Andersen: A $40 million “ranch” — really?
“Paul, what’s the average price of a house in Aspen?”
I get this question on almost every guided tour I do for the Aspen Institute. When I make a wild guess of $3 to $4 million, their jaws drop and their eyebrows arch. Incredulity describes their expressions, plus a kind of reproof that comes with the slow shaking of their heads.
Last week I came prepared with a copy of a local newspaper. On the back page was a glossy real estate ad that I had skimmed before the tour. I hadn’t shopped Aspen real estate in years, and even I was shocked by the absurdly high prices.
“If any of you are considering relocating to Aspen,” I joked, “I have some offerings for you.”
The premium property in the ad was a glass, steel and stone fortress on Willoughby Way. With seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms, this manse was described as a 10,000-square-foot “masterpiece” and listed for $32.5 million.
“This would be most suitable as your second, third or fourth home,” I explained, trying to keep a straight face. I recognized a change in their faces, too. They got the absurdity, but their looks spoke more to disapproval than appreciation.
“Here,” I said, pointing out a much smaller ad, “for only 13 million dollars you may ‘Connect with Mother Nature.’ This property is advertised as a ranch, but you’d have to grow one hell of a hay crop to pay down that investment.”
The piece de resistance was an ad pictured with a bucolic, rural scene, a 244-acre ranch in Woody Creek that listed for $39.9 million. “For you aspiring cattlemen, this would be the ideal place to raise your boutique herd of Kobe. Out on the range, your cowboys can wear Prada and Gucci.”
“Unbelievable!” said a woman from Brazil, while the others nodded in disbelief. Aspen suddenly changed for them. It was no longer simply a ski resort and cultural enclave. Now it became an elite status symbol for the super-rich for whom the greatest share of the global commons has been awarded.
This led me to the story of the largest home ever conceived in Pitkin County, built in the late 1980s by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, then ambassador to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia.
Bandar’s house, I explained, is 55,000 square feet, with 13 bedrooms and 26 bathrooms, complete with a replica of an Irish pub.
“That’s not a house!” exclaimed a man from the Dominican Republic. “There must be other words for it.”
“It’s a palace,” replied a woman from Washington, D.C. “Yes, a palace,” said a businessman from Singapore. I suggested “private hotel” and began to feel like an apologist for the conspicuous displays of material excess that are offensive to people who recognize the disparity of wealth in the world today.
These seminarians have not come here for a primer on Aspen real estate. They are here to further their world views through a seminar exploring philosophical nuances to ethics, morality, resources, gender, race, economics, environment, leadership and much more.
On my tours, I strive to point out the higher values of Aspen, not values measured in opulence, but in values measured by moral virtues. At Paepcke Park, where I take all my groups, I point out the bronze bust of Albert Schweitzer, my top Aspen shrine to nonmaterial, spiritual values.
Here I celebrate Schweitzer’s reverence for all life and describe his keynote address at the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial where he conjured the spirit of Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Schweitzer gives me pride in Aspen and in the roots of Aspen’s cultural renaissance. Schweitzer is the takeaway I want these visitors to have, with an appreciation for the way Aspen can enrich one in nonmaterial ways.
That’s a hard sell when almost anywhere you look there are examples to the contrary. Aspen’s material values prevail over the nonmaterial, if the nonmaterial values are considered much at all.
Contemplating Schweitzer and Goethe, I can only imagine that “the living saint” and the poet philosopher of Weimar would shake their heads, like my seminar friends, in dismay at what Aspen has made of Aspen.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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