Some said author Ernest Hemingway's former house in Ketchum is a hollow shell left by a depressed and ill man. A few others said the writer's time there was simply too short to be culturally meaningful.
But, in the end, the message was clear: a majority of Wood River Valley residents support a plan to open the Nobel Prize-winning author's onetime Idaho residence for limited public access.
More than 200 area residents turned out Thursday, Jan. 13 at the Limelight Room of the Sun Valley Inn to weigh in on a debate over what should become of the house where Hemingway spent parts of the final two years of his life.
The owner of the house, The Nature Conservancy, called the meeting as part of a larger effort to decide in the next six weeks what to do with the residence and surrounding 14 acres on East Canyon Run Boulevard, next to the Big Wood River.
TNC—which inherited the house in 1986 after the death of Hemingway's widow, Mary—is considering four options for determining the future of the property.
The preferred TNC plan calls for conveying the house to the non-profit Idaho Hemingway House Foundation, which plans to conduct limited public tours and educational workshops at the site. The surrounding acreage would be managed by TNC as a wildlife preserve.
Because the house is located in a residential neighborhood, regular public visitation would have to be approved by the city of Ketchum.
Two other options call for selling the house to a private buyer. The fourth option—in which TNC would maintain ownership of the house in its current, decaying condition—is considered by TNC directors to be unacceptable.
At the meeting, proponents of the plan to confer the house to the IHHF outnumbered opponents by a nearly 2-1 margin.
After seeing a video in which Mary Hemingway said her late husband "loved" the Idaho mountains and "enjoyed" working among them, some proponents said Hemingway's links to the Wood River Valley should be celebrated.
"He had a presence here, and we're proud of that," said Ketchum-area resident Debra Kronenberg. "It would be a tremendous loss in our community if we let it go."
Betty Murphy, president of the Ketchum-Sun Valley Historical Society, said many visitors to Ketchum come wanting to see the place where Hemingway lived his final days.
"We must have it open to the public," Murphy said.
Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson said opening the house to the public would be the "right thing" to do.
"The other options are not even viable options in my mind," Thorson said.
Van Gordon Sauter, one of several IHHF directors in attendance, said the rustic house—which contains numerous relics of Hemingway's life and travels—is a key element of the Wood River Valley's history.
"Ernest Hemingway ... is probably the most iconic figure in this valley," he said. "He is very important to the psychology of this valley."
Sun Valley City Councilman Blair Boand, Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael and two neighbors of the Hemingway estate also expressed support for the plan to convey the house to the IHHF.
However, other neighbors of the Hemingway property made up the majority of those who spoke against opening the house to the public.
Gary Slette—a Twin Falls attorney representing four neighborhood families who oppose the IHHF plan, largely because it would bring unacceptable levels of traffic and noise—said the TNC meeting was inappropriately serving as a "plebiscite" to allow a public use in a residential zone.
"The neighbors don't want to be shamed into capitulation," Slette said.
Jonathan Neeley, one of the neighbors represented by Slette, said the opponents recognize that "the public has an interest in the Hemingway legacy."
At the same time, he said, the families are simply trying to preserve the quiet nature of their neighborhood.
"We're nice people, just like you guys are."
Some of the discourse Thursday focused on whether the IHHF plan would violate the intentions of Mary Hemingway, who bequeathed the property to TNC with instructions that it be maintained as a wildlife preserve and nature-related reference library.
Guy Bonnivier, former TNC Idaho director, said Mary's legal representatives near the time of her death were "enthusiastic" about TNC using the site as an office, with an understanding that the public would make some visits. TNC did open an office there, he said, which ultimately brought "hundreds" of vehicle trips to the neighborhood every week.
Concurrently, Bonnivier said, Hemingway's son Jack regularly conducted tours of the site and said the house should "generate funds to pay for itself."
Ketchum resident Bob Brennan countered that Mary's wishes were made clear in 1986, when one of her attorneys, Jim Speck, told the Ketchum City Council she did not want the site to be open to the public "as a museum."
This week, Geoff Pampush, TNC Idaho director, said support for the IHHF plan is mounting. In addition to the comments received at the Jan. 13 meeting, he said, TNC has received approximately 120 e-mail letters on the subject, about 85 percent of which support "preserving the house as a community asset."
TNC plans to take public comment on the matter through next week. E-mail can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pampush said he intends to meet with the neighbors who oppose the IHHF plan later this week.
"We're going to explore whether there is any common ground."
Pampush said he will bring a recommendation on what to do with the house to the TNC board of directors "before the end of February."
If that recommendation is to confer the house to the IHHF, a new round of debate is certain to come before the Ketchum City Council, which would be asked to approve a special permit to allow public tours.