The idea for a permanent conference center came at a time when the Foundation was expanding its activities to focus on international communication. Paul Fejos, Director of Research, envisioned a center of modest size, for small groups to meet during the summer months and discuss cutting-edge research through the common language of anthropology.
Both Fejos and Axel Wenner-Gren were drawn to Europe as a location, and as romantics both liked the idea of a castle. In addition to a dramatic site, Wenner-Gren wanted a property with a “scenic background conducive for meditation and quiet thinking,” a place of dignity and history. Initial inquiries failed to materialize, but during a trip to Europe in the summer of 1956, Paul and Lita Fejos (later Osmundsen) happened upon a site in Austria they believed would be ideal.
Burg Wartenstein castle sat on the hills of the eastern Alps, about 90 minutes south of Vienna. It was owned by Prince Liechtenstein, who used it as a hunting lodge until Nazi troops moved into Austria. The massive building, with its two towers, made an immediate impression on the visiting couple. In a 1979 interview, Lita Osmundsen recalled:
"We were fortunate enough through a very serendipitous incident to find Wartenstein. We drove up to it, found it was for sale, and informed Wenner-Gren, who was interested anyway in obtaining the center. It seemed to have the right proportions, the right location, everything – and it was in an area that was still very cheap because the Russians had just left…The insides were very sparse. There were no electrical lines because the Russians had torn everything out. There was no plumbing. The toilet seats had all been destroyed and torn out. There was nothing, but there were the bones and the structure lent itself to being modernized."
Axel Wenner-Gren purchased the 12th century structure and adjacent farm buildings in 1957 and presented the estate as a gift to the Foundation; extensive renovations began immediately. The dedication of the new European Conference Center on August 17, 1958, was a gala affair attended by Austrian anthropologists and dignitaries, staff from the New York office, and Wenner-Gren himself. Opening festivities coincided with the first symposium held at the castle, Sol Tax’s conference on “Current Anthropology,” an organizational meeting to design the format, aims, goals, and policies of the new journal.
The first symposia held that summer were by necessity small – only twelve guest rooms were ready and the conference room did not exist. But by the time all renovations were completed, the castle could easily accommodate the 20 participants that would eventually be considered the ideal number for the week-long “Burg Wartenstein model.”
Fejos oversaw renovations and had in mind a round conference table as a central feature – so everyone could see everyone else and no one could claim the head. According to his wishes, carpenters in the nearby town of Gloggnitz custom built a table to precise specifications. In an unusual twist, the town also ran a felt factory (they had supplied fezzes for the Middle East for decades), and workers crafted a seamless green tablecloth, fifteen feet in diameter, that would become a conference trademark.
The informal discussions at the huge table mostly worked as Dr. Fejos imagined, misunderstandings were sorted out and productive ideas were advanced. And the imposing walls of the castle held a captive audience. With no outside diversions, participants focused on each other and inevitably learned new facts, theories, and methods. Impromptu ping-pong matches and volley ball tournaments, late-night discussions at the dinner table and bar, and the day-trip into Vienna became integral parts of the BW model and gave scholars the chance for a different type of interaction, often as valuable as those in the conference room.
Burg Wartenstein proved an ideal setting for the meeting of minds that Paul Fejos had envisioned, and he was certainly a guiding spirit. But the success of the program was largely due to Lita Fejos Osmundsen. Lita’s legendary charm and creativity unquestionably shaped the Burg Wartenstein experience. She and her staff hosted 86 conferences at the castle before the doors closed in 1980, and her leadership ensured that conferences there would become distinctive for their collegial atmosphere, innovative programs, attention to group dynamics, and rigorous intellectual agenda – and have a place in the history of anthropology.