A century of homes: Bird, Tree & Garden Club century house tour showcases some of institution’s oldest
Zachary Lloyd | Staff Writer
In the twilight of the 1800s, Chautauqua Institution was around one-third its present size. The flap of canvas in the wind accompanied the sound of polite conversation as assembly-goers left their boarding house rooms and headed for the lake. Cottages rose out of the beige sea of tents; the square board-and-batten structures were slapped together by local carpenters for those looking for a more comfortable place to spend the nights.
This year’s sold-out Bird, Tree & Garden Club Century House Tour from noon to 5 p.m. today will invite more than 1,000 attendees into 12 homes around the grounds that were built over a century ago. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of BTG, making this year’s house tour theme especially significant.
The BTG house tour has been sponsored every other year since 1954 and serves as the primary fundraiser for the club’s programs and projects throughout the season. A biennial tradition, the event draws in visitors from sister garden clubs as far away as Ohio.
The one-mile tour around the oldest section of the Institution is self-guided. It begins on Ames, winds down to the lakefront at Miller Park and then circles back up and around to finish on Miller near Bestor Plaza. Here are a few of the stops:
Steve Davies couldn’t help but wax nostalgic when he first saw the three-story cottage on the corner of Ames and Palestine. A true American Foursquare — one of the few original architectural styles created in the States — it stands as a simple, strong reaction to the gaudy Victorian styles often used in the mid-1800s.
“My grandparents’ house was almost identical to this one,” Davies said.
The foursquare style was prevalent from the 1890s through the 1930s, and gained national attention when Sears, Roebuck and Company began pre-fabricating and shipping the houses around the country by rail. Characterized by its boxy design, hanging bay window and ability to house large families on tiny lots, the foursquare can still be seen in the historic districts of many American cities.
“What struck me about the house was how much character was still intact and how structurally sound it was,” Davies said. “I had to do very little work to it when I bought it.”
Because the Davies Cottage was built by actual architects instead of working carpenters like many of the cottages on the tour, it was made to be more of an actual home rather than just a seasonal retreat. Built by Frank Terry around 1900, the house now features a garden between Ramble and Ames on a side lot originally used for Institution parking. Davies, an urban planner with an architectural degree, worked with his neighbors to redesign the garden and fix up the block.
It’s hard for Lois Raynow to describe the evolution of her home to visitors. She has seen it grow over the past 35 years from a small, seasonal cottage surrounded by a vast flower garden to the sprawling double-lot, two-story duplex that it is today, a transition not easily imagined by most. The original side of the cottage was built in the early 1880s and the property signed to a 99-year lease for $150. The Raynows bought the property in 1979 and decided to expand the house out into the huge garden that stretched toward Palestine in 1986.
“We had Misty Ridge [Landscaping] pull the garden, the flowers and winter them so we could replant them,” Raynow said. “Our hydrangea tree overwintered in the lot across the street and now it’s back out front.”
The ’86 remodel was enlarged even more in 2010, creating the double-cottage look the house has today. Raynow lives in the new addition, while her children’s families use the old cottage as a summer home, with the two sides connected by a single door on the second floor. Now Raynow can have her entire family over for the summer and still have her own space, which she said is an added comfort when spending a lot of time with energetic children.
16 North Terrace
Constructed two years after the first official Chautauqua Assembly, the Chautauqua Inn exemplifies the typical housing situation for the majority of attendees in the early days of the Institution. French architect Sanford Beaujean constructed the inn in 1876 and christened his new hotel the Beaujean Boarding Cottage.
Being one of the first actual buildings on the Institution grounds, the Chautauqua Inn has gathered a rich history over the past 138 years. Rumor has it that Thomas Edison himself electrified the Inn during one of his stays in the area.
“The first and only well for water was right here at the Inn,” said Harry White, manager of the Chautauqua Inn. “If I remember correctly, Beaujean charged people 25 cents a week to use it. You can still see the remnants of it on the side of the building.”
White, along with his wife, Nancy and his daughter, Lauralynn, have been managing the Chautauqua Inn for a decade now. Nancy’s sister and brother-in-law, Henry K. and Wilma McConnon, bought the property in 1991 and renovated the second and third floor guest rooms the following year. Before, where there were 17 rooms and a shared bath, the Chautauqua Inn now has 12 guest rooms each with its own private bathroom, refrigerator, microwave and kitchen sink.
The Whites provide their guests with a free continental breakfast every morning, which they can choose to enjoy in the main parlor, or on one of the Inn’s four porches. The house also has two decks, with the views off the backside of the building looking out over Chautauqua Lake.
Tour attendees will enter the parlor from North Terrace, walk through the first floor hallway to get a glimpse of some guest rooms, and then exit the Inn via the back porch that leads to the award-winning shade garden on Whitfield.
The Wilder Cottage,
8 Miller Park
Rachel Wilder has spent her summers in the blue and white Miller Park cottage since she was a girl. It’s her childhood home, and it has been her children’s summer home as well.
“I will never, ever sell this house,” Wilder said. “I’ll give it to my children, and they’ll pass it down to their kids.”
When Wilder’s parents bought the house in 1958, the property became one of the first Jewish-owned houses on the grounds.
The front porch of the cottage faces Miller Park, the site of the first Chautauqua Institution auditorium that now plays host to games of tag and dodgeball for the local youngsters. The sounds of screams and laughter are incessant from dawn until dusk every day; sounds Wilder will always associate with Chautauqua.
The cottage is most likely older than Chautauqua by several years; however, its exact date of construction is unknown. It is known that the property was first leased in 1871 by a group of Pennsylvania men who would go on to purchase a $100, 99-year lease from the Institution two years later.
The cottage has a single bedroom on the first floor that tour attendees will see after entering through the spacious front porch. What tourists will not see are the five surprisingly large bedrooms and two bathrooms squeezed into the second floor.
The house’s current structure was built in the late 1880s, and it still sports the original 127-year-old board-and-batten siding and a massive upstairs deck overlooking the park.
The Kilpatrick Cottage,
The Kilpatrick Cottage at 39 Palestine is a family place for Rosie Kilpatrick, who purchased the property with her husband Ron in 2004.
“Really, we bought it because we have nine grandchildren,” Kilpatrick said, looking toward the cottage from her other property across the street. “I have three children and they have three of their own, so there’s usually six kids and four adults in the house.”
The Kilpatricks decided to buy the property at 39 Palestine to give their growing family a nearby place to stay during their visits to Chautauqua Institution.
While the exterior has been largely unchanged since it was built in 1887, the interior was modernized, the second floor’s five bedrooms were updated, and the third floor attic has been turned into a playroom for the grandkids. In 2004 the entire house was lifted and a basement was added for storage space, something not often seen in Chautauqua homes. The first floor also saw the addition of a large dining room and dinner table where the whole family can gather for meals.
“It’s been a wonderful thing for us,” Kilpatrick said. “We’re always going back and forth across the street with food, and chairs and games. It really is nice.”
The Kilpatricks think the home’s previous owner, Alfreda Irwin — local historian and former editor of The Chautauquan Daily — would be pleased to know the Kilpatricks are carrying on the tradition of family love in the cottage on Palestine, still referred to as the “Irwin House” by many Chautauquans.
The Faithful Remnant,
Bob Jeffrey is an expert on preserving the past, and he’s made a living working as a historical preservationist. A member of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, he serves as chair of the Architectural Review Board. He is also the owner of the tour’s last stop, The Faithful Remnant.
One of the most unchanged buildings on the grounds, the Faithful Remnant still features the original floorboards, gaslights, siding, cabinets and 135-year-old milk paint on the living room’s ceiling.
Jeffrey said the house really does live up to its name.
“This house was here before there were bathrooms or kitchens in any of the homes,” Jeffrey said. “This was back when the communal bath houses for men and women were where the library is now.”
Jeffrey bought the house in 2011 and now spends three months in the summer on the grounds. The house, devoid of insulation, needs to be shut up and winterized when the weather turns cold.
Jeffrey is excited about the idea of thousands of people walking through his home next week.
“Tours like these are only attended by people who really care about this kind of thing, you know?” he said. “Plus it’s a great way for the homeowners to get new ideas about our houses as people come through and talk about it.”
This year’s Century House Tour is a way for people to participate in the history of Chautauqua, and to experience it in a very tangible way. Walking through the historic buildings is almost like stepping into a time machine back when life was simultaneously simpler and harder.
“This tour really is a special opportunity,” Jeffrey said. “The more we share this legacy, the more people will want to protect it. This is something unique and we need to maintain it.”