to be laid out on Wood River and the first to obtain government title to any lots or land in the Wood River country,” Lewis wrote, and by mid-May, 1880, settlers had “flocked in by the hundreds.” But the town’s mercantile and financial provisions were nonexistent. Lewis did a founder’s job and bought several lots, as well as a number of mines in the vicinity. His son, Horace Lewis, arrived the following year from Butte City, Montana, and established the Lewis Fast Freight Line, a string of ore wagons towed by mules.

Ketchum is justifiably self-conscious about its beginnings. Today, Lewis’ freight line lives on in the annual Big Hitch parade, the centerpiece of Ketchum’s Wagon Days. The annual celebration of the town’s mining heritage draws about 15,000 visitors, more than any other single event of the year, according to the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce. October’s Trailing of the Sheep Festival closes Main Street again, this time to honor the town’s diverse shepherding roots and to make way for a few hundred southbound sheep.

As economic engines, ore and wool eventually gave way to sun and snow. When Union Pacific Chairman Averell Harriman built the Sun Valley resort at the end of a northern railroad spur in 1936, he forever altered the evolution of central Idaho and propelled Ketchum into the twentieth century as a premier Rocky Mountain destination.

But with new opportunities came new market forces. As the cost of land rose, the town’s historic relics were razed to make way for larger, mixed-use commercial buildings. History was gradually transposed from bricks and timber into the pages of commemorative coffee table books and tourist brochures.

In 1989, a concerned Ketchum City Council made moves to save the remaining tangible pieces of old Ketchum. A historic preservation commission issued a list and map of the town’s significant historic structures. Eleven nineteenth-century buildings were catalogued, along with thirty-three more prewar properties. But after these early successes, the commission ran into roadblocks.

“We’re different from Park City, Jackson Hole and other Western historic districts in that we don’t have a lot of historic buildings in one compact district,” said former Ketchum City Administrator Jim Jaquet (Idaho Mountain Express, December 16, 1998). “They’re all spread out.”

With its gems scattered, Ketchum could not focus its efforts.

“We worked with the state historical society, and they said we have to have a designated historical district, and we do not,” said Ketchum Planning Manager Stefanie Leif.
And as several old buildings had already been structurally altered in some way, they were disqualified from protection under the National Register of Historic Places. Ketchum’s brief modern preservationist movement fizzled, just over a century after the town’s founding. >>>

 

1887
Lewis builds his largest brick building, which would eventually house the Lane Mercantile, a ranching headquarters for a half-century of Valley life. Today, the building is home to Starbucks Coffee.


 

1889
During the mining boom years, Ketchum boasts two thousand residents.

 

1900
Ketchum goes bust when the price of silver drops. The town’s population drops to just three hundred, and fewer in the winter. Sheep ranching takes over the local economy in the decades that follow.

 

1925
Al Griffith retires as the area’s mining superintendent and sets up a grocery store—Griffith Grocer—in one of Lewis’ two original brick buildings. As of late-2009, the property houses the Cornerstone Bar and Grill.

 

1936
Sun Valley Resort Opens

 

 

 

 

The Lane Mercantile was the hub of the sheep ranching industry in Ketchum for a half-century. The largest and final of Lewis’ original buildings, the “Lane Merc,” became the frontier era’s most iconic and lasting structure.

In the 1880s, as Ketchum’s economy gained traction under the wheels of Horace Lewis’ brimming ore wagons, his father built the first of what would become the mining-era’s iconic brick buildings and became Ketchum’s first real estate mogul, a pioneer’s Donald Trump.

"I have virtually made the town, at least I have expended more money and labor for it than any ten other men of the country all put together,” he wrote in 1891.
In the spring of 1884, Isaac Lewis joined George Griffin to build the First National Bank of Idaho on South Main Street. The red brick building is today home to Chapter One Bookstore and Akasha Organics. That same year, Isaac Lewis picked a spot across the street for another effort, the Lewis & Lemon General Store. Forty years later, when Al Griffith retired as the area’s mining superintendent, he set up a more relaxed venture, Griffith Grocery, in the handsome brick building with three archway windows. After decades of mixed use and vacant stretches, the late Gary Hunt leased the space for his Iconoclast Books in 2001. The building has been empty since the bookstore moved to Sun Valley Road in 2007, but this winter, the Vorms’ Cornerstone Bar and Grill will mark its next chapter.

Lewis added his final landmark to Main Street in 1887. Two blocks north from the First National Bank, at the intersection with what is now Sun Valley Road, he built his largest project yet. Comstock and Clark, a dry goods provider, was Lewis’ first tenant there, but it was the Lane Mercantile, a supply headquarters for the Valley’s sizeable sheep ranching industry, that would leave its mark. The “Lane Merc” building is prime real estate—signified by the “Eat More Lamb” painted billboard—and today houses a symbol of a different era: Starbucks Coffee.

Geothermal water was piped from the Guyer Hot Springs (just north of the present-day Warm Springs Lodge) into Ketchum’s Bald Mountain Hot Springs. The year-round pool, shown here in the 1940s, closed after the original wooden pipes ruptured.Ketchum was a hardier, self-sustaining place during the years these buildings rose. The town’s bricks were fired at a kiln near Knob’s Peak (today’s Knob Hill), a landmark knoll on the northeast edge of town. These three brick buildings have persevered and are, aside from the timeless mountains above, among Ketchum’s few remaining emblems of an original identity.

“I look at those old buildings, and every once in a while I get nostalgic, and I try to wonder what it would have been like one hundred years ago,” said Ketchum City Councilman Curtis Kemp, who has lived in Ketchum for twenty years. Efforts to preserve Ketchum’s scattered historic structures have achieved marginal success. To Kemp, the value of such buildings is relative. “It’s subjective, and different degrees of preservation will be important to different people,” he said.

In 2006, the city made bold steps to ensure preservation of what remained. Under advisement from the long-dormant Ketchum Historic Preservation Commission, the town enacted transferable development rights, or TDRs. The innovative program, which allows one property owner to sell expansion rights to another who can then build higher or bigger than standard zoning laws allow, was designed specifically with preservation in mind, Leif said. The concept is similar to cap and trade, but rather than carbon emissions, Ketchum’s TDRs aim to preserve historical or small-scale properties.

To maintain historic integrity, the Vorms want to sell their TDRs “as soon as possible,” said Megan. Developer friends suggested the couple maximize the property’s additional building rights, but Megan wouldn’t hear it.

“We live here, and we don’t want it to change,” she said. “We’ve lost so much already.”

Opening the Cornerstone Bar and Grill will not be an easy task. “It needs some love and care,” she said. Ketchum’s buildings department is helping out as well, advising the Vorms on how to bring their building up to code while maintaining its original identity.

Architect Jim Ruscitto, the former chairman of the Ketchum Historic Preservation Commission, said that Ketchum has successfully retained pockets of the Old West. He pointed to the Ore Wagon Museum and a handful of buildings on East Avenue, west of City Hall. But most historic landmarks, he conceded, are scattered at best.

"If you sort of walk around town, there’s not a lot of grouping,” he said. Ruscitto said the recent TDRs are the only real mechanism the city has implemented to preserve what remains.

“The only vehicle to encourage people to maintain, restore and reuse historic buildings is to have some economic incentive to do it, and transferable development rights do that,” he said. >>>

1939
Sun Valley builds its first mid-mountain lodge—The Roundhouse, which is modeled after Union Pacific switch houses. Today, the Roundhouse is slated for renovation under the Bald Mountain Master plan and, like many of the area’s original buildings, is not protected by the National Register of Historic Places.
1955
The Community Library of Ketchum, Sun Valley and Triumph opened on Walnut Avenue in the building currently home to the Gold Mine Thrift Shop.

 

1989
Ketchum passes Historic Preservation Ordinance, naming dozens of historic buildings. None are protected by law and most are lost to new development.

 

2006
Ketchum passes transferable development rights (TDRs)
in a preservationist spirit.

 

2009
August—Meg and Erik Vorm purchase the Griffith Grocery (Iconoclast) building and intend to become the first property owners to use TDRs to protect a historic building.

 
 

  

 

In the winter of 1948-49, gambling was legal in Idaho and downtown Ketchum bustled with pedestrians, cars and mounted policmen.
In the winter of 1948-49, gambling was legal in Idaho and downtown Ketchum bustled with pedestrians, cars and mounted policmen.

 

Councilman Kemp agrees that preservation is important, but he said it is time to focus on what Ketchum is becoming, rather than to reflect on what was.

“I’m more of a person that feels Ketchum is a small cosmopolitan mountain town as opposed to a heritage town in any way,” said Kemp. “We’re not like a Telluride, for example, where it’s like a time warp. While I favor keeping those three brick buildings from the 1880s, I’m also in favor of seeing new icons developed that people will preserve one hundred or one hundred and fifty years from now.”

Ketchum’s motley array of architecture reflects the boom-and-bust character of a rural mining settlement that became a modern-day resort and, eventually, a refuge for the rich. At this stage in its history, the town is comfortably eclectic, but also interested in some amount of self-preservation. Recent work to create a pedestrian mall on Fourth Street illustrates that, Kemp said.

With plans for commemorative plaques and informational kiosks, the Fourth Street Heritage Corridor in downtown Ketchum is designed in part to capture the city’s pioneering spirit. Two of three phases of the major public works project are complete, and the final cost is projected at $4.5 million in public funds.

The project has widened sidewalks, narrowed streets and added amenities like metal tables and benches, a few water fountains and several sculptures. But visitors sauntering along the Fourth Street Heritage Corridor and searching for local history might be vexed. If they cast their gazes down, they will see a familiar historical element: bricks. The Heritage Corridor is lined with thousands of them. These clean, light-pink pavers are concrete and made by Bellevue, Washington-based Mutual Materials, a leading provider of masonry products throughout the Northwest. Heated from below, the pavers remain clear of the ice and hard snows that can vex winter walkers.

In Fourth Street’s twentieth-century bricks, there is a symbolic nod to the past and an evident irony. Of downtown Ketchum’s historic brick buildings, only three remain. And, unless TDRs continue to succeed, there’s very little that stands between those iconic structures and the rumble of an advancing bulldozer.

 

For more historical pictures of Ketchum please visit the Ketchum Sun Valley Historical Society Heritage & Ski Museum website.

 

This article appears in the Fall 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.