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(based on Robinson & Associates’ 2019 Historic Context Report, Town of Washington Grove (PDF))

The Chautauqua Movement developed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to provide programming and courses for cultural uplift and recreation. Those who established Chautauquas across the country largely based their program on their namesake, the original Chautauqua Institution in western New York. The Chautauqua Institution was founded by Methodist bishop John Heyl Vincent and business leader and philanthropist Lewis Miller as a summer school for Sunday school teachers. It was located at a Methodist camp meeting facility on New York’s Chautauqua Lake. Vincent and Miller’s institution added an education component to the Methodist camp meeting program, and, because of these origins, Chautauquas had a long-running connection to American Methodism and camp meetings.

Because Vincent and Miller were not interested in franchising Chautauqua, the movement it inspired was non-hierarchical. What became the Chautauqua Movement manifested itself in two distinct forms – the independent assembly and the circuit Chautauqua.

The circuit Chautauqua was a traveling production that featured a roster of entertainers and educators that visited towns across the United States for just a week or two at a time.

The independent assembly was intended to be in a permanent location and was modeled on the original Chautauqua Institution, with lectures and entertainments, academic programs, and recreation in a resort setting. Local organizing committees were typically established to manage the day-to-day responsibilities for staging the Chautauquas.

Within just two years of the founding of the Chautauqua Institution, three “daughter” Chautauquas had emerged, in Ontario, Michigan, and Iowa. By the turn of the twentieth century, more than 100 towns hosted independent assemblies. At least twenty-two assemblies were formed on preexisting Methodist campgrounds. In many cases, Chautauquas operated alongside regular camp meeting activities. The Mountain Chautauqua, for example, was founded in 1882 by a group of Methodists as part of the summer resort community of Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County, Maryland. It was the first Chautauqua held in Maryland, and, during its heyday between the 1880s and World War I, the Chautauqua’s educational and cultural activities attracted thousands to Mountain Lake Park. The annual summer program spurred the development of numerous cottages, hotels, and public buildings, many of which remain in excellent condition today.

Because of Chautauqua assemblies’ independent status, no guidebook prescribed how the grounds should be organized or how buildings should be designed. Despite this lack of direction, certain national trends in Chautauqua architecture and planning emerged. In his writings, Chautauqua Institution founder John Heyl Vincent imagined a community organized by circles representing progressively sacred spaces, with each level representing a higher attainment of knowledge. Those who came to Chautauqua for entertainment resided in the outer regions, while Chautauqua graduates dwelled in the center – what Vincent deemed “Upper Chautauqua.” While Vincent’s theory was more philosophical than practical, the Upper Chautauqua concept encouraged density and community, goals generally embraced by Chautauqua planners when they laid out their assemblies.

Many Chautauqua assemblies were organized in naturalistic, parklike settings. Often, meandering paths, copses, and grottoes were incorporated into the design of the grounds to encourage a feeling of remoteness. Repudiating the formal grid signaled an urge to be close to nature and an antiurban sentiment. While camp meetings tended to be organized around a central point – the preacher’s stand – Chautauquas typically had several aesthetic foci, as their operation required spaces for religious, educational, and recreation functions. A site plan for the independent assembly at Mahtomedi, Minnesota, which was nestled between the shores of two lakes, featured curvilinear paths and irregular lots. The auditorium (labeled “amphitheater” on the plan) was located in an oval clearing overlooking one of the lakes.

Like many other independent assemblies, the Washington Grove Chautauqua was established on a preexisting camp meeting site. Thus, the spatial arrangement, which combined a wheel plan with a typical suburban gridiron, was predetermined. Chautauqua organizers aimed to create an exotic fantasyland of healthful recreation and learning for their guests. A variety of strategies, many borrowed from Methodist camp meeting sites, were employed to relocate guests to a “‘natural’ landscape to evince a recuperative state of mind.” For instance, Chautauqua grounds could be located at the end of a bridge, on top of a steep hill, on an island, or set within a dense growth of trees. Additionally, elaborate gates, sometimes decorated with classical or biblical design elements, often welcomed guests, further suggesting that one had arrived at a sacred space.

Washington Grove embraced the escapist concept as well. As it had in the camp meeting era, the Grove’s tree canopy contributed to a feeling of an environment separate from the modern world. A promotional pamphlet from 1902 declared, “[the Grove] affords a delightful place for those who desire to escape the oppressive heat of summer and to get out into the woods and fields alongside the quieting and uplifting influence of nature.” Chautauqua assemblies’-built presence varied. Spaces for cultural programming, educational instruction, and recreational purposes ranged from a single building to a resort campus. The rest of the Chautauqua grounds was usually filled out by residential cottages or tents.

An example with a significant built footprint was the National Chautauqua at Glen Echo, Maryland, which featured a series of stone-clad buildings, including an auditorium, a polygonal tower, and an entrance gate complex. The Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder, Colorado, had a community house, an art gallery, academic halls, and an auditorium. Other assemblies, however, particularly those not connected to a real estate venture, were more modest. Some housed all of their programming in a single auditorium building. Many of the early Chautauquas began as camps of tents, which served as residential quarters, classrooms, and meeting halls. Most, however, eventually built permanent accommodations. Some evolved into resorts, with hotels, clubhouses, and restaurants.

The signature building and principal focal point in Chautauqua assemblies was the auditorium, or amphitheater. The Chautauqua Institution included both an auditorium – an open-air structure with a gable-on-hip roof – and a smaller Hall of Philosophy, which was a Greek-style temple for lectures. Because building and maintaining a Hall of Philosophy, in addition to the auditorium, proved difficult for many assemblies, few were built. An auditorium, which housed large quantities of ticket-buyers, on the other hand, was a commercial necessity. Most Chautauquas therefore merely combined the functions into one all-purpose building.

Perhaps the most influential architect to perfect the design of the Chautauqua auditorium was John Cilley of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Cilley, a self-taught civil engineer, solved a central problem that proved frustrating for auditorium builders – how to support the structure without a center pole, which was often visually obstructive to audiences. Cilley borrowed from advancements in barn architecture for his solution. Triangular trusses began to be used in the 1880s to free barns of the center pole, which obstructed hay loading. Cilley adopted the concept to stabilize the Chautauqua auditoriums he designed. Due to his influence, many auditorium builders started using triangular trusses in rectangular buildings or a Cilley-designed adaptation, which employed steel tie-rods connected to a collector ring in the center, for circular or polygonal buildings.

Auditoriums were typically large, frame structures with simple massing, usually in the form of a rectangle, circle, or polygon. The level of exterior decoration varied, but many were austere. Indeed, some were essentially wooden shells that kept out inclement weather. One assembly admitted its auditorium “makes no claims to architectural beauty.” Some, however, like the Colorado Chautauqua auditorium in Boulder, were expressed with more flare. There, the front façade of the auditorium featured a temple front flanked by pylons. A large dome sat atop the Redondo Beach, California, Chautauqua auditorium. Popular cladding materials for auditoriums included wood siding or shingles.

Other signature features of the Chautauqua assembly auditoriums were clerestory windows for natural light and ventilation and generous window and door openings that let in cross breezes. Creating a space that was readily open to the elements was also meant to emulate the outdoor assembly areas and open-air tabernacles of Methodist camp meetings. Dissolving the division between exterior and interior space was usually accomplished by either incorporating wall openings filled with sliding doors or leaving the walls entirely open. Despite the Colorado Chautauqua auditorium’s decorated front façade, one of its side elevations was left open. Auditorium interiors usually consisted of a single volume with seating and a stage. The stage was usually at one end of the building, even in those that were circular or polygonal.

A notable example of a polygonal-shaped auditorium was the Chautauqua auditorium in Shelbyville, Illinois. Built in 1903, the Shelbyville auditorium was an icosagonal (twenty-sided) frame building. It was sheltered by a compound roof topped by a low drum pierced with clerestory windows. At the roof’s peak was a conical-roofed cupola. The exterior was clad with German siding. Each of its twenty sides was fenestrated with sliding doors and/or a pair of double-hung sash, wood windows.

Chautauqua auditorium, Shelbyville, Illinois (source)

(CJP Architects’ website includes some great historical and contemporary photographs of the Shelbyville auditorium. Don’t miss the interior photos of the auditorium’s amazing roof support structure. )

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