Jim Morter brought Vail fun, fresh architectural design
Building teams can be a tricky thing. Jim Morter was really good at building teams.
Morter, a longtime Vail architect, died recently in Austin, Texas, his home since 2008. He’s fondly remembered by his family and those who worked for him.
There will be a Sept. 17 celebration of life for Jim Morter at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. More information is coming.
Morter and his wife, Karen, are a classic Vail story. They came to town “for a couple of years” in 1972. They left in 2008 with a portfolio chock-full of interesting projects for interesting people, and a houseful of memories from those who came up through the firm.
“The best part of working with Jim was he knew how to hire a team that worked together well and got together after work,” former employee Jeannie Whitney said. “It was a real family that worked hard and played hard.”
Whitney came to Morter Architects thanks to a help wanted ad that read, in part, “must have a sense of humor.”
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Whitney noted that Morter Architects was “well ahead” of tech companies in believing that “creative minds needed space to be creative.”
Play hard, work hard
That sense of fun came with the expectation that it was all hands on deck when there was work to be done.
“He’d throw something at us Thursday night and say, ‘I need it by Monday,’” former Morter architect Kyle Webb said. “We’d make it happen.”
Mike Suman is another local architect who spent his early days in Morter’s office.
“I was part of an exceptionally fun time,” Suman said. But there was inspiration behind the laid-back atmosphere.
Suman called Morter an incredible architect, husband, father and mentor.
“He was an inspiration for so many,” Suman said.
That inspiration stemmed in large part from admiration for Morter’s design style.
“(Morter) always thought different,” Webb said. “If you wanted modern (design), you went to Jim.”
Morter’s design language endures today. Webb said he’s worked on remodeling projects for three homes Morter designed.
“It’s amazing to work on things Jim had done — you can see his mind at work,” Webb said.
While Morter eventually took on work that includes the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and the Beaver Creek golf course clubhouse, and clients including Jack Nicklaus and Ross Perot, the firm started more modestly.
Morter’s first independent local job was the sewage treatment plant in Frisco.
But in slow and busy times, there was always plenty to do at home.
Karen Morter, Jim’s wife of 56 years, recalled that when the young couple first hit Vail, with a 6-month-old daughter, Kim, in tow, there were few families with very young children in town. There were more families with young children by the time son Jeff came along five years later.
“We started meeting other families… it was a wonderful, wonderful time,” Karen Morter said.
The extended family
There was also an extended professional family at the office.
Jim and Karen became surrogate parents for many on the young staff, Whitney recalled.
“They elevated everybody who worked here,” she said.
That family atmosphere included bringing the Morter family pets to the office. Those pets included Lassie, a potbellied pig Kim and Jeff talked their parents into bringing home.
The pig was an office fixture, and Jim and Karen would sometimes walk her through the streets of Vail Village.
Lassie was banished from the office when she ate an architectural model that Webb said had taken perhaps a week to build.
Whitney recalled that Lassie was once a passenger in Morter’s Porsche convertible when he one day drove to Beaver Creek to check on a project. Stopping at the entry gate, he was reminded that the resort didn’t allow dogs.
He snapped, “Does this look like a (profanity) dog to you?” and drove away, with Beaver Creek security in hot pursuit.
Pigs don’t see very well. That was probably a good thing for Lassie, since Morter was fond of driving fast.
Webb recalls more than once riding with his boss, driving at highly illegal speeds through Dowd Junction.
The family has also had a string of basset hounds. Whitney said one of the bassets, Blossom, was able to jump enough to steal lunches from people in the office.
Morter shut down the Vail office in 2008, allowing him and Karen to move to a second home they’d built in Austin, Texas.
That move was a stunner for local architect Pavan Krueger. After working in the Morter office for a bit more than a decade, she needed to find a new professional home.
“(Morter) kind of wrecked me,” for working in a conventional office, Krueger said. So she decided to make her own way. Given that 2008 was a tough year, Morter helped by providing some contacts, including a job for a large home in Beaver Creek.
Providing contacts was part of Morter’s generosity.
Krueger recalled that Morter paid his people well, and allowed them the freedom for a mid-day bike ride, as long as the work got done.
“When I had babies, he let me work just two days a week,” Krueger noted.
Suman said working for Morter was a “really special entry” into the profession.
“The guy was so cool — his style, how he was as a friend,” he added.
That’s a common theme from those who remember Jim Morter.
“It was the best job I ever had,” Whitney said.