It was not something to construct a summer lecture platform around, but then again maybe it was. At any rate, the Massey Memorial Organ dedication on Aug. 6, 1907, attracted attention.
In announcing the dedication services, The Chautauquan Daily said, “It would be hard to overestimate the value of this generous gift to Chautauqua music and the whole cultural life of the community. Its influence will be felt throughout the broad area represented in the gatherings throughout the summer.”
The dedication was scheduled on the first Tuesday of August, coinciding with the celebration of Old First Night. The organ was built by the Warren Organ Company of Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. It was a gift from the estate of Hart A. Massey, known for his manufacture of agricultural implements. According to Theodore Morrison’s book Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in America, Massey had been a Chautauqua trustee who had moved from Cleveland to Toronto. His son, Chester D. Massey, married a sister of Bishop Vincent.
“The Amphitheater was remodeled to receive the Massey organ, and Normal Hall was remodeled to provide for its predecessor,” Morrison wrote.
“The installation of the new Massey Memorial Organ has made necessary the further enlargement and rearrangement of the Amphitheater for the season of 1907,” the Daily reported. “These improvements were made during the winter and spring.”
Reporting on the organ’s installation, previous to its dedication, the Daily ran an article on July 12, 1907, on the history of the Amphitheater, composed in two parts: “The First Amphitheater,” erected in 1879 and “The New Amphitheater,” erected in 1893.
The First Amphitheater
“The Amphitheater is the center of Chautauqua life, for in no other single place can be gathered at one time the greater part of the large summer population,” the article began.
Many great people had spoken there.
“Addresses of more than local and temporary interest have there been delivered, and in the pregnant words of the world’s leaders of thought, new movements in social and political life have been inaugurated,” the Daily said.
Digging deeper into the Amp’s history, the Daily included an excerpt from the Chautauqua Assembly Herald of Aug. 5, 1879, describing in more detail the construction of the first Amp.
“The Assembly Grounds are realizing their manifest destiny,” the Herald wrote in 1879. “On the brink of the terrace, at a proper distance from the Auditorium, nature has scooped out of the solid ground a nicely shaped Amphitheater.”
And nature’s handiwork had now become a substantial fact: “The first and only Amphitheater in this country worthy of the name is thus a part of the development of Chautauqua,” the Assembly Herald said.
Built under the supervision of W.W. Carvin, the Amp had a “superficial area of 145 by 180 feet.” The canopy was supported by 55 pillars. More than 10,000 feet of lumber were required to make the seats, “which are 380 in number, and have a capacity to accommodate 4000 people.”
The Amphitheater at Chautauqua and the use to which it was put “mark the contrast between this Christian age and the times which slaves, prisoners, gladiators, and savage beasts fought, suffered and died in the amphitheaters of Greece and Rome for the amusement of a corrupt and noisy populace.”
Chautauqua, the Assembly Herald said, had “consecrated the Amphitheater to God and to the higher interests of humanity. The change is from ignorance to intelligence, from vice to virtue, and from cruelty and blood to mercy and life.”
However, by 1893 the first Amphitheater had become the old Amphitheater and had “outlived its usefulness for it had proved to be inadequate for Chautauqua’s growing needs.”
The New Amphitheater
If the first Amphitheater was wonderful, the new Amphitheater was more wonderful.
“When the old Amphitheater was built it was considered a tremendous work, but the new structure is a greater improvement on the old than the old Amphitheater was on the old Auditorium in Miller Park,” the Assembly Herald reported on July 22, 1893.
The new Amp was larger at 185 feet long and 160 feet wide. The roof was supported by steel columns bearing bridge trusses, rendering “by far the greater part of the building free from posts.” The seating capacity was increased, causing one dreamy observer to claim the Amp would hold from 7,000 to 15,000 people. The Herald said of the dreamer that “had he split the difference he would have been about right.”
The seats were comfortable, the choir gallery glorious, the architecture better than ever for concerts. There was a large reception and waiting room for the Assembly’s guests.
“All the offices and rooms are connected by electric bells and speaking tubes,” the paper said.
The building and its surroundings was especially attractive at night, enhanced by “electric lights encircling the rim of the entire roof and arching the platform, the colored lights back of the choir gallery and the many arc lights.”
On the platform stood an olive wood desk from Jerusalem. It was a desire Chancellor Vincent had often expressed. Knowing this, Secretary W.A. Duncan had ordered it. A full year passed between its purchase and its arrival.
“Numerous other features of this unique structure might be mentioned, but no description can adequately picture it to the mind,” the Assembly Herald said.
It was indeed a remarkable structure and completed at a cost just short of $25,000.
“It was a great work to finish the building in time for the opening exercises,” the Herald said, “but by working day and night it was done. A week before the season opened almost everyone said it could not be ready, but Chautauqua never yet failed to do what she promised and it had to be completed.”