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Another Aspen Armageddon

Andy Stone

I realize it’s easy to get overexcited and declare that this week’s outrage, the latest crisis du jour, is actually our own little Armageddon – the Battle for the Soul of Aspen.That said, I really do think this nonsense with the swimming pool and the elevator and the lighted canopy above Hallam Lake really is at least a skirmish in the greater Battle for the Soul of Aspen.The property in question is the home belonging to one Jonathan Lewis, apparently a very wealthy young man.The papers keep referring to his home as “the Paepcke estate” or “the former Paepcke estate,” but we need to keep in mind the real story of that property.Lest we forget – since, after all, forgetting is what we do best – once upon a time, the house that stood on this property was the home of the Paepcke family. Many revere Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke as the couple that sparked Aspen’s rebirth after World War II. Elizabeth Paepcke lived for many years in the house on First Street, raising her family, tending her garden and providing a sense of moral guidance for the town.When Mrs. Paepcke died – in that house – the house was sold. Mr. Lewis bought it and, after a lengthy series of government hearings and some tragically stupid bureaucratic errors, he was given permission for what might be called an “Aspen remodel.”An “Aspen remodel” begins with a bulldozer. The original building is totally destroyed. Not one single scrap is saved. A new building that may – in some ways, from some angles, in dim light – vaguely resemble the original is built on the site.And … ta-da! An Aspen remodel!Granting that “remodel” permit involved near-criminal stupidity on the part of Aspen government, for sure. But once everyone realized that the Paepcke House was about to be bulldozed, people rallied to its defense.When Mr. Lewis made it clear that there was no room in his plans for sentiment or for the original home, people begged for a stay of execution in hopes that the house could be moved elsewhere and preserved.Mr. Lewis’s response was to bring in the bulldozer and demolish the house immediately, as Mrs. Paepcke’s children and grandchildren stood crying in the street.Now, with that sad spectacle safely fading from people’s memories, Mr. Lewis is asking permission to build a swimming pool that’s connected to his house by an underground tunnel and a stairway enclosed in a 9-foot “transparent canopy.”Normally, this kind of project is irrelevant to anyone except the neighbors. But in this case, the neighbors include Hallam Lake, the home of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies – a secluded gem, a wildlife preserve in the middle of the city … created by Elizabeth Paepcke.So, having torn down Mrs. Paepcke’s house, Mr. Lewis is now trying to build a “party pool,” with a lighted stairway, overlooking her lasting monument, a wildlife sanctuary.Good one, Mr. Lewis!Now, in the years since he demolished the Paepcke House, Mr. Lewis has bored his way deep into the philanthropic/charitable/artistic heart of Aspen.Money helps in an effort of this nature – Aspen philanthropy is a high-stakes game, where social status comes with a serious price tag. Fortunately, Mr. Lewis has plenty of cash. His name shows up on the lists of board members and supporters of various top-echelon Aspen organizations: the Aspen Art Museum, Filmfest, the Aspen Historical Society (amusing, that), Sustainable Settings. More, I’m sure.In fact, if you follow his tracks on Google, Mr. Lewis comes off as a pretty good guy. He does good things with his money. He supports good causes. Art. History. The environment. Democratic politicians, even.But his commendable efforts seem to be those of the careless rich, the people who are gladly willing to do wonderful things … as long as they are not inconvenienced in any way.But when matters strike closer to home, suddenly the smiling generosity disappears – the same way the Paepcke House disappeared, in a pile of jagged wreckage.Mr. Lewis wants his swimming pool and his tunnel and his stairway and “transparent canopy” – and if that happens to damage the quiet seclusion of Hallam Lake … well, tough.And if it comes down to a nasty fight, we can expect Mr. Lewis to have lots of high-class supporters, representing wealth and art and charity of all kinds.So, in the end, what matters more? A wildlife preserve in the middle of Aspen or a well-connected rich man’s swimming pool?As I said … a Battle for the Soul of Aspen.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is andy@aspentimes.com


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