Paul Andersen: When the Aspen Institute divorced Aspen
The Times’ Aug. 25 profile feature on Aspen developer John Sarpa spoke volumes of local history — a history of social change, political upheaval, power politics and the art of the deal. Sarpa, who last week opened the tony W Hotel, has worn many hats through this unfolding saga.
Sarpa was asked what he’s most proud of developing in Aspen. His answer — a good one that speaks to his sense of civic duty — was stitching together the Meadow Campus after it had been torn to pieces decades ago.
First, step back to 1949 — to the Goethe Bicentennial, the groundbreaking Convocation that put Aspen on the map as an unlikely center for culture, arts and the world of ideas.
The sleeping mining town was awakened during that event like the slumbering Gulliver. Instead of a Lilliput village, the awakening occurred beneath a sinuous canvas tent on a sagebrush flat. From that tent burst rays of hope for mankind.
With saintly humility emerged the idealized spirit of man as described by Dr. Albert Schweitzer in a eulogy to Johann Wolfgang Goethe on his 200th birthday. Here was a scintillating moment that still stands as the apogee of Aspen’s cultural purity of which nothing subsequent has matched.
The Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies followed on the Convocation’s heels, formed in 1950 to reintroduce the humanities to a nation in the throes of corporate myopia and gross materialism amid a small global concern known as Mutually Assured Destruction.
The Meadow Campus would morph from an old horse-racing track into an incubator for the elites of the day to wrestle with philosophical conundrums and instill acolytes with the values of enlightened leadership through discussions on ethics and morality.
When Institute founder Walter Paepcke died in 1960, his successor, the man who had propped up the Institute financially and with the force of his authoritarian character, took the helm. Like a ship’s captain on storm-tossed seas, Robert O. Anderson piloted the Institute onto dangerous shoals when he defied Aspen’s progressive, new leadership.
Anderson, Chairman of ARCO, a global oil company, was rebuffed by the young turks who had taken over local governance in a coup that marked the advent of liberalism in a former conservative stronghold. These upstarts had the temerity to inform Anderson that his development schemes at the Meadows were incompatible with growth-controlled Aspen.
“Fie!” cursed the king, who, with Mephistophelean rancor, sold the Meadows campus to a salacious developer and, in the early 1980s, spirited the vision of humanism off to Baca Grande. The world of ideas landed on a remote desert plain near Crestone in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado beneath the towering ramparts of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a veritable Mordor where the Institute would be reformed.
I visited Baca recently and found two hexagonal seminar rooms — near replicas of Herbert Bayer’s Aspen Bauhaus designs — shaded by pinons and junipers and affixed to a small residential compound and restaurant. This postage stamp campus, once consecrated as the next Aspen Meadows, now serves students from Colorado College seeking scholarship in quiet, monk-like seclusion.
The Institute had discovered 35 years ago that Baca was no utopia. Realizing that it had strayed too far from its genesis, Anderson became the prodigal son and sought amends with Aspen. But, alas, his kingdom was undone.
Anderson, like Lear, had leaped off an imaginary cliff after his autocratic rule was thwarted. Meanwhile, the Meadows development scheme had collapsed, and not even suitors like John Roberts or Donald Trump could put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.
That task fell to a consortium of enlightened Aspenites who cared about the integrity of Aspen’s cultural soul and realized its long-term value. Among them was Sarpa, who described a charged meeting with R.O. Anderson, who schooled him on “The Aspen Idea,” a tome that celebrates the Institute’s hallowed evolution.
The Meadows Campus was miraculously reinstated as the sacred venue for ideas, music, physics and design, and the rest is history. “The Athens of the West” prevails, with the ghost of Goethe and the echoes of Schweitzer beckoning from the spirit world and reminding those who listen that high ideals still matter in Aspen.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.