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


Ball State University
Department of History
Burkhardt Building
Munvie, IN 47306-0480
Office: 765-285-8732
Fax: 765-285-5612
Email:  mwdoyle@bsu.edu

Town of Bethel
ATTN: Building Department
Bethel Planning Board
P.O. Box 300
White Lake, NY 12786

Dear Town of Bethel Planning Board Members:--

This letter is written as a formal commentary for the public hearing scheduled on 9 March 2004 to discuss the Special Use Permit applied for by the Gerry Foundation (GF) for its proposed Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center. I am a university-based historian with twenty-five years of experience in the field of historic preservation. In addition, my area of scholarly expertise includes the American counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s, a subject on which I have published in peer-reviewed journals and books. In the summer of 2001, I was hired as a consultant to Allee King Rosen and Fleming (AKRF), the New York environmental planning firm employed by the Gerry Foundation to prepare the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the property that included the former Max Yasgur farm, and which the GF hopes to develop into a Performing Arts Center District. My responsibility was to author the section assessing the historical and cultural significance of the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. Not surprisingly, I concluded that the site was of major significance on the local, state, national, and even international levels. With the owner’s consent, the site would certainly be eligible for listing on both the New York State and the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the reasons for the site’s eligibility, besides its signal importance in the history of American popular music, is that it remains in much the same state as it was found when the Festival organizers leased it from Max Yasgur in summer 1969. This is all the more remarkable given the site’s location, a mere two-hour drive from the heart of Manhattan and in a scenic area that has for generations been a destination for vacationers. Miraculously, neither residential nor commercial sprawl has adversely affected the site over the subsequent thirty-five years.

One of the challenges facing the AKRF project staff was in designating the boundaries of the Woodstock Festival site, a matter of no small concern to the GF. A crowd estimated at between 300,000 to 500,000 people attended at least a portion of the three-day Festival and they spilled out of the 38-acre natural amphitheater and adjoining plateau along Hurd Road and strolled and camped over an area well outside what had been leased by the promoters, much of which is currently owned by the GF. For guidance, we turned to the publications prepared by the National Park Service for nominating battlefields, since these sites pose similar problems in determining the boundaries of military conflicts that were often territorially extensive and temporally fluid. In the end, the AKRF team focused on the so-called Festival Stage Area, the 38-acre field and adjoining plateau which witnessed the music that was at the heart of the Festival itself and attracted the greatest attention by the throngs in attendance, not to mention the reporters, photographers, and filmmakers who brought images of the Festival to the awareness of the wider world. This, it was decided, was the most significant part of the 1700 acres under consideration for the proposed Performing Arts Center Development District (PACDD).

When the DEIS was later presented at a public hearing in March 2002, some members of the public, along with the Woodstock Preservation Alliance, expressed their dismay over the GF’s provisional Overall Development Plan because it included a Core Building Complex of some 390,000 square feet to be constructed on the plateau immediately above the Festival State Area. These concerned citizens pointed to a statement made by Alan Gerry at a press conference held in mid-June 2001 to announce the commitment of state funding for the PACDD. Mr. Gerry was quoted in the New York Times as deflecting concerns that permanent buildings might be erected in this very location. “We think this is special land,” he said. “Would you build a shopping center where Washington crossed the Delaware?” The execution of the GF’s original plans would, these vocal opponents maintained, do just that – despoil what they regarded as “sacred ground” for commercial gain. Between then and now the GF has seen fit to reduce the footprint of the Core Building Complex (CBC) to approximately 35,000 to 38,000 square feet, less than 90% of its earlier size, and to relocate a water tower that had been proposed for erection nearby. While this is certainly a welcome change, the fact remains that the CBC will still intrude into the viewshed from the Festival Stage Area. I urge the GF to reconsider its plan and remove the CBC from this vicinity. It is a staple of good preservation planning that no new permanent structures should be erected within unaided eyesight of a historic site where alternate locations may be found within a reasonable distance. Ideally, the site itself should preserve the perspective a visitor would have had during the time period of the site’s primary historical importance. Because relatively few historic sites remain in a geographical context evocative of the period of their primary importance, this is typically achieved by mitigating to the degree practicable any intrusions that would detract from such a perspective. The Woodstock site is truly fortunate because it can avert these intrusions ahead of time simply by constructing the CBC in a different location on the property out of the Festival Stage Area viewshed.

GF Executive Director Jonathan Drapkin, during his presentation before the Planning Board last month to discuss the application for the Special Use Permit, acknowledged that officials with the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSDPRHP) had recommended against situating the larger CBC “retail element” on the plateau where the downsized version is still planned. He asserted that “the Interpretative Center element which they [the NYSDPRHP] do recognize from battlefields and other things, has a real purpose to be on the historic site in order to tell a story.” I would think it appropriate for this Board to request a finding from the New York State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) as to whether the GF’s revised plan satisfies the Department’s criteria for such buildings in situ prior to issuing a Special Use Permit. I am inclined to think that the SHPO would continue to disagree with the way Mr. Drapkin’s assertion has been interpreted in this revised plan, because it does not conform to best practices for historic preservation. In fact, recently the Gettysburg National Battlefield acquired at great public expense an observation tower that had been constructed by private interests for “enhancing” the visitors’ experience of that site. The National Park Service demolished this intrusion so as to return the battlefield’s viewshed to a state closer to what “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled [there]” would have beheld in July 1863. It would behoove the Planning Board and the Gerry Foundation to apply the late lesson from that sacred ground to the Woodstock site.

I wish to conclude on a positive note. I think the concept of the proposed Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center is sound. I salute the Gerry Foundation for investing in this project and believe them to be people of good will. If done in the most sensitive fashion, their project can preserve a site of major historical importance while contributing to sorely needed economic development for Sullivan County. I call on them to tap into their considerable talent and ingenuity in search of a way to accomplish these twin tasks which leaves the Festival Stage Area and adjacent plateau area in as undeveloped a state as feasible. At the same time, I must also ask those others who honor and respect the site and who regard it as sacred to cultivate a spirit of cooperation with the present owners. It is my cherished hope that people on both sides will be able to establish a relationship based on trust and mutual caring for that which each shares in common -- a love for what Woodstock continues to symbolize and a determination to preserve it through wise use.

Michael William Doyle, Ph.D.