Illuminating the history of a Shore landmark

Book on Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium caps 10 years of research

Staff Writer

 Ted Bell (l-r), Cindy Bell and Darrell Dufresne sign copies of their newly published history in front of the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove.  BOB WAITT Ted Bell (l-r), Cindy Bell and Darrell Dufresne sign copies of their newly published history in front of the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove. BOB WAITT In 1894, it took a team of contractors just 92 working days to build Ocean Grove’s 36,225- square-foot Great Auditorium.

To write a book cataloguing that construction, along with the auditorium’s inception, history and evolution, took authors Wayne “Ted” Bell and Darrell Dufresne just a little bit longer.

“Ten years,” said Bell, in an interview at the Ocean Grove Historical Society Museum. “It took us more than 10 years to finish the thing.”

The “thing” he referred to is “The Great Auditorium: Ocean Grove’s Architectural Treasure,” an intriguing, accessible 134-page book which digs, sometimes literally, into the long, colorful history of the Jersey Shore landmark.

 An interior view of the auditorium, which was constructed in 1894.  KEITH HEUMILLER An interior view of the auditorium, which was constructed in 1894. KEITH HEUMILLER In their research, Bell and Dufresne pored through blueprints, plans, meeting minutes, contracts and scores of other documents while combing through the auditorium itself — from the attic to the walls to the ventilation pipes buried beneath the floorboards — in an effort to build a definitive, exhaustive historical record of the 120-year-old building.

But it didn’t start out that way.

In 1999, before Bell began working on the book, his goals were a lot smaller.

“All I wanted was a stupid picture.”

Bell, an author, historian and 40- year Ocean Grove resident, was trying to put together a four-page brochure on Frederick Theodore Camp, the architect who designed the auditorium in the late 19th century.

Bell arrived at the Monmouth County Archives in Manalapan seeking some information on Camp: a little biographical data, a few historical details, hopefully a picture.

 The jacket of “The Great Auditorium: Ocean Grove’s Architectural Treasure” bears an unusual image of the landmark in winter.  PHOTO COURTESY OF PEPPERTREE PRESS The jacket of “The Great Auditorium: Ocean Grove’s Architectural Treasure” bears an unusual image of the landmark in winter. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEPPERTREE PRESS Archivist Gary Saretzky dug into the archives and returned with a legal folder. Inside, instead of all the information he was seeking on the architect, were 86 pages of specifications and agreements between Camp and the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association from 1893 and 1894 relating to the construction of the auditorium.

Bell, ever the historian, knew that the documents he had stumbled upon were rare. Partly out of curiosity, partly out of passion and partly out of what the authors say must have been insanity, Bell made the decision to drop the pamphlet idea and begin researching the auditorium itself. It was a decision that would change both men’s lives for the next 10 years.

“The more we delved into it, the more we realized how unique this structure was,” Bell said. “I think that, if anything, pushed us on to really work the book out in the nine chapters. It wasn’t a fashion; it was just a scientific endeavor. There’s a lot of material here that you just wouldn’t find anywhere.”

Before long, Bell was asking fellow historical society volunteer and professional engineer Dufresne to take photos of various parts of the auditorium on a regular basis.

Dufresne couldn’t help but become more involved.

“We both just kept making it bigger and bigger until we both recognized it was big,” said Dufresne, a longtime Ocean Grover himself.

“There were no records. … We looked for records of the time, but that stuff is gone. So we would have to take another route.”

One of the tactics the duo employed was visiting various other auditoriums and development sites throughout North America to see how other architects and contractors responded to the challenges of building in the late 1800s.

Bell also visited a number of places that held significance for Camp and the Milliken Brothers, the iron workers whose innovative system for truss installation enabled the auditorium to be built so quickly. “It took me to Bloomfield, N.J., it took both of us to Salt Lake City, it took me up to Sarasota, N.Y., and St. John, New Brunswick, because Camp went up there and built some houses,” said Bell. “Then I went up to Staten Island, where the Milliken Brothers were. It got so that it was a fetish.”

Recognizing that the auditorium’s innovative design and impressive scale would be better appreciated in the context of other, similar structures built in the same era, the authors of “The Great Auditorium” decided to devote a chapter to buildings like the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and the Chautauqua Assembly in Chautauqua, N.Y. Bell and Dufresne also researched railroad train sheds, armories and arenas from throughout the country built near the end of the 19th century to explain how other designers utilized emerging steel construction methods as the era of brick, stone and wood came to a close.

In this light, Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium seems all the more impressive.

“It was mostly innovative in the area of structural technique, structural approaches. Most buildings were built bottom up; everything sat on something below it. This building was actually built from the top down,” said Dufresne.

“Everybody looks over there and believes they see a wooden building, but it isn’t. The wood is just hung on the steel. It’s not even particularly well-mounted to the steel, because it doesn’t have to be. And all of that stuff on the bottom can just be moved over and pushed out of the way. It obviously isn’t holding anything together. It obviously isn’t a wooden building.”

“But the building has survived hurricane after hurricane,” added Bell, “so I think that illustrates the strength of the building and the design.”

“The Great Auditorium” also traces the building’s roots, beginning with what was essentially a large canvas tent at the camp meeting grounds and ending with the massive structure — built for less than $50,000 in 1894 — that stands in Ocean Grove to this day.

Of particular interest is the struggle of Camp Meeting president, the Rev. Ellwood H. Stokes, to have the auditorium built in the first place.

Recognizing a growing congregation and the need to comfortably accommodate thousands during the three- and four-hour long sermons given throughout the day, all summer long, Stokes had to petition his board of trustees and even the laypeople for years before finally raising enough funding to construct the building.

The book also contains detailed descriptions of the auditorium’s more interesting features, including a built-in ventilation system that draws in cool air in the bottom and pushes warm air out through the spires on the roof, and its world famous 11,000-pipe Hope-Jones organ, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008.

“The Great Auditorium” includes original copies of dozens of 120-year-old contracts and documents, along with speeches, meeting minutes and turn-of-the century newspaper articles concerning the construction and eventual dedication of one of the most impressive structures ever built on the Jersey shore.

In order to compile all of this information into an easy-to-read, easy-to-digest book, Bell and Dufresne called upon

Cindy Bell, Ted’s daughter and associate professor of music education at Hofstra

University in Hempstead, N.Y.

“Once we realized that [we had enough information for a book] and we had all this paper, we then called in my daughter, who is at Hofstra, and she has a dual-degree in music and communications, and she really did some good work on it.”

Cindy, a fifth-generation Ocean

Grover and a member of the Great Auditorium choir in the summer, was able to help focus all of the research and suggest some new angles or different approaches to the authors, who say they wouldn’t have been able to write the book without her.

“We had a goal to inform the public about the auditorium, its importance and its beauty, and I think we’ve accomplished that,” said Bell.

And after more than 10 years of research, countless hours hunting down and dissecting Victorian-era documents, after figuratively deconstructing the auditorium panel by panel, frame by frame, the two authors might have accomplished a lot more — even if they never did find that picture.

“The Great Auditorium: Ocean Grove’s Architectural Treasure,” published by Peppertree Press, Sarasota, Fla., is available for purchase at the Ocean Grove Historical Society Museum. A Great Auditorium museum, which contains many of the records and artifacts the Bells and Dufresne used to write the book, is now open in the historical society’s basement.