Change of heart on name change
Paepcke Auditorium will not be getting a new name.Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson made that announcement Wednesday. It reflects a decision by part-time Aspenites Stewart and Lynda Resnick to redirect a large donation that prompted the naming idea in the first place.The naming was to recognize of the couple’s support of the Aspen Institute in general and specifically to acknowledge their donation of $4 million to the organization’s facilities renovation funds.The money was to go toward renovating the building that houses the auditorium – named after the organization’s founder, Walter Paepcke – along with other facilities at the Aspen Institute.
But news of the naming brought considerable and largely negative reaction in Aspen and other locales, mostly because the auditorium is universally known as Paepcke Auditorium in honor of the progenitor of Aspen’s renaissance during the mid-20th century. Critics loudly voiced the perception that changing the name would denigrate Paepcke’s legacy and was an example of a brash, self-centered “new money” pushing its way into Aspen’s historical institutions.Chicago industrialist Paepcke founded the Aspen Institute in 1950, the year after he convened the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation. That celebration drew some 2,000 participants, including such celebrities as Dr. Albert Schweitzer, along with poets, musicians and humanitarians. It spawned the cultural rebirth of Aspen as a Mecca for skiing, fine music and intellectual stimulation.The organization had planned to place a plaque on the premises to formalize the naming. Isaacson has maintained throughout the controversy that the auditorium itself never had a formal name, and that the Paepcke name applies to the building containing the auditorium.In a letter to The Aspen Times announcing the decision (see today’s Letters to the Editor), Isaacson stated, “I now realize that this was a mistake. Trying to make such an ahistoric distinction seemed to dilute Walter Paepcke’s legacy, which was the opposite of our intention in trying to renovate the building named after him.”Lynda Resnick said from California, “It’s my decision. I’ve decided to withdraw the funds and not pay for the renovation.”
She and her husband “wanted a naming opportunity, because we wanted our children and grandchildren to know we were involved in the institute. That was the wrong opportunity, obviously.”She said she was “heartbroken” and “glad to be out of Aspen” over the controversy that erupted when the naming idea was made public, noting, “We have never had such vitriolic things said about us.”She said she and her husband will continue to support the Aspen Institute, but explained, “Right now I’m a little bit bruised, and I need to think about it a little more” regarding their future gifts to the institute and other causes in Aspen.Isaacson, in his letter, described the renovation as turning the building’s library and gallery into “overflow rooms” for popular events at the auditorium, as well as upgrades to such things as ventilation, wiring and the installation of “solar panels and green technology.””Although our plans for renovating the Paepcke Building are being put on hold,” Isaacson continued, “We do believe it is a necessary project, especially if we want to do honor to his [Paepcke’s] legacy.
“Some who publicly questioned the naming plan indicated they would be willing to help if we abandoned it, and we appreciate that. If we can raise the money, we hope to accomplish all or part of what we planned.”In closing, Isaacson wrote, “I apologize to the Resnicks and to the community for causing discomfort by recommending a flawed plan.”Amy Margerum, the Aspen Institute vice president in charge of the renovation program, declined to comment, explaining, “Just the letter. That’s all we have to say.”John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Wheeler Opera House will remain dark into 2021, with current COVID-19 public health orders in place. Meanwhile, the masonry work on the exterior of the building will continue into July.