Renovated Hagen-Wensley Guest House offers warm welcome to program guests
Sarah Gelfand | Staff Writer
After almost a year of construction, trucks are lining the foot of Bowman Avenue for the last time as Rachel Mazza Borzilleri hurries across the porch of the new Hagen-Wensley Guest House, making last-minute adjustments.
Borzilleri, the hostess of the Hagen-Wensley, will welcome the house’s first guests Saturday, reigniting a tradition of integrating speakers and guests into Chautauqua’s daily fabric.
“I used to call the old Wensley House ‘charming and quaint,’” Borzilleri said. “I now call the Hagen-Wensley (Guest) House ‘charming and gracious.’”
Susan Hagen donated to update the former Wensley Guest House, which now provides a new level of comfort and community interaction for the Institution’s guests.
“In our guest book, we’re ending a chapter for the Wensley House, but starting a new one for the Hagen-Wensley, and their purpose is the same,” Borzilleri said.
Built in 1881, the original Wensley stood in poor condition for many years. Instead of serving as a welcoming space for guests, it was often a mere pit stop on speakers’ lecture tours.
“On its own, you would say you need to fix it up,” said Geof Follansbee, CEO of the Chautauqua Foundation. “Upgrading the Wensley House was a priority, and so we set out to do that. We went into it with a programmatic vision for a more in-depth experience for our guests.”
A group of Chautauquans formed the Wensley Committee, referred to as the “Wensley Ladies,” who maintained and decorated the Wensley.
“Through their kindness and time and effort, they held the old house together through the contribution of funds and energy for all these years,” Borzilleri said. “It’s really through their efforts that the Wensley House has been able to remain here.”
With the come-and-go mindset of many lecturers, politicians, dancers, comedians, conductors, scientists, educators, authors, actors and popular entertainers, the Institution made plans to reinvest in the Wensley to provide a deeper Chautauqua experience for its most esteemed visitors.
Halfway through the 2010 Season, Hagen announced her gift to the Chautauqua Foundation, and the Institution worked on extensive renovation plans. By October, however, there were more extreme issues with the structural integrity of the house, and a full reconstruction was underway. Less than a year has passed, and the house is now modernized and up-to-code.
“The original intent was to do a renovation, but after further investigation, the problems with the house were insurmountable and would not meet code,” Borzilleri said. “The only course of action was a reconstruction.”
The reconstruction retained the Wensley’s original porches and eight guest rooms but provided improved common spaces. Every room is decorated differently but intentionally keeps a sense of the house’s time period with the refurbished furniture that filled the older Wensley.
With a greater demand for family visits, the Hagen-Wensley has two sets of adjoining rooms, which can be combined into a suite. A brand new serviceable kitchen is available for guests who prefer to cook their own meals. An elevator and laundry facilities were installed for the further convenience of the guests.
“I call this a bed and breakfast without the breakfast,” Borzilleri said. “The driving ambience is a home-like feeling, as well as privacy for our guests.”
The first-floor porch is intended to serve as a public gathering area for guests and Chautauqua residents, while the porches on the upper floors will provide private relaxing areas for the guests.
“We recreated the original porches as key community areas,” Follansbee said. “At Chautauqua, porches become the living area of a house.”
Another major improvement is the updated library and business center, which now has several computers and desks.
“Our guests are not on vacation; they’re here to provide a service for the Institution, and in turn, we want to provide a convenient place for them to work,” Borzilleri said.
The shelves of the library are already lined with books, but upon closer examination, the only authors included are those who have actually spent a night at the Hagen-Wensley. Borzilleri, however, has left room on the shelves for guests to leave a tangible mark here for the future.
“I’d prefer if they were all signed from now on,” Borzilleri said jokingly.
Hagen’s gift is not just about improving standards of comfort for the house’s guests. The Institution hopes the reconstruction will encourage visitors to explore the grounds and community on a deeper level.
“The Hagen-Wensley Guest House is a critical piece of the infrastructure of Chautauqua,” said Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker. “The people who stay there are vital. They represent the highest quality of our program — performers, speakers, artists.
“The changes made on the house will have a great impact on people’s interest in being advocates for Chautauqua and their interest in returning. The house is their introduction to what it means to be a Chautauquan, that is, in residence.”
The Hagen-Wensley provides an immersion experience for visitors to Chautauqua. The house promotes longer-term stays, which enables guests to spend more time enjoying all of the Institution’s offerings.
“We’d like to get speakers to stay for two to three days and be part of the community instead of leaving after lunch,” Follansbee said.
Another goal is to increase the visibility of visitors who do choose to spend longer amounts of time on the grounds.
“One of the great advantages of the Chautauqua community is that people can walk around during the day and bump into these speakers,” Follansbee said.
The house’s proximity to the Amphitheater and the Athenaeum, as well as its restored open porch, will encourage interaction between guests and Chautauquans.
Hagen not only financed the reconstruction but also provided for the Hagen-Wensley House’s longevity with an endowment to maintain and care for the facility in the future.
“Mrs. Hagen highlights the importance of being generous in Chautauqua,” Becker said. “The Hagens’ gift sets a great example for our community.”
The new Hagen-Wensley Guest House will provide a comfortable and appropriate retreat for Chautauqua’s guests and a place for those guests to receive a greater understanding of the Chautauqua experience.
“The thing that brings so much joy to my heart is when people discover Chautauqua, especially people who have never been here before,” Borzilleri said. “It really makes no difference if they are a Noble Peace Prize winner or an accordionist or a ventriloquist or an ambassador. It’s that all people who stay here walk away with a love of Chautauqua.”