Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke

Aspen's International Identity

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1949

Walter Paepcke made his fortune as a corporate executive in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century before launching a career in philanthropy. The town of Aspen, Colorado, owes its international identity to Paepcke. Organizations he endowed to support the arts and debates over ideas and public policy have turned Aspen into a cultural brand.

Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth, were originally drawn to Aspen by their love of nature. As a trustee of the University of Chicago and a sometime participant in its Great Books program established by Mortimer Adler, Walter was an advocate of classical learning. In 1949, the Paepckes staged a celebration of the German writer Goethe that drew many prominent artists and humanitarians to their small adopted alpine town.

They subsequently established the Aspen Music Festival and School in 1949, created the Aspen Institute (a major politics and education nonprofit), and built the Aspen Skiing Company during the 1950s.

The early Aspen events united nature, art, music, and ideas, and set a template for subsequent celebrations of the arts and intellect. The Aspen Institute has become one of the nation’s most important venues for consideration of ideas and public policy, with a campus in Maryland as well as Colorado.

And the Aspen summer music festival and school now presents more than 350 classical music events each summer—performances, seminars, and master classes. The festival attracts 100,000 annual visitors, and music students and masters from all over the world come to perform, learn, and be rejuvenated—with two thirds of the students receiving financial aid thanks to generous donors.