Walter who? |

Walter who?

John Colson
Walter Paepcke is credited with reinventing Aspen as a Mecca for art, culture and sport, but during the 1950s, many locals viewed him as an arrogant interloper. (Ferenc Berko)

Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke.Their names are integral to any discussion about modern Aspen, and theyve been in the news more lately than at any time in the last couple of decades excepting perhaps Mrs. Paepckes death in 1994.Much has been written and said about the Paepcke legacy recently as Aspenites debated the news that the Aspen Institute, founded by Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke in 1950, was planning to dedicate its main event venue, known to all as Paepcke Auditorium, to part-time locals Stewart and Lynda Resnick.The naming was to recognize the Resnicks $4 million gift to the institute for use in renovating the auditorium and other facilities. But the plan was abandoned when controversy erupted, and the Resnicks withdrew their funding for the auditoriums renovation. The Paepcke legacy seemed to have weathered a storm of some sort.Dead for nearly a half-century, Walter Paepcke continues to trigger a broad range of emotions, ranging from inspiration to frustration depending on ones perspective. His wife, the late Elizabeth Paepcke, is viewed much more fondly by Aspenites of all stripes, perhaps because she made Aspen her home until her death and was recognized by nearly all as the gracious, witty and elegant grande dame of the town.But who exactly were these two people whose vision and actions arguably did more than any other person, dead or alive, to revive Aspen from a half-century of neglect and decline? And what is the nature of the much-debated legacy they left behind?Some felt the Paepckes were heaven-sent saviors.Aspen owes a great deal to the Paepckes, intoned native Aspenite and former City Councilman Jim Markalunas. I think they were very gracious.Others, however, felt differently.They leased the Hotel Jerome, the Sardy hardware store. They got em for a song. It was old big-time rip-off business, said the late Mike Garrish, an Aspen native and former mayor.Most who disliked the Paepckes are gone, either dead or moved away, but the debate over the Paepckes impact on Aspen continues.

The postwar discoveryA moderately wealthy (by todays standards) industrialist from Chicago, Walter P. Paepcke was imbued with a messianic fervor to remake the postwar world into one that devoted as much of its energies to culture as it did to science.Of Germanic extraction, he had taken a small family business and turned it into the Container Corporation of America, a national maker of cardboard containers that used artfully designed advertising to market its products and to polish its image as a patron of high culture.A humanist by nature, Paepcke traveled in circles frequented by men of rarified intellect and high-powered philosophical ideals. Among them were then-president of the University of Chicago Robert Hutchins and philosopher Mortimer Adler, who in the 1930s hatched the idea of creating a Great Books course to revolutionize education and spur discussion of everything from the roots and nature of democracy, to the role of design in commerce and culture, to the notion that the only way to save humanity from its baser instincts was to create a world government operated under the guidelines of a world constitution.By the 1940s Paepcke had already devoted considerable effort and resources to ending the adversary relations between high art and capitalism, according to James Sloan Allens book partly devoted to Paepckes impact on Aspen, The Romance of Commerce and Culture. Paepcke was casting about for a new project.At the urging of his wife, Elizabeth (commonly known as Pussy, a pet name reportedly bestowed by her grandmother), Walter Paepcke came to Aspen shortly after the end of World War II and embarked on a mission to remake the community into an American Salzburg, a reference to the city of culture and music in the Austrian Alps.Even before he got here. Paepcke had begun making plans to turn Aspen into a community of like-minded select people engaged in activities that improved the mind, the spirit and the body, a concept that ultimately would become enshrined in the phrase,The Aspen Idea. Before long he had purchased numerous properties, signed leases for the decrepit Hotel Jerome and Wheeler Opera House, along with other business arrangements, and begun planning events that combined his zeal for high culture and profitable business enterprises (the profits never did materialize, for reasons that caused Paepcke considerable distress).Beginning with the Goethe Bicentennial celebration in summer 1949, the Paepckes launched a series of efforts that led to the creation of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and the Aspen Music Festival and School. They were also instrumental in the formation of other institutions including the Aspen Skiing Corporation, which had already been initiated by a determined group of skiing enthusiasts, including veterans of the U.S. Armys 10th Mountain Division.What had been a town of roughly 800 souls became the bustling resort and playground of the wealthy that it is today, due in large part to the Paepckes influence.

Aspens dilemmaIt should be noted, however, that the Paepckes might have been dismayed about Aspens current dilemma, in which rising property values have forced the towns working class to live in distant communities and commute to Aspen. The local social culture, as viewed by the world and by many locals, is dominated by ostentatious homes, trendy and exclusive retail shops and other trappings of high-end resort living.Both Walter and Elizabeth spoke of their hope to establish a vital, broadly based community of ideas, where carpenters and philosophers, waiters and business leaders could commingle, debate and listen to fine music in a convivial atmosphere. Then they could climb a 14,000-foot peak, hike a high pass or ski down a groomed slope, thereby fulfilling the triumvirate of body, mind, spirit.That the town has become primarily a playground for the super-rich, said one of the Paepckes daughters this week, was very disturbing to Elizabeth, at least.Maybe that would have been a disappointment to both of them, remarked Paula Zurcher, a daughter of the Paepckes who has lived most of her adult life in California and only recently returned to Aspen after the death of her husband. I think its a great pity too.But, she said, much of what her parents tried to do has remained despite the changes in Aspens socio-economic profile. For example, the Aspen Institute (the name was shortened some time ago) and Aspen Music Festival and School are thriving and respected by Aspen residents and visitors alike.The institute, she said, still provides a venue for discussion of core human values, big issues of the day and various philosophical schools of thought. And, she said, it still reflects her fathers decision to devote it more to educating the business elite of the nation so that executives could be exposed to the great ideas.She recalled her father lamenting once that if he ever met a man who was in the container business, all that person would ever talk about was cardboard boxes, which Paepcke believed indicated a paucity of education and a shallowness of intellect.Citing a new program initiated at the institute, she said, The Great Ideas … is a real feather in the cap of Walter Isaacson, current CEO of the organization, although she added that there are probably a lot of things that they [her parents] would feel could have gone a different way and that the current crop of seminars are a little bit too issue-oriented.Noting that my mother was a great believer in ecology and the effect of the environment on ones spirit, Zurcher added that Aspen has retained an environmental ethic that her parents would have endorsed. This is in no small part due to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, which Elizabeth Paepcke founded and supported. She also supported the Aspen Historical Society and other more mundane institutions such as the Aspen Grove Cemetery, where Walter and Elizabeth now rest.

I know what is best for youPredictably, not everyone in Aspen was happy with the Paepckes vision of how Aspen should be, or their ways of achieving their goals. Mike Garrish, who lived in Aspen for 82 years, could have done without the Paepckes.A member of the Aspen City Council in the late 1940s, he wasnt into this music and humanistic-studies stuff and liked the town the way it was.The Paepckes came in [and] all the local atmosphere and color disappeared. I dont know. I was kind of resentful of their ideas. Everything had to be named Paepcke. God almighty, the whole damn thing caved in, he told The Aspen Times in 1996, after he had sold his family home and moved downvalley.Garrish and Fred Glidden [a Western fiction writer under the name Luke Short], who was also elected to the City Council in 1948, became lonely voices among the many who watched as their town was being snatched up by Chicagoans with money, wrote reporter Melissa Schmitt. Garrish said he felt he was speaking up for himself and for those who were cowed into keeping quiet.Garrish claimed unnamed members of what he called the Chicago mafia approached another council member, Jimmy Beck, and threatened to withhold business from his hardware company if he didnt go along with Paepckes program. Beck capitulated and stopped resisting the Paepckes.People wouldnt stand up against the Paepckes, confirmed former Aspen Times editor Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, who came to Aspen in the early 1950s, in the same article. People just wouldnt stand up even if they felt it was wrong. Mrs. Paepcke was very gracious, but Mr. Paepcke was very paternalistic.His attitude was I know what is best for you, Hayes continued. His attitude was Aspen, you dont know, but I do. Still, Paepcke did a lot of great things for Aspen, she concluded: I understand the resentment of the old-timers, but I also see that Mr. Paepcke was right about a lot of things.Greg Poschman, who was born and raised in Aspen, said such conflicts would arise today if someone attempted a modern Paepcke-style dynasty.Imagine someone coming to Aspen today, they buy up most of the real estate and start telling everybody how to do things, he explained, pointing to the current debate in Snowmass Village over the motives and actions of entrepreneur Pat Smith, who is in the process of taking over the Base Village project and has bought up a number of village businesses and properties.They were the 800-pound economic and social gorilla of the day, he said of the Paepckes.But Poschman, who admitted that he is working for the Aspen Institute on a filmmaking project and thus is not a wholly disinterested observer, bristled at what he termed the whiners and grumblers who fought the renaming of the Paepcke Auditorium, and praised the institute for recent outreach initiatives.I think Walter Isaacson and Amy Margerum [two top institute administrators] are working hard to include the people of Aspen in the institutes programs, he said, which he believes is something the people of Aspen should welcome and appreciate.Some have hinted that Paepcke had anti-Semitic sentiments, possibly because he was of German descent, but that accusation is not borne out by Paepckes recruitment of prominent Jewish intellectuals to participate in his events and enterprises. Nor is it endorsed by Kurt Bresnitz, who moved to Aspen in 1950 and called himself the second Jew to move into town. Bresnitz ran a jewelry and watch-repair shop here for decades until he sold the business and retired.I didnt like him because he beat me in chess all the time, Bresnitz joked this week. He was a darned good chess player.As for the anti-Semitism, he said, I never heard of that, and I doubt it very much.He said such talk may have gotten started because of personal animosities, but added, I never heard him say a bad word about Jewish people coming to this town and noted that when he moved here in the heart of the offseason in 1950, Paepcke rented him a house.

Restless nativesOne of the more well-known incidents pointing up the friction between Walter Paepcke and the towns citizenry was when Paepcke, who had acquired an interest in a local hardware store, offered in 1946 to give paint to anyone who wanted to use it to spruce up their weathered homes. The only catch was that the homeowner would have to follow a color scheme laid out by Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer, who had come to Aspen at Paepckes invitation.The natives didnt like to be told what they should do, Bresnitz recalled from tales of the conflict. They didnt want to be told that, A, they had to paint [their houses] at all and, B, what color to paint them. He said some locals did take Paepcke up on his offer, but that some were vociferous in their condemnation of Paepcke and his methods.As the years progressed, Paepcke occasionally aroused the ire of others, including the only paper in town at the time, The Aspen Times.In 1956, the new owner of the paper, Bil Dunaway, chastised Paepcke for refusing, for personal reasons, to sell land to the school district for a new playground. This, the paper editorialized, was after neighboring landowners had agreed to sell theirs, adding that it seems unfortunate that, in a democracy, one man would willingly hinder the progress of a communitys most important single institution for personal reasons.At times, the indignation prompted by Paepckes ways was amusing. Authors Peggy Clifford and John M. Smith, in their 1970 book, Aspen/Dreams and Dilemmas, referred to an unnamed woman giving a birthday toast at the Paepcke-renovated Wheeler Opera House, declared, To Walter P. Possible, who has made everything in Aspen Paepcke.Paepcke also ran afoul of local cowboys when a rodeo was scheduled on a concert day, according to Cliffords book, and Paepcke objected out of concerns that the noise from the rodeo would disturb the nearby classical music being performed by Paepckes orchestra.The rodeo went ahead as planned, and a subsequent schism between Paepcke and the music festival lead to the establishment of the Aspen Music Festival and School as a separate entity from Paepckes other organizations, an arrangement that has continued to this day.

The legacy is everywhereBut despite the occasional dispute prompted by Paepckes high-handed tactics and patronizing attitude, most of the towns populace, then and now, have regarded the Paepckes as a benevolent, if sometimes arrogant, influence.The legacy is everywhere in Aspen, said former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, who has either visited or lived in the Aspen area since he was brought here at the age of 8 by his family from Texas.Aspen would not be remotely like it is today if not for Walter and Elizabeth and everything that they started, he declared, describing the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial as the Big Bang that gave birth to the regions constellation of nonprofit, humanistically oriented organizations.What they did was establish a critical mass of arts, cultural and intellectual organizations in Aspen, as well as a cast of characters to sustain the organizations and their missions, Bennett continued, which created a place in America that would echo the synergy of art and culture that one finds in an old European city such as Salzburg.And while he and others, including Elizabeth Paepcke when she was living out her declining years, may have felt that Aspen has lost track of the original dream … and is just a place for rich and glitz, Bennett said, aspects of the dream are certainly as vibrant as theyve ever been.Markalunas agreed, noting that if it hadnt been for the Paepckes I wouldnt have been exposed to all that, referring to the music, the intellectual seminars and the atmosphere of creative debate that has taken root in the town.Poschman, addressing the same theme, asked, What would Aspen be today [if the Paepckes had not come to town]? I think it would be another, probably a tacky ski resort … with much bigger problems.John Colsons e-mail address is

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User