Bird, Tree & Garden Club celebrates 90 years of Smith Wilkes Hall

Daily file photo
President Tom Becker speaks at the Bird, Tree & Garden Club Life Member Luncheon in 2013.

More than 100 life members of the Bird, Tree & Garden Club are flocking together today to celebrate the 90th birthday of their beloved nesting place, Smith Wilkes Hall.

At 12:15 p.m. in the Garden Room of the Athenaeum Hotel, the 2014 BTG Life Member Luncheon will honor Addie Mae Smith Wilkes and the building she donated to her favorite Chautauqua club.

Chautauqua Institution archivist Jon Schmitz will be speaking on “The Mystery of Smith Wilkes,” referring to both the building and the woman whose name it bears. Other attendees to the luncheon will include former BTG presidents, as well as Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker.

Ninety years ago, Bird and Tree Club Vice President Smith Wilkes decided she was going to give back to the institution that had given her so much joy throughout her childhood. According to local historian and Daily columnist Mary Lee Talbot’s book, 100 Years of Beauty: A History of the Chautauqua Bird, Tree & Garden Club, Smith Wilkes pledged $25,000 — almost $350,000 today — to be used to build a new amphitheater-style building for the club to use as a home base for their programs.

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
This summer, Smith Wilkes Hall celebrates its 90th birthday. Addie Mae Smith Wilkes donated the building to the Bird and Tree Club in 1924.

According to Talbot, construction of the building began in January 1924 and was completed in a single winter with the first official BTG meeting in the new hall held the following July. Smith Wilkes contracted the construction of the building in memory of her husband, uncle and two brothers, but dedicated its use to all Chautauquans.

“What she provided was a home for the Bird and Tree Club, which it was called back then,” Talbot said. “The club had been looking for a place like the Men’s and Women’s Club houses where they could meet regularly. She wanted to give back for what she remembered she had gotten as a young girl at Chautauqua.”

Smith Wilkes Hall still stands as the central hub for more than 60 free programs hosted by BTG during the summer season. Working as the environmental stewards of Chautauqua Institution, BTG has made numerous improvements to the grounds since its first meeting 101 years ago. Some of the most recent accomplishments include: the creation of three outdoor classrooms in the South End Ravine, lobbying for issues like increased garden space and composting efforts, and the donation of $6,000 for the establishment of vegetation “buffer zones” along the Chautauqua shoreline to help filter excess nutrients out of stormwater before it enters the lake.

According to BTG president Margery Buxbaum, the club also contributes funds to agencies like the Chautauqua Lake Association, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy and Jamestown Audubon Society, who work to keep the lake and its inhabitants healthy.