Jun 05, 2017

The Great Auditorium at Ocean Grove

By Lori Draz

(With special thanks to Darrell Dufresene and the Historical Society of Ocean Grove)

 

The entire town of Ocean Grove is a treasure trove of historic homes and architectural curiosities. It has the largest collection of Victoriana, or “painted ladies,” homes anywhere in the country, and yet, there is one structure that daunts them all: the Great Auditorium at Ocean Grove.

This amazing structure occupies an acre of land in a town that is only one square mile. Adjacent to the Great Auditorium is the Youth Temple, and flanking the huge property are rows of the tiny and uniquely Ocean Grove “tent homes,” which are summer residences. Each is a wonder of its own.

The Great Auditorium sits at the end of a long (approximately  1,500-foot) green walkway that draws the eye and the spirit to its doors. It has a large illuminated cross that is visible from the beach and boardwalk.

The story starts in 1869, when a group of spiritual lay leaders formed The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to incorporate the town of Ocean Grove. Curiously, homeowners in this town are just that – homeowners, as no one actually owns the land. Instead, it is leased from Ocean Grove for 99 years. The town was a hit from the very start. It attracted vacationers, religious retreats, famous writers and celebrities, business moguls like department store magnate F.W. Woolworth, along with many U.S. presidents. Ulysses S. Grant visited Ocean Grove during his time in office and made his last public appearance there. Other presidents who visited or spoke there included James Garfield, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon.

In 1976, the town was entered in the National Register of Historic Places and in 1977, the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places.

But back to the Great Auditorium. This amazing structure was built in 1894 and remains nearly intact. The building was built in an amazing 90 days by ship builders, which is reflected in its ship-like interior. One curious fact is that “no profanity” was allowed during its construction. Today, it is by no means inactive. In fact, the Great Auditorium is used almost seven days a week for worship, summer concerts by headline performers, and weekly organ concerts on the 11,000-strong pipe organ. These concerts are free. It is a wonderful way to tour the property and hear this magnificent instrument, ranked in the top 20 organs in the nation, rumble it way through a variety of songs.

To the eye, the building appears to be wooden, but that is not true. Nor is it a cubic rectangle with a pitched roof as it appears. The actual framework of the building is steel, using the arch designs found in many cathedrals. All the wood was hung over the steel skeleton and you will notice the edges of the steel framework poking out over the end of the aisles. The ceiling plays a huge role in the structural integrity of the building and it is actually much higher than it appears. The barrel-vaulted ceiling is also key to the Great Auditorium’s remarkable acoustics, which allowed many early preachers to be heard with perfect clarity from any corner of the building. Leonard Bernstein once compared it to Carnegie Hall.

Still looking up, you will notice the rows of incandescent light bulbs crossing the ceiling. How do they change them? Actually, there is an attic-like space above the ceiling and the bulb changer pulls the bulb up into the attic to change it. The lighting design was quite progressive at its time. The other illuminated features you will notice are some of the oldest surviving of their kind. To the left of the organ, the sign reads “Holiness to the Lord” and to the right, “So be ye holy.” In the center, there is a large American flag (c. 1916) covered with light bulbs that flash in an undulating manner.

The doors are large barn doors, which slide open. When they are all open, the delightful cross-breeze keeps the crowds cool. It also allows you to see just how much of the structure is actually open construction.

When it was built, it could hold about 10,000 people. The seats have been upgraded, reducing the number of seats to a little over 7,000.  There are still rows of the original seats in the rear and they are quite comfortable, cool, and preferred by many guests.

There is a wonderful and in-depth book called The Great Auditorium: Ocean Grove’s Architectural Treasure, which contains well-researched details of blueprints, contracts for painting, plumbing, and more. It is available at The Historical Society of Ocean Grove’s Museum and Offices at 50 Pitman Avenue, right across from the Great Auditorium. The museum is full of amazing artifacts and well worth the trip, and the group hosts many tours and lectures. Visit www.oceangrovehistory.org to learn more.