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Chautauqua

By Maria LenhartSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 28, 1983



Chautauqua, N.Y.

Wandering through Chautauqua's meandering lanes with their gingerbread Victorian cottages and the American flag flying out from many a wide, cool porch , you almost expect to see Teddy Roosevelt come strolling around the corner. And indeed Roosevelt did visit here some 80 years ago, describing the place as "a gathering that is typically American in that it is typical of American at its best."

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The locality that so pleased the 26th President is the Chautauqua Institution , a unique lakeside community in southwestern New York that bursts into bloom every summer with a flowering of lecture programs, ballets, and concerts. All of these events take place amid an old-fashioned, peculiarly American atmosphere that doesn't seem to have changed much since the time of Roosevelt's visit.

Every summer about 100,000 vistors present their admission tickets at the gates of Chautauqua and enter into a world that looks something like a stage setting for the play "Our Town." But although Chautauqua may appear to be the ideal of small-town America, it actually isn't a real town at all. It is instead a cross between a well-heeled resort, an intellectual summer camp, a nine-week-long arts festival, and a state of mind.

Although tornadoes did extensive damage in the Chautauqua area in May, the institution itself was unaffected except for the loss of some trees on the golf course and a few boats, according to a Chautauqua spokesman. The summer schedule is proceeding as planned.

Many visitors to Chautauqua choose to settle in at one of the numerous hotels , inns, and guesthouses throughout the 856-acre grounds on the thickly forested shores of Chautauqua Lake. Others simply pop in for one of the special events or to spend an eclectic day that could include a morning talk by Betty Friedan (Aug 12), John Houseman (Aug 19) or Norman Vincent Peale (Aug 28); an afternoon swim or sailboat ride; dinner at the Athenaeum Hotel; and an evening concert that could feature anyone from Ginger Rogers (June 30) to Harry Belafonte (July 8) to Melissa Manchester (July 15).

But no matter how much time you plan to spend in Chautuqua, at least one leisurely stroll around the grounds, preferably with ice cream cone in hand, is requisite. After passing through the gates, one leaves the traffic-choked highway behind to find a crooked maze of lanes -- for pedestrians only -- with such appropriate names as Ramble and Bliss. The privately owned cottages and guesthouses all along the way, most of them built in the late 1800s, are a Victorian architecture buff's delight. Almost all are tucked amid tall stands of pine and maples. In fact, one little brown-shingled abode even has a fir tree growing up through its front porch.

The hub of activity, just as it is in any village, is found in the main square, a wide, grassy expanse called Betor Plaza. On the south edge of the square is the imposing neoclassical facade of the Smith Memorial Library, the scene for a variety of weekly programs of music, films, talks, demonstrations, and informal classes. Among the shops ringing the other sides of the square is Chautauqua's commodious bookstore, a bustling literary enclave that offers the kind of wide-ranging selection you would expect in Harvard Square rather than at a summer resort.

That Chautauqua offers far more food for thought than the usual summer community is especially apparent as one strolls south of the plaza along Clark Avenue. Musical strains often call out from the huge, open-sided, 6,000-seated Amphitheater, a butter-colored wooden structure built in 1893, where concerts take place. On most afternoons you can peek in to see the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, attired for the most part in blue jeans and sandals, in rehearsal. Not far down the avenue is the equally imposing Hall of Philosophy, a lovely Grecian-style forum, also open on the sides, where visiting authors, scholars, and theologians speak under the massive roof supported by graceful white columns.

Turning down Haven Avenue, one catches a glimpse of Chautauqua Lake, an alluring reminder that not all at the community need be studious or cultural. Lush green lawns leading down from gracious Victorian mansions line the shore of the sparkling blue lake, the lively center for swimming, sailing, canoeing, windsurfing, and just basking in the sun. Commanding the tip of a point jutting out into the lake is the Miller Bell Tower, an Italiante landmark that sends its lovely peels out over the environs as it marks the hour.