Helen Edgington’s History with The Spencer, The Country’s Oldest Literary Themed Hotel

Helen Edgington bought The Spencer Hotel & Spa in February 1997, as a labor of love. She considers it “an after retirement project.” The Hotel is nestled at the center of the Chautauqua Institution, which in turn is home of the oldest book club in the country.

Lewis Miller and Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent founded Chautauqua as a teaching camp for Sunday-school teachers. Shortly thereafter the pair wanted to establish a reading club, which called for 20 minutes of reading each morning and 20 minutes each afternoon, thereby completing four books per year. “This was in an era where only about 1% of the population had a college degree,” Edgington notes. The first graduating class of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was in 1887, and it remains the oldest continuous book club in the United States.

Edgington realized there could be no better place than Chautauqua to create a literary themed hotel.

She came to know about Chautauqua when her daughter was 8, as a place in the summer for her daughter to receive training in art. They visited every summer until her daughter left for college.

Edgington had some familiarity in construction and managing apartments before her Spencer Hotel project. For instance, the four story stacked linen closet was the ideal solution for the Spencer’s elevator, which was the catalyst for the renovation overseen by Edgington. 

The building had 48 rooms originally, now it has 25. On the first floor Edgington created the kitchen, lobby and living room. She expanded the size of the rooms, and created suites and junior suites. Originally, cardboard acted as walls, the fixtures were 100 years old, and there was no finish on the tubs or sinks. That rustic design is a thing of the past, and guests enjoy modern touches at The Spencer Hotel.

Woodwork was removed in every room to blow in insulation, so no marks were left on the outside of the building. In order to provide accommodations year round, one of the few buildings on the Chautauqua grounds to do so, Edgington ordered custom storm windows.  Each was measured separately per window, as the building had gone out of square. 

All remaining dry wall for the original 48 rooms was eventually removed and trucked away. Each floor is about the square footage of a house, so separate heating and air conditioning was designed for each floor. Helen lived within the construction, reading by night to decide on themes for the rooms, and then available by day to advise the workers. “The biggest challenge was staying warm during the cold months,” recalls Edgington with a smile. The next biggest challenge was finding the appropriate décor for the 25 rooms, especially in terms of sourcing the antique beds. (The mattresses have since been replaced again in 2019). 

During the renovation all new plumbing, wiring, heating and air conditioning was installed. All work was completed in time for 1998 season, only fifteen months after Edgington purchased the building.

When workers left on Friday before the Saturday opening, some drywall was still stacked in the lobby. Edgington hired 12 housekeepers to clean from 5pm Friday until 3pm Saturday, when the first guests arrived. Her neighbors fully and somewhat understandably were convinced she would not open, but open she did.

Edgington talked herself into the project by asserting that if she could create something where people felt comfortable that was reason enough. “I feel at home” was the reaction she wanted. And that is the recurrent assessment she received from her guests. Indeed, it was on her first visit to the Spencer that she came away refreshed, “otherwise I might have bought a condo.”

Chautauqua Institution was designated an historic destination 1974 on its 100th anniversary. The Spencer also attained that strict distinction and was awarded a plaque in 2000. Edgington mentioned that “the Spencer was the only venue on the grounds to pursue such landmark status, and it required a lot of follow up.”

The location of The Spencer is ideal, within earshot of the Amphitheatre and each hotel porch faces the venue. 

The community is what Edgington enjoys most about running The Spencer. 

Returning guests often want the same room; one couple returned to the same room for 20 years. Edgington notes that room #307 Colette is the most sophisticated, with upholstered walls. One couple waited three years to get that room.

Although some of the authors lived in dire poverty, Edgington wanted all the rooms to be pleasant but authentic. For instance Jane Austen (#201) lived in poverty, but the room has her favorite colors and is the smallest room. Charles Dickens was successful, and his room features hand painted crown molding and a crystal chandelier. Doing the research about each author was thoroughly enjoyable for Edgington, a pleasure that her guests share as well. 

Helen will be working with the Book Club to further bridge the connection between The Spencer and the oldest book club in the country. As she celebrates her 25th year running the Spencer, Edgington has decided she will gift the hotel a collection of one thousand books. It is a fitting tribute.

Guests come from near and far, become friends and return year after year. Edgington recalls guests from London, Australia and elsewhere. Although many guests are wealthy and could afford to travel elsewhere, they love learning something new. 

Chautauqua delivers on that, and The Spencer is an ideal home away from home.

More information about The Spencer Hotel & Spa available here.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.