When we moved to Waxahachie in 1987, I was intrigued with the idea of living in a historical town. About twenty percent of all the buildings were listed on the National Historical Register.....In addition to the many Victorian homes and nineteenth century architecture, we discovered the most beautiful park I had ever seen. Encompassing fifty-three acres, Getzendaner Park is complete with giant trees, bridges, picnic tables, pavillions, playground equipment, and an eight mile jogging, walking, bike trail. We spent many wonderful hours, especially when the kids were small, having picnics and family fun there.
The first time we visited Getzendaner Park was on our first house hunting trip. We had seven children in tow, and being short on cash, each morning we happily ate donuts at one of the picnic tables in the park. This was the first time I noticed this huge blue building at the northwest corner of the park.
The building was a funny looking structure. Circular in design, it had a roof that was a giant cone. I assumed this unusual creation was a theater of some sort.
Later, I asked the locals some questions and discovered that this unique architectural design was a Chautauqua Auditorium.......What on earth was a Chautauqua Auditorium???? Was Chautauqua a Native American word? I wondered about this because growing up in Oklahoma, I had heard the name Chautauqua many times. I learned that the reference for Chautauqua here was to more of an idea than the Native American reference. This auditorium was part of a movement started in the late 1800's called the Chautauqua Movement. The movement began as an educational and cultural movement at Lake Chautauqua in New York. The actual word Chautauqua is a Seneca name meaning "bag tied in the middle". Such famous men as President Ulysses S. Grant, Booker T. Washington, Russell Conwell, and William Jennings Bryan made appearances the original New York Chautauqua.
The Chautauqua Movement was founded by Lewis Miller and John Vincent. Initially, the plan was to have an educational retreat for Sunday school teachers. People came from all over to attend the assemblies at Lake Chautauqua. The movement quickly expanded to become much more that just an educational outing for teachers. Soon many disciplines such as music, art, literature, the humanities, and physical education were represented at the assembly. Then, an initiative began to establish Chautauquas all over the country. By 1900, there were 2000 pavilions in 31 states. Areas that could not build an auditorium would have a Chautauqua in a large tent.
The basic design of the Chatauqua Auditorium was to be an outdoor venue. There were windows all around so that people could stand outside and view the activities within. The auditorium in Waxahachie was built in 1902. The structure seats 2500 people. The circular, cone roofed design was based on a design by architect John Cilley. This design is typical of the circuit Chautauquas found throughout the country.
In the late 1920's and 1030's the Chautauqua movement in American was on the decline. This is largely attributed to the advent of the radio as it provided a new outlet for entertainment. By 1971, as the Waxahachie structure had fallen into disrepair, there was discussion of demolishing the wood building. Fortunately, several people in Waxahachie took an interest in restoring the historic building. Once placed on the National Register of Historical Buildings, the structure was restored. Now it serves as a venue for plays, concerts, and community activities.
Personally, it horrifies me that this structure was almost lost. I would prefer to preserve as much of our historical architecture as possible. I appreciate the efforts of the Historical Societies all over the United States. It is because of their efforts that we still have many of our historical buildings with us!! And....I am blessed that on any day of the week, I can drive ten minutes down the highway and enjoy this wonderful Chautauqua Auditorium!