Welcome to the Woodstock - Preservation Archives
Dedicated to the Historic Preservation of the Site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival

Hurd & West Shore Rds
Sullivan County
Bethel  NY

Progress in the Long, Strange Trip Toward a Monument to Woodstock
By Winnie Hu
June 15, 2001

Bethel, N.Y., June 13—Peggy Beischer showed up here prepared to fight a proposal for a performing arts center that would commemorate the famous music festival where 400,000 lucky revelers wallowed in the mud and gyrated to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Who 32 years ago.

But just in case, Ms. Beischer and her friends from the Woodstock Preservation Alliance carried two news releases about the arts center – one endorsing it, the other condemning it – to a public meeting on Tuesday night at which the architect Richard Meier unveiled an ambitious tribute to the festival.

Mr. Meier, best known for designing the sprawling Getty Center in Los Angeles, displayed drawings of a $40 million open-air pavilion with an undulating roof of translucent glass to an overflow crowd of 250 town officials, residents and graying hippies in tie-dyed shirts. A local billionaire, Alan Gerry, had hired him to create a cultural institution like Tanglewood, in the Berkshires.

When Mr. Meier was done, Ms. Beischer passed out the positive release and found herself all but gushing. “Now I’m going to cry tears of joy,” she said.

Getting a major monument built to Woodstock has been, to quote the Grateful Dead, a long, strange trip for the town of Bethel, where the festival ended up after being barred from its namesake some 60 miles away. The end is still a long way off, and there is skepticism among some town residents, and others, that it will really happen.

But Mr. Gerry’s resources and Mr. Meier’s visit to the White Lake Fire House this week have given many people hope that the project is going forward.

“I think the evidence is there, finally,” declared Duke Devlin, 58, a farmer who came here for the Woodstock festival in 1969 and never left.

For Ms. Beischer, 35, who owns a store selling what she calls hippie wear in Greeley, Pa., the stakes had to do with respecting and preserving the elusive legacy of the concert itself. “It’s a place where I know there is no hate and no violence,” said Ms. Beischer who was too young for Woodstock but has camped out on the field and joined impromptu reunions since then. “There’s an energy in the land that can’t be compared with anywhere else. You walk across the field, and it feels good.”

But for most others, commerce, not culture, was the main issue.

For decades now, the Woodstock site has been seen as a magnet that could attract thousands of tourists to this resort town of 4,362 in Sullivan County once famed for its summer colonies for working-class families.

This is the county, after all, that built the Sullivan County International Airport in the late 1960’s when its politicians became convinced that casino gambling would transform the Catskills into a major destination. They were wrong, and the small airport is used today by a few dozen private planes and charter services.

“Broken dreams, broken promises – that has been the downfall of this county,” said Russ Keesler, 39, a firefighter in Bethel.

Because of that history, there is still plenty of skepticism about the proposal for an arts center.

So after Mr. Devlin expressed his optimism, Jeryl Abramson, 46, a columnist for The Sullivan County Democrat, quickly interjected: “I don’t know about that. We’ve been there before. Everybody shows us the plan, nobody shows us the money.”
Bethel residents have not always pinned their hopes to the festival. Woodstock was viewed as a chaotic mess in 1969, and for many years after, because long-haired revelers danced in the mud, swam naked in ponds and clogged the roads with their abandoned cars.

It often seemed that Bethel residents did everything they could to discourage reunions and pilgrimages to the festival site, a 37-acre alfalfa field that belonged to a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, and later to less tolerant owners. Overnight camping was banned, snowplows were positioned to block access roads and fresh chicken manure was even spread over the field.

But Mr. Gerry, a 71-year-old cable television magnate whose teenage daughter had slipped away to Woodstock against his wishes, bought the field for about $1 million in 1997. he later acquired 1,400 surrounding acres for more than $10 million.

He initially talked about a theme park at the site, but after staging concerts there in 1998 and 1999 that sold nearly 100,000 tickets, he began advocating a performing arts center.

Mr. Gerry secured $15 million in state money for the arts center last August and pledged the assets of his nonprofit Gerry Foundation to cover the rest. The open-air pavilion, which is scheduled to open in 2004, is a vision of steel, glass and wood that seems to float over the hillside. “It’s like sitting under a cloud,” Mr. Gerry said with obvious pleasure.

Mr. Meier, 66, said he missed the original Woodstock festival but has since trekked through the alfalfa field in knee-high snow and muck to capture the feel of the place. “It’s the most flowing and free-form building that I’ve done, because of the land and because of what it is,” he said. “It has that kind of lyrical musical aspect.”

If it is built, the pavilion will seat 3,500 under the glass roof, and 14,000 more on the back lawn for summer concerts. It is intended to anchor a 634-acre campus that would eventually include a 1,200-seat indoor performance hall, stores, restaurants and a school for the performing arts, Mr. Gerry said.

“It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to Sullivan County,” said Sig Slifstein, 57, an associate real estate broker. “It will bring young and old people here, and increase the labor force and bring second-home owners. I don’t want another Woodstock. I want a Tanglewood.”

But others, like Michael Chojnicki, 45, an architect, expressed disappointment that the center would not reflect more of the Woodstock spirit. “The concert wasn’t mentioned at all,” he said after the public meeting. “I’m afraid that it may get lost and this will be just another beautiful outdoor pavilion where they’ll have Mickey Hendrix and Minnie Joplin.”

Yet for those who have revered Woodstock for all these years, the most important selling point of the new arts center is that the alfalfa field that became the site of a defining experience for an entire generation will remain undeveloped; the Meier pavilion is perched on an adjoining hillside.

“We think this is special land,” Mr. Gerry said. “Would you build a shopping center where Washington crossed the Delaware?”

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company