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A Place for Discourse: The legacy of Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr. and The Aspen Institute

Mar 01, 2016 01:53PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Anne McNulty

On a late October day the branches of oak and maple trees, lining peaceful Carmichael Road in Queen Anne’s County, sway in the wind—their dusty, red, and golden leaves already falling into winter’s grasp. Unconcerned about the changing season, Black Angus cattle continue to graze in fenced pastures, leading up to the Houghton House at Wye Plantation.

The Plantation is now the home of the Aspen Institute Wye River Campus—the legacy of famous entrepreneur, philanthropist, and intellectual Arthur Amory Houghton (1906–1990), who donated 1,000 acres of his property to the Institute in 1978.

Arthur was the great-grandson of Amory Houghton, who established the Corning Glass Works in 1851, now CorningWare Company. At age 27, Arthur became president of its subsidiary—the Steuben Glass Company. A Harvard University graduate, his interests ranged from collecting rare books to appreciating fine art and classical music.

These interests led him to become curator of rare books at the Library of Congress from 1940 to ’42; chairman and president of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1964 to ’69; and chairman of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society from 1958 to 1963. His striving for excellence also extended to Steuben Glass.
Houghton’s obituary, printed in the New York Times on April 4th, 1990, described how after a month of taking control of Steuben Glass in Corning, New York, he decided that the former company’s glass products were totally inferior. One Sunday afternoon he and his vice president wearing overalls, gloves, and goggles, walked into the factory. Armed with short lead pipes they smashed 20,000 glass items to the tune of a million dollars. Starting from scratch, he hired Sidney Waugh, an award-winning sculptor, to design crystal pieces, such as bowls, vases, and figurines that would be worthy of their name.

“From Ash Can to Museum,” became the company slogan. Soon shoppers on New York City’s Fifth Avenue were strolling into the beautiful Steuben Glass store and examining crystal and art glass objects famous for their designs and purity—and their prices. Although the Steuben Company closed in 2011, the Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning, New York, still showcases exquisite glass and crystal pieces and the glassmaking process.

Although Houghton lived in New York, where he served on more than 100 boards, his many interests led him to purchase a retreat, bordered by the Wye River in rural Queen Anne’s County. From 1937 to 1940, he cobbled together six parcels of land totaling 1,100 acres which cost him $159,116.

On this property, overlooking the Wye River, stood the remains of William Paca’s country home.

A Maryland governor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Paca built the house in 1749. Impractical to restore because of its poor condition, Houghton had it demolished, but his library, built in 1940, was designed to replicate this historic house.

Here he housed his rare book collection—including an original Gutenberg Bible, and a first edition of Alice in Wonderland. On his trips to Wye Plantation, he often stayed at the library. Several years later, he built a racially integrated educational summer camp for gifted and talented youth. Then in 1972, at age 66, he constructed his mansion, Houghton House, on the site of the William Paca house.

This balding man with horn-rimmed glasses, always impeccably dressed and often wearing an ascot, looked like the intellectual he was. Interested in scientific farming methods, he soon established a herd of Black Angus cattle on his farm, where scientifically bred cows and bulls became famous for the quality of their beef.

By 1978, Houghton was already 72 years old. Married to his fourth wife, the former Nina Rodale, the couple began to think about down-sizing. After deciding to build a smaller home adjacent to Houghton House, called the River House, they left it unfinished and instead moved to a nearby farm sited on 50 acres.

He then donated his plantation to the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, and his renowned stock of Black Angus cattle along with 400 acres, to the University of Maryland.

The Aspen Institute at Wye Plantation

Houghton passed away in 1990, but his legacy of intellectual pursuit is still alive. Cindy Buniski, Vice President of Administration and Executive Director Aspen Wye Campus, greets me as we sit in her comfortable office where she’s worked since 1994. “Serious business gets done here,” she says. “We are a place for discourse.”

Buniski details the history of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies which first began in Aspen, Colorado, and now is worldwide. The idea for an Institute such as this was conceived by University of Chicago professor, Mortimer Adler who believed that a good businessman should have intellectual pursuits and knowledge of classical literature.

His philosophy eventually resulted in the executive seminars called the “Great Thinker Seminars,” which led to the establishment of the Colorado Aspen Institute in 1950 by industrialist, Walter Paepcke—Chairman of the Container Corporation of America.

Houghton was good friends with Adler, and often hosted the professor at Wye Plantation. Houghton was also friendly with Robert O. Anderson, president of the Aspen Institute in Colorado. In a subsequent conversation with Anderson, who told him that he was in dispute with the City of Aspen, Houghton replied, “I have a great property for you.” And indeed he did.


The 1998 Mideast Peace Talks at Wye Plantation

Houghton would have been proud, had he still been alive, to know that during October 1998, Aspen Wye located on his former property, would make international news when three world leaders converged here for nine days to hammer out a Middle-East peace agreement. President Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat (Palestinian leader), and Benjamin Netanyahu (Israeli prime minister) came here to try and work out their differences.

The three conference centers housed the Israelis at the now completed River House; the Palestinians at Houghton House; and the Americans at Wye Woods Conference Center, formerly Houghton’s camp for gifted and talented youth.

To further secure the safety of this international delegation, planes were re-routed and the Wye River was closed to boat traffic. When a local resident took his boat out on the Wye River, a Coast Guard gunboat stopped him. “Sir, you need to get to the nearest shore immediately. This river is closed.”

“Yes sir,” the boater responded as he sped home.

Navy SEALS were stationed nearby and FBI snipers were positioned in the trees at the conference center. No news media were allowed on the property. Instead, they were briefed at nearby Chesapeake College.

Aspen administrative manager, Bonnie Messix, who worked here for 45 years before retiring, remembers this event well. “It was a really hectic time. We had to drive to the parking lot and go through security. Then a bus would take us to where our jobs were.”

“I remember Yasser Arafat riding around on a property golf cart with his headdress flying out behind him. I kept hoping he wouldn’t get hurt. Netanyahu was pleasant but he was driven because he wanted a peace agreement. Clinton helicoptered in from Washington every day except for the day Netanyahu threatened to pack up and leave if they couldn’t get down to business.”

“Clinton stayed over that evening and an accord was finally signed. Although it was such a busy time, I felt let down after they all left. There had been so much excitement.”

Messix first begin working at Wye in 1968, under James B. Lingle who was the manager of the famous Wye Angus herd. “We sold the beef to every state and to seven countries,” she says. When she was promoted to Director of the Aspen-Wye River Conference Center, Messix took care of administrative duties such as managing the conference center’s schedules, while Marriot International took over the day-to-day running of these venues. “We didn’t know how to make beds and cook fried eggs,” she says. This was especially necessary at the peace conference when Marriot served more than 1,000 meals a day.

Local author, Diane Marquette, recalls her three years of working for Marriot as a conference assistant who would greet visitors at the front desk and make certain all their ensuing needs were met. When Arafat requested to meet Buddy, the Clintons’ chocolate Lab, the president flew him to Aspen and soon Buddy was bounding out of the helicopter to meet Arafat. She also remembers getting dozens of faxes for Netanyahu. “We figured out they were all wishing him a happy 50th birthday, so we baked him a big cake.”

Unfortunately most of the terms agreed upon at the conference, were never honored and the Middle East continues to be driven by conflict.

Elian Gonzalez

Wye Plantation would again become world famous with the story of Elian Gonzalez. On Thanksgiving Day in 1999, an overloaded raft carrying 13 Cuban refugees capsized. All drowned except for a frightened little boy clinging to an inner tube in the cold Atlantic. His mother had managed to load him into one of the inner tubes tied to the raft before she drowned. “I was alone in the middle of the sea. My mother did everything she could to save me,” he told ABC News in a recent interview.

Rescued by some fisherman before waking up in a Miami hospital, five-year-old Elian Gonzalez was placed with his mother’s Miami relatives while his Cuban father and stepmother insisted he be returned to their custody in Cuba. The situation galvanized both countries as an international tug of war ensued. In the meantime, Elian’s father obtained a visa to come to the U.S. to retrieve his son. After the Supreme Court’s decision to place Elian back with his father, his Florida relatives would not relinquish him. Finally on April 22nd, 2000, federal agents brandishing rifles burst into their home and rushed to a closet where the boy and his great uncle were hiding. They seized the terrified child who was then reunited with his father.

After this lengthy ordeal, the family needed time and a place to heal while legal issues were being resolved. “We got a phone call,” says Messix. “Arthur’s widow, Nina, then suggested they stay at her farm where they would be sheltered from the news media. She temporarily moved from her residence while a large Cuban contingent, including Elian’s schoolteacher and a few of his friends, moved into her guest houses. Here the reunited family could savor the tranquility of this secluded site until their return to Cuba in June. “We tried to make things as easy as possible for Elian,” Messix continues. “We even covered up the swimming pool so Elian wouldn’t have to deal with water again.”

Nina Houghton

Houghton’s legacy also includes his family. Nina, now in her 70s, recalls their 18 years of marriage. “I was so fortunate to have married Arthur. We had a wonderful life together and he helped me raise my three children.” (By a former husband.) “Then we adopted a little boy together.” Always active in the community, she still is on the Board of Visitors and Governors at Washington College in Chestertown.

She also has a good relationship with Arthur’s three children including his 82-year-old daughter, Sylvia Garrett of Easton.

As time and fame pass—along with those who slip into history—Arthur Houghton has left a legacy of intellectual discourse, problem solving, and a pursuit of excellence. Important during his time, these attributes are now vital in solving the crucial issues in our troubled world.

Aspen Wye is also a venue for weddings.