Willoughby: Aspen’s arts and culture institutions were rooted in Chicago

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

The beginnings of institutions revolve around a circle of acquaintances. Aspen’s arts history attests to that maxim. To understand modern Aspen’s institutions, you would examine a small group who associated with Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke in Chicago between the 1930s and 1940s.

The Paepckes’ childhoods overlapped as they grew up in Chicago, importantly within society associated with the University of Chicago. William Nitze, Elizabeth’s father, was a notable professor of Romance languages there. Hermann, Walter’s father, supported and advocated for the arts.

Walter inherited his father’s lumber mill and box-making company and expanded its focus. He formed the Container Corporation of America, where he merged the manufacture of packaging products with their design. During this process he cultivated the work of artists and designers, and helped Bauhaus designers escape Germany for Chicago.

With their connections to society and the university, the Paepckes actively participated in Chicago goings-on. Walter served as a trustee for the university, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Institute of Design, and the Chicago Orchestra Association.

Through the 1930s and 1940s Chicago attracted artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom were directly or indirectly connected to the university. These included Carl Sandburg, William Dodd and Thornton Wilder. Sandburg, a poet, also was a noted Lincoln scholar. Dodd, a well-known historian, served as ambassador to Germany when Adolf Hitler rose to power. Wilder penned over 45 plays including “Our Town,” won three Pulitzer Prizes, and taught at the university from 1930 to 1937.

Under the leadership of president Robert Hutchins, the university developed a different approach for a liberal arts college, with changes in curriculum. Rather than simply wading through literary content, this effort placed a stronger emphasis on critical reading and reasoning. Hutchins worked on these goals with professor Mortimer Adler. The two edited the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World (1952), for the Encyclopedia Britannica, and conceived the “Syntopticon,” an index of great ideas that was included in the set. They recruited Walter Paepcke’s interests in and support for these efforts.

Arnold Bergstraesser and Guiseppe Antonio Borgese, German scholars of the university, were Goethe devotees. So, it was no surprise that Borgese proposed to Hutchins that the University of Chicago host a Goethe bicentennial celebration. Hutchins sought Paepcke’s support as a university board member, and his financial commitment. Paepcke, had studied German at Yale and memorized sections of “Faust,” Goethe’s play. He immediately approved under two conditions — the celebration must be held in Aspen, and enfold a music component.

Hutchins and Paepcke tapped their Chicago and university connections to create a program that featured polymath Albert Schweitzer as keynote speaker. Thornton Wilder was recruited not only for his national reputation, but also because he was conversant in four languages. For instance, he had translated John-Paul Sartre ‘s writings from French. In addition to his own presentations, Wilder simultaneously translated Schweitzer’ speech from German to English.

Wilder became enamored with Aspen, and stayed into autumn. He found it an ideal place to do his writing. He took part in Aspen’s social circuit of visitors, and engaged with people whom the Paepckes had invited. Some became frequent visitors and summer residents.

Nurtured by the Paepckes, the roots of Aspen’s arts extend to Chicago. The Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival trace their histories to Robert Hutchins and the University of Chicago.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at