Chautauqua Institution Historic District

Chautauqua Town, Chautauqua County, NY

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The Chautauqua Institution Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and as a National Historic Landmark in 1989. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the NHL nomination document. []


This summer community consists of several hundred acres on Lake Chautauqua in southwest New York State. Chautauqua is best known for its lively summer programs of lecturers, meetings of religious groups, classes in painting and arts and crafts, its music school, and its concerts and theater performances. This picturesque community is also one of the best preserved compounds of late 19th and early 20th century wooden cottages in America. In addition to the cottages, there are public buildings, parks and gardens, and boarding houses and hotels.

Institutional Architecture

The Amphitheater (1892) — This structure is at the center of all Chautauqua activities. It is here that the community gathers for daily lectures and concerts and religious services on Sundays. Few podiums in this country have held such a distinguished group of speakers and performer.

The original amphitheater, closer to the lake, was covered by a pavilion-like tent. In 1879, a second, hard-roofed, structure was built farther up the hill and, finally, in the summer of 1892, the present structure was begun. It is 180 feet long by 160 feet wide with a pitched roof supported by bridge-type trusses borne by a minimum number of steel posts, only 20 of which are visible. The central unbroken space is 160 feet by 100 feet. Under the eaves on the roof edge are bracketed wooden supporting posts and the roof itself is relatively sound-proof due to iron shingles that are leak-proof. The seats are solid-backed wooden benches descending in tiers toward the stage. Most residents carry their own "Chautauqua cushions." The Massey organ was installed in 1907 and the stage facilities have been expanded and improved over the years. The amphitheater seats between six and seven thousand people comfortably and, for special performances, ten thousand may be packed in, including standing room.

The Hall of Philosophy (1903-1906) — Set in a stand of trees, this open-air Doric Temple was designed by the architect Albert Kelsey. The interior is lowered slightly so that people on surrounding benches have an unobstructed view of the podium. The shorter ends are framed by four Doric columns while there are six columns on each flank. The roof is trussed and covered by a shingled, wood roof. It can seat 1,000 persons. Originally a tented structure, the current Hall with its cast concrete columns is approximately 100 feet in length by 60 feet wide. Collaborating with Kelsey was the sculptor J. Massey Rhind and the landscape architect, Warren H. Manning. Masonry pedestals at the corners support Classical caldrons on tripods which are ceremoniously lighted annually. The Hall is used by the Religion Department and the Chautauqua Learning and Scientific Circle (CLSC), which holds its colorful graduation ceremonies here each August.

Norton Memorial Hall (1929) — This small Beaux Arts hall was a gift of Mrs. O.W. Norton of Chicago as a memorial to her husband and daughter. The adviser to Mrs. Norton was the well known classically trained sculptor, Lorado Taft. The design of the building was drafted by Otis F. Johnson who was part of Taft's studio, and the large sculptural reliefs on the facade are the work of Fred Torrey and Mabel Torrey, who were also associated with Taft. The smaller relief panels were done by Elizabeth Hazeltine, on the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago at that time. Inscribed across the facade is a quote from Theophile Gautier, "All Passes — Art Alone Endures." The auditorium seats 1,367 persons and was built at a cost of $140,000. The building, with a basement below, is 83 feet wide and 143 deep and rises 40 feet in height. It was built of concrete poured on the site, one of the first buildings to be so constructed.

Smith-Wilkes Hall (1924) — This pavilion, also open to the air, is south of the Amphitheater. It was given by Mrs. C.M. Wilkes as headquarters for the Chautauqua Bird, Tree and Garden Club. There are daily lectures on the environment. It will accommodate 500 people. Octagonal in form with walls and columns of buff-colored brick which can be enclosed and darkened by shades when slides or movies are shown, it remains one of the most versatile meeting places in the complex.

Chautauqua Learning and Scientific Circle (CLSC) Alumni Hall (1892) — One of a group of buildings, built before the Hall of Philosophy, which were used for the famous four-year reading plan. Alumni Hall was designed by the architect E.G. Hall of Jamestown, New York. A large, clapboarded structure with a wide verandah, the interior has an octagonal vestibule giving on to a large central hall with a dining room to the left and a trustees' room to the right.

Octagon House (1880's) and Pioneer Hall (1885) — Both of these buildings are close to Alumni Hall. The Octagon was built as a men's private clubhouse, but is now used for art appreciation classes. Pioneer Hall was built by the first CLSC graduating class. It is a typical wooden summer cottage with no heat or electricity It is one large room, 30 by 30 feet, and is used as a museum.

Hall of Christ (1900-1909) — Designed by Paul J. Pelz, the noted Washington, D.C., architect, this stone, brick and terra cotta building has a Classical portico supported by four full-scale Ionic columns surmounted by large pediment with a low relief of the Bible, with arms disseminating its message in all directions. The monumental door with its handsome carving belies the very plain interior.

The Episcopal Chapel of the Good Shepherd (1895-1900)

Designed by an unknown architect, this vernacular Gothic chapel is picturesque. It is made of clapboards covered by fish scale shingles in the eaves with a conical hood over the door. The interior is tongue-and-grooved pine boards and the light filters through lovely stained-glass windows.

Lutheran Home (1925), The Disciples of Christ House (late 1800's, and the United Methodist House (1888)

All three houses are near Bestor Plaza. Lutheran Home is a large, earth toned brick structure. The Disciples of Christ House has a rear block built in the 1880's; its large Colonial Revival portico was added in the 1900's. The United Methodist House is a large, beautifully maintained eclectic house.

Bestor Plaza (1888)

At the heart of the Chautauqua community, the plaza was named in honor of Arthur E. Bestor, who was president of the Institution from 1915 until 1944.

Colonnade Building (1907) — Originally built in 1905 at a cost of $35,000, there have been two fires, one in 1907 and another in 1961. It now houses the Institution's offices. The last rebuilding simplified the original, but it measures 90 feet by 173 feet — an imposing building.

Anne M. Kellogg Memorial Hall (1889) — This large Queen Anne frame building was moved to make way for the Colonnade Building and is now sited at Pratt and Ramble Streets. It is used today as a WCTV television office and summer school headquarters.

Smith Library (1931) — This building, which occupies the whole south side of Bestor Plaza, was the gift of Mrs. A.M. Smith Wilkes. It is Georgian Revival with an imposing entrance and contains an excellent collection on two floors.

Chautauqua Book Store - Post Office (1909) — An excellent collection of books and periodicals are housed in the basement of the current post office on the plaza.

The St. Elmo Hotel (1890) — At the northwest corner of Bestor Plaza, between Ames and Vincent Streets, the hotel was at one time the center of winter activities, but is now no longer open during that season. It has been converted into apartment condominiums.

Logan Dormitory (c.1890) — Originally a private cottage, it was donated to the YWCA in 1918. In 1965 it became a dormitory for summer school students.

Christian Science House and Chapel and Jewett House (1880's) — On the northeast corner of Bestor Plaza, both are frame, Queen Anne style structures typical of late 19th century construction.

Hurlbut Memorial Church (1931) — Brick with stone trim in the late Gothic style.

Normal Hall (1885) — One of the oldest buildings still standing, it is so named because it was a teacher-training or "normal school" for Sunday School teachers. Constructed of wood clapboard, it is a single large hall 60 feet long by 50 feet deep. The roof is supported on four large arches springing from the four corners of the structure. It is now used as an experimental theatre.

Higgins Hall (1895) — Originally built as a church to serve both Catholics and Protestants, it is now used as a movie house.

Ida A. Vanderbeck Chapel (1963) — A small Georgian-Revival chapel given by the Order of the King's Sons and Daughters. The building is compatible with the historical styles of the Chautauqua Institution Historic District. This organization sponsors Chautauqua scholarships for talented English students in the arts.

Arts and Crafts Quadrangle (1909) — Set on College Hill, the highest point of land in the Chautauqua Institution Historic District, the complex enjoys a beautiful view of Lake Chautauqua. The Quadrangle is essentially two long rows of studios with an end. The studios are occupied by teachers of painting, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry design, weaving, etc. The rooms are fronted by a colonnade of concrete columns while the shingled roof provides shelter. The exterior walls are covered with brown shingle siding. There are many windows, letting in maximum light. The complex was designed by Henry Turner Bailey, who was director of the Cleveland School of Art in the 1920's.

Hall of Education (1898) — Moved from its original location on Pratt Street in 1911, this shingled frame structure is actually two small buildings joined by a middle building. It is used for art courses and lectures today.

Sherwood Piano Studio (1912) — Named for the first director of the piano classes at the Music School, it is built in the same style as the Art Center, complete with colonnade.

The Lodge, Lincoln Dormitory and Belinger Hall (1912) — All of these are of vernacular shingle frame construction with white trim. They are typical of a number of buildings in the village.

Piano Village (1912) — A collection of tiny cottages that are used as piano practice studios near the north gate. Each one is named for a well-known composer.

McKnight Hall nearby is a rehearsal studio.

Main Gate House (1905) — Built in the Greek portico style with rows of columns supporting Ionic capitals. This porch and the structure within also serves as a farmers' market during the summer.

Athenaeum Hotel (1881) — This imposing grand hotel has 160 rooms, and was built at a cost of $125,000 provided by founder Lewis Miller, his brother Jacob Miller, and Clement Studebaker of wagon and automobile fame. The Athenaeum was one of the first hotels to be lighted electrically in America. Originally the entrance was on the north end, leading to a corridor and the reservation desk. Facing east with a view of Lake Chautauqua is a great verandah over 200 feet in length with 30-foot high columns and large scroll brackets under the eaves. Just inside on the south is a 58 foot by 75 foot dining room that will seat 300 people. The 35 foot by 75 foot lounge on the north side is furnished in period wicker furniture. Originally the 145 foot high central tower was topped by a mansarded cupola, which was removed in 1923. In 1924, a 48-room annex was added.

In 1982, a $2,000,000 restoration was begun. A new roof, paint, and a beautiful stair were added on the exterior. All of the rooms were fitted with private baths and the kitchen was completely redone. The restoration architect was Robert C. Gaede of Cleveland.

A news release when the Athenaeum opened in 1881 read:

"There is no modern appointment lacking in this great structure. The first class barber shop, the telegraph office, the telephone office, electric bells, gas and electric lights, hot and cold baths, magnificent parlors, large rooms — well lighted and ventilated, elevators, music — everything to make it most complete. The table is such to tempt the appetite of a lord, the servants are attentive, the guests cultured, the proprietor genial and gentlemanly, and the terms moderate."[1]

Wensley House (1881) — A frame cottage facing the lake, it is used today as housing for visiting speakers and performers.

The Woman's Club (1929) — By Kidd and Kidd, Buffalo architects. Colonial Revival in style, the building has an imposing entrance portico framed by four full-scale columns.

Frances E. Willard House (c.1882) — A beautifully maintained wood frame house with elaborate carving in the main gable and gingerbread rails on the first and second story balconies. The house has an irregular plan. Miss Willard's summer home at Chautauqua was purchased in 1924 by the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for their 50th anniversary; she was one of the great heroines of the movement. The Willard House is privately owned today.

The Arcade (1891) — Designed by architect E.G. Hall, of Jamestown, New York, the Arcade is wood with shingle siding and white trim. The first floor contains shops and the second floor is used for dormitories.

Palestine Park (1888) — The park is east of the Arcade. It is, in relief, a map of the Holy Land on a 1-3/4 foot-to-the-mile scale, covering 75 by 170 feet.

Miller Tower (1911) — The tower is a memorial to founder Lewis Miller. It rises 69 feet on deep piling. The brick construction is Italianate and holds 14 McWeely bells. The Pier Building (now demolished) that stood nearby welcomed boats every hour from Jamestown.

The Cottages

The 19th century was a period of great architectural vitality in America — especially as expressed in the vernacular structures designed and built by anonymous carpenter-craftsmen. They were inventive re-transcriptions of recognizable historic styles or, more often, an exuberant mixture of detail and ornament. Set in the woods and constructed rather closely together, the cottages at Chautauqua represent a wide variety of styles from about 1870 through the 1920's.

As summer residences, these cottages are distinguished by several characteristics. Primarily wood frame in construction, they are sheathed in clapboard or shingles and covered by gable roofs. Most noticeable are the ubiquitous front porches with wicker rocking chairs, a kind of living room extension which is very American in concept. There are also a number of buildings in Chautauqua that have porches on their second, third and fourth floor levels.

Also seen in abundance is board-and-batten construction. This system employs weatherboards mounted on the framing or studs with the cracks between them filled with milled strips (battens). Andrew Jackson Downing wrote:

"We greatly prefer the vertical to the horizontal boarding, not only because it is more durable, but because it has an expression of strength and truthfulness which the other has not. The main timbers which enter into the frame of a wooden house are vertical, and hence the vertical boarding properly signifies to the eye a wooden house."[2]

Chautauqua has a large number of such "truthful" houses. There is also an abundance of wooden ornament, or "gingerbread," along the edges of the gables — they were called verge or barge boards because they were on the incline or "verge" of the gables to protect the roof timbers from the weather. This ornamentation, which could be quite fanciful, was due to the proliferation of the fret or jig-saw blade powered by machine. At the 1876 Centennial Fair in Philadelphia the blades were sold by the thousands and, as a result, a native folk-art form was begun in America.

The Lewis Miller Cottage (1875)

The Swiss style cottage at 28 Miller Park was the summer residence of the co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution and was designated as National Historic Landmark for Education in 1966. The cottage is an excellent example of the "stick style" and is beautifully maintained. Originally a prefabricated building made of pre-cut timbers from Akron, Ohio, Miller's home town, this cottage had a tent platform on its flank that was used for overflow summer guests. Lewis Miller entertained a number of prominent guests here, including President Grant in 1875 and future President James A. Garfield in 1880. Miller's daughter Mina married Thomas Alva Edison and they entertained Henry Ford and his wife on a number of occasions. The cottage is owned today by Mrs. Edward Arnn of Kentucky, a great-granddaughter of Lewis Miller.


[1]Richard J. Campen, Chautauqua Impressions (Chagrin Falls, Ohio: Summit Press, 1984), p.74.

[2]Andrew J. Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (New York: 1850; Dover Reprint, 1969), p.51.


The Chautauqua Institution began in 1874 as a Methodist Sunday School teachers assembly and became one of the most popular educational institutions in America, often offering innovative secular programs before schools of higher education accepted similar ideas. Founded at a time when there was a demand for education across the land, the summer school became a year-round program and, in addition, a forum for the discussion of public issues. When, in time, the arts and music were added to the programs, a new chapter in American cultural history was begun. All of this was carried out in a wooded area on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in a district which retains a remarkable degree of architectural integrity, particularly the fanciful wooden cottages of the end of the 19th century.

"The institution, which began its life as a Sunday school assembly, has become a summer center for a bewildering variety of activities in education, religion, discussion of public issues, music, art, theater, sports, hobbies, and clubs. With its grounds, halls, and dormitories, its municipal services such as fire and police protection and water filtration, with its hotels, cottages, churches, and its capacious public arena, the Amphitheater, it suggests a little city-state providing the instruments of civilization for a summer populace. The name Chautauqua, in a restricted sense, applies to this institution and the lake its grounds adjoin. But the use of the name has not been so restricted. Other enterprises, some closely, some at best remotely related, have called themselves Chautauquas. These enterprises fall into two main divisions. Imitative assemblies quickly sprang up in fixed localities in all parts of the country, and Chautauqua as parent cordially shared its name with them and gave them its support. By contrast, the travelling tent companies that brought circuit programs by rail or truck or automobile to thousands of American towns and villages during the early decades of the twentieth century, simply appropriated the title of Chautauqua. To literally millions of Americans, "Chautauqua" has meant these circuit companies rather than the institution in New York. Many who still retain memories of the circuits, with vague if any knowledge of the assembly whose title they adopted, ask what Chautauqua was, how it started, and whether it till exists."[1]

The movement began in 1874 when a Methodist minister, John Heyl Vincent, and a wealthy, pious Sunday school teacher, Lewis Miller, joined to establish Chautauqua. Miller had been a trustee at a defunct Methodist camp meeting at Fair Point on the Lake, near the present-day village. The first summer class lasted 16 days, taught 40 young men and women and charged $6.00 for the course. As the summer camp grew, mass transportation was necessary and lake steamers brought passengers across the lake to the old wooden pier. When arriving by land from Buffalo, one passes through Westfield and Mayville and through farmland cultivated for growing grapes. This rich farm area was to become a popular recreational resort as well as an educational institution.

Early in the 19th century, elementary school was as far as many children could go — beyond it was the "Tuition Academy." Lewis Miller had attended one such academy as a youth.

It was inevitable that as the Chautauqua program grew, it became secularized and was no longer limited to pedagogy. As the programs broadened, the more popular they became and weeks became two months. The success of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), begun in 1878 by Reverend Vincent, was an adult or continuing education reading program, and it opened the doors to thousands otherwise unable to afford an education, both in this country and abroad.

"Not the least fascinating strand in the Chautauqua story is the almost wildly diverse roster of men and women who have contributed to it. A small-scale but widely representative Dictionary of American Biography could be compiled from the list. It would include presidents — Grant, McKinley, Garfield, Harding, both Roosevelts. It would include political figures of radical or controversial renown — William Jennings Bryan, Governor Al Smith, Socialist candidate Norman Thomas, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Among women of sundry causes it would give due place to Frances E. Willard, Carrie Chapman Catt, Jane Addams, Ida Tarbell; among inventors and industrialists, Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford; it would pay its bow to the sympathetic but critical William James; to physicians such as Karl Menninger or Paul Dudley White; to explorers and aviators such as Admiral Byrd and Amelia Earhart; to preachers, reformers, musicians, artists, scientists, scholars, magicians, counsellors on fashion and cooking. The range of talent and the diversity of biography seem almost without limit."[2]

The setting of all this activity, the remarkable collection of summer cottages that have undergone minimal change, gives even the casual visitor a vivid picture of a late 19th century summer retreat. Although Vincent's cottage is gone, the Lewis Miller cottage at Vincent and Asbury Streets is a kind of chalet that was put together with wood pre-cut in Akron, Ohio. It is a National Historic Landmark in its own right, for Education.

As a showcase of late Victorian architecture, Chautauqua is filled with the "eclectic" styles so fancied by Americans. Most of the cottages were designed and built by individual carpenter-builders. Using text books and trade journals, they improvised freely on what they thought were traditional designs, often producing hybrids that combined several styles — Gothic, Romanesque, Italianate and Second Empire. These romantic statements were an architectural vernacular — the "Picturesque" style Americans thought to be the height of fashion. Originating from simple plans — often with extension platforms to hold canvas tents for large families — they are, taken as a whole within the Chautauqua Institution Historic District, a magnificent collection of structures embellished with ornament or "wood lace." The village, with its controlled vehicular traffic and tree-lined brick walkways, contributes to the timelessness and serenity of the community. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in the Daily Chautauquan that the settlement was "the most American thing in America."[3]


  1. Theodore Morrison, Chautauqua (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. vii.
  2. Ibid., p. viii.
  3. Ibid., p. vii.


Adams, James Truslow. Frontiers of American Culture. New York, 1941.

Adamson, Anthony, and John Willard. The Gaiety of Gables: Ontario's Architectural Folk Art. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, Ltd., 1974.

Campen, Richard J. Chautauqua Impressions, Architecture and Ambience. Chargrin Falls, Ohio: Summit Press, 1984.

Case, Victoria and Robert O. We Called it Culture: the Story of Chautauqua. New York: Chautauqua Press, 1948.

Chautauqua Yearbook, 1895. Chautauqua Collection, Chautauqua, N.Y., 1895.

Clayton, Mrs. William, and William Keyser. CLC History and Book List. Chautauqua, N.Y.: Chautauqua Institution, 1965.

Conover, Jewel. Nineteenth Century Houses in Western New York. Albany: State University of New York, 1966.

Downing, Andrew Jackson. The Architecture of Country Houses. New York: 1850; Dover Reprint, 1969.

Fancher, Pauline. Chautauqua: Its Architecture and Its People. Miami, Florida: Banyan Books, Inc., 1978.

Gould, Joseph E. The Chautauqua Movement. New York: State University of New York, 1961.

Hendrick, Ellwood. Lewis Miller. New York: Putnam, 1925.

Irwin, Alfreda L. Three Taps of the Gavel. Westfield, New York: Westfield Republican, Inc., 1970.

Morrison, Theodore. Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion and Artists in America. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Reiff, Daniel. Architecture in Fredonia, 1811-1972: Sources, Context, Development. Exhibition Catalogue. Fredonia: State University of New York, 1972.

Scully, Vincent. The Shingle Style and the Stick Style. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971; rev. ed.

Simpson, Jeffrey. "Utopia by the Lake." American Heritage, August 1972, p.42-49.

Vincent, John H. The Chautauqua Movement. Boston: Chautauqua Press, 1886.

Vaux, Calvert. Villas and Cottages. New York: DaCapo reprint, 1968.

Warren, R.M. Chautauqua Sketches. Buffalo: H.H. Otis, 1878.

Caroyln Pitts, History Division, National Park Service, NHL nomination document, 1989, Chautauqua Institution Historic District, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Andrews Avenue • Bowman Avenue • Bryant Avenue • Center Avenue • Emerson Avenue • Forest Avenue • Haven Avenue • Hawthorne Avenue • Hurst Avenue • Lake Drive North • Lake Drive South • Longfellow Avenue • Palestine Avenue • Pratt Avenue • Root Avenue • Route 394 • Terrace Avenue North • Terrace Avenue South • Whittier Avenue • Whythe Avenue

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