Photography by Kimberly Gavin Published in the Holiday 2017/2018 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine
Walls might not talk, but in the Basshaus—a 1960s-era A-frame off Vail Village’s Mill Creek Circle—the black-and-white photos hanging in the great room speak volumes. Just outside the master bedroom (where a brass plaque on the door proclaims, “GERALD R. FORD – 38th President of the United States Slept Here”), a collage of black-and-white Associated Press photographs hark back to the Christmas of 1974, scenes of the late president meeting in that same room (seated on that same furniture around that same fireplace with the same engraved copper mugs on the mantle adorned with the same gilded gothic blessing, “May this hearth, as a good friend, warm your heart”) with his economic advisers, a who’s who of post-Watergate historical figures including Alan Greenspan, Donald Rumsfeld, and L. William Seidman.
Precious few homes ever built in Vail Village can claim landmark status. Even fewer remain, recently renovated and perfectly preserved, to tell its stories today. That Basshaus is both is a testament to Dick Bass, the late, original owner of the creekside abode.
“Dad used to say, ‘Build it like the Pyramids,’” recalls Jim Bass—one of Dick Bass’s four children, all of whom are currently located in and around the Dallas area with one, Dan, residing in Salt Lake City—who remembers his father sitting at his desk in Texas one Sunday morning a half century ago, pencil in hand, sketching what would come to be the family’s winter residence in the small cul-de-sac tucked between Golden Peak and what is now Gondola One.
It didn’t matter that the Texas oilman wasn’t an architect, because Dick Bass wasn’t one to sit idly by while others drew up plans for any aspect of his life. Bass was one of the first to invest in Vail—a $10,000 commitment that scored him lifetime lift passes and first dibs on the best lot in the nascent ski town. Bass jump-started residential development in America’s first built-from-the-ground-up ski resort with what, at the time of its completion in 1965, was the biggest and grandest house in Vail. As one of the resort’s first board members, Bass helped Vail Associates secure ranch land that would become Beaver Creek Resort. He also was instrumental in planning the valley’s first 18-hole golf course, opened Utah’s Snowbird Resort, and with Disney President Frank Wells became the first person to summit all seven of the world’s highest peaks on each continent (witness the Kodachrome image of Bass, in a red down climbing suit and beaming behind an oxygen mask atop Everest as he unfurls an American flag and another bearing the words “SEVEN SUMMITS 1983”). In keeping with his mantra to “build it like the Pyramids,” all but his record as being the oldest person to summit Everest are still standing.
With seven bedrooms, all named for their thematic hues—the red room, orange room, blue room, and turquoise room—seven bathrooms, and 6,266 square feet, thrice-married Dick Bass built his pyramid on Mill Creek Circle big enough to house his entire extended family, including four children—Dan, Jim, and twins Barbara and Bonnie. At Christmas, the Bass clan would sip hot cocoa in front of the two-story hearth before setting out down a then modest Bridge Street for caroling, with the patriarch in the lead. They’d cut their supersize tree at the Nottinghams’ nearby ranch (the namesake of Nottingham Park and Lake in Avon, and the original owners of the land that came to be Beaver Creek), haul it to Vail, and hoist it up over the balcony, where it would just graze the 22-foot ceiling in the open-concept living area with walls adorned with antlered hunting trophies and floor-to-ceiling windows that Dick Bass had sketched years before at his Dallas desk. The Basshaus, as it came to be known, quickly established itself as a celebrated gathering place for an ever-expanding circle of friends Bass met on his world travels, luminaries who would come to find the home’s bright red door always open—and a berth in one of the 24 bunks a welcome reprieve after evenings spent mingling and people-watching from the balcony-style landing that overlooked the hoards of partygoers in the great room below, lit like the hall of a European hunting lodge with Bavarian-style chandeliers. The guest register that still sits on a coffee table today bears the autographs and well-wishes of icons from the 1970s and ’80s, including Bob Hope, Jean-Claude Killy, Jack Nicklaus, and Robert Redford, and influential locals, like Pepi Gramshammer. When Juan Carlos I, the king of Spain, made an impromptu visit to Vail in 1985, the Basshaus was where he stayed, and signed his name. But first, there was the 38th US president, who, upon decamping from the Basshaus on December 29, 1974, wrote, “We all had a super time … our deepest gratitude for such generosity—Jerry Ford,” followed by a signoff from his wife, “It was truly a joy—Betty.”
In 1968, Gerald Ford, then a congressman from Michigan (and an avid skier), his wife Betty, and their four children, felt the gravitational pull of America’s newest ski town and spent their first Christmas in Vail. They purchased a modest three-bedroom condo at the newly constructed Lodge at Vail, but quickly outgrew it as the congressman’s traveling retinue expanded as he became vice president, and then president of the United States following Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974. When he heard about the first family’s predicament, the gregarious gatekeeper of Vail’s finest residence offered his home to the Fords.
“Dad was a little too generous with the Basshaus at times,” laughs daughter Barbara. “But my siblings and I were in school, and we weren’t using the house as much, so it ended up working well for everyone.”
From 1974 until 1981, the Fords made annual winter and summer trips, and the Bass family relocated to the Fords’ condo whenever their stays overlapped. The presidential entourage of Secret Service agents (hand-picked for their skiing ability) and advisers would bunk in the brightly colored guest rooms, while President Ford and his wife would stay in the master suite, where an adjoining office provided space for the president to keep up with work during his time off the slopes. The home proved to be spacious enough to host the president’s inner cabinet, with Alan Greenspan and company filling the great room to discuss the ongoing energy crisis. Although its size proved conducive to presidential living, the Basshaus needed some fixes to keep up with the commander-in-chief’s residential requirements.
“They put telephone booths outside the house, and Secret Service agents would hole-up in there freezing all night providing security,” recalls the eldest Bass child, Dan. “And there was a red phone that was a direct line to the Soviets—in case of a crisis.” After losing the election of 1976 (in Vail, Ford bested Jimmy Carter 1,221 votes to 261), the former first family continued to vacation in Vail, buying a lot and building a 12,000-square-foot home on the tony new Beaver Creek’s Elk Track Lane in the early 1980s, which was sold following Ford’s death in 2006 (and most recently changed hands in 2016 for $6.65 million). The Fords, though, always warmly recalled their time at Mill Creek Circle, the sentiment captured in their last entry in the home’s register, dated 8/8/81, in Ford’s hand: “We love Vail, and the Basshaus makes it perfect!”
The Basshaus remained in the family after Dick’s passing in 2015, with all the original interior décor and exterior finishes left untouched from its days as the most prominent residence in Vail Village (the home is now dwarfed by new neighbors, including a recently completed modernist manse across the street rumored to have digitally animated floors and walls). Although the sturdily built home was structurally sound, its guts—its plumbing and heating systems, not to mention outdated décor predating the Summer of Love and asbestos insulation—needed attention. Last summer, the Bass children decided to renovate, and kept the job in the family, hiring Dallas-based interior designer Cathy Martin (wife of Dick’s second wife’s son, Brad, who first visited two years after the Fords last signed the guest register) to oversee the job, carried out by Nedbo Construction.
“I sat down and talked with the family about their vision since nothing major had been done to the home since 1965, and all the kids wanted to keep the integrity of the original look,” explains Martin. “The biggest thing was updating, while also keeping the original charm and colors that Dick had loved to use throughout the house.”
In addition to a down-to-the-studs remodel of every bedroom (mandated by asbestos remediation), Martin updated all seven bathrooms with modern granite sinks and lighting. The lime-green shag on the spiral staircase and gold carpeting in the hallway and bedrooms was replaced with a more neutral wool floor covering, while modern window treatments and bedding added pops of color in a subtle nod to each room’s original thematic, Warhol-inspired hue. The Brady-era kitchen received the most complete makeover. Arrigoni Woods replaced turquoise linoleum with hardwood that matched the living room, while Martin updated the room with stainless appliances, dramatic over-the-counter lighting, glass-faced cabinetry and glass subway tile. Removing overhanging cabinets and adding an Amazonite bartop to the island, Martin opened the kitchen to the living area while embracing Dick’s enthusiasm for color.
In the great room, layers of oriental carpet were lifted, and drapes and valances that had hung from the 20-plus-foot windows since Ford held court in the main gathering area were removed to fill the room with light; just outside, architect Scott Turnipseed redesigned the deck, replacing heavy wood-paneled bannisters with see-through horizontal metal struts that allow views of Mill Creek and the majesty of the Gore Range on the eastern horizon. In true Dick Bass fashion, even the 1960s-era chandeliers had withstood the test of time and required only a dusting off.
“Dad built every piece of that house to last,” says daughter Bonnie.
The Bass children pared down their father’s extensive art collection (choosing favorites for each room) but kept much of the original furniture, except the old couch where Jerry and Betty Ford sat while opening presents on their first Basshaus Christmas in 1974, which was too worn and had to be replaced. In a corner of a collection of press images hanging on a wall behind the sofa, a photo shows the 38th president (wearing a gifted wool sweater embroidered with the message “Whip Inflation Now”) seated beside the First Lady on Christmas Day. The first couple is ebullient, smiling and gazing into each other’s eyes, while clearly visible in the background, the spiral staircase winds up to the balcony, and the hunting trophy hangs over the entrance doorway, just as it is today.
Timeless, just as Dick Bass intended.
Scott S. Turnipseed AIA,
Eagle, 970-328-3900; sstaia.com
Nedbo Construction, Avon, 970-845-1001; nedbo.com
Catherine Martin Interiors, Dallas, Texas; 214-663-2820