While Western New York summers are not known for unbearably warm temperatures, students like Julimar Gonzalez, who live in Bellinger Hall during Chautauqua’s summer season, cannot seem to cool down.
“We have the windows completely open. Like everything open. We have three fans in our room,” said Gonzalez, a Music School Festival Orchestra student who has lived in Bellinger for six seasons. “I was like, ‘I’m boiling in here.’ ”
Built in the late 1970s, Bellinger Hall has housed Chautauqua’s finest arts students as they hone their craft. But Bellinger has not been given the same attention and care as the students, and there has not been major construction on the building since it opened.
In 2011, the Institution hoped to push for plans to renovate Bellinger, but the Amphitheater renovation took center stage. With the Amp construction completed in 2017, and after a pandemic-forced pause, focus has shifted back to Bellinger as the next capital project. So far, $3 million has been raised toward the renovation; Geof Follansbee, senior vice president and chief advancement officer, said that the initial cost estimate for the project was $10 million, but with both inflation and the lingering pandemic, that cost may end up being more. Still, thanks to the generosity of donors like Chip and Gail Gamble, Follansbee said the Institution is well on its way to funding the project.
“We were planning on a gift to Chautauqua, and because, over the years, Bellinger was put on the back burner … it seemed like a good place to make a gift to get the ball rolling,” Chip Gamble said.
He added that Bellinger badly needed funds and attention. The Gambles hope that the plan will create better living conditions for students and create opportunities for year-round use.
“I think one of the bottom lines is if we want to continue to recruit top-grade talent for our various student programs, we’re going to have to have a top-grade living situation,” Chip Gamble said.
Gail Gamble agreed and noted how Bellinger can be overlooked because, for most people, it’s not part of everyday life in Chautauqua
Follansbee said that Bellinger is a key instrument in the goal outlined in Chautauqua’s latest strategic plan, 150 Forward, to engage partners at Chautauqua throughout the entire year. Bellinger could be poised for new opportunities beyond the nine-week summer season.
“Our strategic plan also points to how we use the grounds more fully year-round, or at least nine months out of the year. When Bellinger Hall first opened, it was frequently rented out to groups who used it for meetings and retreats,” Follansbee said. “But as the building’s condition has worsened, it’s become less attractive for outside groups.”
Follansbee said the Institution recognized that Bellinger now has 10 more years of wear and tear, so “rather than being tired, it’s frankly exhausted at this point. That’s not fair to our students who are there, nor does it help us in recruiting the best dancers, artists, visual artists and musicians.”
Currently, the project is in the concept drawing stage, but Follansbee hopes to move to the next stage soon.
“What we hope the project will do is create really desirable living conditions for our student body,” said Follansbee, who described the dormitory as dark, claustrophobic and outdated.
The plan for Bellinger will include the reconfiguration of rooms to create 30 suite-like accommodations to be used in the off-season, but that can be changed back into dorms during summer season, Follansbee said. With this specific renovation plan, the student rooms will receive a variety of upgrades, including new carpeting, new fixtures, new paint, and air conditioning.
That air conditioning is desperately needed, Gonzalez said.
“Most of the summers are hot. Especially when you’re sleeping on the second floor. I’ve had rooms on the first floor, and those were just a tiny bit better. But a second-floor room is unbearable,” Gonzalez said. “There were times where we would stay in the cafeteria until 1 or 2 a.m. just to be air conditioned and then go to a room and be like, ‘Oh God.’ ”
The heat can be uncomfortable, said Jared Werlein, a Chautauqua Opera Conservatory student, who has lived in Bellinger for three seasons.
“I’ve taken ice cold showers just to go to bed,” Werlein said.
Besides the heat, students find the space to be dated, sometimes with a smell to match. And for some, it feels as though Bellinger is not up to par with other facilities on the grounds.
“The practice rooms in the sheds, those are phenomenal. Those actually have air conditioning,” said Joe Brozek, a MSFO student who has lived in Bellinger for two seasons. “The sheds are beautiful. Great, state of the art, but the ones in the (Bellinger) basement — those are kind of a little musty.”
There’s also the possibility that the quality of Bellinger has not benefited student retention.
“I feel like one of the things that people think about after they leave Chautauqua at the very end, it’s, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m coming back because of the dorms.’ Because it’s just really difficult,” Gonzalez said.
Students said upgrades to Bellinger would only improve their Chautauqua experience.
“Seeing the way that Chautauqua has done upgrades on various things, … I’m sure that if and when an upgrade is done to Bellinger, it will be wonderful and the experience here will be even more lovely,” Brozek said.
An upgrade to Bellinger will improve both student life, in the present and the future, as well as strengthen the community between them and other Chautauquans.
“I think that it will become such a more welcoming space to new students coming in. I think it creates a safer environment,” Werlein said. “I think having a very clean, upgraded and renovated space creates a lot of feeling of security and a feeling of closeness and safety in this building.”