LEAVENWORTH — At the end of 2018, Harriet Bullitt, longtime philanthropist and patron of the Northwest outdoors community, announced a change in ownership for Sleeping Lady, the Leavenworth resort she opened in 1995. The resort’s profits would no longer go to a private individual, but to the Icicle Fund, a nonprofit Bullitt founded 20 years ago to bolster conservation and community-arts efforts in North Central Washington.
A year into the transition, the change represents a winding down for a titan of Washington’s outdoors community, and potential shifts for Sleeping Lady, a hub for local outdoor recreation named for the mountainside above it, the shape of which suggests the profile of a woman in repose. The ownership change will likely have a significant impact on local arts and environmental initiatives, a legacy Bullitt has built throughout her life and plans to entrust to others in the future.
Bullitt, now 95 and retired, doesn’t often give in-person interviews, but she acquiesced to a few questions sent through Deb Hartl, who manages Bullitt’s communications.
As a member of a prosperous Northwest family, whose influence extends from King Broadcasting to the Bullitt Fireplace Trail in the Issaquah highlands, Bullitt and her environmental and community-based philanthropy have been well-documented locally. In 1990, Bullitt and her sister, Patsy Bullitt Collins, were the subjects of a Seattle Times profile that reads like a character treatment for a 1950s screwball heroine: “Harriet Stimson Bullitt, 65, with a flair for the dramatic and looks it, dominant widow’s peak dipping onto a high aristocratic forehead. Has a politician’s white smile. Took up flamenco dancing six years ago as a replacement for fencing. Lives on a nordic tug boat … Oldest competitor in a triathlon a few years ago in Leavenworth. Married three times, now divorced.” (Bullitt’s two children have not been involved in Sleeping Lady’s transition.)
Almost 30 years later (Bullitt confirms, among other things, the switch from fencing to flamenco), Bullitt’s presence remains ubiquitous throughout Sleeping Lady — even in its raw materials. There are buildings salvaged from the time the property (then known as Camp Icicle) housed the Civilian Conservation Corps. Bullitt had all but one of them preserved, moved and renovated to satisfy (or improve upon) current building and energy codes. (The building that was in too great a state of disrepair to make the cut “went through a tub grinder and became mulch on the property,” says Lori Vandenbrink, Sleeping Lady’s director of sales and marketing.)
Bullitt’s influence is also evident in the intentional design of the resort and conference center: Each room is equipped with at least two beds, encouraging interaction and efficiency over isolation and waste. The resort’s decking materials are made from recycled scrap wood and plastic bags. Food is sourced from an on-site organic garden. There’s a centrally located parking lot at the resort’s entrance, but the spacious grounds are car-free; visitors walk winding paths to get between the office, restaurant and sleeping quarters. “[T]here’s a subtle education that happens by the fact that you park your car and you walk to your guest room,” says Vandenbrink.
Then, there is Bullitt’s face. It emblazons a binder of amenities and information in every guest room. And despite the limits on interviews, it’s also not unheard-of to see her in person. “Frequently, guests will stop me on the paths and tell me how friendly and warm the staff are at Sleeping Lady,” she says. “This always pleases me, and I share these stories with employees.”
Bullitt once lived across Icicle Creek from Sleeping Lady, regularly riding over on a specially rigged chairlift with Roki, her Icelandic shepherd, sitting next to her.
Now, Bullitt lives in a stately house right on the property next to the Kingfisher Restaurant (staffers call it “The Winter Palace”), and both she and Icicle Fund Executive Director Christine J. Morgan emphasize that the timing of the ownership changeover has allowed Bullitt to witness the transition as it happens.
“[W]e’ve known for 10 years that at some point, Sleeping Lady the business would be owned by Icicle Fund, and we’ve prepared for years for this to come,” she says. “And [Harriet] chose to share the gift of Sleeping Lady while she was still around.”
As Bullitt puts it: “We all have an appointed time to pass, and I prepared years ago for Sleeping Lady to exist and thrive beyond my lifetime. By transferring the stock before my death, I have the pleasure to see my plan come to fruition.”
‘The long spoons principle’
At one point during our conversation, Morgan pulls a long spoon off a nearby shelf. It’s one of many absurdly wholesome things I experienced during my visit to Sleeping Lady, a place that looks like what might happen if you combined the practical coziness of a Methow Valley ski hut with the aesthetic sensibility of Rivendell in “The Lord of the Rings.” The spoon, says Morgan, “was here when I got here.” “I’m sure it’s locally made,” she adds.
It’s a reminder of one of the Icicle Fund’s founding koans. In what’s known as the parable of the long spoons, a traveler to the afterlife visits heaven and hell, where the dead encounter a sumptuous buffet equipped only with long, unwieldy spoons. Because you can’t feed yourself with such a long spoon, the dead in hell starve and are miserable. But faced with the same situation, the people in heaven realize that by turning the long spoons outward, they can feed each other. No one starves.
There are many versions of this story, one Bullitt drew inspiration from when she founded the Icicle Fund. It’s a story Morgan frequently references, in part because it illustrates the Icicle Fund’s communal approach to philanthropy, or what she calls “the principle of the long spoons.”
“Harriet established Icicle Fund 20 years ago … to support six particular organizations, but she didn’t just want to give them each a pot of money,” says Morgan. “She said, ‘Here’s a shared pot of money. Now you figure out how to share. And if you don’t figure out how to share, well, you don’t get to be part of this.’ “
This seems like an unwieldy way to operate a nonprofit, and Morgan admits it takes work for the groups’ representatives to work together. “It’s something that doesn’t happen [by] happenstance … Harriet in particular has had to hold some folks accountable for not following that,” she says.
Over the last two decades, the fund has pursued its stated goal of “supporting the environment, the arts and history through innovative collaboration in North Central Washington.” According to Morgan, it has worked with 100-plus organizations in the region and distributed more than $40 million. In the first year since the ownership change, says Morgan, the organization has received “a significant contribution” from its new revenue stream. She doesn’t have annual numbers yet, but says she anticipates a bump in the amount the Icicle Fund will be able to give during its next community grant cycle this spring.
The fund’s structure isn’t the only thing that sets it apart. It’s also wide in scope, focused on both environmental and community-arts endeavors. In 2016, the fund commissioned a report from Pyramid Communications on youth access to arts programs throughout North Central Washington based on variables like age, race and geographic location, hoping to identify areas for improvement. Unsurprisingly, the findings suggest significant disparities in access based on age and ethnicity, with white students receiving more semesters of high school arts education than their Latino peers and “uneven opportunities for young people that extend well beyond the arts.“
These are disparities the Icicle Fund may address in the future, says Morgan. “[W]e’d like to see more arts education for all students inside the school day, preferably, because that is where everybody will get equal access,” she says. “As soon as it’s outside of the school day, even if it’s at the school, you’re going to lose some people.”
Icicle Fund grants have also funded specific arts projects, like the bilingual play “El Diario de Anna Francisco,” produced by Sarah Kaiser in partnership with the Community Cultural Center in Tonasket (population: just over 1,100). The play tells the story of a 14-year-old girl reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and finds parallels between Nazi Germany and the racism and threats of deportation and family separations faced today by Latinx communities in the Okanogan Valley.
“[T]hey put together a play where they, for the first time, had a large Latinx audience, and then it was the local folks that were onstage as well, laying out their own stories and their neighbors’ stories,” says Morgan. “And it brought the community together in a different way, and they’re wanting to take that show on the road.”
Icicle Fund grantees have also contributed to conservation in the Wenatchee foothills; the Wenatchee River Institute’s youth and adult education programs; and the work of organizations like Team Naturaleza, which leads bilingual nature walks and field studies.
A final gift
“[New] ownership’s scary,” says Vandenbrink, especially when you operate a resort with a surplus of repeat customers. Years ago, she recalls, Sleeping Lady stopped using trays in its restaurant. Guests reacted strongly enough that when the resort rolled out a new website, it included a warning: “OK, there’s gonna be a new look and feel, but it’s still the same company and so we’re just really sensitive to that.”
An ownership change, then, is potentially fraught, especially when the previous owner is someone of Bullitt’s stature. But in many ways, the transition simply closes the loop between Bullitt’s personal business and her public agenda for advancing conservation and access to the arts through local nonprofits. Morgan’s office is on the Sleeping Lady campus. Vandenbrink says little has changed about the resort.
When I visited in November, it felt like the same place I stayed at as a kid, a place named for a woman, owned by a woman, with a locally sourced, allergy-friendly buffet for everything (including dessert), and a night sky so dark it feels like it could reset your circadian rhythms over a weekend. It is the living dream of someone who saw the profile of a woman in a mountainside, named a resort rife with history after that visual comparison and parlayed familial wealth into conservation and community arts programs, when she could have done anything else with it.
As Morgan puts it: “North Central Washington would be a very different place to live if it wasn’t for Harriet Bullitt and the gifts that she has provided.”
The donation of Sleeping Lady’s profits, then, is one of Harriet Bullitt’s final gifts to a community that she helped shape, and that will outlive her. When I asked what she hoped the future would hold, she gave a terse but clear response: “That the next generation will take care of the land and let the land take care of them.”