Chautauqua architecture: Foster reveals thinking behind some of Institution’s beloved shared spaces

The Amphitheater is like a “great, inclusive tent,” architect Jane Foster said, with brawny American features and a simplicity that invites emotional attachment. Photos by Adam Birkan.

The Athenaeum Hotel’s porch railing features unique carved details like a bat design.

A view of the Athenaeum porch from the hotel’s second floor. Photo by Adam Birkan.

The consistency of the ornate Athenaeum porch column tops suggest they were designed from a Victorian pattern book for lakeside hotels.

The dinner tables on the south end of the Athenaeum porch are popular among hotel guests.

The catwalk above the Amphitheater ceiling provides access to a crow’s nest with sweeping views of the stage.

John Ford | Staff Writer

“Let’s take a walk,” Jane Foster said, traces of her Georgia burr softening the edges of her sentences. “We’ll see what we find.”

Foster has been visiting Chautauqua since the 1980s and became a property owner more recently. She is a licensed architect, having been in private practice for 30 years in Philadelphia with husband Arthur Willson. She is also a freelance professional opera singer who performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with New York City’s One World Symphony earlier this year and once sang the part of Michaela in Carmen at Christmastime in Bavaria — on two days’ notice.

We had decided to look at some of Chautauqua’s major public buildings, Foster serving as an impressionistic docent.

“We’ll start with one of my favorites, the Amphitheater, which is pretty topical because of the renovation which is planned,” she said. “I see the Amp as a great, inclusive tent, a simple shell which invites the emotional attachment of everyone who enters. On some level, you don’t want it to be too polished or so big we’re no longer able to feel we are a part of it.

“Look at the structural columns. The sheer brawniness of them. They’re art on an Edward Hopper scale: the solid, individual strength of each vertical piece,” Foster said. “The columns are not lovable, but they are undeniable. There is a fundamental Americanism in their bare-bones, riveted style.”

In the enormous attic above, L-shaped black steel girders support the roof: “These are industrial-age icons,” Foster said.

“The exterior toward the back of the Amp, facing the lake, is a hodgepodge,” she said. “You can see that repairs were often made in the style of the time and with the materials at hand. The rear shingle style, for instance, was popular in the 1920s. Much of the work on the Amp seems to have been done carpenter style — whatever’s in the yard.”

Walking from the busy, capacious back porch through the Amp’s labyrinthine passages and out onto the stage, Foster noted her changing sensations.

“On stage, you feel the palpable pressure of performance, of expectations. On the back porch, you can exhale. Still, the cycle of coming and going on that porch can be chaotic. In terms of the business of the Amphitheater, the back porch is really the front porch,” she said.

Foster admired the sweeping view of the benches from the perspective of the bleachers beyond the back of the house.

“Look at the rhythm and order of the benches. It’s almost majestic.”

Later, the opera company was rehearsing.

“It’s Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti,” Foster said. “Natural sound is a focus of the Amp, with its broad, curving roof and open sides. But the best seats are right near the audio control board. The sound is more balanced, with focused overtones. In an opera house, this would be the location for the orchestra boxes — the best seats in the house — slightly elevated. The orchestra patrons could thus best enjoy the music and at the same time be seen.

“Overall, for an outdoor venue, the Amp acoustics are good. Ideally, you would have a clear path for the sound to flow back through the house, unimpeded by the speaker clusters and light trusses. The wood has a vocal-friendly resonance. Metal, not so much.”

We moved down the hill to the Athenaeum Hotel, where Foster led the way directly to the hotel’s signature, 200-foot long porch.

“This,” she said, “is a place I truly love at Chautauqua. I feel, when I settle into one of the comfortable rocking chairs on this porch, that I am in the serene embrace of a set of hands that holds me safely. There is a timeless feeling here, no disorientation.”

Hotel General Manager Bruce Stanton joined the conversation.

“Over a period of years,” he said, “I have visited a number of renowned Great Lakes-area hotels, with and without porches, including the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich., with its magnificent 600-foot porch. I am most drawn to the hotels with porches. For us, the Athenaeum porch is a primary element of the hotel, a place guests and visitors alike can enjoy. We like to leave the porch accessible for all as much as is possible.”

Some hotel guests would like to eat all their meals on the south half of the porch where tables are set, and Stanton and his staff accommodate them as they can.

“We don’t like to ration the porch, but it is sometimes necessary in order to be fair to all,” he said.

Looking at porch details as Stanton spoke, Foster noted some that might be imperfections but further endear the place to her.

“There, for instance,” she said, pointing to sheared-off metal rods that remain bolted to the wooden lap siding. “Those are what remains of an exterior fire escape stairway system which predated installation of more modern fire safety measures.”

“Look at some of the other details,” Foster continued. “The bat design carved into the railing; the odd instance of paint peeling along a wood joint; exposed wiring hanging enigmatically along some of the exterior walls; the Victorian lamps on the walls; the aging GE window air conditioners thrust out from some lake view rooms. And I like the 30-foot ceilings with exposed joists. All these things offer detail and perspective on the hotel.

“The triple-hung windows have Italian palazzo-style pediments. I like that the hotel keeps the windows open as much as they do. Their size complements the porch, as well as providing welcome summer ventilation. And check out the column tops: In Victorian times, there was actually a pattern book with elements of design for lakeside hotels. Carpenters often followed these patterns quite closely, and the consistency of these column tops suggests that happened here, too.”

We moved to the Smith Memorial Library — more specifically to the French doors on the second floor, which provide a panoramic view of Bestor Plaza.

“Through these open doors, you have a window on a real town square,” Foster said. “I love to read before these open doors, and when I occasionally look up, there is always a different tableau down below on the plaza.

“I’ll tell you one thing: When an architect is designing a town center to anchor a proposed urban or even suburban high-density residential development project, the centerpiece is almost inevitably a rendering which very closely resembles Bestor Plaza. Except that in real life, costs and other considerations usually dilute or eliminate the architect’s vision. Chautauqua is the real thing.”

Foster paused, appreciating the scene below.

“You could freeze that image,” she said, “and you’d have a photo of a classic American town green. There are always people crisscrossing the green. There are families, couples, singles, as oblivious as college undergraduates to the parameters of the walkways. You can even move the benches around, easily, to follow or avoid the sun.”

A woman was reading on one of the benches, intent on her book and comfortable in the shade. She did not look up as children raced by.

“She is an individual, solitary, strong as in a Hopper painting,” Foster said. “But she is not isolated, because Chautauqua is a community.”