January 1, 2015

Outside the Box: Independent Spirit at Mad River Glen

A Vermont ski area stays true to its roots and restores its 1948 single-chair lift.

  • By: Lauren Walser

Eric Friedman is used to getting strange looks from fellow ski industry workers. Mad River Glen, the Vermont ski area where he works as the marketing director, tends to do things a little differently.

Take, for instance, the 2007 restoration of its iconic single-chair lift—the oldest continually operating single-chair lift in the country, and the only one in the continental United States. Completed in 1948, the lift takes just one skier per chair on a 12-minute ride to the top of General Stark Mountain. It’s a slow process, and it means long lift lines. But it’s part of the Mad River Glen experience, Friedman says.

“When I told my colleagues in the ski industry that we were restoring the single-chair lift, they looked at me like I had three heads,” Friedman says. “It absolutely flies in the face of everything in the ski industry—this idea of bigger, better, faster.”

But Mad River Glen has never aspired to be the biggest or the fastest. In its 66 years, it has resisted commercialization. Manmade snow is kept to a minimum, and little trail grooming is done. Snowboarding is forbidden.

Then there’s its ownership: Mad River Glen is owned by its skiers, who formed the Mad River Glen Cooperative (the first of its kind) in 1995. The co-op’s biggest undertaking to date has been the single-chair lift restoration. After five years of debate, shareholders voted in 2005 to restore (rather than replace) the aging structure. The co-op enlisted the help of the Preservation Trust of Vermont (PTV) and the Stark Mountain Foundation, and raised $1.7 million entirely through donations. The lift reopened in December 2007, protected by a 50-year covenant established by the PTV.

Then came the co-op’s next contentious endeavor: nominating Mad River Glen to the National Register of Historic Places. For more than a decade, shareholders negotiated. Many feared, unnecessarily, that a National Register listing would invite unwelcome government interference. But the lift’s successful restoration revived interest in the area’s history, and shareholders slowly came around. A nomination was submitted in 2011, and two years later, Mad River Glen became the country’s only National Register–listed ski area.

Today, the co-op is considering Mad River Glen’s future, and how to best preserve its historic trails and buildings, such as the 1948 base lodge and the 1960s ski patrol hut. A capital campaign is underway to establish an endowment.

“We do the polar opposite of all the conventional wisdom, and yet we’re able to be successful,” Friedman says. “But absolutely, [the future] is about preservation. Everyone here understands that. We preserve our past because that’s what binds us.”

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Lauren Walser shares more on how Mad River Glen ski area restored its iconic single-chair lift.

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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