Located on a lake in western New York, Chautauqua Institution is a small town and gated community at its finest. Open year-round, the Institution holds a nine-week summer season starting in the end of June and continuing through August. Purchased gate passes are required for entry. Houses and apartments are available for rent, as well as rooms in two hotels. There are restaurants on the grounds, but no real grocery stores. However, when you’re there, you don’t feel as if anything is lacking.
Chautauqua got its start in 1874 as an experimental educational “camp”, so to speak. It was originally known as the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly. The founders, Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, wanted to see how out-of-school learning during the summer would be received. The idea was a success, and very soon after the Institution opened, it began to offer more classes of varying themes, including religious, artistic and academic subjects.
Now, each week of the nine-week season has a different theme corresponding in related lectures and classes that take place on the grounds. Themes are chosen based on what is happening around the world. This year’s themes include The Ethics of Privacy, Brazil: Rising Superpower and Health Care: From Bench to Bedside. Some of next year’s themes are Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men, Irrationality and The Middle East Now and Next. Every weekday, lecturers speaking on that week’s theme take the stage at the Amphitheatre. Past lecturers have included Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Ken Burns and Maud Ballington Booth.
Many classes take place each week, both theme-related and not. Some classes this year are Introduction to Drawing, Mapping the American West, Beer, Braises and BBQ and Demystifying the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Hidden Chamber. There are art, dance and music schools on grounds. Student performances and art can be seen throughout the Institution, sometimes on the Amphitheatre stage. There are Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, located near the Sailing Center and baseball diamond, a good choice for younger children.
As a place to stay and live during the summer, Chautauqua is like no other. Cars are not allowed on grounds except for moving in or leaving. Instead, people get around on bicycles or by walking. The “downtown” part of Chautauqua is situated on Bestor Plaza, a square of sorts that features the post office, library, one of the hotels, the Refectory (a place to eat), the Visitor Center and the Colonnade, which holds various shops and a convenience store. Around Chautauqua runs a red brick path, on which only walking is allowed. A short walk on this path from Bestor Plaza leads you to the Amphitheatre, where lectures, sermons, and performances take place. The are orchestral and dance performances, kids’ shows and popular artists who visit the grounds to perform. There are also plays and operas that are put on in other theatres. The movie theatre shows one film per night and hosts a film festival that shows older movies every other week.
There is no question that being at Chautauqua is like being in the perfect town. Very little crime occurs on grounds. Children are encouraged to roam freely and be independent beginning at a young age. Firsthand experience has taught me that almost anyone on the grounds would be willing to help a child they see is in need. One of the best things about Chautauqua is that, although you may not know everyone, chances are you’ll meet someone who knows someone you do, or has some other connection to your life. Chautauqua embodies the idea of a “small world” without it feeling claustrophobic.
The only downside to being at Chautauqua is that it is very expensive and there is very little diversity. Gate passes (your ticket onto the grounds) are free for children under 13 and vary in price for those older depending on how many weeks you’re staying. For example, an adult pass for three weeks is either $977 or $1295, depending on when you order. This pass gets you in and out of grounds, as well as into the Amphitheatre for lectures and performances. Housing rentals are also expensive, conceivably costing thousands of dollars per week.
While it is expensive to be at Chautauqua, you get what you pay for, mainly a sense of community and safety. No one here locks up their bike. Children are allowed to travel back and forth from classes or Club on their own. When you think about it, feeling comfortable with the people around you, although you haven’t met a majority of them, is almost priceless and worth a chance to experience.
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