The other side of the paint story
September 16, 2011
Most stories have at least two versions. Elizabeth Paepcke’s story about how Aspen locals declined the generous offer of free paint to spruce up their homes, in preparation for the Goethe Bicentennial, has been printed and reprinted in a number of publications. The story of the paint as told by those who refused Paepckes’ offer is quite different.
Mrs. Paepcke expressed surprise that anyone would turn down free paint. The language and tone of her remarks implied that Aspen locals were rubes who needed Paepcke’s paternal guidance. Locals were ingrates to not recognize a gift horse trotting through their town.
Aspen’s homes of the late 1940s were certainly in need of a few coats of paint. Many houses, especially small miners’ cabins, had been abandoned. Although occupied houses withstood the elements, most suggested to even a casual observer that the owners were short on maintenance funds. Aspen’s Victorian wood structures, blasted by high-altitude rays and freeze-dried each winter, require gallons of paint on an almost annual schedule. Do-it-yourself painters of the 1940s applied paint to the thirsty wood, but they spread the paint as thin as the dollars they purchased it with. Many Aspen homes were owned by miners’ widows who were too old to do their own painting and too poor to hire a professional.
Free buckets of paint were tempting.
Walter Paepcke brought Herbert Bayer, Container Corporation’s art consultant, to Aspen to lend expertise to the renovations of buildings he purchased. Bayer, a Bauhaus artist, brightened Paepcke’s purchases with color. The Hotel Jerome was one of the first. The hotel looked much like it does now, featuring unadorned brick, but with fading and chipping paint on the wood trim. Bayer painted the brick white and gray, and the windows accented with blue semicircles that were sarcastically dubbed “eyebrows” by locals.
Of his several Aspen residences, Paepcke’s Pioneer Park was premier: It is the house with the mansard roof one block east of the Aspen Historical Society’s Wheeler-Stallard House, a brick structure atop a sandstone foundation. Soon it shone with new paint, too.
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In contrast with Aspen’s contemporary colorful homes, the Aspen of the 1940s was drab. Unpainted brick homes were trimmed with dark Victorian brown and green. Popular styles included “easily stained” or “faded white,” often without any contrasting trim color. Bayer, as a leading Bauhaus artist, modernized American design by introducing color, and Aspen needed his pallet. But the painting of the hotel and Pioneer Park were not what locals deemed appropriate.
Pioneer Park was painted bubblegum pink! It would not look terribly out of place now, but in 1940, pink was not considered a house color. The hotel was a favorite Aspen building and its new “eyebrows” were not considered an improvement over the Victorian brick. Free paint would have been useful … but pink?
The Paepckes never understood that many locals would have declined even their white paint. The offer was made in such a condescending manner that locals would have had to swallow hard while accepting what they saw as either charity or an insult to their home care. Aspenites of the 1940s were survivors. They had lived through the Depression and the war, and they didn’t need any outsider telling them what color to paint their homes.
Aspenites have always had an aversion to “outsiders” altering their town. They loathed the condo developers of the 1960s who built and ran. When Twentieth Century Fox purchased the Aspen Skiing Corporation and brought Mickey and Minnie to town for Wintersköl, they incited the ire of even those who were relatively new to town.
Locals of the 1940s have a good laugh over the restoration of the Jerome and Pioneer Park to their Victorian origins. That effort may have restored some of their wounded pride.