“At 6,227’ the loudest noise at this Chapel comes from the creek”
Updated: Sep 26
What makes Olympic Valley Chapel a Tahoe Treasure? "It's not its unusual design or location, although both are stunning. It's the test of time and relevance to the community," says an eminent parishioner.
The magic grabs you, absorbs you, when approaching Olympic Valley Chapel. The Chapel is nestled in a canopy of trees under the peak of Tram Face, where the loudest noise comes from the creek. More than a place of peace and inspiration, and more than a witness of time, Olympic Valley Chapel is the identity of a community deeply rooted in this historic place.
Here's the remarkable story of Olympic Valley Chapel, the valley's only active church, and why its cultural heritage would be irreplaceable if ever lost.
The Chapel was built in 1959 as a non-denominational church for the athletes and visitors of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. Wayne and Sandy Poulsen, founders & developers of Olympic Valley, provided the land for the church.
Reverend Frank Evans was the Chapel’s first permanent minister. His creative leadership style drew people from all around Lake Tahoe’s northern region. Early morning worship services on the slopes of the mountains of Olympic Valley and Alpine Meadows earned Rev. Evans a national news story in Time magazine with the headline: Taking the Church to Where the People Are.
Over the next 62 years, the Chapel would experience and overcome some extraordinary events, from being a fully operating church, to a retreat center, to near closure following a devastating fire in 1994.
With a substantial portion of the church being destroyed by the fire, it became a hazard to the community. But repairs were ultimately made, and an ordained United Church of Christ (UCC) minister named Guthrie Swartz was instrumental in saving the church from fading into obscurity.
He and his wife Betty saw the huge potential of the church and its involvement with Olympic Valley and surrounding areas. Reverend Guthrie had a love of ministry, he was actively engaged with the community, and inspired by the beauty of the Chapel and its location. With charismatic leadership, Rev. Guthrie served as the minister of the church from the early 1990’s, until 2002.
Fast forward to the recent pandemic and its impact on in-person attendance, Olympic Valley Chapel remains open today. Not only is it built on a historic site, but the Chapel is also a symbol of endurance, providing the same inspiration for its members and visitors today as it did for those during the 1960 Olympic Winter Games.
Olympic Valley Chapel is just as vibrant today as it was for the Olympians in 1960. This beloved landmark, whether people worship here or not, is a key to Olympic Valley's architectural character and its social and spiritual history.
A little known fact: Olympic Valley Chapel (as seen above) faces Poulsen’s Peak and directly behind the Chapel is KT-22, in honor of Wayne & Sandy Poulsen. Wayne named the peak himself because it took Sandy exactly 22 kick-turns to get down the mountain. Today, KT-22 remains the envy of every ski area in North America. The photo below (courtesy of Eric Poulsen) was taken in 1943 as Wayne and Sandy admired the mountains of Olympic Valley.
The Chapel’s award-winning, innovative structure was the first of its kind. It’s a free standing reinforced concrete hyperbolic-paraboloid shell, the look of a potato chip, supported entirely at the two points of intersection with the ground. In the words of the designers, “the selection of this shell evolved from a search for a form which would both reflect the sweeping grandeur of the surrounding ridges and valleys and provide a simple, clean structure as a place in which to worship… In its simplicity, this form is in keeping with both the spirit of the site and of the Olympic Winter Games.”
Paul Arthur, a designer and builder, and resident of Olympic Valley, assisted with advice to the builders of the church's experimental shell-shaped roof. He would later add the large patio deck and sanctuary to the back of the Chapel, and increase the size of the kitchen and other rooms we currently enjoy. Paul and his wife, Alice, (in photo above), have been involved with the church from its inception. They continue to be the bedrock custodians of Olympic Valley Chapel today.
Stained-glass art surrounds three sides of the chapel representing the hues of the four seasons, offering panoramic views of the landscape. The colors get lighter and more translucent toward the vaulted shell roof over the altar, pulling one's eyes upward, above the forest, mountains, and sky beyond. But looking downward has its advantages too. The sun shining in through the stained-glass windows casts geometric shapes on the floor, creating its own visually stimulating sensory experience (see image below).
Coincidentally, the fire which nearly decimated the church in 1994 started from a pile of wood stored inside the sanctuary under the stained glass section where the Phoenix bird rises from the ashes (see image below).
Pastor James Kosko (in photo below) joined Olympic Valley Chapel in July of 2017 after serving United Church of Christ churches in California and Nevada. He has been a settled pastor, an interim pastor and a designated-term pastor, acquiring a range of experiences in the pastoral role. Having grown up in rural Michigan, he has a deep love for nature and God’s creation. He has a background in fine art, psychology, organization development, and hospital chaplaincy; meaningful windows into the struggles and joys of life as individuals and in community.
As a fervent advocate for justice and equality Pastor James often speaks and writes on these issues, advocating for those Jesus calls “the least of these," the people most disadvantaged by our social systems.
Pastor James' fondest hope is for every person to find a religious home to foster the growth and fulfillment of their personal relationship with God…in whatever way that brings meaning to them and their world.
As for his vision for the Chapel, Pastor James shares this, “My hope for the Chapel is
that we continue to be a strong and well-known presence in Olympic Valley and the greater
North Lake Tahoe/Truckee region. I would love for us to partner with organizations like Sierra
Community House among others to be a force multiplier. I see how we can support and
enhance what others are doing without having to re-invent the wheel. This kind of inclusive
engagement is a perfect fit for our mission."
Pastor James adds this interesting fact: "Many people are unaware that we are the only inclusive, Open and Affirming church between Auburn and Reno, so we're eager to meet the diversity of people who live in the region and hopefully create a community that shares the best of the Truckee/Tahoe spirit.”
"Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life's spiritual journey, you are welcome here." ~ Pastor James Kosko
"I first started coming to the Chapel in 2000 when I purchased a small cabin on the west shore. I was living in San Francisco at the time and I was introduced to Guthrie Swartz and his wife Betty by a mutual friend. I continue to be impressed by the warm reception I receive every time I enter the Chapel. For me, the Chapel has been a sacred sanctuary and a place of celebration. It's where I went to mourn the loss of a dear friend on 9/11, and where my husband and I got married 7 years ago. It's where I’ve found a caring and welcoming community of members, and some of my closest friends. I think there are many people out there who are looking for this sense of community." ~ Nancy Lee
You’ll find a broad range of cultures and styles in our church, and there is a place for you. It's a great consolation to know there's a wellspring of love within Olympic Valley Chapel. Here, there is a nourishing stream of belonging, ease, and delight. Filled with warmth and wonder, this church is here for you, waiting for you to feel the constant flow of enrichment so many others, like Nancy Lee, have experienced.
Services currently being offered for the community:
Worship Meeting in person and on Zoom at 10am on Sundays.
Weddings Intimate, personal services for up to 70 guests in the Chapel.
Events From memorial services to family reunions, with room for up to 250 guests.
And Now Our Chapel is Adding Something New!
We're excited to launch a series of Fireside Chats at our Chapel, an opportunity for you to learn from fascinating people about Olympic Valley's rich history, among other topics, beginning in late October.
We started with a screening of an award-winning* documentary film by Director, Screenwriter, and Editor, Nancy O'Connell, Three Weeks: The 1960 Winter Olympics and the Civil Rights Movement in Reno, Nevada.
Nancy showcased her film at Olympic Valley Chapel on Saturday, October 22nd and had the executive producer, Dr. Christopher von Nagy, head of Shared History at UNR, for a Q&A after the film. Local Olympic legend, Tamara McKinney, hosted the well received event.
Olympic Valley Chapel is a place which has seen the area grow up and mature all around it. The Chapel was here during the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, and it survived a fire and pandemic. All along this timeline the Chapel never lost sight of its purpose or its legacy: to build a currency of trust with the community.
A Future Planning Committee was established this summer to improve community involvement and growth of our Chapel. Initial results from these collaborations include: the development of Fireside Chats, making space available to local organizations and businesses, holding a music series featuring local talent, and providing more frequent use of the sanctuary and grounds for other family celebrations.
Your Chapel's Future Planning Committee is listening, learning, and seeking good ideas to continue this positive momentum.
Call to Action
*Nancy O'Connell's film won the Audience Choice Award for Best Nevada Film this summer, 2022, at the Cordillera International Film Festival.
Michael Kennedy is an Olympic Valley, CA resident. He's a teacher, freelance writer and photographer. Michael and his wife, Nicola, are active members on the Chapel Future Planning Committee. Please visit his website: www.bluewolfgallery.com