Grand structure to reopen with a new elevator and newly uncovered history

August 9, 2017

DeFuniak Springs, Fla. – The City of DeFuniak Springs has started preserving and restoring the historic Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood at 95 Circle Drive on Thursday, August 3.  The $497,113 project is funded with a grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources with the City adding cash support of $63,825 and in-kind/volunteer services valued at $71,837.  Inmates from the Walton County Correctional Institution’s Inmate Labor Program are assisting with demolition of inside walls not original to the structure.

Dump truck in front of Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood being filled with debris from walls not original to the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood structure. (photo by Christopher Mitchell)

This grant funding enables the City to install a new elevator, stop water intrusion, stabilize the foundation, clean and paint the exterior, install fire and lightening protection and provide handicapped parking and more accessible entrances.  The first-floor suspended ceiling has been removed, revealing the original stained joists which will remain exposed as designed.

The Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood is the grand entrance to what was a 4,000-seat auditorium opened February 3, 1909 as the main gathering place during the annual Florida Chautauqua Assemblies and to replace an insufficient 2,500 seat auditorium to accommodate growing crowds to the Assemblies.  The Assemblies lasted from 1885 to 1927 in DeFuniak Springs, Florida.  A tornado during Hurricane Eloise in 1975 destroyed the auditorium to the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood but left the grand entrance standing.

According to newspaper articles and original records collected by Florida Chautauqua Association Historian Robert Daniel, Florida Chautauqua campus leaders intentionally built the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood to resemble the United States capitol and to serve as the centerpiece of the campus.  As a way to raise the needed $28,000 to build the grand structure, famous Americans like Robert Todd Lincoln and Cornelius Vanderbilt, U.S. Senator George Wetmore of Rhode Island, and U.S. Senator Chauncey DePew of New York each sponsored a column in a fundraising campaign to build a new 4,000 seat auditorium with second floor classrooms to replace the insufficient 2,500 seat auditorium which previously stood in the same location.

Original joists unveiled from removal of suspended ceilings. The joists were originally stained gray and designed to be seen as they will be in the restoration plans. (photo by Christopher Mitchell)

In 1899, ten years prior to the building’s opening, General John B. Gordon, one of Robert E. Lee’s most trusted Confederate generals during the Civil War, laid the cornerstone to the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood.  During his reported two-hour, fifteen-minute speech, Gordon stated, “The Hall of Brotherhood tells the story. Every beam and timber, each brick and stone that shall complete its structure, from this supporting cornerstone now laid to its finished turret, will speak to coming generations of the sentiment that suggested it. American brotherhood, a reunited country, on which depends not only the life and perpetuity of the Republic, but the welfare of universal humanity, are the glorious realities which this Hall is to represent. In the name, therefore, of every state in this Union, and of our priceless freedom, invoking Heaven’s blessing upon it, I dedicate this spot where the Hall of Brotherhood is to stand a holy invocation to the everlasting fraternity of the American People.”

The 1909 printed program refers to “The new Hall of Brotherhood, which has just been completed, containing the ‘Yale Hall,’ ‘Washington Hall’ and ‘Hall of Scottish History and Literature,’ fills a long felt need in the daily life of the Chautauqua. This will be the regular meeting-place for the morning devotional hour and for the regular afternoon lectures other deliberative bodies not desiring the use of the large auditorium. It will also be found very convenient for class work along various lines. The late Hon. Wallace Bruce, for many years President of Florida Chautauqua, was instrumental in erecting the present auditorium knows as the Hall of Brotherhood.  The Dome was dedicated to the Soldiers and Sailors of the Republic, the lantern above the Dome to the Light of Christian Truty [sic] and the columns on the outside of the building represent the Presidents of the United States.”

The 1926 printed program provides even more background on the landmark: “The Auditorium, the largest Chautauqua amphitheater in the Southland, is fitted with modern conveniences and fully equipped with electrical lights with dissolving color effects and foot lights for the presentation of plays and grand concerts. The seating capacity is near four thousand, the stage alone is capable of accommodating one hundred actors.  The late Hon. Wallace Bruce, for many years President of Florida Chautauqua, was instrumental in erecting the present auditorium knows as the Hall of Brotherhood.  The Dome was dedicated to the Soldiers and Sailors of the Republic, the lantern above the Dome to the Light of Christian Truty [sic] and the columns on the outside of the building represent the Presidents of the United States.”

During the Florida Chautauqua Assemblies, notable Americans like Vice President Thomas Marshall, American Red Cross Founder Clara Barton, and American Orator William Jennings Bryan have addressed packed audiences at this location.  The Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood also provided the stage for many prestigious evening performances during the Florida Chautauqua season.

The last known assemblies were held in 1927 on the campus.  The board of directors of the Florida Chautauqua Association who orchestrated the assemblies and who owned the campus, deeded the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood to the City of DeFuniak Springs in 1934.

In 1972, the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places.  The auditorium has been used by the City for many community functions until 1975 when Hurricane Eloise destroyed the auditorium portion of the structure.  The grand entrance still stands and is available for rent for weddings, exhibits and special events.

City officials expect the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood to be closed for rental and special events until June, 2018 when the first phase of restoration concludes.  The City has applied for additional funding to complete the restoration efforts which the initial grant could not cover.

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