Chautauqua Institution

Chautauqua Institution

Will it always be the case that every article about Chautauqua starts by calling it America’s best kept secret? Part of me hopes so, in the sense that this idyllic spot will better be able to retain its timeless charm. But a forthcoming PBS special and a growing word of mouth awareness is certain to increase the visibility of this 135 year old landmark.

Situated on the edge of Chautauqua Lake, south east of Buffalo by 90 minutes, Chautauqua was founded in 1874 as a haven for teachers in the summer months. Chautauqua has maintained a strong emphasis on education, culture and religion. Readers in the Midwest should ask their parents or grandparents if they recall a travelling summer version temporarily setting up outside town during the summer.

Today, Chautauqua is comprised of a nine week season, with a full schedule of speakers, concerts and events.  Think of it as ‘out of school, vacation learning.’ Each week is devoted to a particular theme, such as The Ethics of Leadership or Excellence in Public Education. Past speakers have run the gamut from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jane Goodall to Jesse Jackson and Jim Lehrer. In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt chose Chautauqua to present his memorable “I Hate War” speech.

The Athenaeum Hotel was built in 1881

I returned recently to Chautauqua to see it through the eyes of my children, having been dragged there by my parents when I was more ignorant of its charms. The gated grounds cover 750 leafy acres. The center of activity is a town square with a post office, library, ice cream parlor and shops. With cars kept to the outskirts, there is a definite sense of stepping back in time. Kids come and go without much supervision, bikes are left unlocked and everyone strolls with a satisfying lack of overt purpose. The kids day camp is the oldest in the US, established in 1893. Indeed, the oldest book club in the country still meets at Chautauqua.

Visitors are required to get a gate pass, which are available on a daily or longer basis (Sundays are free). The pass provides access to most all the activities, concerts and lectures. Some extra costs accrue for films or opera. The majority of visitors stay in private homes, many of which have been refurbished with Victorian elegance. Some of the homes are delicate gingerbread cottages, and others are glorious estates. Each boasts a well-tended garden, and all can be reached from a brick walkway that threads through the grounds. As a kid we used to ride bikes on the brick walkway, but with some age and apparent wisdom I realize that is foolish. There are various lodging opportunities of shorter duration, some affiliated with the many religious buildings on the grounds. We stayed at the graceful Athenaeum Hotel, which is the large and aging Grand Dame overlooking the lake (although some may call it an aging dowager). The spacious green lawns surrounding the hotel increase the apparent size of the hotel (which is said to the largest wooden building in the eastern US). The ubiquitous porches on the grounds of the Institution are dwarfed by the magisterial porch of the Athenaeum. I spent many a lazy hour on the porch, in a rocking chair with a book or a conversational sparring partner nearby. The Hotel was built in 1881 in Victorian style, and is now listed as part of the National Historic Register. (Indeed, the entire grounds have been designated a National Historic Landmark).

The Athenaeum Hotel stands watch over Chautauqua Lake

The hotel rooms are far from modern, but air conditioning and comfortable beds make for restful evenings. Lodging at the Athenaeum is on the American Plan, which means that three meals are included each day. We chose to dine as often as possible on the porch. Gazing at the lake was blissful. The food was surprisingly tasty, given the tendency of such places to cater to older more delicate palates. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, which opens the door for over indulgence. The hotel has recently tempered its tradition of allowing double desserts at dinner, but veterans can still be satiated with two final dishes before wandering into the summer night.

After a day or two of decompression at Chautauqua, one notices the slower pace. This is especially true at meals, so we began to allot more time before heading to the 6000 seat Amphitheatre for a lecture or concert. The wooden benches caused the kids to squirm a bit, but it may have been the symphony’s selections were less familiar. I can recall as a kid watching the bats swoop in the rafters, which still accounts for the pleasant lack of night bugs.

The Hall of Philosophy is both indoors and outdoors

Upon my recent return to Chautauqua, I saw through my kids’ eyes that this idyllic jewel is indeed a respite from the quickening pace of the outside world. Despite its timeless and seemingly isolated existence, Chautauqua stays attuned to the issues of the day with its lecture series. Provocative speeches are offered at my favorite building, the Hall of Philosophy. More of a huge pergola, the open-sided building is comprised of tall Doric columns supporting a roof. The leafy trees seem to lean into the discussion.

Although some folks say that Chautauqua is where old ladies bring their mothers, I prefer Teddy Roosevelt’s observation that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”


Chautauqua Institution 

(716) 357-6200

Athenaeum Hotel

(800) 821-1881


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.