The Women Behind the Memorials: The woman who bought the Amphitheater

Courtesy of Chautauqua Institution Archives
From left, Geraldine Gebbie Bellinger, Arthur Bestor, Alburn Skinner, Mina Miller Edison, Percy Hubbard, Bertha Hubbard and Dr. George W Gerwig gather in a unidentified cottage. This photo was likely taken in 1938.

The Women Behind the Memorials

Geraldine Gebbie Bellinger

Reporter’s Note: The Chautauqua Women’s Club’s 125th celebration this season offers the opportunity to illuminate and celebrate the remarkable women who have made Chautauqua what it is. These women brought intelligence, energy and leadership to every project they touched. Testimony to their achievements remains in the buildings that bear their names, the organizations they created and the words they wrote. This series will attempt to recall their individuality, their interests and finally a suggestion of who they were as people — a sense of the women behind the memorials, of women who cast a long shadow. We continue with Geraldine Gebbie Bellinger.

Geraldine Gebbie Bellinger bought Chautauqua’s Amphitheater in 1935. Well, to be precise, she joined her daughter, Janet, and sister, Marion Bertram Gebbie, and made a $5,000 sentimental purchase of the Amp. It was a donation to the “Save Chautauqua Fund” and was one of the larger single contributions to the three-year effort to rescue the Institution from its creditors.

The irony is that, though the student dormitory Bellinger Hall is named in her honor, and though she was always a generous Chautauqua contributor and a longtime participant, Bellinger never actually lived on the grounds.

Bellinger lived in Magnolia Springs on a magnificent property, which was known as the Bellinger Estate.

The Amp purchase may have been sentimental, but that Bellinger Hall is named in her honor is a testimony to her life and the values she cherished. She was an accomplished violinist and supported the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, attending concerts even when her hearing was failing. In a report called “The Gebbie Family History” published by the Gebbie Foundation, Alfreda Irwin wrote: “Her enjoyment of music and art would much later draw her into the center of activity at Chautauqua Institution, which was only three miles from her Magnolia estate. She and her sister helped many young students in art and music reach their educational goals.”

This interest in young students is a precise rationale for the Gebbie Foundation’s 1973 contribution for the building of a student residence. The Gebbie Foundation was created from the combined estates of Bellinger and her sister in honor of their parents, Frank and Harriet Louise Gebbie.

At the Aug. 5, 1974, dedication of Bellinger Hall, Richard H. Miller, chairman of the board of trustees, said that “the building will be dedicated to the education of young people, the transmission of artistic skills that make the whole of life worth living.”

There is symmetry to the lives of the women in this series. With the exception of Irwin, they all served on the Chautauqua Board of Trustees. Bellinger replaced Anna J. H. Pennybacker, who died in 1938.

“She served actively from 1938 to 1961. She was an original member of the Chautauqua Fund and served until her death on Oct. 14, 1963,” Irwin wrote. “She was also astute in business matters and proved to be a good steward of her resources.”

Though her life was one of privilege, it was also defined by personal loss.

Her husband, Earl, died in 1930, her sister died in 1949, and her only child, Janet, died of cancer in 1957.

She was, it would seem, resilient. After her husband’s death, she completed the elegant Magnolia Springs house and created the gardens which attracted visitors from Chautauqua for years.

Sometimes history bumps against the present. The home is now for sale, as its current owner recently died. It is here that Bellinger’s aesthetic sense, like some friendly, horticultural ghost, is met. The bones of her gardens, a translation of her artistic vision, and the empty greenhouse endure amidst the park that surrounds the magnificent lakefront home designed by Jamestown architects Ellis Beck and Norman Tinkham and built in 1936.

On July 31, 1976, the Daily published Irwin’s interview with William Parker, Bellinger’s son-in-law, on the occasion of the Gebbie Foundation $1 million gift to the Institution.

“Mrs. Bellinger was particularly interested in plants and gardening. She took great pride in designing the different small gardens,” Irwin wrote. “So skillful was she that the views in any direction from any of the gardens are open, eye-catching and picturesque.”

Perhaps Bellinger passed on her sense of husbandry to the Gebbie Foundation. A requirement of the $1 million award, Parker said, is that the Institution “must prove that it can wisely manage its finances and stop deficit spending.” And, by the by, the Institution did.

In terms of their personal generosity to Chautauqua, it is difficult to separate the two sisters. Both supported Chautauqua, its scholarship programs and believed in the Chautauqua ideal. Their largesse leapt across the Chautauqua gate to other Jamestown organizations including the Jamestown YWCA and the WCA hospital. They financed the Bellinger Chapel in the First United Presbyterian Church in Jamestown. Parker would emphasize in the 1976 article “how deeply they both felt the obligations which were attached to their wealth.”

Years ago a professor advised one of his students, “Tend your own garden.” While tending her own garden, Bellinger grew lives along with flowers.