Physical Chautauqua

The Notion of Chautauqua’s Appearance and Feel

Can a place undergo physical changes that depreciate its value as a place, or is what happens in this place enough to maintain its worth, regardless of the physical changes? Rephrasing, do questionable changes in Chautauqua’s physical being threaten its existence, or is the activity there the only part of the Institution that matters, leaving the issue of physical changes irrelevant?

We pose these queries while looking with concern at the sweeping, enharmonious re-invention of Chautauqua's music campus.  This reinvention, no doubt well-intended, is only part of the larger surgery underway on the Grounds that falls under the heading of the "Idea Campaign."  The enthusiastic boosters of this "vision" - and there are many such boosters - declare the dawn of a new day for the Institution.  At the same time, we are told, the Idea Campaign fortifies ties with Chautauqua's past and traditions.  But where some see ties sustaining, we see ties fraying, if not breaking.

To appreciate the ramifications of the building going on since the early 90s, we have to survey the qualities of the Assembly, and their reflection in the physical features of the Grounds.

In his acclaimed “Chautauqua,” Theodore Morrison refers to the Institution’s “tradition of free and open discussion of current issues” (p. 89). Freedom and openness are also qualities of the physical features of the grounds. The obvious examples come to mind: the Amphitheater, Smith Wilkes, the Hall of Philosophy, and the open spaces that adorn the place.

The beloved landmarks that have served Chautauquans well for so many seasons retain their grace and warmth. The open-sided 1893 Amphitheater is no prisoner of outdated design. It is functional, its acoustics are fine, and its wooden pavilion connects us with the observation about the Institution that William James made in 1899: “…It is a serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale. Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out in the forest…” Add to the openness and freedom the simplicity of each season’s rhythms, and we come close to the essentials of what makes the grounds extraordinary.

That Chautauqua’s exploitation of its space matters is almost intuitively obvious. Its iconic landmarks, its brick-lined walks, its handsome gardens and its tabernacle of trees – and its lake – have the effect of transporting the visitor’s mind away from what was left behind. From the moment one crosses the threshold of the Front Gate, one is struck by the paradox of Chautauqua’s setting. A Chautauquan is arrived at a place far removed from home but a place that seamlessly takes on the identity of home. We enter and we shrug off the crowd, the traffic, the complication, and the jejune uniformity of the suburb or the city from which we came. Simply put, we know we’re here because of what here looks like.

From its beginnings, the Institution has observed, and debated, the world, but has remained separate from it. Meanwhile the domesticity of where Chautauquans live the rest of the year is discarded until the gavel’s taps close the session.

The meaning of the groves enveloping the grounds, the Victoriana, and bricks underfoot is so axiomatic that the literature studying Chautauqua devotes little energy to this physical magic. It is enough, as Morrison’s book does, simply to reproduce photographs of the landmarks. Their charm and goodness are so obvious that discussion is redundant. We note President Becker’s reference, in the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 season, to “this verdant grove.”

Webster tells us that 'verdant' means 'covered in green' and 'grove' means a 'stand of trees planted for a purpose'.  For generations Chautauqua had sustained a balance between the green, the trees, and the man-made structures that stood among them in harmony.  The Institution was not intended to cultivate the other meaning of 'green' and be driven, in its management of open space and real estate, by delusions of grandeur and money.  Hence the original placement of the individually designed music practice cabins on a generous open glen, grabbing the attention of motorists passing by.

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Modifications on the Grounds: Progress or Ugliness?

However, the grounds have gradually undergone controversial changes in recent years. In any community, structures and the earth around them naturally are subject to change and “progress.” For every such action there is a reaction, and the determination to preserve what distinguishes Chautauqua is very strong. So when changes compromise what distinguishes Chautauqua, the grounds are out of balance. Our questions arise because Chautauqua’s traditions - openness, simplicity, sense of community and unpretentiousness - have suffered because of some of these changes. Chautauqua is out of balance. Physical changes to it should enhance its qualities, or at least avoid diluting or ruining them.

The cumulative effect of the transformation of the physical Chautauqua is a matter of concern. The vista one takes in at that first step through the gate, for example, has just recently been degraded. Of this dubious meddling with the physical Chautauqua, more later.

Early Growth

In the early decades of the last century, the Institution had some growing to do. It was time to meet the needs of the future, so tearing down the old and replacing it with the new was a necessity. Under President Arthur Bestor the Institution undertook its most extensive period of building projects, such as Hurlbut Memorial Church, the Women’s Club, Norton Hall, Smith-Wilkes, Smith Library, the Hall of Missions, and other prominent facilities. Smith-Wilkes and Smith Library sustained the increasing use of brick; Norton Hall radically introduced concrete masonry – and more importantly, an enclosed space for performance.

Meanwhile, lodgings evolved from cottages to rooming houses and hotels. Jeffrey Simpson’s “An American Utopia” discusses how the Chautauqua culture fell into a “slumber” that stretched from the end of World War II into the 70s. This slumber included any major building or changes in the lodging facilities.

The North Shore Inn

No single event heralded the changes to come, but if there is a place to start, it is the razing of the North Shore Inn. In 1969, after twenty-five years, the elegant Inn on Whitfield Place changed hands. Originally the Muncie Cottages, the hotel had combined the cottages with enclosed walkways during the late 1950s. The hotel’s graceful wood-framed buildings were a renowned sight on the Lake Drive after the bend at Miller Park. The Inn rivaled the Athenaeum for fine hospitality. More importantly, it blended well with neighboring private homes and rooming houses.

The new owner had bought the Inn to raze it and erect six floor condominiums on the site. The concept of the condominium was so new to the State of New York that this planned “improvement” at Chautauqua was one of the first instances under the state’s brand new condominium law.

No collapse was imminent at the Inn. It was not razed because it was rotting, or because its structural integrity was in jeopardy. The owners, Van Dyke and Mildred Underwood, had run the hotel since the War and by 1970 it was just time to pass the reins. The purchaser demolished the buildings, including the stately Golden Eagle wing of the hotel, atop of which was the golden eagle from the City of Buffalo steamer that once plied the lake’s waters. Fortunately, the six-floor buildings he had planned did not proceed (because of financing snags), so to this day an alternative structure, a single family home, sits on the Inn’s site.

The North Shore Inn condos project folded, but not the concept. The notion of removing or closing hotels and boarding houses and replacing them with private condominiums caught fire at Chautauqua as it did in the “outside world.”

It is true that those in the neighborhood of the Inn objected vigorously to the plans for the six-floor condos, and this construction that almost happened aroused a preservationist impulse among many Chautauquans. The Institution did embark on a campaign of landmark preservation in the decade the followed. But the preservationist commitment was less profound than supposed, as the years to come would demonstrate.

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Gentrification

Two other less desirable things happened after the NSI demolition. In an effort to raise money as part of his reinvention of the Administration budget, President Hesse during the 70s persuaded the Board to sell off various Institution-owned parcels around the grounds. These parcels were purchased by private owners and developed as condo projects for a profit. (To his credit, President Hesse also aggressively pursued the development of capital fund projects that raised enough money to save such structurally challenged Institution jewels as the Amphitheater.)

At the same time, investors began a trend – very much in motion today – of adding value to Chautauqua residential facilities. The notion was to harness the demand of a middle and upper class for housing on the grounds that was “upgraded.” As a result such hotels as the St. Elmo and the Glen Park, and boarding houses like the Albion, gradually saw the necessity of selling out or developing. They were closed, demolished or gutted, and rebuilt as condominiums. On the one hand, many buildings were simply too tired and worn to be maintained as such. But on the other, many were in good shape.

A recent and troubling example of a residential building “gone condo” is the William Baker. Its demolition and rebirth as condominium residences (and with Chautauqua’s first underground parking garage!) presents a dilemma that accompanies the upgrade from housing that catered to those on tight budgets to condos that added air conditioning, cable access, and other amenities associated with the “outside world.” Many of the latter are invested in and then rented out. The condominium replaces the simple, unpretentious rooming house in the “verdant grove” with banal architecture, and engineering and upgrades that reassuringly provide contemporary suburban comforts. These changes bring Chautauqua much closer to the domestic suburbia or state of the art urban residences that the Institution had separated itself from, as a “utopia,”.

The condo trend, gradually becoming a dominant force in Chautauqua, raises many questions that should be debated during the season. What is the impact of the widespread conversion of building stock to condos and the construction of new condo buildings? Does this make Chautauqua too much like everywhere else?

Will this transformation, driven by adding value to the building stock, make Chautauqua less, or more, accessible to the public at large? Or will Chautauqua become increasingly a summer assembly for the well-to-do?

Will the increased living units transferred into private ownership increase vehicles? Is the new William Baker’s underground parking garage consistent with the letter and the spirit of the Institution’s building and design standards? Is it consistent with the nature of Chautauqua?

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Dubious Reflections of Greatness

Somewhere in the late 80s an attitude emerged in the higher ups at Chautauqua that the Institution mattered on the world stage, in light of the Soviet conference and the ensuing collapse of the USSR. Simpson’s book stresses that Chautauqua after the Soviet exchange became an international force.

There was a perspective that this New Chautauqua was not merely a player, but that it had changed into something beyond its original mission, not merely an assembly for educational programs. Chautauqua no longer had to dust off its bragging rights that FDR had given his “I hate war” speech at the Amphitheater, or that his cousin Theodore had visited the grounds and declared his love for this “most American place.”

Evidently something new needed to happen physically, to complement this increased importance. A player on the world stage needed to look like it. There remained the question of what form this physical newness would take.

This was not the first dawn of a new architectural day. The opening of Norton Hall in 1930 represented the debut of a significant departure in style from that of other public buildings. Its enclosed exterior was constructed of concrete, rather than wood or stone. The hall was a simple, functional, box with a mildly neoclassical front. Its neighbors, Normal Hall and Kellog Hall, were elbowed a bit with its arrival. The Nortons footed the bill, the opera and the Cleveland Play House moved in, and the hall straddled the line between a barn and a venue for high class evening entertainment. Although it introduced ticketed performances, there has never been a formality separating all of its artistry from Chautauquans reluctant to stand in line to pay for admission. Through the years chamber concerts have been accessible to those stopping by to admire the music, as is also true of matinee performances of plays.

But no major performance facility was to be built for over six more decades.

Sixty years later, the time was ripe for the Administration to roll out innovation and change. But it was unclear whether Chautauqua would actually reinvent the building stock and its unique mixture of design. After all, these were resources that make the place traditional and eternal at the same time. They had never aspired to being world-class facilities. The Amphitheater is nothing more than a wooden haven from the rain with hard benches and acceptable acoustics (much enhanced through electronic technology). Smith Wilkes is a kind of a large brick tent. Alumni Hall is a wonderful, rambling wood barn more than a large house, stuffed with memorabilia. These eccentric, unpretentious icons of the Grounds have grace, simplicity, and warmth. They manage that almost impossible task: welcoming Chautauquans back to a special corner of the universe that, more than any place away from home, almost eclipses home itself as a refuge from the rest of the world.

This quality of Chautauqua public buildings is central to the magnetism of the Grounds. So when the New Chautauqua attitude took hold, what tinkering would there be with this quality?  Would the theme of "world class excellence" become a juggernaut that barged onto the grounds, or would a sense of humility keep delusions of grandeur in check?

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Lenna Hall

Any doubt that the New Chautauqua mindset would have any influence on the Institution’s architecture was completely and jarringly dissipated with the construction of Lenna Hall in 1992-3. Dr. Bratton and others were convinced that Chautauqua had a crying need for a world-class recital hall, with all the trimmings, and a very generous gift from the Lenna family made this addition to the grounds possible. No doubt a factor was the notion that the Institution’s music program had reached a plateau in the early 70s. The Symphony Orchestra was mature and its repertoire mostly established, as was that of the student orchestras (that went from two to one by the time of the 1990s). Rolling out a new performance facility would befit a major player on the world stage.

The site for the new facility was functionally logical – adjacent to the practice shacks and McKnight Hall – but there was a choice to be made about exactly how it would be designed, and where it would be placed. Unfortunately, the choices ignored these surroundings. Instead of being placed, the facility was plopped.

Lenna Hall may have excellent acoustics. Its interior may be pleasing to the eye. But the fact remains that Lenna Hall is a monstrosity of a building that continues to intrude rudely into the simple, unpretentious landscape of the music school and other neighbors. It is more than disloyal to the concept, perhaps more of a state of mind now to the Institution than a reality, of a “verdant grove.” Walk around the piano shacks and come upon Lenna Hall from its back, and gaze at its behemoth air conditioning unit and the berm built to obscure the view. It is the wrong building in the wrong venue.

We are not alone in finding Lenna Hall tough to take. A visitor to the Chautauqua web-site will observe that the exterior of the structure appears nowhere among the myriad of images of the grounds’ landmarks. Even the page on the website devoted to the hall features six pictures of the interior, but none of the outside. For a structure that represents the first major performance facility since the end of the 1920s, it is anything but photogenic.

The Garden District and the Re-invention of the Music Campus

Unfortunately at Chautauqua the impulse to dispense with the virtues of open, simple, and free did not spend itself with the invasion of Lenna Hall.

With the insurgency of the "Garden District" housing development, and the shoehorning of the architecturally incompatible practice facilities between Lenna and McKnight, and looming to the west of them, President Becker's evocative "verdant grove" demands revision.  The openness, simplicity, and freedom that have characterized Chautauqua since the end of the 19th century, we fear, are taking quite a beating.  It is true that McKnight has been handsomely renovated, and its ability to shed its west and east walls for al fresco performance is refreshing.

But this new chapter in Chautauqua's physical personality is troublesome for several reasons.

First, the sale into private hands (with ubiquitous Vacation Properties playing its usual major role) of the tennis court parcel and the open space north.  While the Garden District represents a permanent subtraction of invaluable open space to the north of the Main Gate, the installation of the new practice facilities is a bold lopping off of open space in the music campus.

Second, the crowding of the architecturally incompatible practice facilities perpetuates the myth that building new facilities means Chautauqua will be among the best music summer schools in America, the dubious notion that Chautauqua is "about" such excellence. It was not established to be so, and most of its existence has never so aspired.

Third, propaganda accompanies these innovations that the music campus was old and decrepit and what was good enough for Gershwin is not good enough for the Gershwins of tomorrow.  This theme is reprised constantly in the marketing literature the Institution publishes for the Idea Campaign.  Because something is repeatedly described as old and tired, steps can be taken - no matter how tasteless or ill-advised within Chautauqua's traditions - to remedy the old tiredness.

These structures are troublesome buildings for other reasons. Lenna Hall's exterior, a bland grayish igloo-like inverted truncated cone with six vertical brick fins protruding from the core of the building, does not merely fail to harmonize with its surroundings.

It is as if the planners set out to make a statement that the New Chautauqua way of looking at things was manifesting itself with these dissonant designs. “This is where Chautauqua is headed,” the buildings proclaim. Another problem is the standard governing the conception of such places: excellence.  The new practice cabins will be a credit to the new standard of world-class excellence.  Lenna Hall is considered to have state of the art acoustics. The implication is that Chautauqua deserves, and should aspire to, the best. But that is not its architectural mission, and the aims of “world class” education, religion, art, or recreation give us pause.

Simplicity and openness, and a certain lack of pretension, have always been Chautauqua’s virtues. The physical Chautauqua has undergone revisions that jeopardize these qualities, and they need to be debated.  We can assume a central "idea" in the Idea Campaign, somewhere, was to express continuity with traditional values through action and not just slogans.  Unfortunately the words are uplifting, but some of the actions repudiate this continuity.

 

Looking Ahead - Shall we expect further Unilateralism, Post-Idea Campaign?

We began this essay by suggesting that simplicity, freedom, and openness have defined - at least until the early 90s - the way Chautauqua looks.  The New Chautauqua rejects much of these ideas.  Those who love the Institution should wonder what liberties will be taken with the open space remaining on the Grounds, and what form the exploitation of this space will take. 

The fundraising movement, now central to the mission of the summer assembly, is cause for concern.  Renovating Kellogg Hall is one thing; cramming poorly conceived structures into spaces intended to be left open is another.  Inasmuch as this distinction evidently no longer matters, those who love Chautauqua's traditions should step back a few paces, filter through the marketing pitches, and ask the hard question:  Is this what we want Chautauqua to be?

As to the physical identity of the grounds, the Spring 2008 Chautauquan reprised the Idea Campaign thoughts from previous  editions of the Chautauquan.   The marketing mantra focused on excellence.  We were reminded that to be a “first rate” summer festival, the school must have faculty, money, and facilities – first-rate facilities.  Without them, the school of music has had no “true home of its own.”  The Idea Campaign has endowed the school with a “tangible physical identity” - - - finally, we were told.
 
For the school of music, we were told that “McKnight Hall and other School of Music buildings are connected by open passageways and colonnades that provide structure and a coherent sense of place….There is now a campus that is truly ‘The School of Music at Chautauqua Institution’” 
 
The implication was that before all this happened, the music campus had no “tangible physical identity” and no “coherent sense of place.”  Putting aside the high-faluting choices of words, one must ask:  was this ballyhoo an indictment of the Chautauqua that Albert Stoessel, Ernest Hutcheson, and other pioneers helped build in decades past? 
 
To an extent, it was.  And additionally it was hardly paying a compliment to all the other Chautauquans who in those decades past came to the grounds to study, perform, and immerse themselves in the music that was so much a part of daily life each season.  These devoted Chautauquans would have had no difficulty identifying the “tangible physical identity” of the music program they felt honored to be a part of, and would be quick to describe the “coherent sense of place” they loved and helped to cultivate season after season.  They rather embraced a place that may not have been constructed of truckloads of money and aspired to be the best on the planet, but was tangible and coherent and unforgettable just the same.
 
Their Chautauqua was much more like the verdant grove (now turning into a legend rather than a reality), in which grass, trees, and air were tangible enough, and the entire grounds, amid pervasive expressions of music, was as coherent a sense of place as one could ever want.  Indeed, anyone with a sense of history knows intuitively that Chautauqua could boast a coherent sense of place when its summer school attendees slept in tents on platforms.
 
But to sell the new menagerie of overbuilt structures, the Idea Campaign had to employ the fiction that its ideas were new, needed, and necessary.  Chautauqua has never before brought so much of its resources to bear on marketing, building, and development to make a point about its greatness. 
 
Symbolic of this need to push the idea of greatness is the prominent use of columns around McKnight Hall.  It is true that the colonnades provide structure to the campus, but they are no balanced or attractive structure.  The columns (that seem to be sprouting in that quadrant of the grounds like dandelions), are much too large and numerous to make sense in the space they are intended to adorn.  By themselves they are charming in a neoclassic way, but they don’t belong there.  Hence instead of coherence, there is now imbalance and monumentalism. 
 
Clearly the Institution wanted to make a statement:  it was launching a program that it was determined to make world-class.  As the Spring Chautauquan issue concedes, the “new identity” of the music campus is a marketing tool.
 
So radical is this shift in physical development that the message is not merely one of a transition from old identity to new identity.  Notwithstanding the lip service given to homage to the historical while charting a course into the future, we are witnesses to a clean break from the kind of grounds where space and groupings of structures were left open, natural, and simple.  The physical shift from plain, unpretentious practice cabins to aggressively postmodern, oversized practice facilities signals a “there is no going back” approach.  It is apparent that the days of some, perhaps all, of the practice cabins are numbered. 
 
Once the PanAm Building went up on Park Avenue, the damage was done, as was the injury permanently inflicted when Pennsylvania Station was razed.  Hence the Idea Campaign (whose roots are in the Bratton era that brought us Lenna Hall) represents a dramatically new direction for the Institution, and that also entails:
 
·      downgrading open space, while
·      increasing the footprints of socially constructed things (buildings, columns, walkways, lighting, sidewalks)
·      fundraising to build even more physical facilities on the grounds
·      construction of new facilities that go out of their way to clash with traditional architecture on the grounds
·      persistent efforts to make Chautauqua a world-class player
·      design and engineering of structures to reflect the grandiosity of an institution intent on becoming a world-class player  The art school is also undergoing this expansionism, and we are being told there is a coherence that exists for the first time.  But hasn't Chautauqua, with its simplicity, itself been a coherent work of art all along?
 
 
"Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art"
                                --Frank Lloyd Wright

 

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