Remembering the 1949 Goethe Celebration

Kelly J. Hayes | August 14, 2019 | Lifestyle Feature

The Paepckes bet big on Aspen’s potential as an arts and cultural center. Today’s richness in offerings proves they won.

Elli’s building in 1949, which was used for housing during the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival located on the corner of Mill and Main streets.

It was an audacious dream.

Seventy summers ago, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke invited the elite of the international intellectual, business and artistic communities to travel to a tiny moribund Rocky Mountain former mining town to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of a German philosopher, whose name few in America had ever heard (or could pronounce). Goethe (ger-te). The goal? To introduce Aspen to the world as a place where humanistic ideals and the utopian concepts of melding mind, body and spirit, the Aspen Idea, could flourish.

For nearly three weeks, from June 27 to July 16, 1949, the Paepckes and the town of Aspen hosted the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival. Center stage was a canvas tent designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen, built for $57,000 on the site of today’s Benedict Music Tent. Guests were treated to deep thoughts by writers like Thornton Wilder (Our Town); philosophers like Jose Ortega y Gasset; and humanitarian and future Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, who came from his hospital in Africa.


Albert Schweitzer and Margaret Hoffman talking in the yard of Pioneer Park, 1949.

Steven Wickes, retired director of the Aspen Institute’s Society of Fellows and an authority on the event, says the Schweitzer invitation was a cornerstone in the convocation’s success. “Equally audacious was the thought of inviting Albert Schweitzer,” he says. “The concert organist, physician and humanist had never traveled to the United States before, not even to attend the meetings of the Schweitzer Foundation! Walter and Elizabeth were told not to waste their time inviting him. But they wanted him, needed him, and they persevered.”

And music filled the air that summer. The entire Minneapolis Symphony, under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos, had traveled by train and car to Aspen to perform. They supported a musical program that featured many of the leading players of the day.

Consider this took place just four years after the cessation of the Second World War with Germany. Paepcke, along with his friend and co-creator Robert Maynard Hutchins, the chancellor of the University of Chicago, were underpinning their audacious festival with the celebration of Goethe, a German whose teachings were known to only a few.

And this happened at a time when there was no scheduled air service to the gravel-covered runway, when the closest passenger train station was in Glenwood Springs, 40 miles away, and when there was no superhighway system. Other than the Hotel Jerome, which was owned by the Paepckes at the time, there were few accommodations in Aspen for the expected throng of visitors. The Prospector Lodge had just opened with 22 rooms, and T-Lazy 7 boasted it could accommodate 92 guests. Still, it was hardly adequate for the guests who were expected to more than double the town’s population of just over 1,000 residents.

But Aspen’s residents—with some prompting and support from the Paepckes—rose to the occasion. They spruced up the town, painting their homes, cutting the grass and opening their doors to rent out rooms to guests for the two-session event. It was a 1940s version of Airbnb.

And, in the days before social media, the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival drew national attention to Aspen. All major media, including CBS, and Time, Newsweek and Life magazines, did features on the festival. Voice of America broadcast live from Aspen in six languages and The New York Times had daily dispatches. It was a viral sensation. “Having Albert Schweitzer on the cover of Time magazine in July 1949 and the story inside about his visit to Aspen certainly helped more than a few people become aware of this western Colorado town,” Wickes emphasizes.

So what became of this grand experiment?

The Goethe Bicentennial Convocation was a spiritual seed that spawned the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival, the International Design Conference and the Aspen Center for Theoretical Physics. Just months after, the world again came to Aspen for the 1950 FIS World Ski Championships. Between the two events, that moribund mining town in the Rockies became known globally as a year-round mecca for those who aspired to the heights of physical and intellectual excellence. Wickes believes this is what sets Aspen apart: “I would argue that there has been—and continues to be—a symbiosis between what Aspen offers in the winter and what Aspen offers in the summer. This, in my opinion, is the secret sauce that makes Aspen, Aspen, and very hard to duplicate.”

The Paepckes dreamed an audacious dream that changed Aspen forever.


Photography by: aspen historical society / hoffman collection