The first thing I have to say about the Chautauqua Institution is that it feels like an island. If I call it an island, I am mis-speaking, because it is not an island. What it is, is roughly a 750 acre rectangle in New York, bordering Lake Chautauqua on one long edge and the highway on the other long edge. It is a closed community, accessed through maybe four different gates from the highway. To be on site, you need to buy a gate pass, and have your pass on you while you are there. They check the pass as you enter and leave, and it’s needed for admission to some of the events. There is a marina, if you have a boat, and they check the pass as you come in off the lake. It is both a National Historic Landmark District and on the National Register of Historic Places.
There is one large hotel, the Athenaeum, which was built in 1881, and is supposedly the largest wooden building in the eastern US. There are lots of condos, and by condos I mean private houses or parts of houses for rent. There are also private houses that owners use for all or part of the season.
The ‘season’ is a 9 week period in the summer when Chautauqua really comes alive. Each week has a theme, and there are speakers, presentations and activities throughout the Institution revolving around each theme. Some of the themes this year include “The Human Journey: Origins, Exploration and Preservation, In Partnership with National Geographic“, “A Crisis of Faith?”, “Geopolitics Today: A Partnership with the Center for Strategic and International Studies”, “Comedy and the Human Condition”, “The Nature of Fear”, and “At the Table: Our Changing Relationship with Food”. The themes are quite varied, with hopefully something for everyone. The week(s) you can get away for vacation might not match up to your favorite theme, but they do a good job with each topic and they are all interesting.
Every day (Monday through Friday) in the morning, the main lecture/presentation occurs in the large amphitheater, newly renovated. Guest speakers come from all over the world, experts in their field, and the lectures for the week all tie into the theme. Lectures are about an hour long, with question sessions following. There are other lectures, presentations, discussions, and activities at different, smaller venues throughout the grounds, again revolving around the main topic of the week. These happen throughout the day.
Staying true to the beginnings of the Institution, which started as adult education for Sunday school teachers, there continues to be a religious presence at the Institution. There are ‘houses’ on the grounds affiliated with different religions and denominations, as well as different worship sites. There are daily Interfaith Lectures at the Amp, also with weekly themes coordinated with the lecture themes.
Saturdays are quieter, with no main lectures, but Sunday has many choices of worship services, both denominational and ecumenical, and there is no gate fee on Sundays. With just these choices, the weekly themed lectures and interfaith series, you can be as busy as you want to be. But there are even more things to do, and another aspect that Chautauqua is well known for…