By Finn Gundersen (BMA Head of School 1984-1999)
On June 12-14, 2020, BMA will celebrate 50 years since its inception. As we prepare for this exciting milestone, we present to you a monthly series dedicated to exploring the academy’s rich history. Tune in as we learn more about “The Making of BMA” and discover the people, places, and moments that have defined North America’s first sports and ski racing academy.
Since its inception in 1970, the academy has been home to 1,178 students including 36 who have gone on to compete in the Olympics and 145 who have been members of national teams representing the USA, Australia, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Above and beyond the athletic success of its alumni, BMA has always embraced a progressive educational model that focuses on engendering creativity, curiosity, and problem-solving in all of its graduates. To learn more about BMA’s celebratory reunion, CLICK HERE.
This month, we share with you a summary by former head of school Finn Gunderson on the buildings that shaped BMA’s landscape from the early days to 2000.
Imagine the view from a small farmhouse, in the fall of 1970 on opening day for a soon to be new experiment in alpine skiing – Burke Mountain Academy. That farmhouse, named Frazier after the farm family that lived there years before, had a dramatic western view of fields, the splendid Willoughby Gap, and a tree-filled valley leading down to East Burke. That western view with its glorious sunsets would become forever the dominating sight for students and staff alike.
In The Beginning: In 1969-70 the Frazier House was occupied by the Burke Mtn. Ski area manager. During that same winter, Warren Witherell had opened the first in the nation alpine training center (ATC). A building he built himself, with help, offering daily alpine training. After a successful start (see Warren’s story for all the details), the newly named Burke Mountain Academy needed a location.
Doug Kitchel, the mountain owner, and a prominent Vermont legislator, dairymen, and educator at heart offered the Frazier House for the first incoming class of twelve students and two staff. Doug loved the idea of BMA serving the Northeast Kingdom children, and hopefully attracting skiers from New England to his mountain, and as such he offered the Frazier House for rent after his manager had departed in the spring.
BMA began with two buildings – the ATC and Frazier House. And two Saabs that Warren and Finn drove back and forth to Lyndon State College (16-miles round trip) for all three meals, for indoor training when needed, and an occasional use of the shower facilities.
1970s: A Period of Rapid Growth. Because the idea of combining daily training and schooling was so innovative and successful, the demand was overwhelming. The need for land to grow, for more student housing and classrooms, a workable kitchen, and more staff housing, lead to a dramatic expansion in the ‘70s.
Land: In 1970-71, Doug Kitchel sold to BMA 15 acres, including the Frazier House, and donated 10 more. This meant that BMA found a permanent home!
Frazier House, 1970-71 (12 students + 2 staff): One bathroom and two dorm rooms upstairs with bunk-beds, and two very small staff bedrooms, one small kitchen, one living room with a wood stove, a small entrance/mudroom, a half dirt and half concrete basement cellar floor, and a three-bay garage, attached to the house, but open on two sides.
Frazier House Additions (and there would be many): The increase in student/athlete numbers lead to the first Frazier House alterations – filling in the carport (’72): the result was a very small staff room (one bed and bath) and two student rooms, sometimes for two each and often for four, when the winter termers arrived.
This was quickly followed by a large addition (’76) to the north side of the Frazier House, featuring: a large art room upstairs, a dining room/meeting room on the main floor, and four rooms underneath, with two shared bathrooms, soon to be called the “motels.”
The two structures were separated by a hallway for fire safety that would eventually evolve, as I called them then into – “bump outs” – a staff office on one side, and the Headmaster’s on the west side. The Frazier House kitchen was expanded, by adding a large walk-in freezer and walk-in cooler, and turning Warren’s bedroom into a dishwashing space. (Warren moved off-campus, renting a home in the Northwood village development, across from the school). This expansion finally eliminated all driving to the college, which had gradually been narrowed down to one trip a day for dinner.
The Frazier House continued to be expanded, with any available porches closed in for additional usable space (i.e. a larger entrance, including mailboxes) and the building of the Coaches’ Offices on top of the carport rooms, which lasted for decades.
Moulton House: During the ‘60s, the Burke Mountain Ski area had renovated an old farmhouse near BMA (across the mountain access road) into a ski dorm, a popular idea back then for cheaper housing. Named after another local farm family, the Moulton House featured four small bathrooms and three large bunkrooms upstairs, two rooms and two bathrooms downstairs, and on the west side, a small apartment, with a kitchen and living room on the main floor, and a bath and bedroom upstairs. The house was purchased in ’73, with staff living in the downstairs rooms and the apartment, and, as many students as was humanly possible were housed upstairs with the “slant window” room being the favorite.
Woods House: Even with all of the above additions, BMA could not keep up with the demand. Therefore, in keeping with the culture of being a rural Vermont location, Warren thought a log building kit from Maine would be one more answer to our need for multifunctional housing. The funds were secured, the design completed, and the first of many truckloads arrived in the spring of ’74. Earl Woods and his son, plus Marty Heib, myself, and a few local students, and electricians, plumbers, and a crane for the big rafters, started building in the open field to the south of the Frazier House. The hole was very wet, the black flies bigger and more numerous than ever, but we persevered. Every log required an 8inch threaded spike nailed in, every 12-16inches, by hand!
Woods House Design: Students (20 and sometimes a few more) in four bedrooms, with lofts, two on each side, with two bathrooms between them. all on the main floor. On the second floor were two bedrooms between the lofts. A staff apartment on the west end included a full kitchen & living room, and bedroom and bath upstairs. A basement for storage, some ski tuning benches, and washing machines. Trees were planted around the house, as non-existed before, it was just a hayfield. It was named Woods House after Earl and his son were killed in a tragic train/car accident in Lyndonville, Vermont.
Soccer Field: Because both BMA and the ski area were growing simultaneously (new mountain condos for example), there was a need for a much larger leach field (sewage). The land to the west of the Frazier and Woods Houses slopped gently down towards East Burke, perked perfectly for a leach field, and because BMA needed a flat surface, the mountain built the current soccer field on top of the leach field. Problem solved – at least for a few years.
Heib House: Marty Heib arrived at BMA fresh out of college in 1971, one of Warren’s early hires. He loved the rural can-do attitude of the Kingdom, and within a couple of years, asked Warren if he could buy some land from the school to build a home – which he did – a beautiful combination of stone and wood outside, and a wood post and beam frame inside. Later it would become a dorm when Marty left in 1980. Two floors and four rooms were added, with two bathrooms. At the time, it was considered a long walk to the Frazier House, through some dark words, however, that no longer exists today.
ATC Expansion: With growth in numbers came a need for expanding the Alpine Training Center, the first BMA building. A basement was constructed next to the existing ATC, which was then moved on top. The downstairs housed a ski technician center and next door, coaches lockers for all their daily equipment needs.
Off-Campus Housing: With never enough housing for a flourishing community of staff and students, BMA often rented nearby facilities. One example was a house for an overflow of 18 PGs in 1978-79, located in Northwood Village, easy walking distance to the Academy. Newly arrived Kathy Bradley was the dorm parent for an all women’s house.
Staff Judy and Chip Woods and Luc Robillard, both built homes in Northwood Village, and I built mine (1978-79) with two acres I bought from the school. BMA has tried for its entire history to have as many staff as possible on campus, or at least as close as possible.
1980s: Growth Continues: What began with 12 students in 1970, had blossomed to 78 in 1980, which included day students, winter termers, post graduates (PGs – who mainly lived off campus), all vying for only 46 beds on campus. While demand remained very strong, out of necessity, BMA slowed admissions because of limited space. Even though the early ‘80s were a period of Burke junior dominance nationwide, any new growth was limited to older athletes living off-campus.
However, a few smaller buildings were built, including a small weight room and ski tuning space for on-campus work, all in one building across the street, in part of the existing ski van parking lot. This building would be expanded and redesigned many times over. A staff apartment would be added upstairs, and the JP Parisien Human Performance Lab would be moved over from the Frazier House. A ski technician area would be added above the weight room, as the weight room area was expanded.
Kitchel Science Center: A small cinder block building, located below the Mouton House and previously used for horses, came with the purchase in the ‘70s. Used at first as a very small weight room, it was expanded in the early ‘80s to include a much-needed science center and an additional classroom. The building was named in honor of Doug Kitchel for his role in the founding of the school and his love of science.
Building Campaign: The increasing demand did result in the BMA Board undertaking planning for a major building campaign to not only add more beds but add more classrooms, more staff apartments, and to resolve the massive overcrowding and overused Frazier House kitchen and dining room. There would be days when the lunch crowd would top 100, a number that was unsustainable.
In a dramatic and unprecedented vote in June of 1988, the BMA Board approved a three-phase building campaign: The campaign exceeded the goal, with a final of $1,200,000 raised, signaling broad support from current families present and past, as well as a maturing alum base.
Witherell House: Move-in was April 1, 1989. The 7,000 sq. ft. was divided between two classrooms on the third floor, a women’s and men’s floor each, with a staff apartment at the west end on each floor. The new wonderful space resulted in closing the motels, reducing the numbers in the Woods House, and a reworking of almost all the Frazier House spaces – more offices, a library, and gathering area replaced the dining room, a much larger entrance, and more space for the JP Parisien Human Performance Lab.
Dining Hall: Dedicated June 1, 1990. With the Witherell House on the north side of campus, the Dining Hall was designed to face it on the south side of campus, with a complete set of windows facing west and the view everyone loved. After almost a year of using Mid-Burke as a temporary dining facility, the new space quickly became a multi-use space for dances, air-bands, special occasions, and a critical part of the graduation ceremony. Lunch announcements had found a beautiful new home, often filled to capacity with seating for 120+.
Training Hill Expansion: The old mountain Poma, which at one time had run to the top of the ski area, but had been shortened when BMA moved from one part of the mountain to its present location, needed to be expanded in length again to accommodate longer and more varied terrain for even more challenging training. The coaches cut the trees, the students cleared brush and trees, and a local contractor and longtime supporter of the school provided the necessary equipment to move the earth and rocks (900 individual dynamite blasts). A Poma turn tower, for halfway up, was ordered from France, and in January of 1993, the students skied from the top for the first time. The mountain was instrumental by expanding the snowmaking and providing unparalleled grooming on much steeper terrain. BMA now had a FIS Giant Slalom, and more importantly, their own training hill.
1990s: Growth Slows: The ‘90s could be considered as a period of less dramatic growth, except for the Willoughby House, but more a period of redesigning and upgrading of the existing facilities. The weight room ski room in the van parking lot was expanded, as the original Alpine Training Center was phased out and turned back to the mountain.
ATC Fire: Unfortunately, the call came down one winter day at lunch that the ATC was on fire (the snowmaking crew had a wood stove that overheated). As the Burke volunteer fire department doused the upstairs, BMA coaches ran into the downstairs, with smoke and water everywhere, to save as many skis, ski technician tools, and coaching equipment as possible. The old ATC was declared a loss and torn down. By that time BMA had moved the vast majority of its ski tuning and storage down to the main campus, it was time for the coaches to follow.
Willoughby House: The big project for the ‘90s was the purchase of a house and 10 acres of land that was just west of the soccer field and Frazier House. This was a must to prevent anyone from developing and obstructing the western view we all loved.
Students in Doug Clarner’s math class submitted 14 functional floor plans for a two-story twelve-student dorm to be attached to the existing home. Named after the Willoughby Gap, so prominent out the western windows, our last big project opened in the fall of 1997.