Chautauqua Institution, New York: Brain Food for the Soul

Athenaeum Hotel at the Chautauqua Institute in NY.
Athenaeum Hotel at the Chautauqua Institute in NY.

The Chautauqua Institute Feeds the Soul in Upstate New York

All of the structures around the Chautauqua Institution are beautifully crafted. You will also find loads of art on the grounds, like these statues.
All the structures around the Institution are beautifully crafted. You will also find loads of art on the grounds, like these statues

By Kristi Girdharry

If you want to be as far away from New York City when it comes to skyscrapers, traffic, pollution, and overuse of cell phones, then there are definitely options for you.

Chautauqua, New York, offers travelers activities that range from intense to relaxed and everywhere in between.

Whether you’re looking for a new place to try jet-skiing or new ways to open your mind, there seems to be something here for everyone — without the need for flashy amusement attractions.

The Chautauqua Institution

My trip to Chautauqua County started at the Chautauqua Institution, a gated community that was easily accessible from the main road.

As we walked by quaint houses towards Bestor Plaza — the center of the Institution that was like a town’s common — I couldn’t help but get that campus-tour feeling: the “this could all be yours if you apply today” feeling.

Water flowed from a fountain standing firmly in the middle, while small shops and eateries danced along the sides. The most striking place to me, however, was the sturdy library that seemed to oversee all of the activities. As we walked by, I took a peek inside at the sprawling staircase that was awaiting my climb.

Arts. Education. Religion. Recreation.

The fountain at Bestor PlazaAs we rounded past the huge amphitheater, a guide gave us a brief history of the Institution. It was started in 1874 as a place to train Sunday school teachers but grew into a larger center for discussion of both spiritual and secular issues.

The Chautauqua Institution promotes arts, education, religion, and recreation. Lecturers are the backbone of this center — inspiring thought and exchange amongst visitors. But there are also many things to stimulate your senses such as ballets and symphonies.

If you’re not a religious person, there is nothing to worry about. No one is knocking people over in order to convert you to anything. The events and guest lecturers don’t demand prayer. An open mind is your ticket to truly getting something out of the Chautauqua Institution.

And if for some reason you’ve lost that ticket, there is a beautiful lake that allows for perfect self-inwardness.

The Spencer Hotel

Paintings like this one add to the "storybook-feel" of the Spencer Hotel.
Paintings like this one add to the “storybook-feel” of the Spencer Hotel.

We spent our first night at the Spencer Hotel, which is located right on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution.

After checking in Andy, the front deskman escorted us to the elevator, but it wasn’t there! He excused himself as he ran up the stairs to retrieve the old Victorian elevator and bring it down for us. “Many times people don’t know how to use it, so they forget to close the door,” he said.

That’s when Mark and I decided we’d just use the stairs to get to our 4th-floor room from this point on.

The tiny bit of elevator trouble was the last thing on our minds as we opened the door to our room. Big, comfortable beds with extra pillows and beautiful white linens welcomed us. An oriental rug lay on the floor, while a romantic painting looked at us from the wall. A kitchenette was tucked away in the corner. The room was simply charming.

Stephanie described the Spencer Inn as “walking into a storybook,” which I’d say is quite the point. Each of the 26 rooms and suites is decorated based on an author. We were staying in Brontes, named for the famous sisters.

As an English major, it felt special to be in such a tribute of a room. Later that night I sat down on my bed and read through a brief background on Charlotte Bronte (for each room comes with a handout to let you know about “your” author’s room). Understanding what this author was up against made me feel a little more at home in “her” room.

The Lakeview Hotel

The view from our table at The Lakeview Hotel.
The view from our table at The Lakeview Hotel.

That evening we headed to the Lakeview Hotel for dinner.  We chose the upstairs and found ourselves in a great spot overlooking long Lake Chautauqua.  This hotel was built in 1876 and has been renovated to keep it up to date.

The light breeze was exactly what we needed on this very warm day.

The Lakeview Hotel has a solid menu of American cuisine ranging from salads to steaks. After a refreshing house salad and warm bread, we tried the Cajun-broiled fish, which was very good. The star of the night, however, was the white-chocolate-raspberry cheesecake: we were so full, but we couldn’t stop eating this delicious dessert.

Love Chautauqua

Sandi and her husband are originally from D.C. and Buffalo, respectively. They love this area and have been successful with other business ventures including a spa. You can easily tell how much Sandi loves Chautauqua and her business by the way she speaks of The Lakeview Hotel: “It’s kind of a local hang out place,” she says with a big, contagious smile, “so when people come in… they’re just so happy!”

A Day in the Institution

Biking is the main form of transportation on the grounds of the Institution (other than walking, of course).
Biking is the main form of transportation on the grounds of the Institution (other than walking, of course).

The following day we were left on our own to explore the Chautauqua Institution. If you’re an “I need my morning coffee” person like Mark, then you should note that there is a Starbucks gazebo waiting for you and another good coffee shop is in the small store Food for Thought.

We made our way to the 5,000-seat amphitheater which serves as a nondenominational house of worship and lecture platform.

It is also a concert hall that hosts performances by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra (which is composed of professional musicians from surrounding areas who come here to play during the summer) and the Music School Festival Orchestra. The Chautauqua Ballet Company also performs here and so do a host of other contemporary performers.

Chautauqua Lake is a perfect place for boating and other fun water sports.
Chautauqua Lake is a perfect place for boating and other fun water sports.

The generations of people who come here vary. Grandparents and great-grandparents, moms and dads, children of children: there was something for everyone to do here.

As we sat outside eating our picnic lunch provided by the Hulbert Church, a family excitedly ate and recounted their days. “Yes! I learned about it during pottery class!” a little girl exclaimed.

“Dad! What time is it? We don’t want to be late for class,” her sister said while excitedly looking for a watch.

Special Studies Programs for Adults

And it’s not just the children who are excited about classes. The parents have many options, too, which can be found on the Chautauqua Institution’s website.

We sat in on a special studies class titled, “Spiritual But Not Religious: Bridges Between Doubt and Faith.” It was run by Kent Ira Groff who is director of Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development (located in Camp Hill, PA). He is also a professor of spiritual development at Lancaster Theological Seminary.

Groff’s lecture was engaging and the participation by the class really made it special. The class was held in a small room with about 20 students. When we walked in a quote was written on the blackboard: “Religion is a healing force in a world torn apart by religion.”

This is a quote from Jon Stewart, host Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” It was a fun way to start the class and led to interesting discussions about treating life as a mystery to uncover, rather than as a problem to solve.

This is also where I met the first person who fit into my age group and wasn’t employed by the Institution. Danny Carmichael, a recent college graduate, sat next to me in this class. When I asked him about his interest in the class and in Chautauqua, he explained, “My parents love this place [his father actually gave a lecture in the amphitheater this morning]. It’s my mom’s birthday, so I thought this would be a good gift for her.”

A good gift, indeed. Not only will it help open her mind, but she gets to share the experience with her son. A great gift.

The Athenaeum Hotel

The Athenaeum Hotel
The Athenaeum Hotel

The gem of the Institution just may be the historic Athenaeum Hotel. This beautiful hotel sits overlooking

Chautauqua Lake. We sat in a big ballroom with tall windows and flowered-wallpaper. The sparking lake looked tranquil, and the evening sun left the room glowing.

The Atheneum prides itself on being preserved history. Authentic period furnishings and fixtures, exquisite lace curtains, and grand chandeliers preserve the Atheneum’s rich historical presence.

We had the option of a buffet for dinner or five courses off of the menu. Classic American cuisine is their specialty, but we decided to try a bit of everything, which ranged from Raspberry BBQ Salmon Ribbons to Coconut Shrimp and Bruschetta.

Chautauqua County New York

There is so much more to Chautauqua than what lies within the Institution. We spent an entire day touring around the county. As if the beautiful scenery, rolling roads, and acres of vineyards weren’t enough, there were plenty of places to stop and take in.  Here are just a few brief highlights:

Red Brick Farm – This is a must-stop place for any visitor who would like to do a little shopping. Whether you’re looking for antique furniture, gourmet spices and oils, miniatures, flowers, clothing, artwork, and so on, this is the place to do it. First, it’s just a pleasant place to be. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming. Second, it’s home to La Fleur: a lovely French restaurant that is both elegant and cozy.

Music is a huge part of Chautauqua County. This piano invites guests to tickle its keys inside The Spencer hotel, but there are plenty of venues where professionals make the music for you.
Music is a huge part of Chautauqua County. This piano invites guests to tickle its keys inside The Spencer Hotel, but there are plenty of venues where professionals make the music for you.

The Red Brick Farm also offers classes in knitting, crocheting, and weaving at The Yarn Cottage. The great thing about this place is that it tailors to your schedule. Whatever level, project, and amount of time you have are taken into consideration with the staff of cheery professionals.

Before you leave Red Brick Farm, you have to try Chef Tim Murphy’s Concord Grapeseed Vinaigrette. You’ll need to take at least one bottle home. Visit The Brick Village Gourmet for more treats.

The Lily Dale Assembly – Known as the “City of Light,” the Lily Dale Assembly is the world’s largest Spiritualist community.

Like the Chautauqua Institution, people come here for discussion and recreation; however, Lily Dale has more of a summer camp feel to it. The grounds are beautiful; it’s just a different kind of beauty from the Institution.

A Lecture by a Clairvoyant

Non-spiritualists are welcomed here. We sat in on a lecture and clairvoyant (a small, older woman named Kit Duffy), which was an interesting experience for Mark and me. I had only seen clairvoyants like John Edwards on television before, so this was quite intense. We sat towards the back of the auditorium, and I crossed my fingers hoping that no spirits from “the other side” wanted to contact me on this day– I just wasn’t ready for it!

This is a great place for travelers who are searching for spiritual solutions. There are professional mediums around every corner looking to help you. The prices will vary, but the prices don’t reflect how “good” each medium is at his or her job; it’s best to ask for a recommendation.

This view from our table at The Italian Fisherman shows the home of the Bemus Point Pops.
This view from our table at The Italian Fisherman shows the home of the Bemus Point Pops.

Bemus Point– Bemus Point sits on the opposite side of Lake Chautauqua from the Institution. It has a wonderfully relaxed vibe and is a great place for shopping and eating.

Mark and I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Dalpra, founder of the Bemus Bay Pops , and dining in his restaurant The Italian Fisherman.

The Italian Fisherman offered waterfront seating and a huge menu selection. A nice choice for lunch or dinner on the lake.

Small Towns– Each small town in Chautauqua County has its own charm and claims to fame. Westfield is home to Grace Bedell, a little girl that Abraham Lincoln stopped to see because she had written him a letter telling him to grow a beard (she thought it would help his chances to be elected to the presidency). Dunkirk is known for its historic military museum. Fredonia is home to SUNY and holds all the charms of a “college town.” And Gerry holds an annual rodeo.

Jamestown and Lucille Ball

Jamestown started as a mill city. It used to be the “furniture capital of the world” and was known for having the best timber. The city of Jamestown is filled with mounds of history ranging from Robert Jackson’s Center for Justice to the belle of the city Lucille Ball, who was born here.

A sign that establishes this site as the birthplace of Lucille Ball.
A sign that establishes this site as the birthplace of Lucille Ball.

Joan Patrie, retired Jamestown Community College English professor, tells the story of Lucy: “The world loves Lucy. America loves Lucy. And Jamestown, New York, Lucille Ball’s hometown, really loves Lucy!

Born there on August 6, 1911, the actress and comedienne had an extensive stage, movie, radio, and television career. She and husband Desi Arnaz revolutionized the television industry with the innovations they brought to their new sitcom, I Love Lucy.

“Premiering on October 15, 1951, this groundbreaking comedy series quickly became the most popular show on television. Today, it is seen somewhere in the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in 80 countries and in 22 languages.

It was the first television show: to be filmed before a live audience with three cameras; to feature an interracial couple; to show a pregnant woman playing a pregnant woman (even though the word “pregnant” could not be used back then!); and to reach over 10,000,000 homes.

“They made it look so easy and effortless – the physical comedy, the subject matter, the Cuban born bandleader with the heavy accent – but in truth, they were pioneers.”

The front of the Lucy-Desi Museum
The front of the Lucy-Desi Museum

Lucy died in 1989. You can visit her gravesite at the Lake View Cemetery in Jamestown. There are a few places honoring this wonderful actress in Jamestown.

Patrie says, “Opened on May 25, 1996, the Lucy-Desi Museum has welcomed over 200,000 visitors who have come from every state in the United States and more than 30 countries. The Museum features Lucy’s and Desi’s wardrobe and costumes, props from their television shows, awards (including an Emmy), family photographs, and more.

“Jamestown’s newest Lucy-Desi attraction, the Desilu Playhouse, opened in August of 2005. Named for the studio where I Love Lucy was filmed, The Desilu Playhouse features exact replicas of Lucy and Ricky’s New York City apartment and the Hollywood hotel suite where Lucy pantomimed with Harpo Marx and set her nose on fire with William Holden, plus a life-sized wall mural of the original studio audience, a ‘Vitameatavegamin’ opportunity, memorabilia from the 1950s including an I Love Lucy bedroom set, and more!”

The Lucy Museum is a wonderful place to see. A passionate and knowledgeable staff is here to help you get the most out of your Lucy experience. You will find yourself happy and laughing all the way though. This inspirational comedienne has affected so many people from all around the world.

Start Your Own Tradition

Chautauqua is a great place to start a tradition: come relax by the soothing lake; dine in any of the wonderful restaurants sprinkled through the most charming towns; take a class, pick up a new hobby, come “find yourself” or lose yourself — the options are all here.

When it comes down to it, Chautauqua County is full of people who truly love the area. And it’s contagious. Take a trip and find out for yourself, but don’t be surprised when it shyly asks you to stop by again.

Kristi GirdharryKristi Girdharry is a former GoNOMAD intern and is the director of the Writing Center at Babson College outside of Boston MA.

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