Chautauqua, N.Y. — It's the thinking man's summer camp, a `coming home,' a nostalgic glimpse of the past now facing a troubled future. From the air, Chautauqua and the surrounding countryside look like a Grant Wood landscape -- rolling green-gold fields, cone-shaped shade trees, spired firs, ribbons of road, and farmhouses.
Once through the well-guarded gates of the 111-year-old Chautauqua Institution, you find yourself in another frame. Here is a Victorian Shangri-la, as Norman Rockwell might have painted it.
``It's like coming home,'' says Chautauqua president Daniel Bratton. In a sense, it's like coming home to nostalgia: a peaceful, old-fashioned village with American flags, wicker rockers, and flowering lanyards on every porch.
But Chautauqua's antique charm may be in jeopardy unless Chautauquans act to preserve it against the twin threats of trendiness and greed. Already some of the historic rooming houses have been razed to make way for expensive condos. And the historic red-frame St. Elmo's Hotel, a Chautauqua landmark built in 1910 that figures prominently in community brochures, is about to be torn down to make way for a $4.5 million replacement hotel designed in neo-Victorian style.
Generations of families have come to this summer center for the arts, education, religion, and recreation, founded in 1874 by Methodist Bishop John H. Vincent and industrialist Lewis Miller as a tent encampment on the lake.
``The two founders wanted to found a summer institution, a place for Sunday school teachers,'' says Dr. Bratton. He explains that one of the founders, Bishop Vincent, ``believed strongly that to be an effective Sunday school teacher you had to have some sensitivity to the arts, . . . the whole person concept, and it [the institution] just exploded.''
In the first year the term was a week, with tents. By the seventh year, 1881, it stretched over several weeks and drew such crowds that the venerable Athenaeum Hotel was built.
Chautauqua is a nonprofit cultural organization owned and run by members of the Chautauqua property-owning community under a special New York State statute. It has an operating budget of $6 million annually and is primarily funded by sale of tickets to events and related parking charges. A single season ticket is $700. But the institution also derives about 25 percent of its income from fund-raising.
The open-mindedness which Chautauqua fans prize is reflected today in its separate theme weeks, devoted this summer to a conference on US-Soviet relations; business and economics; science and the environment; humanities and arts; generations; world peace; health and wholeness; and national affairs and global issues. In addition, this thinking man's summer camp also offers concerts, its own opera, symphony orchestra, summer theater, cinema, sailing, golfing, swimming, and fishing.
It offers an extensive summer school, where over 9,000 young men and women study, as well as daily religious and educational seminars. Only at Chautauqua would you have singer Joan Baez, psychiatrist Robert Coles, bandleader Peter Duchin, author Susan Sontag, opera star Sergio Franchi, Bishop John T. Walker, who is dean of the National Cathedral and Episcopal, and rockers Gary Lewis and the Playboys on the same menu.
Historically, the institution gave rise in the 19th century to a series of ``Chautauqua circuit'' intellectual traveling road shows and has drawn its share of celebrity fans. Among them: Thomas Alva Edison, nine US presidents beginning with Ulysses S. Grant, and William Jennings Bryan, John Philip Sousa, and Leo Tolstoy.
But now, the sense of history here may be destroyed. There may be no answer to the paradox of how an authentic, historic building would be torn down to make way for a brand new one in period style. Joreta Speck, the developer who bought the St. Elmo for $400,000, says it failed to meet existing state health and safety standards. She adds that she knew ``when it was purchased that there would have to be a new building.''
According to Mrs. Speck, renovation was not an option. Is she concerned that the razing of historic buildings like this may ruin the very ambiance that draws people to Chautauqua? ``There's always that danger, but the alternative,'' she says, is ``that the old buildings will rot and fall down.'' She endorses replacing them with new buildings in a similar style ``that will meet the changing needs of Chautauqua.''
Dr. Bratton says it was concern over ``the explosion of condominiums'' rather than the planned destruction of the St. Elmo that caused a sudden meeting of the board of trustees in mid-May to keep the Chautauqua ambiance intact. To prevent the condo-ization of Chautauqua, he says, the community has adopted a comprehensive set of land-use and architectural regulations. Builders may still buy and develop property -- within the guidelines.
Change apart from the buildings is inevitably coming to Chautauqua, as increasing numbers of young families with children alter the sedate atmosphere older Chautauquans cherish. There is also the possibility that the mostly white middle-class community, where Dr. Bratton says ``we welcome everyone,'' may also become more diverse as well as affluent.