After Amphitheater, Bellinger is next for renovation

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
A view from outside a common room in the south wing of Bellinger Hall shows electrical wiring held together by extension cords running the length of the exterior.

For the past three years Chautauquans have been hearing about the $33 million Amphitheater renovation project, the largest public works project ever proposed for the Institution. The Amp project is the centerpiece of Chautauqua’s six-year Promise Campaign.

Perhaps lost in the excitement surrounding the Amp is the second-largest public works project ever proposed for the Institution.

That is the $5.5 million proposal to rehabilitate the aging two-building dormitory complex known as Bellinger Hall, also a key part of The Promise Campaign.

“For sure, the Amphitheater project has dominated capital proposals in The Promise Campaign,” said Geof Follansbee, Institution vice president and CEO of the Chautauqua Foundation. “The Amp has had the highest visibility, as it should. But it may be easy to overlook the Bellinger Hall renovation, which at an estimated $5.5 million is larger than any other Chautauqua project except the Amp.”

The price tag makes the renovation “significantly more costly” than the renovations of either Hagen-Wensley House or Fowler-Kellogg Art Center, Follansbee said.

While all philanthropic fundraising is not yet complete for the Amp project, Institution leaders remain optimistic that the money will be available in time for the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees to give final review and approval for the project at their February 2015 meeting.

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Music School Festival Orchestra students practice in one Bellinger’s meeting rooms.

Bellinger Hall would be next.

Still resembling the northern California campus dormitory complex it was designed to emulate when it was dedicated 40 years ago, Bellinger is now being prepared for a typical offseason of hosting an eclectic mix of seniors, church and special interest groups, including skiers and snowmobilers.

Constructed in stages between 1974 and 1989, Bellinger offers 60,000 square feet of residential space.

In the summer season, the building is home to 235 students in the Institution’s Schools of Fine and Performing Arts, in addition to other students and interns spending the summer on the grounds.

Athenaeum Hotel general manager Bruce Stanton oversees Bellinger Hall staff and operations.

“When Bellinger Hall opened in 1974, its kitchen was modern and up to date, and the public areas and residential dorm rooms were contemporary,” Stanton said. “Now, after decades of maintenance and repair by the Institution but without significant renovation, Bellinger is too close to the line that differentiates quaint and seedy.”

Director of Operations Doug Conroe has led much of Bellinger Hall’s maintenance over many years, and shared in design development work for part of the large south wing and the north wing.

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Details like the knicks and old locks on the bathroom doors in the dormitories at Bellinger are signs of the building’s age.

“Until the Athenaeum Hotel was renovated, Bellinger was the Institution’s off-season conference site,” Conroe said. “We have had groups there from as far away as Michigan, but not so much in recent years.”

Now, Conroe said, “the heating in Bellinger is inconsistent,” while “the air conditioning is basically non-existent.

“The air distribution system is creaky,” he said. “The kitchen, which was one of the most modern and impressive in the county when it was built, needs an overhaul.”

Furthermore, Conroe said, the “bedroom model is outdated.” Most students live in double rooms with a small writing table, limited storage and shared access by four residents in two rooms to an inadequate connecting bathroom with a single commode and narrow shower stall.

“Bellinger Hall has suffered from outmoded and fading furniture and furnishings,” Conroe said. “Many of the newest furnishings are already more than 20 years old.”

Meanwhile, many church camps around the lake, such as the Lutheran Camp and Mission Meadows, have upgraded their HVAC systems and can offer a higher level of comfort than the Institution can at Bellinger Hall, and are potential competitors for off-season conferencing business.

At the August Chautauqua Corporation meeting,  trustee and chair of the Asset Policy Committee Ron Kilpatrick called special attention to the need to upgrade Bellinger Hall in his presentation on capital planning at the Institution.

“Bellinger Hall needs renovation really badly,” Kilpatrick said.

Institution Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer George Murphy said that Chautauqua needs to enhance the student experience on the grounds in the summer, especially for those in the fine and performing arts.

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
The conference room, used for board of trustees meetings and other conferencing events in the off-season, shows its age in water damage, outdated carpet, fixtures and worn furniture.

“We really owe these students adequate facilities with reasonable comfort,” Murphy said. “The Institution has made significant investments in faculty, performance and practice facilities. Now we need to upgrade residential accommodations to enable Chautauqua to compete successfully for the finest students.”

Stanton, Follansbee and Murphy all see potential in the Bellinger project beyond its greater appeal to summer students. With the dropoff in attendance on the grounds in Week Nine and sometimes in part of Week Eight, they said there are possibilities of further developing Bellinger as affordable housing for senior groups such as Road Scholar, which already send many short-term visitors to the Institution.

An enhanced Bellinger would also likely attract more meeting and conference business to the grounds.

“This could be an important effect of the Bellinger upgrade,” said John Shedd, director of facilities, who manages the Institution’s capital projects. “There is significant financial potential there for the Institution. The building envelope at Bellinger is basically in decent shape, but we’ve put together an impressively long list of things that need to be improved inside the building.”

Follansbee is upbeat but realistic as he assesses fundraising for Bellinger Hall.

“There was some skepticism about our ability to fund major arts support projects in the Idea Campaign,” he said. “But the fundraising was strong for projects like Fletcher (Music) Hall. We were pleasantly surprised. On a project like Bellinger Hall, we’ll look for a strong lead gift in the $2 million range to really develop some momentum and build confidence in the project. There’s a strong case for upgrading Bellinger Hall. It’s important and overdue.”