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The Auditorium – Central to Chautauqua
In June, we looked at the Chautauqua Movement and its manifestation in Washington Grove. Again, we express our appreciation for the research of Robinson & Associates in preparation of the Updated and Expanded Washington Grove Historic District Nomination. Excerpts from their work, which follow, focus on the role of the auditorium in the Chautauqua Movement and the significance of the auditorium in the development of Washington Grove.

The role of the auditorium in the Chautauqua Movement – The signature building and principal focal point in Chautauqua assemblies was the auditorium, or amphitheater. The Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York, 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 Chautauqua assemblies 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 could make 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.

An auditorium for Chautauqua activities in Washington Grove – Washington Grove leaders quickly realized that the assembly hall (today McCathran Hall) and tabernacle were both insufficient for the number of Chautauqua events at the Grove and the size of its audiences. In 1905, to provide better accommodation, the association cleared and graded an area in Woodward Park north of Oak Street and built an auditorium specifically for Chautauqua activities; the builder was Hezekiah Day. It soon became the epicenter of public life in Washington Grove, hosting Chautauqua programming, camp meetings, and fraternal and political meetings.

The Washington Grove auditorium, with a capacity of 1,400 persons, had a generous rectangular plan under a gable-on-hip roof with hipped dormers. Wood siding clad the lower level of the frame building, while the upper level’s gable ends, and dormers were covered with wood shingles. The lower level was fenestrated at the front and sides with large openings, each fitted with double sliding doors with divided-light glazing. When the doors were opened the building became an open-air pavilion. Divided-light, pivot windows and dormers provided light and ventilation. The roof was supported by triangular trusses on iron posts. Interior surfaces were left unfinished, revealing the building’s frame structure. The building was first furnished with gas chandeliers; electric lighting would follow in 1914. At the back of the building was a stage flanked by men’s and women’s dressing rooms. The auditorium could be used as a theater or an arena, depending on the seating arrangement.

The construction of the assembly hall in 1901 at the southern end of Howard Park represented a decentralization of community life in Washington Grove away from the historically sacred precinct of the tabernacle. The demolition of the tabernacle and the construction of an auditorium for Chautauqua in Woodward Park in 1905 underscored this reorganization.

Next time: More about how construction of the auditorium influenced the evolution of Washington Grove and the building’s eventual demise.

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