The Given Institute was an International Style conference and laboratory building designed by Harry Weese and built in 1972 at 100 East Francis Street in Aspen. Built on land that formerly belonged to Elizabeth Paepcke near Hallam Lake, the building was owned by the University of Colorado and used for medical conferences, public lectures, and other events. In 2011 the university sold the property to raise money and demolished the building—over the opposition of local preservationists and city officials—to make way for a private residence.
Conference on Advances in Molecular Biology
In 1964 Donald West King, head of the Pathology Department at the University of Colorado (CU) School of Medicine, spearheaded a conference on Advances in Molecular Biology that was held in Aspen. His idea was to bring together research scientists and medical doctors to discuss ideas and share information, and he chose Aspen because the resort had a growing reputation as an intellectual and cultural retreat thanks to organizations such as the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School. The conference was a success and soon grew to four sessions per summer, but it had to turn away participants due to severe space limitations at its location, the gym of Aspen Middle School. The conference would need a new facility to grow and expand into fields such as cell biology and genetics.
Building the Given Institute
In 1967 King and CU started discussions with the Aspen Institute to build a permanent conference and laboratory building, which King hoped to develop into a pathobiology institute where doctors could come for seminars and courses. Soon King secured a $500,000 donation from the Irene Heinz Given and John LaPorte Given Foundation to fund the building, which would be named the Given Institute in honor of the gift, and in 1970 Paepcke agreed to sell two acres of land near her house and Hallam Lake at a steeply discounted price as a site for the institute.
Paepcke placed several conditions on the discounted sale. She wanted the site’s natural setting to be preserved and declared that any paving for parking should be kept to a minimum. She also stipulated that the building’s architect should be Harry Weese, a well-known modernist with a reputation for respecting a building’s site and context. Weese was based in Chicago and is now best known for his work on early Washington, DC, Metro stations, but he had strong ties to Aspen and the Paepckes.
CU wanted the Given Institute to be designed for the kind of relaxed and informal discussions that might facilitate the free flow of ideas. Weese responded with a simple square building complicated by a series of interwoven geometrical slices, notches, and projections. The plan was dominated by a two-story circular auditorium that could seat 190 people at desks arranged in concentric rings around a central dais. The first floor also contained a laboratory and kitchen while the second floor housed small conference rooms, offices, and a library. Weese used simple materials—concrete blocks painted white for the walls, wood for the columns and roof—to ensure that the building would not overwhelm its natural setting. The location was also chosen with an eye to maximizing views and minimizing disruptions to the landscape (only one tree had to be relocated during construction). The building was completed in 1972.
The Given Institute started as a kind of biomedical think tank, with all funding coming from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and private donations. After NIH support ended in the late 1980s, the institute’s purpose shifted. CU made upgrades so that it could rent the building as a general-purpose conference facility throughout the year, while the Given Institute itself turned its attention to serving the local community. In 1991 a local advisory board established a public lecture series on biomedical topics, and the institute started to host youth summits, senior lunches, and dental and medical screenings. In 1999 the Aspen Given Foundation was established to raise money for the institute’s public programs and health events.
In the wake of the Great Recession (2007–9), CU needed extra funds and no longer wanted to be burdened by the Given Institute’s annual operating costs of $200,000. It decided to sell the 2.25-acre property, which was sure to fetch a high price for its location just a few blocks from downtown Aspen. In June 2010, it became clear that the land would be more valuable to developers without the existing Given Institute building, and CU received a demolition permit.
Preservationists quickly rallied to save the Given Institute. The Aspen Historic Preservation Commission nominated the building to the National Register of Historic Places, and the nonprofit Colorado Preservation, Inc. put the building on its 2011 list of the state’s most endangered places.
Despite efforts by preservationists and city planners, CU’s plan to demolish the Given Institute building and sell the property moved forward. Developer SC Acquisitions was deterred after it faced stiff opposition to its plans to tear down the site’s trees and build three luxury houses, but in early 2011, Jonathan Lewis, who lived next door, stepped in to buy the property on the condition that CU would tear down the Given Institute. CU demolished the building in April, and the next month Lewis completed his purchase of the property for $13.8 million. CU used part of the money to fund a building on the Anschutz Medical Campus and placed the rest in an endowment.
By 2014 Lewis’s relatives Adam and Melony Lewis were planning to build a 6,000-square-foot house on the former site of the Given Institute, with a 1,000-square-foot guesthouse on the north end of the property. Construction was expected to begin in late 2015 and take more than two years to complete.