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Growth is a Given

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

In a quiet corner of the West End, great minds frequently assemble to focus on esoteric topics. And then later, they might do the limbo.

While most Aspenites remain oblivious to the brilliance in their midst, some of the most renowned names in medical research – including Nobel laureates – come together at a spot overlooking Hallam Lake to share their discoveries and advancements in highly specialized fields.

It’s not the Aspen Center for Physics and it’s not The Aspen Institute, although it could fairly be called a cousin to those institutions.



The sometimes tongue-twisting subject matter – acute interstitial nephritis, for example – would likely intimidate a casual observer. In layman’s terms, people who make lab coats part of their wardrobe share their expertise on matters that might someday save your life.

And they’ve been doing so for three decades at The Given Institute of the University of Colorado – a legacy of the late Aspen matriarch Elizabeth Paepcke.




Although the Given hosts such prestigious scientific gatherings as the annual meeting of the Chicago-based Fermi Laboratories (you know, the guys with the particle accelerator), it remains a lesser-known embodiment of the “Aspen Idea” – Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke’s vision of a place to renew the mind, body and spirit.

It’s also great place to hold a wedding.

As the Given gears up for its 30th anniversary of summer conferences, public lectures and the occasional nuptials, its overseers are contemplating physical improvements that could lead to expanded programming, and technological upgrades that could make the Given an even bigger player in medical education.

It is already an unheralded player in Aspen’s summer economy, logging roughly 10,000 visitor days by conference attendees, primarily from June through August.

That generates an estimated $3 million in annual spending within the community, based on Aspen Chamber Resort Association estimates of average visitor spending, said Brian Harris, conference manager at the Given.

With no lodging or food-preparation facilities at the institute, it’s all being spent in town, he said.

Mental muscle in a gym

An Aspen conference center focused primarily on the medical sciences was hardly on the radar screen when Dr. Donald W. King organized a seminar on “Advances in Molecular Biology” in the summer of 1964. Held in the Aspen Middle School gym, the conference attracted an impressive, international faculty and participants from major universities.

The format – lectures throughout the day with time to socialize, dine and take in Aspen’s culture and outdoor opportunities – proved a popular combination, recalled King, then the chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“Because of the attractiveness of the Aspen environment, we were able to get the most outstanding people in the world to come,” he said.

Subsequent symposia branched out into specialty fields – genetics, immunology, virology, neoplasia.

“Eventually, we were running maybe four a summer. We took over the middle school gym for a whole month,” said King, now the deputy director of research and education at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

The need for proper conference facilities and laboratory space quickly became apparent.

There were early talks about pairing with The Aspen Institute, an already well-known policy think tank, but they fizzled in a dispute over which entity would own the land for the envisioned new conference facility, King said.

Finally James Smith, then-vice president of The Aspen Institute, approached Elizabeth Paepcke, who ultimately donated half of her garden to the University of Colorado in 1971. Paepcke and her late husband, Walter, had been instrumental in creating The Aspen Institute, the Music Festival and School, and the Aspen Skiing Corporation – all components of the “Aspen Idea.”

“Her mission behind this, as corny as it sounds, was the longevity of mankind,” said Janet Ferrara, operations manager of the Given. “I heard her speak those words.”

The Given occupies a secluded spot at the corner of Garmisch and West Francis streets. The property, overlooking Hallam Lake, was once part of the well-kept expanse of lawn and gardens next to the Paepcke home. Mrs. Paepcke also owned the Hallam Lake property.

“She was actually looking to see what could be done with her property,” King said. “Originally, she suggested that we take the whole thing. We didn’t really have the wherewithal to take it all.”

So the university accepted the land on the upper bench. Hallam Lake became the headquarters of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

The Irene Heinz Given Foundation and the John LaPorte Given Foundation provided $500,000 to construct the institute – and an obvious choice for its name – and noted architect Herbert Bayer, who’d designed the Music Festival Tent of that era, gave King some crucial architectural advice:

“Herbert Bayer said the only one I could pick was Harry Weese.”

A renowned Chicago architect, Weese designed a striking, modern building. Its lines, curves and generous windows that bring the splendor of the grounds indoors, produce appreciative “aahs” from first-time visitors even today.

“The quirkiness is what makes you fall in love,” Ferrara said. “You walk in and you’re immediately entertained by the building.”

Its centerpiece is the lecture hall, where attendees sit in a circular pattern so that everyone can interact face to face.

“My original feeling, and I hear this from people all the time – they’re a little intimidated,” Ferrara said. “By the end of the day, they’ve fallen in love with the room.”

“The way the building is designed, with the United Nations-style circular seating, is really ideal for interaction,” agreed Dr. Richard Krugman, chairman of the institute and dean of the university’s School of Medicine.

The Given was equipped with a small laboratory in the basement as well – it even had an electron microscope – but that room has since been converted into meeting space.

The manicured grounds and flower beds, and a patio overlooking Hallam Lake, serve as an extension of the lecture hall, noted Dr. Bruce Paton, current director of the institute.

“The whole idea of all these people coming to the Given was to create a community for four or five days,” he said. “A lot of the best work was probably done walking and talking in the back garden and not in the lectures.

“That’s what people enjoy at the Given – a great opportunity to meet colleagues in a very nice environment. It’s extremely conducive to the spreading and development of ideas.”

The Given has also seen more than a few scientists kick up their heels, according to Ferrara, though dancing after a day’s lectures doesn’t happen as often as it used to in the party days of the ’70s.

Recently, however, Ferrara found a group engaged in an evening limbo contest in the back yard.

“We were just shocked,” she said. “During the day, they’re so serious you can hardly get a smile out of them.”

Participants at another conference let off a little steam with the tango, she reported.

Over its first decade, the institute established itself as a major biomedical conference and educational venue with King as its initial director. The programs taking place there were seminal in their field, but both its functions and even the stunning facility itself largely escaped Aspen’s notice.

“I think it’s always been sort of a hidden treasure,” King conceded.

When Krugman invited friends to meet him at the Given, they couldn’t find it, he recalled.

“When I started with this 13 years ago, I don’t think anybody in Aspen knew what the Given was,” he said.

Nonetheless, the institute celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1993 with a symposium on creativity in the arts and science that attracted Nobel Prize-winners George Palade and Thomas Cech. It ultimately evolved into a book of essays, “The Origins of Creativity,” published in 2001 by the Oxford University Press.

Going public

While the Given remained a hub for top medical researchers, the university set a broader goal for the university’s third decade of operation: transform it into a year-round facility with stronger ties to the community.

The building was winterized in order to host programming throughout the year, and the Given Institute Advisory Board began raising funds to establish a new public lecture series. Now, the community uses are funded by the Aspen Given Foundation, formed in 2000 to support the public programming.

The Given co-sponsored the Aspen Health and Fitness Symposium in 1998, featuring speakers such as Pete Athans, a mountaineer who submitted Mt. Everest seven times, and Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The university’s Mini College made its Aspen debut that same year, featuring free lectures by CU professors on topics offered for learning pleasure, not credit. Subjects ranged from the work of psychologist Sigmund Freud to the body’s immune system.

It has since hosted a Youth Summit and partnered with the Aspen Youth Council to present a community discussion on substance abuse in the Roaring Fork Valley. Regular brown-bag lunches focus on health-related topics for local senior citizens.

A Youth Dental Fair debuted in 2000, bringing area second-graders to the Given for dental screening and tips on preventive dental care. This September, Save Your Sight optical screenings and referrals will take place in local parks.

The Given now hosts 10 free public lectures a year, bringing leading experts to Aspen for presentations on everything from bio-terrorism to sports medicine.

“We started with four lectures a decade ago and wondered if anyone would come,” Ferrara recalled. “We have to turn people away now.”

The lectures are often topical, tackling controversial subjects and featuring speakers with firsthand knowledge of the issue, noted Dr. Richard Jacobs, incoming president of the institute’s advisory board.

“It’s cutting-edge stuff in health care,” he said.

This summer’s series, for example, will bring former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm to speak on “End of Life Decisions” – spending health-care resources on improving “quality of life” rather than “postponement of death.”

Dr. Joel Levine will give a presentation on the national health-care crisis. He is a professor of medicine at CU and has worked as the health legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, a ranking member of the Medicare Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee.

Dr. Richard Spritz, director of CU’s Human Medical Genetics Program, will speak on “The Human Genome Project and the Future of Medicine.” It’s a future that may include the development of new treatments based on a patient’s individual genetic makeup.

Untapped potential

As the Given enters its fourth decade, its chairman, Krugman, would like to see it become a more regional venue for education and increase its year-round use.

“We’ve had the dream for a long time,” he said. “I think it is absolutely fair to say the Given is not used to its full potential.”

The university would also like to see the Given become self-supporting, Krugman said. Currently, CU underwrites about half of the cost of its operation, while conference leases cover the rest.

The university’s long-term vision for the Given includes the addition of a glassed-in dining area in back to seat about 100 people, along with expansion of its tiny kitchen, making conferences throughout the year more feasible.

“It’s hard to have a picnic in the back yard in February,” Krugman noted.

In addition, there are plans to create the Elizabeth Paepcke Memorial Garden on the grounds, featuring beds of her favorite flowers, of non-genetically altered plants and of native Colorado plants.

Both the university and the advisory board would like to see teleconference facilities in the Given, allowing both participation in Given-based programs from remote locales and the ability to view presentations elsewhere from a seat at the Given. Grant funds are being sought for the upgrade.

“We’ve encouraged the university to make the Given more interactive, more state of the art in terms of teleconferencing,” Jacobs said. “The facility has the potential to be a much bigger resource.”

Krugman agrees. The institute could, for example, play a role in continuing education for medical professionals throughout Western Colorado.

“The Given could be a place where a lot of the programs that take place could be sent to the rest of the Western Slope,” he said.

The $1 to $2 million cost of expanding the Given, however, will require some private support, Krugman said. The university can’t do it alone, nor is he expecting private sources to foot the entire bill.

“I don’t think it can be one or the other,” he said. “It shouldn’t be just the community and, in this day and age, I don’t think it can be just the university.”

Despite fiscally challenging times, CU is committed to the Given, said Krugman, who made a promise to Elizabeth Paepcke when he became dean of the CU School of Medicine 13 years ago.

“She says to me, `So you’re the young man who’s now in charge. I want you to promise to take care of the place.'”

He did.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com