She towers over the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution like an elegant Victorian lady presiding over high tea. Definitely not looking her age, she is a reminder of a simpler, more genteel era, yet she is surprisingly modern and up-to-date. Of course the “Grand Dame” that I’m referring to is the world-renowned Athenaeum Hotel , which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. The Chautauqua Institution is about a ninety minute drive from the Buffalo area.
A brief history
The Chautauqua Institution , an 856-acre center for performing arts, education, religion and recreation, was founded on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in 1894 by Lewis Miller and John Vincent as a summer vacation learning experience for Sunday school teachers. As additional academic subjects, music, art and physical education were added to the curriculum, more and more people flocked to this lakeside assembly. In the early years, guests stayed in tents and small wooden homes.
Mr. Miller realized that they needed bigger and better accommodations to house all these people. He commissioned architect W.W. Carlin to design a hotel for the grounds. The Athenaeum was built in 1881 by ninety men in ninety days at a cost of $125,000. Mr. Miller even enlisted his son-in-law, Thomas Edison, to wire the hotel for electricity, making it the first hotel in the world to have electric lights.
According to hotel general manager, Bruce Stanton, the Athenaeum, which is listed on the National Historic Register, is one of only a few wooden hotels of the Victorian era still in existence. “The hotel is a jewel for western New York,” said Stanton.
The hotel has had many notable people as guests over the past 125 years, including nine US Presidents, beginning with Ulysses S. Grant. President Bill Clinton prepared for his presidential debates here in the fall of 1996. Other notable guests include Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, Duke Ellington and Robert Kennedy. George Gershwin composed his Concerto in F in a Chautauqua practice shack in 1925.
However, the majority of hotel guests are not visiting dignitaries; just regular people seeking to better their lives by attending all or part of the institution’s nine week summer season, which runs from late June to late August. It has been said that staying at Chautauqua is more than a vacation, it’s an experience. During the summer season, visitors can enjoy symphony and chamber music, opera, theater, ballet, arts, educational programs, lectures, classes and recreational activities like golf and swimming. The schools of art, dance, music and theater offer intensive studies to students who are ready to embark on professional careers.
Of course, just walking around the grounds of the institution, a designated National Historic District, is an experience in itself. Chautauqua is a charming Victorian village full of cottages, shops and places to just relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
The 160-room hotel is also open during the pre and post summer season for conferences, banquets, weddings and other special events. The hotel operates the last week of April until October 31. Guests of the hotel typically stay for a week or more, but you can also book just one or two nights, depending on availability. During the nine-week summer season, the hotel operates on the American Plan, meaning that breakfast, a grand buffet lunch and a five-course dinner are included in the room rates. Rates range from $185-$425/night.
Special events this season
To commemorate the hotel’s 125th anniversary, there are numerous special events planned at Chautauqua for the summer season. A few of these events are for hotel guests only, while others are open to the public.
The summer season kicks off on Saturday June 24th with An Evening with the Neville Brothers. Opening night special packages, which include dinner, the concert, overnight lodging and breakfast, start at $150/person. The hotel will also have an “end of season” three-night concert package, which includes lodging along with three performances, An Evening with Comedian Loretta Laroche (Aug. 24), The Beach Boys (Aug. 25) and Gary Puckett & B.J. Thomas (Aug. 26). Each Tuesday from 4-5 pm, guests of the hotel will be able to enjoy special events, including historical lectures, poetry readings, afternoon teas and more.
The public is invited to celebrate July 4th at the Chautauqua Institution, with a concert by the Chautauqua Symphony in the amphitheater at 8 pm, followed by fireworks over the Chautauqua Lake, originating from nearby Mayville. After the fireworks, head back to the porch of the Athenaeum, for a cookies and lemonade reception with tunes by the Thursday Morning Brass Band from 10-11:30 pm. Keep in mind that you will have to pay a gate fee to enter the grounds that day. A gate fee is charged Monday through Saturday during the summer season. Fees range from $8-45, depending on the time of day you arrive and what performance is scheduled in the amphitheater on that particular day.
If you are making your first visit to Chautauqua and want to experience the atmosphere but aren’t sure if you will be attending any lectures or performances, my recommendation is to go on a Sunday, when admission to the grounds is free. You can also enter the grounds for free the rest of the year (September-late June) outside the summer season. About 400 folks actually live on the grounds all year long.
The hotel will have an exhibit in the lobby throughout the summer season highlighting the past, present and future of the Athenaeum. The exhibit, which is open to the public, will have photos and artifacts celebrating the hotel’s glorious past, as well as exhibits outlining what’s in store in the future. “We have served guests for the past 125 years because of the efforts of many people to keep the hotel here,” said Mr. Stanton.
Also, all season long, in the lobby and parlor room, will be a display of artwork from the Chautauqua Center for the Visual Arts. In celebration of the hotel’s 125th anniversary, artist Rita Argen Auerbach was commissioned to create a limited edition watercolor print of the hotel, which will be available for sale. Long-term hotel guests, who stay a week or longer, will receive a print as a special gift.
Elsewhere on the institution’s grounds
In addition to the hotel, which is operated by the institution, there are also hundreds of privately-owned cottages, guest houses, apartments, and condos offering accommodations on the grounds of the institution. For more information, contact the institution or the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau .
One of my favorite places on the grounds is the Chautauqua Bookstore, which has a large selection of books, gifts and other interesting items. You can also visit the Smith Memorial Library, which houses thousands of books, along with a display of Chautauqua artifacts, Miller family memorabilia and photos. Continuing on a literary note, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) is the oldest continuous book club in America.
Recreational pastimes include taking a leisurely bike ride or stroll around the grounds; few cars are allowed beyond the main gate. Be sure to walk along the lakefront by the Miller Bell Tower, one of the most recognizable landmarks along Chautauqua Lake. The National Historic Landmark, Lewis Miller Cottage is just up the road from the tower. It is privately owned by his descendents.
If you like to hit the links, the Chautauqua area has been ranked one of the “best little golf towns in America,” by Golf Digest Magazine. The Chautauqua Golf Club has two 18-hole courses.
If you go
Athenaeum Hotel (716-357-4444, 1-800-821-1881) PO Box 66, Chautauqua, NY 14722.
Chautauqua Institution (716-357-6200) NY 394, Chautauqua
Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau (716-357-4569, ) Chautauqua Institution Main Gate off Route 394, PO Box 1441, Chautauqua, NY Open daily 9-5, year-round.
Directions From Buffalo, take the New York State Thruway (I-90) south to exit 60 (Westfield). Turn left onto Route 394 and follow it until you reach the Chautauqua Institution (about 15 miles).