Before I turned left in Manhattan and drove some 420 miles to the Chautauqua Institution in the southwest corner of New York state, I asked a worldly and cultured New York City friend what she knew about the place.
“It’s in Westchester,” she advised me, “but I think it’s pronounced Chappaqua.”
She had much to learn, and so did I, about the Chautauqua Institution, 140 years old this year. It’s a place — far from Westchester — in which I spent a happy week last month, drawn to a hidden utopia that has, over the years, welcomed Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt and Sandra Day O’Connor.
Founded in 1874 by the American Methodist grandees Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, the enterprise was first called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly. Miller and Vincent envisioned their enterprise, planted just west of Jamestown, New York, and east of Erie, Pennsylvania, as an experiment in enlightened vacation learning for Sunday school teachers in want of educational, spiritual and recreational uplift, with the bonus of a refreshing lake breeze up their Victorian skirts and trousers.
What first began with tent housing almost immediately evolved into a pretty maze of lakeside streets crammed with cottages and guesthouses festooned with porches built for the essentials of edifying outdoor living: conversation, dining and, above all, reading.
Late-19th-century pilgrims stepped from ferry boats on the southwest shore of Chautauqua Lake and proceeded right from the dock to Palestine Park, a topological scale model of the ancient Holy Land in all its hills, valleys and miniature Dead Sea. One could cover biblical territory of 350 feet in two minutes, even with stops to visit Nazareth and Gaza.
A tiny, enjoyably earnest and slightly mad educational bit of the whole leafy landscape, the park is walkable still, but over the decades, Chautauqua has expanded considerably, in scope and size, from its Sunday school roots. For nine weeks every summer, the 750-acre campus is a cheery, low-keyed welter of lectures, classes, concerts, theater, dance performances and art exhibitions.
Opportunities for spiritual uplift continue to figure prominently on the daily agenda, with services conducted every morning. But the extended denominational menu now includes Roman Catholic, Unitarian, Christian Science, Quaker, Jewish and Zen Buddhist gatherings, and Friday Muslim prayer. Then again, an early-rising Chautauquan might prefer a guided nature walk, a theology-free Scientific Circle presentation or an independent bike ride instead.
Each week’s programming centers on a Monday-to-Friday lecture theme. This year’s topics include “The Ethics of Privacy,” “The American West,” “Brazil: Rising Superpower” and a week with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. The circadian rhythms are set by a 10:45 a.m. thematic lecture by a visiting so-and-so, and the evening’s 8 o’clock concert entertainment, both held in the 4,000-seat open-air amphitheater, with birds occasionally flapping from rafter to rafter
Between those pillars of the balanced life, a daily 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture by a roster of spiritual and educational leaders draws a faithful crowd to the classically designed open-air Hall of Philosophy, while concurrent flocks attend to swimming, sailing, golf, or tennis. Or a class in bridge or ceramics or how to use Twitter. Or summer-afternoon reading while rocking on a porch, always seductive. Napping is also big.
Thus, through a combination of lectures and visitor-friendly prayer, bird-watching and weather watching, the Chautauqua way of life has become a tradition, a constant of summer for those who love its rolling rhythms and sincerely unhip ways.
And as a result, those who love it tend to return year after year, generation after generation, booking for the next season even as they pack up after the week just past. More than 100,000 arrive over the summer. They are mostly a homogeneous population of white boomer-age campers or beyond.
They, I should say, is us. Me, anyway, after this graying boomer-age, Jewish New Yorker purchased her all-important weeklong gate pass ($436) and became a Chautauquan for the first week of the 2014 season, June 21-28 (the final week begins Aug. 16).
A week at Chautauqua is a microcosm of what we can make of our lives, if only we remember to slow down and pay attention.