Elizabeth Paepcke (1902–94) is best known for working with her husband, Walter, to transform the former mining town of Aspen into a cultural hub after World War II. Trained in art and design, she was perhaps most influential in getting Walter interested in the modernist styles that shaped much of Aspen’s new growth. She remained a prominent figure in Aspen for the rest of her long life, though she grew concerned about the town’s development and founded the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to encourage conservation and sustainability.
Elizabeth Hilken Nitze was born on August 28, 1902, to Anina and William Nitze in Baltimore, Maryland. Elizabeth’s family had a history in shipping and commerce, but her father was an academic who eventually became chair of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department at the University of Chicago. Her younger brother, Paul, went on to become a senior defense official during the Cold War.
Elizabeth attended Foxcroft, a girls’ boarding school in Virginia, graduating in 1921. A year later, she married Walter Paepcke, a young Chicago businessman who inherited his father’s lumber and box-making firm. Both from German backgrounds, Elizabeth and Walter often spoke German at home. They had four children: one son, Walter, Jr., who died in 1926, and three daughters, Anina, Paula, and Antonia.
Soon Walter started the Container Corporation of America and began to build it into the largest producer of paper containers in the country. While he focused on business, Elizabeth involved herself with art and society. Gaining a reputation for her beauty and intellect, she became a local cultural leader who sat on the women’s board at the Art Institute of Chicago and the board of trustees at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She was especially interested in the modernist movement in music and art, collecting works by the likes of Pablo Picasso and László Moholy-Nagy. She introduced Walter to modernist design and played an influential role in her husband’s innovative design programs at the Container Corporation and, later, in Aspen.
Coming to Aspen
The Paepckes often vacationed in Colorado, first at Estes Park and then at their 7,500-acre ranch near Larkspur, called Perry Park, which they bought in 1936. In the winter of 1939, the pipes froze at Perry Park, and Elizabeth was faced with the problem of how to entertain the family’s guests. She decided to take them on a ski trip to Aspen, then a sleepy former mining town. The journey required a train to Glenwood Springs, followed by a car ride up the Roaring Fork Valley. They stayed at the Hotel Jerome, practically the only option in town, where room and board cost only three dollars per person.
To get to the top of Aspen Mountain the next morning, the group caught a ride with some miners and then herringboned uphill for hours. At the summit, Paepcke recalled, “we halted in frozen admiration” at the winter landscape that unfolded below. She hoped to bring Walter, who had stayed behind at the ranch, back with her to see the area, but soon World War II intervened and rationing made travel more difficult.
As the war wound down, Paepcke finally got her husband to Aspen for Memorial Day weekend in 1945. “It was a deserted town,” she later recalled. “On a walk through the village, the only people we saw were three drunks.” Walter, in search of new business opportunities, was already thinking about redeveloping the town. At the end of their second day, he surprised Elizabeth by giving her Lamb House, an old Victorian on the west side. She was not pleased, since to her it meant yet another house to maintain.
But Walter had larger plans and was soon buying properties for back taxes all over Aspen. He started the Aspen Company for his real estate holdings and the Aspen Skiing Corporation to develop a ski area, and began to talk up Aspen to all of his acquaintances. The Paepckes brought in Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer to guide the town’s redevelopment. Elizabeth, who had a long-standing interest in modernism plus some design experience of her own, worked with Bayer on projects such as the makeover of the Hotel Jerome.
Aspen opened the world’s longest chairlift in 1947, but it continued to lack cultural amenities. Soon the Paepckes stumbled upon a way to change that. They became involved in a plan hatched by several literature professors, including some at the University of Chicago, to put on a grand celebration of the bicentennial of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s birth in 1949. Aspen, well removed from the bustle of daily life, was chosen as the site of the festival, and the Paepckes took over much of the planning. The festival made its biggest splash when it lured Albert Schweitzer—the famous theologian, musician, doctor, philanthropist, and later winner of the Nobel Peace Prize—to make his first trip to the United States; the idea for inviting Schweitzer had occurred to Walter after Elizabeth bought him a copy of Schweitzer’s Two Studies of Goethe while on vacation in 1948.
The Goethe Bicentennial helped the Paepckes realize their dream of making Aspen into a town that combined nature and culture into a seamless whole. The event led directly to the start of both the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School, which began when participants wanted to return to town the next summer. As usual, Elizabeth Paepcke played an influential role in these developments and participated in panel discussions during the first Aspen Institute program in the summer of 1950.
Grand Dame of Aspen
Walter Paepcke died in 1960. After his death, Elizabeth remained involved in the Aspen cultural institutions that they had helped establish. She spent more and more time in the area as she aged, eventually becoming known as the “Grand Dame of Aspen” for her regal bearing, moral conscience, and role in the town’s revival. After a trip to Aspen in 1985, Andy Warhol recalled her as “this beautiful lady in her 80s who looked like Katharine Hepburn.”
Over the years, Paepcke became somewhat dismayed by the development of Aspen into a glitzy resort for celebrities like Warhol and other ultrawealthy vacationers, who she thought drove full-time residents away and didn’t do enough to support local cultural institutions. She turned her attention to historic preservation and environmental conservation. In 1968 she established the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, a nonprofit focused on environmental education. A year later, she donated her own twenty-five-acre property on the north side of town for use as the group’s headquarters and as an environmental preserve linking Aspen with the natural world. It remains a treasured retreat.
Elizabeth Paepcke remained remarkably active throughout her life; even in her eighties, she was often seen shoveling snow, working in her garden, and hiking in the hills around town. She died in Aspen on June 15, 1994, at age ninety-one, of complications from a head injury following a fall. She is still remembered as one of the founders of modern Aspen.