Blaine Harrington III David H. Koch Seminar Building at the Aspen Institute
Blaine Harrington III David H. Koch Seminar Building at the Aspen Institute

The story of how the Bauhaus came to Aspen, Colo., begins in the winter of 1939. The pipes had frozen at Elizabeth Paepcke’s vacation ranch house south of Denver, and so Pussy, as Elizabeth was nicknamed, and her houseguests traveled by train to Aspen, a Victorian-era mining town, for a weekend of skiing. “The town, home for some 800 people, seemed virtually abandoned,” James Sloan Allen writes in The Romance of Commerce and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1983). “All around stood the dark, snow-laden forms of buildings and houses long vacant.” The group checked into the ramshackle Hotel Jerome, where room and board cost $3 per person. But Pussy saw great potential in the fading town. As she reported back to her husband, the Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke: “You simply must see it. It’s the most beautifully untouched place in the world.”

When Walter finally made the trip in 1945, he clearly agreed, because he began buying up properties for back taxes, including a number of Victorian houses like Pioneer Park, a two-story manse that would become the Paepckes’ home in Aspen. He even invited his friend Walter Gropius, the legendary founder of the Bauhaus, to visit and design a master plan to guide Aspen’s restoration and growth. Gropius declined, although he famously offered this advice at a town meeting: “Restore the best of the old, but if you build, build modern.”

Aspen Historical Society; Aspen Illustrated News Collection Herbert Bayer at his home on Red Mountain in Aspen, 1965
Aspen Historical Society; Aspen Illustrated News Collection Herbert Bayer at his home on Red Mountain in Aspen, 1965

Which is what the Paepckes did. Instead of Gropius, they lured another Bauhaus alumnus to Aspen, an Austrian-born artist and designer named Herbert Bayer, and together they transformed the town into a thriving cultural hub and ski destination, a kind of American Salzburg. The Paepckes had the vision and the means. Bayer, known for his groundbreaking work in graphic design, had the artistic talent to market and promote Aspen with eye-catching posters and advertisements. Not to mention buildings: working mainly with the Frank Lloyd Wright–trained architect Fritz Benedict, Bayer designed several of the town’s pre-eminent landmarks, including the 40-acre campus of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, which today hosts, among other events, the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Gwen Chanzit, a curator and author of From Bauhaus to Aspen (Johnson Books, 2005), says that designing the campus—which comprises the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Meadows Resort, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the Aspen Center for Physics—was a kind of “Bauhaus dream” for Bayer. “Here,” she writes, “Bayer’s architecture, sculpture, murals, and earthworks all merge into a cohesive whole.”

By 1955, Bayer had become Aspen’s “most famous resident,” despite stiff competition from the town’s “millionaire tycoons, best-selling novelists, and top-ranking musicians,” at least according to the Rocky Mountain News. Almost as quickly, Bayer was forgotten. Not long ago, even at the Aspen Institute, where his influence is most obvious, it wasn’t easy to learn more than a few sketchy details about him.

The Paepckes describe their vision for Aspen

Today, with its posh boutiques and lavish vacation homes, Aspen hardly seems like a proving ground for the modernist tenet “form follows function.” (“More like ‘form follows finance,’ ” as a friend recently quipped.) But Aspen is finally making amends for the oversight. In this, the 100th anniversary year of the founding of the Bauhaus, which opened on April 1, 1919, in Weimar, Germany, Aspen is sponsoring a “Bauhaus 100” program to celebrate Bayer’s considerable influence. Events include panel discussions, lectures, art exhibitions, and walking tours. (There’s even a Bauhaus Ball, and Plato’s Restaurant at Aspen Meadows is selling a multicolored Herbert Bayer cake.) Aspen may now be a billionaire’s paradise, but if you look closely, you can still tease out Bayer’s legacy here.