Those cranky old icons
August 16, 2006
So naturally I got all worked up over the idea of renaming Paepcke Auditorium in honor of a couple of rich yahoos who have a few million bucks to spare.I was having dinner with friends and ranting about this disgraceful destruction of Aspen’s hallowed blah blah blah when I was interrupted.”Well,” said one of my dinner companions (and I’m quoting very loosely here), “Walter Paepcke was no saint. As far as I’m concerned, they can take that S.O.B.’s name off anything they want.”That shut me up. This person knew what he was talking about.In fact, I have heard before about Walter Paepcke’s high-handed arrogance.People who were here when he swept into town in the late 1940s might have seen him as someone who would bring a lot of money to town, but they didn’t see him as a saint.It shouldn’t be surprising that Paepcke could be arrogant, aggressive and abrasive. He was a major industrialist. He took his family’s Chicago lumber company and built it into a nationwide cardboard box powerhouse.You don’t get to the top by being a sweetheart.Please! Hold those angry letters, phone calls and notes wrapped around bricks! I know that Walter Paepcke was a great force for culture, philosophy and design – both personally and through his Container Corporation of America.He accomplished great things – including, of course, having a hand in almost everything that’s good about today’s Aspen. (Not counting the mountains, of course.)But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a nasty S.O.B. when he had to be. Or when he wanted to be. Or when he didn’t get his way.Titans of industry just hate it when they don’t get their way. Even the enlightened ones.As a matter of fact, there were plenty of tough S.O.B.s around in the early days of Aspen’s renaissance. And not necessarily titans of industry.I was reminded of that with the recent hoo-hah over the 40-year-old Bidwell Building at Galena and Cooper.The owners want to tear it down and build something larger. The Historic Preservation Commission said that was fine with them. Some city officials, however, want to preserve the building.It’s an interesting squabble because the building itself is really pretty crappy. (That’s a technical term.) The construction was shoddy and the design itself – with a huge sunken courtyard – is unfortunate.But what I’m thinking about now is the man who built it: Bert Bidwell.Bert passed away a few years ago, so I should tread gently here, but he was one mean S.O.B. Mean and mean-spirited.He was one of the Tenth Mountain Division veterans who settled here after World War II and he definitely made his mark.Bidwell was perhaps best known in the 1960s for attacking any “damn hippies” who dared to sit on the street-level wall surrounding that unfortunate sunken courtyard. He’d run out of his building and spray them with a garden hose for the crime of just sitting there. A nasty guy.But sometimes it takes nasty guys to get things done. Like Bert Bidwell, who grabbed his chunk of Aspen and hung on through the lean years.Or Walter Paepcke, who turned a lumber company into one of America’s major corporations.Or, I suppose, the multimillionaires who made their fortune with the Franklin Mint and whose name may go on the room we all call Paepcke Auditorium.Which brings us full circle.Because, on one hand, there’s something almost amusing about having the name of a cardboard-box magnate replaced by the name of a couple who made a fortune catering to the vast American fondness for tacky crap.But on the other hand, arrogant S.O.B. that Walter Paepcke might have been, there’s something truly tragic about seeing the owners of the Franklin Mint replace the man who founded the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Skiing Company – a man dedicated to great ideas and great design. As opposed to selling commemorative plates bearing the likeness of Princess Diana.My dinner companion didn’t care about honoring the memory of Walter Paepcke. I understand that. But I still believe we should honor what he accomplished – and I’m not talking about honoring it with a “limited-edition, collectible china plate.”Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.