Aspen Modern: Debate and Discuss

Posted on: July 26th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

Written by Christine Madrid French

Skier's Chalet, 1950, sits at the base of Aspen Mountain and is characteristic of the area's mid-century architecture. (Photo: Aspen Community Development Department)

Skier's Chalet, 1950, sits at the base of Aspen Mountain and is characteristic of the area's mid-century architecture. (Photo: Aspen Community Development Department)

This week, TrustModern travels to the mountain state of Colorado in a continuation of our Modern Module event series. Aspen will be the fourth stop in our nationwide pilot project to identify both challenges and opportunities in ongoing efforts to preserve modern and recent past architecture. We went on the road to ask questions, and did we get answers! So far, more than eight hundred people signed up to attend our events in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. We have heard about great successes, innovative strategies, and unexpected hindrances from the collected audiences.

Let’s get back to Aspen. Though the site selection appears random, the Mountains/Plains office of the National Trust (headquartered in Denver) and TrustModern determined that Aspen was the ideal location for a focused discussion on the place and purpose of modern architecture. Established as a mining town in the late nineteenth century, Aspen’s fortunes rose with the price of silver. Economic collapse and political wrangling led eventually to an almost total abandonment of the city by the 1930s, when only 700 people lived amongst the remains of the once-prosperous community.

Ideas to jump start the local market with a ski resort stalled at the onset of World War II, though it was probably only a matter of time before people recognized the potential of this bucolic mountain town. A new patron emerged in Walter Paepcke. In 1946, Paepcke and partners established the Aspen Skiing Company and opened the world’s longest chairlift at Aspen Mountain. He lured Eero Saarinen to design a tent for the 200th anniversary celebration of German writer Goethe’s birth in Aspen, followed by the founding of the Aspen Institute, designed by Bauhaus-trained architect Herbert Bayer. The influence of these major works set the design tone for Aspen’s building boom during the mid-twentieth century as skiing became a mainstream American pursuit. But modernist architecture did not completely overwhelm the town. Half-timbered Swiss chalets, interpreted 1950s style as motels and tourist accommodations, as well as pre-fabricated log-cabin kits for vacationeers, joined their high-fashion neighbors to create a uniquely Aspenesque mix of buildings and landscapes.

The Given Institute, 1972, by modernist Harry Weese faces demolition.  (Photo: Ziska Childs)

The Given Institute, 1972, by modernist Harry Weese faces demolition. (Photo: Ziska Childs)

As Aspen enters its second century, these buildings now mark more than half of the town’s total history. Despite that lineage, there is still resistance to recognition and preservation of this period of design. For instance, the Given Institute, designed by Harry Weese in 1972 and donated to the University of Colorado by Mrs. Paepcke as a place for public discourse and innovation, is in immediate danger of demolition. The University intends to sell the property for $20 million to a private buyer. The catch: the property must be empty, in other words no building. How can this happen? Perhaps you are familiar with Weese and his nationally recognized work, such as the critically-lauded underground Metro stations in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, sites like the Given Institute are generally unprotected and in need of new patrons to ensure their longevity.

We are hopeful for a solution to this case and others. You can join our conversation on Aspen Modern this Wednesday evening from 6-8 p.m. at the Mountain Chalet. Chad Randl, a noted author of books such as A-Frame and Revolving Architecture: A History of Buildings That Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot, will be providing an overview to inform our discussion. Adrian Scott Fine, director of state and local policy at our office in DC, will lead a discussion amongst our distinguished panel which includes State Senator Gail Schwartz, Harry Teague, AIA, of Harry Teague Architects, historian and Aspen Times columnist Tony Vagneur, Peg Smith of Wake Forest University, and designer/builder Tim Semrau. I will be there too, and am looking forward to hearing your ideas, opinions, and perspectives.

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Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Modern Architecture

2 Responses

  1. Sue Tilden

    July 26, 2010

    Are you aware that a new book by Robert Bruegman (published by WW Norton) is coming out next month on the architecture of Harry Weese?. (Please contact me for further information.)

    The Weese family have been long-time residents and significant contributors to the architecture, arts and quality of life in Aspen. That the Given should be “on the verge of destruction”, particularly through the actions of an institution that was the beneficiary of a generous donation of the property, is reprehensible.

  2. Barbara Schnipper

    July 28, 2010

    So sorry to hear the Given Institute will be demolished. When I began visiting Aspen in the mid-90’s, it was a friendly little village with modestly priced places to stay. Today, one of the few bargains is the $15 ticket to the world-class Aspen Music Festival rehearsal (Sunday mornings in June and July). I have noticed that millionaires live in and run the town, and for a reasonable hotel you must drive 30-45 minutes away to Carbondale or Glenwood Springs.

    The second bargain results from the residents being able to nab VIPS such as politicians, Nobel winners, and ambassadors to their two fine institutes, the Given Institute and the Aspen Institute, offering topics ranging from the environment to the Iraqi war. I sincerely hope that a monstronously expensve condo will not replace the Given Institute!