‘New money’ vs. old at the Institute
August 11, 2006
Every now and then I end up with a story that piques my imagination more than usual – that leaves me wondering about the nature of the community we inhabit and, by extension, the world.One such came my way last week, a tale about philanthropic largesse with a string attached, at least as far as I could tell.Part-time Aspenites Stewart and Lynda Resnick, wealthy entrepreneurs who have their share of friends and detractors around town, recently ponied up a pot of money for some rehabilitation work at the Aspen Institute, including work on what everyone in town calls the Paepcke Auditorium. Located in a building named after the family that essentially reinvented Aspen in the late 1940s, taking it from a nearly vacant ghost town to an international center of sport, culture and high living, the auditorium was in need of a facelift after a half-century of use, and the Resnicks agreed to be the major funders of the work. The problem arose when it got around that the auditorium, which Institute officials say never really had a name, was to be called the Resnick Auditorium in honor of the gift; the building would retain the Paepcke name.Now, I should say here that I have nothing against the Resnicks, never met them, perhaps never will in person. On the other hand, I’ve made it clear in this space that I am not and never have been a fan of an economic system that encourages, in fact mandates, that some small number of people be fabulously wealthy and another, much larger set of people be relatively impoverished. But it’s the system we’ve got, so let’s just move on.As I looked into the story, I spoke with a man who runs a jewelry store in town, comes from wealth in the “old money” sense, and is outraged at the thought that the auditorium might have a new name. For him, and probably for others, it is The Paepcke Auditorium, always has been, always should be. Philanthropy, for this man, is something wealthy people should do for the good of society and the particular institutions they give to, not so that they can have their name on something, particularly if that something has a historical identity already.I talked with Institute folks, I talked with one of the remaining Paepcke family members living in Aspen. I called the Resnicks but got no response, so I don’t even know for sure that they wanted their names attached to this effort. I suppose it’s possible the naming could have been a gesture initiated by the Institute.In the end, I wrote a story that is bound to kick up a little dust in our little Sodom on the Mountain. The clash between new money and old has been an active one here, in which new money’s priorities are most noticeably manifested in the too-common urge to come in, buy a normal-sized house on a normal sized lot, then tear it down whether it is habitable or not. The next step is to build a huge house, a “McMansion” far larger than anyone really needs for simple living requirements, which often is more of an investment rather than an actual home. The problems caused by this phenomenon have been discussed ad infinitum around here, and need not be rehashed now.There are other signs of this clash, but you get the picture. New money, in the eyes of old money, is brash, rude, even vulgar, and draws attention to itself whenever possible. Old money, in this light, is seen as quiet, somber and operating in the background with little need for fanfare or attention.But one thing has occurred to me that I feel should be part of the debate, and that is that the Paepckes, aside from their venerable status as the progenitors of modern Aspen, were arguably the “new money” of the 1940s. They came to Aspen, wealthy from their Chicago business dealings, and began remaking Aspen in the image they favored. And according to historical accounts they were not welcomed by all.In one celebrated instance, Walter Paepcke is said to have once offered to buy paint for every house in town if the owners would adhere to a color scheme he preferred. Some went along, happy to get the free paint, while others rejected the idea, scoffed at the Paepckes and their machinations and made no secret about their unhappiness at having their little ghost town thus invaded.And, of course, the Paepckes put their name on the building that houses the auditorium. But since the building didn’t exist before they created the Institute, the justification for the Paepcke name may be firmer than for someone who offers to pay the cost of sprucing the place up a bit.Whatever your feelings on the matter, it is bound to play out in a very public way in the near future. Stay tuned.