A soaring decision: The Olympic Valley Chapel, at the base of Tram Face next to Palisades Tahoe in Olympic Valley, recalls the design advances and community vibe of the 1960 Olympic Games, for which it was built. Courtesy photo

Olympic Valley Chapel’s award-winning design was the first of its kind. The building quickly became known as the “potato chip” church because of its resemblance to a Pringles® potato chip. This is the story behind its unusual design, why it was built, and the connection with the Olympic Valley community today.

Whether you’ve seen the curved-roof structure while riding by on a bike or during a stroll, the design of Olympic Valley Chapel with its colorful panoramic stained-glass windows looks as if it’s in a perpetual state of take-off, inviting you and your friends up for a ride.

This beloved landmark was designed by John R. Lipscomb, George R. Killam, and Richard R. Whitaker of Barbachano, Ivanitsky, and Watanabe in El Cerrito, California. Built in 1959 as a non-denominational church for the athletes and visitors of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, it is a key to Olympic Valley’s architectural character and its social and spiritual history.

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Wayne and Sandy Poulsen, the first to move into the valley with the dream of developing the area into a world-class ski resort, provided the land for the church. The front faces Poulsen’s Peak and the back KT-22 in honor of the couple.

Located at 444 Shirley Canyon Rd., Olympic Valley Chapel is nestled in a canopy of trees under the peak of Tram Face. More than a setting of peace and inspiration and a witness of time, the chapel is the identity of a community deeply rooted in this historic place.

In the words of the designers as published in a pamphlet about the chapel, “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.”

The chapel’s geometric shape is fascinating to many. Being both lightweight and efficient, such a design is used as a means of minimizing materials and increasing structural performance while also creating impressive and seemingly complex designs.

It’s a free-standing, reinforced concrete hyperbolic-paraboloid shell, supported entirely at the two points of intersection with the ground. In architecture, hyperbolic paraboloids get their structural integrity from their shape rather than their mass (like many conventional roofing methods). The shape and curvature also help to reduce its tendency to buckle under compression, exactly the way a Pringles® potato chip fits into its canister without crumbling. The design helps the roof to withstand the weight of heavy snow and winds and gives the building exceptional stability.

Today, larger, more sophisticated examples of this unique plan include the London Velodrome, the Scotiabank Saddledome in Canada, and the Scandinavium in Sweden. Olympic Valley resident Paul Arthur, a designer and builder, assisted with advice to the builders of the church’s experimental shell-shaped roof.

Design Specialist: Paul, left, and Alice Arthur are the brawns and brains behind many of the
Olympic Valley Chapel’s recent improvements.

Paul and his wife, Alice, have been involved with the church from its inception. They continue to be the bedrock custodians of the chapel today. Recently, Arthur added a large patio deck and sanctuary to the back of the chapel and increased the sizes of the kitchen and other rooms within.

Under the potato chip roof is stained-glass beauty by Anne Knorr that encompasses three side walls of the chapel. It represents the hues of the four seasons and provides panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. The glass 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. The sun shining in through the stained-glass windows produces geometric shapes on the floor, creating its own visually stimulating sensory experience.

Coincidentally, a fire that nearly decimated the church in 1994 started from a pile of wood stored inside the sanctuary under a section of glass mosaic imagery that shows a Phoenix bird rising from the ashes.

WORSHIPPING TOGETHER: The Olympic Valley Chapel serves as a venue not only for Sunday worship, but also for weddings, events, and history chats.

Not only are the design and beauty of the church stunning and inviting on the outside; but also, the chapel’s interior evokes a wellspring of love, taking form and function to the next level. Services currently being offered for the community include worship (meeting in-person and on Zoom at 10 a.m. 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 fireside chats (an opportunity to learn from fascinating people about Olympic Valley’s rich history and other engaging topics).

The Olympic Valley Chapel is an extraordinary place that has seen the area grow and mature all around it. The chapel was here during the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, and it survived a fire and a pandemic. All along this timeline it never lost sight of its purpose or its legacy: to build a currency of trust with the community.

If you’re interested in learning more about availability, reservations, or upcoming events, please visit olympicvalleychapel.org or send an email to info@olympicvalleychapel.org.

~ Michael Kennedy, an Olympic Valley resident, is a teacher, freelance writer, and photographer. Michael and his wife, Nicola, are active members on the Chapel Future Planning Committee. Please visit his website: bluewolfgallery.com.

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