Wandering through Chautauqua's meandering lanes with their gingerbread Victorian cottages and the American flag flying out from many a wide, cool porch , you almost expect to see Teddy Roosevelt come strolling around the corner. And indeed Roosevelt did visit here some 80 years ago, describing the place as "a gathering that is typically American in that it is typical of American at its best."
The locality that so pleased the 26th President is the Chautauqua Institution , a unique lakeside community in southwestern New York that bursts into bloom every summer with a flowering of lecture programs, ballets, and concerts. All of these events take place amid an old-fashioned, peculiarly American atmosphere that doesn't seem to have changed much since the time of Roosevelt's visit.
Every summer about 100,000 vistors present their admission tickets at the gates of Chautauqua and enter into a world that looks something like a stage setting for the play "Our Town." But although Chautauqua may appear to be the ideal of small-town America, it actually isn't a real town at all. It is instead a cross between a well-heeled resort, an intellectual summer camp, a nine-week-long arts festival, and a state of mind.
Although tornadoes did extensive damage in the Chautauqua area in May, the institution itself was unaffected except for the loss of some trees on the golf course and a few boats, according to a Chautauqua spokesman. The summer schedule is proceeding as planned.
Many visitors to Chautauqua choose to settle in at one of the numerous hotels , inns, and guesthouses throughout the 856-acre grounds on the thickly forested shores of Chautauqua Lake. Others simply pop in for one of the special events or to spend an eclectic day that could include a morning talk by Betty Friedan (Aug 12), John Houseman (Aug 19) or Norman Vincent Peale (Aug 28); an afternoon swim or sailboat ride; dinner at the Athenaeum Hotel; and an evening concert that could feature anyone from Ginger Rogers (June 30) to Harry Belafonte (July 8) to Melissa Manchester (July 15).
But no matter how much time you plan to spend in Chautuqua, at least one leisurely stroll around the grounds, preferably with ice cream cone in hand, is requisite. After passing through the gates, one leaves the traffic-choked highway behind to find a crooked maze of lanes -- for pedestrians only -- with such appropriate names as Ramble and Bliss. The privately owned cottages and guesthouses all along the way, most of them built in the late 1800s, are a Victorian architecture buff's delight. Almost all are tucked amid tall stands of pine and maples. In fact, one little brown-shingled abode even has a fir tree growing up through its front porch.
The hub of activity, just as it is in any village, is found in the main square, a wide, grassy expanse called Betor Plaza. On the south edge of the square is the imposing neoclassical facade of the Smith Memorial Library, the scene for a variety of weekly programs of music, films, talks, demonstrations, and informal classes. Among the shops ringing the other sides of the square is Chautauqua's commodious bookstore, a bustling literary enclave that offers the kind of wide-ranging selection you would expect in Harvard Square rather than at a summer resort.
That Chautauqua offers far more food for thought than the usual summer community is especially apparent as one strolls south of the plaza along Clark Avenue. Musical strains often call out from the huge, open-sided, 6,000-seated Amphitheater, a butter-colored wooden structure built in 1893, where concerts take place. On most afternoons you can peek in to see the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, attired for the most part in blue jeans and sandals, in rehearsal. Not far down the avenue is the equally imposing Hall of Philosophy, a lovely Grecian-style forum, also open on the sides, where visiting authors, scholars, and theologians speak under the massive roof supported by graceful white columns.
Turning down Haven Avenue, one catches a glimpse of Chautauqua Lake, an alluring reminder that not all at the community need be studious or cultural. Lush green lawns leading down from gracious Victorian mansions line the shore of the sparkling blue lake, the lively center for swimming, sailing, canoeing, windsurfing, and just basking in the sun. Commanding the tip of a point jutting out into the lake is the Miller Bell Tower, an Italiante landmark that sends its lovely peels out over the environs as it marks the hour.
The best place to listen to the bell tower and take in the lake view is from the immense porch of the Athenaeum Hotel, a splendid yellow and green Victorian grande damem that was completed in 1881. Late afternoon is when many Chautauquans , some of them first-time vistors and some of them here for their 40th or 50th summer, settle into the Athenaeum's wicker rockers to savor peach-colored sunsets over the lake, which are almost a nightly event.
In addition to the Athenaeum, there are a number of other hotels, inns, and guesthouses that provide accommodations for vistors, most of whom come during the nine-week season when cultural events are in full swing. It is possible to enjoy Chautauqua during the quieter weeks of early summer and fall, however, and one hotel, the St. Elmo, stays open when the winter months turn Chautauqua into a Currier and Ives landscape.
To understand the unusual place that Chautauqua holds among summer resorts, it is essential to know something of its equally unusual history. Back in 1874, Lewis Miller, a wealthy inventor and maunfacturer of farm machinery, joined forces with John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist clergyman, to form the Fair Point Sunday School Assembly, a training camp for Sunday School teachers on the shores of Chautauqua Lake. About 250 participants showed up that first summer, living in tents and balancing outdoor activities with quiet religious study.
In the years immediately afterward, the primitive encampment evolved rapidly in both comfort and scope. New cultural activities and educational prgrams were added each season, cottages and hotels replaced leaky tents, and the religious aspects became optional and ecumenical as a variety of Christian denominations became part of the scene.
Among the early frequenters of Chautauqua was Thomas Edison, who married Lewis Miller's daughter Mina. On summer evenings Edison would sit on the porch of his father-in-law's Victorian Swiss chalet-style cottage, now a national landmark, with the likes of Henery Ford and Harvey Firestone and discuss where the country was heading. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan made two campaign stops at Chautauqua, in 1907 and 1912, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his famous "I Hate War" speech here in 1936. In all, nine presidents have spoken at Chautauqua, from Ulysses S. Grant in 1875 to Gerald Ford exactly 100 years later.
But most of Chautauqua's visitors are far less famous. Many are families from western Pennsylvania and Ohio. What makes the resort particularly attractive to families are options such as the Boys' and Girls' Club, a day camp that offers an array of recreational activities for children at Chautauqua. Parents are thus free to attend a lecture on abstract art or perfect a tennis game, knowing their children are having a good time as well.
Even a brief visit to Chautauqua can be memorable. After a day of swimming and happily strolling around the grounds, friends and I topped it off with what should be a part of every Chautauqua experience: dinner at the Athenaeum Hotel and a concert in the Amphitheater just up the hill.
In high-ceiling dining rooms of the Athenaeum, covered with flowered wallpaper, you can sit down to roast lamb with mint sauce or turkey with real mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Not only is dessert included in the price of the dinner, but the menu directs you to choose two.
After dinner, feeling somewhat as though we had experienced Thanksgiving in July, we ambled up to the Amphitheater to hear the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra , the members now nattily attired in summer whites, and composer Marvin Hamlisch. After the last note was struck, we joined the thousands of others streaming out into the soft, star-covered night. Judging from the expressions on the faces we saw, we weren't the only ones who felt that Teddy Roosevelt was right. Practical information
Chautauqua Institution is approximately midway between Buffalo, N.Y., and Erie, Pa. From Route 90 take the Westfield exit, follow Route 17 to Mayville, and then take Route 394 south. The nearest airport is in Jamestown, which is served by US Air.
For information on scheduled events, accommodations, rate packages, and other aspects of visiting Chautauqua, write to Chautauqua Institution, Department G, Box 1095, Chautauqua, N.Y. 14722. aspects of visiting Chautauqua, write to Chautauqua Institution, Department G, Box 1095, Chautauqua, N.Y. 14722.