Norton Hall receives facelift ahead of ‘Onegin’

In 1928, Lucy Coit Fanning Norton donated a welcome gift to Chautauqua Institution — a gift that would house hundreds of operas and entertain Chautauquans for many generations.

That present was Norton Hall.

After nearly a century, the 1,500-seat theater has been renovated to preserve the beauty and architecture of the building.

The Chautauqua Opera Guild provided funding to make the improvements and invited Cynthia Norton, the great-granddaughter of Lucy Norton, to chair the committee that carried out the changes. The work was also accomplished by Chautauqua’s Director of Operations and Administrator of Architectural and Land Use Regulations John Shedd and his crews using Norton Trust funds.

“This was to make the hall a more beautiful place and a more useful place for both the opera company and the Institution,” Cynthia Norton said. “I was so interested to learn that my great-grandmother told the president then, Arthur Bestor, ‘I will build whatever you want as long as it is beautiful.’ ”

According to the Norton Memorial Hall Renewal pamphlet, the walls and ceiling of the lobby and balcony were repainted. The basement stairs, walls and floors received new paint, and a new color palette was added to the area around the stage to make the proscenium inscription legible.

“The choice of the new color palette was based on available information about the original appearance of the building,” Norton said.

The ceiling was replaced in the second-floor bathroom, all auditorium and exterior doors were refurbished and refined. Original interior light fixtures were thoroughly cleaned and enhanced with LED bulbs.

Black folding chairs replaced the orange upholstered, straight-back chairs, and electrical safety upgrades were included. Lobby fixtures were improved, including the refinished audio cabinet, new pedestals at usher stations, bases for flower arrangements and wall-mounted display cases for opera memorabilia.

Lucy Norton’s son Ralph was a successful steel tycoon and art collector, Cynthia Norton said, so he took it upon himself to hire the architects and ensure Norton Hall was built. He also gave a passionate speech on the dedication of the hall, a plea for beauty in architecture.

“During the Norton Gallery in 1941, a medical research donor suggested Ralph spend his money on something worthwhile, and Ralph said, ‘You go ahead and help save people’s lives. I’ll make their lives more worth living,’ ” Cynthia Norton said. “It is part of a bigger historical purpose — not just for beauty.”