Last month, we looked at the role of the Auditorium in the Chautauqua Movement and the significance of the Auditorium in the early development of Washington Grove. Again, we express our appreciation for the work of Robinson & Associates in preparation of the Updated and Expanded Washington Grove Historic District Nomination. This month’s focus on the significance of the Auditorium in the Town’s eastward development, and the Auditorium’s eventual demise, is based on their research.
The Auditorium Signals the Town’s Eastward Expansion – The construction of the Assembly Hall (McCathran Hall) in 1901 at the southern end of Howard Park represented a decentralization of community life in Washington Grove away from the camp meeting-era Circle. In 1905, the eastern half of Oak Avenue (Street) and Maple Avenue were cleared and graded. The subsequent demolition of the tabernacle and the construction of an Auditorium for Chautauqua in Woodward Park that same year underscored this reorganization.
A number of factors, including concerns over health and sanitation, infrastructure improvements, and the development of recreational facilities, had the effect of encouraging residential development outside of and away from the historically sacred precinct (the Circle); the impetus for development in the eastern half of Washington Grove had begun. In many instances, cottages were relocated from the Tent Department to open lots within the Cottage Department, creating open pockets of space, relieving crowded conditions within the former and introducing new physical forms and visual associations within the landscape of the latter.
Would Chautauqua Programs Evolve? Chautauqua attendance remained steady at Washington Grove through the first decade of the twentieth century, bucking the trend of decline in the rest of the country. The Chautauqua Committee was skeptical of shifting towards more entertainment programming, as other independent assemblies had done. They argued to the Association’s Board that educational features that were either historical or engaged with the latest political questions would be better received by their audience than the lighter fare that had become more common. The religious component of the Chautauqua also continued. In 1910, the Chautauqua Committee reported a deficit for the first time, and committee members feared that public interest had waned. It recommended introducing lighter fare, while still avoiding entertainment that ventured toward vaudeville.
It is not clear, however, whether this recommendation was implemented or when Chautauqua programming officially ended at the Grove. Camp meeting attendance also began to decline during this period.
New Roles for the Auditorium – In the decades after Chautauqua activities ceased at Washington Grove, the Auditorium in Woodward Park was used to show movies and stage theatrical performances, as a meeting place for social clubs, for dances, and as a gymnasium for indoor sports, such as basketball and shuffleboard.
Following World War II, a younger generation reinvigorated the theatrical tradition in the Grove. The Banbury Players, consisting of ten or twelve adults and six to eight teenagers in Town presented a series of one-act plays in the Auditorium in 1948. In 1949 they proposed to the Town Council a four-week season of plays.
Efforts to Enforce Racial Segregation Stifle Auditorium Uses – The Council approved the proposal on condition “that the organization shall be responsible for retaining control over the use of the Auditorium.” Following further discussions with Town Council about how the group could comply with this condition, the president of the Banbury Players’ corporation reported that “the group was anxious to carry out the established segregation policy of the Town … although no definitive plan for enforcing a policy of exclusion had been formed.”
After several months of Town Council wrangling and wordsmithing over this condition in the theater permission, the theater group finally withdrew its proposal, stating that it “could not and would not attempt a policy of segregating by exclusion of negroes from attendance.” The matter was dropped.
Such a policy would come to be prohibited in the 1964 Civil Right Act.
The Gates Shut in 1897 – The practice of racial segregation in Town dated to the end of the 19th century. For a time, African Americans had been permitted to walk through Washington Grove along Grove Avenue to get to the Emory Grove camp meeting. Later, however, with Jim Crow segregation and the doctrine of “separate but equal” confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, the B&O trains and stations, including Washington Grove’s, were segregated. Washington Grove’s perimeter gates were closed to Emory Grove camp meeting attendees in 1897.
The Final Blow – Another proposal to Town Council for a theater in 1962 dealt the final blow to the Auditorium. This time the proposal came from a Washington theater producer who offered to upgrade the Auditorium and use it for theater productions five nights a week for twelve weeks in the summer of 1962. (The Auditorium had become a burden to maintain and was a target for vandalism.) The Town was evenly split over the issue. On one side, some residents desired the availability of theater and other artistic pursuits in Washington Grove and saw it as a way to save the Auditorium. Others saw it as a commercial venture which would bring unwanted traffic into Town and tie up the Auditorium.
A Single Vote – The theater issue was put to vote at the annual Town meeting of 1962, where it lost by a single vote. When no other viable options for use of the Auditorium were brought forward by the time of the 1963 annual Town meeting, the demolition contract was let.
Soon after the building was razed, its site was redeveloped as part of a new “recreation center” with playground equipment and a multi-purpose, all-weather court. In addition, an all-weather tennis court was built north of the existing clay tennis courts.