From the Front Porch: A case for the color yellow

Column by John Warren

Yellow is the color of Chautauqua.

When I think of what’s familiar about Chautauqua, I think about yellow. It’s been the color of the Institution’s icons, the Amphitheater and the Athenaeum Hotel, as long as most of us can remember.

It got me wondering whether there was ever issued a “yellow mandate,” or at least a white paper on yellow.

Chautauqua archivist Jon Schmitz told me he’d never heard of such a thing, though Schmitz hears references to “Chautauqua white.” That could have its roots with institution co-founder, Lewis Miller, who acquired an affinity for white houses at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

In the 19th century, the writings of a landscape architect named Andrew Jackson Downing helped establish the standards for architecture in Chautauqua — specifically for its primary structure of the time, diminutive cottages. Downing disliked white (sorry, Lewis), the color of most Greek Revival houses, and wished to avoid the colors nature avoids. His preferences were gray, brown, sage.

There are historic references to “Athenaeum Yellow,” which is confused by the fact that the hotel was green from the mid-1900s until the 1980s.

The Athenaeum was also (horrors) dark red/ brown in the early 1900s, but we only know that because of paint scrapings. That’s because, while there is no shortage of historic photos, they’re all in black and white.

John Shedd, the Institution’s head of architecture and land use, did a lot of squinting at those grainy old photos when drawing up plans for the renovated Amphitheater. Anecdotally, he knew the Amp had been yellow for at least 50 years. But before that time, he can only guess, based on those photos.

Oliver Archives Center records reference the Amphitheater, when built in 1893, being “Chautauqua tan.” Is one man’s tan another man’s yellow?

In any event, whatever else may change with the revamped Amp, Shedd said its color will not.

Which is good news, and also worth considering in the larger context of the Amp overhaul. What little is left of the circa-1893 structure, you probably can’t even see. Boards rot, and benches are replaced.

So meaning has to be about something other than boards, something renewable.

“Branding” is a detestable word, right up there with “synergy.” But if you strip it down, it means choosing the right words or images to represent how you feel about something. It could be a swoosh, which evokes movement. Or a color, like John Deere green, or Notre Dame’s blue and gold.

Science tells us yellow is the color of the mind and of intellect. It is the color of optimism and enlightenment, of sunshine and happiness, light and new ideas.

To me, that sounds like Chautauqua. Do I hear a second?