Secret Season

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In the aftermath of World War II, Paepcke focused his energy on rescuing the best of his German heritage, as exemplified by Goethe, Beethoven, and Kant. After vacationing near Aspen in 1945, he found himself fascinated by the town’s “stately, if unused and ill-repaired, Victorian houses and public buildings.” Aspen, he thought, could be remade, not only as a sparkling ski resort but as the new Bauhaus, a cultural mecca. Quietly, to prevent prices from exploding, he began to buy property, including Jerome Wheeler’s home, his opera house, and the hotel.

Paepcke and his wife launched their cultural crusade in the summer of 1949 with a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s birth. His star attraction, Albert Schweitzer, made headlines by traveling from Africa to this remote ski village on his only American visit. Thus was born the new Aspen—the famed community of intellect, with its influential think tank, the Aspen Institute, and its world-renowned music festival. Both continue to thrive. The Paepckes’ legacy also lives on through the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), which they founded here, its headquarters a wildlife sanctuary on the edge of town, and through the eloquently spare Bauhaus structures they built to house their endeavors.

During my few days in Aspen I had only to get a whiff of how the Paepckes shaped their little kingdom —and the wider world—to become enthralled. I came upon an article in the Aspen Times in which the author Bruce Berger compared Paepcke to “Prospero, protagonist of Shakespeare’s romance The Tempest … . giving up his dukedom to pursue ‘liberal arts’ and ‘the bettering of my mind.’…” Reading on, I saw that Berger suggests that Aspen’s span “as a surprisingly close embodiment of the pastoral ideal” is over. But for those of us who have only now encountered Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, it may have just begun.

Carla Davidson is a senior editor at American Heritage magazine.

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