Chautauqua Building in Shelbyville, Illinois

Chautauqua auditorium

Shelbyville, Illinois is home to an architectural masterpiece. The Chautauqua Auditorium built in 1903 is located in Shelbyville’s Forest Park Chautauqua. I learned about the wooden structure when I saw a model of a Chautauqua building at the Dixon Center in Dixon, Illinois. The model looks like a huge round barn. However, it is a model of the Rock River Assembly’s lovely arena built in 1887.

Like most Chatauqua auditoriums, the Rock River building was used to train Sunday school teachers. It served as the theater for the Chautauqua gatherings. The Dixon Historic Center brochure states, “Built in 1899, the building had the largest clear interior span of any building in the United States and could seat 5,000 people…”

It was destroyed by fire in 1949. However, this beautiful building had an almost twin in Shelbyville, Illinois!

Chautauqua auditorium
The recently restored Chautauqua Auditorium

Chautauqua Movement History

Today there is still the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State. This is where the movement began. “The Institution, originally the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, was founded in 1874 as an educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning. It was successful and broadened almost immediately beyond courses for Sunday school teachers to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education.”

Founded by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent they were Methodists. Soon many other faiths soon joined in. The ultimate goal was to “show people how best to use their leisure time and avoid the growing availability of idle pastimes, such as drinking, gambling, dancing and theater-going…”

The movement provided leisure with “good morals and good health”. Soon recreational activities were added in, and this brought the “Chautauqua Movement” to many communities like Shelbyville. In some cases, they used tents, and in others they built beautiful buildings!

The Shelbyville Chautauqua Auditorium history

The Chautauqua Auditorium, built is wooden and has 20 side! There are several different types of Chautauqua buildings. I have found one in Taylorville, and one in Pana, then one also in Rockville, Indiana. The one in Shelbyville is the only enclosed one I have ever seen.

A Herald Review article shared, “To encourage others to visit, the Shelbyville Chautauqua Association decided to build a permanent assembly hall. “This became the Chautauqua building,” Shanks said.

Mark Shanks is one of the residents behind the movement to save the building.

In Shelbyville, at the Chautauqua movement, people would camp in the park. The Chautauqua programs often included music, education, religious and political speakers. The Chautauqua Auditorium is supposed to be the largest building of its kind anywhere in the world. The building has a 150′ diameter!

The building was built by local bridge builder H.B. Trout. Trout created a radial roof truss system. This made the building architecturally unique with no interior pillars. Nothing blocks the stage; the audience has a clear view!

Over time, the building became a wonderful community center serving many famous visitors. During the early teens and 20’s, vaudeville acts and bandleaders performed. Even political visitors came. President William Howard Taft, three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and evangelist Billy Sunday stopping by.

In later times famous musicians like Allison Kruass and REO Speedwagon have performed here!

Saving the Building

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 30, 1978. Since the 1930’s the city has owned it.

But by 2009, the building had fallen into disrepair. It was listed on “10 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois” by the group Landmarks Illinois.

Chautauqua auditorium
The auditorium spans 150 feet!

The town took a vote to see whether to restore the building. They learned preservation would come at a cost of $750,000-$800,000. Mark Shanks headed up the fundraising.

Now, I have read, the city plans to use the auditorium as a tourist attraction and museum. What a draw. With the beautiful Sunken Garden, nature walk and restoration on their park picnic pavilions, it is a wonderful park!

I learned the auditorium had been completed while at the Gathering of the Green. Barn builder Rick Collins mentioned he had just completed a job on a huge building in Shelbyville, I immediately hoped it was this! I was thrilled to learn it was!

The Three Muses

Chautauqua auditorium
The Muses!

When we visited the beautifully restored building, we noted three female Grecian statues above the stage. Since I am not musical, I didn’t realize they were called the Muses. That took my violin playing friend Janna, to denote this. I have learned that they represent Art, Music and Drama. These statues were works from renowned Illinois artist and Shelbyville native Robert Root.

The Sunken Garden is another draw!

Our Visit

My friend Annie Jansen and I loved the chance to walk through this amazing piece of history. There are pictures on the wall. There is a clear view of the stage from every angle. What a beautiful place with a history that can’t ever be recreated!

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