Historic preservationist Jeffrey to speak on century-old Chautauqua

Bob Jeffrey showcases the parlor of his Miller home, The Faithful Remnant, with the air of a docent strolling through a museum of history. He proudly points out the upstairs floorboards that also serve as the living room ceiling, still covered in the original milk paint the house’s builder brushed on in 1879. The walls, Jeffrey said, are also the backside of the exterior siding, and the original floorboards glisten with a new coat of varnish. The house has the cozy feel of a cabin in the wilderness, the perfect rest stop for a weary traveler.

“If you were here in 1879, you had gas lighting. You weren’t allowed to have a bathroom or a kitchen either,” Jeffrey said. “These houses were literally just for sleeping.”

Jeffrey, an Institution trustee who chairs the Chautauqua Architectural Review Board and has made a living in preserving historic buildings, will give a talk today at 12:15 p.m. in Smith Wilkes Hall on the upcoming Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s “Century House Tour.”

The July 15 tour is a 1-mile, self-guided walking exploration of some of the oldest buildings on Chautauqua’s grounds. A limited number of tickets are still available for the tour and can be purchased at the Brown Bag. Today is the last day   tickets are available.Over 1,000 visitors enter the Institution to take part in the tour. Jeffrey hopes that his talk today will set the stage for life in the late 1800s, when visitors to Chautauqua spent their few weeks here in rooming houses, tents, or barebones cottages like his own residence.

“Most people think of Chautauqua as a Victorian village, but many of these old houses are actually Gothic, Vernacular or Federal,” Jeffrey said. “These were homes made by carpenters in very short amounts of time, with very minimal materials.”

Which is why it is so extraordinary that these buildings are still standing, and some in relatively mint condition. Bathrooms and kitchens didn’t become a common installation until around 1890, so assembly attendees ate and showered in communal facilities located in the present Bestor Plaza area. At one point in time, the only source of freshwater on the premises came from a well beside the Chautauqua Inn, one of the stops on the tour.

While many Chautauqua traditions have remained since the beginning, the standard of living has changed for the better over the past 140 years. Today, lifelong Chautauquan Rachel Wilder can sit in her Miller Park cottage, which is believed to be at least as old as the Institution, and surf the Internet via a Wi-Fi connection. Visitors to the Chautauqua Inn can wash their clothes and take a shower with hot water that didn’t have to be drawn from a well and heated over a fire.

“It was a totally different way of life,” Jeffrey said. “I really want to help people understand how different it was back then, and how much it’s changed over the years.”

*Correction:  The house tour is July 15, not June 15.