Mention the Children’s Temple, and most Chautauquans will look puzzled — and justifiably so. It might have vanished entirely from awareness, but for that mausoleum of old buildings and the plaque.
Thanks to the 1999 Anniversary Celebration Task Force, a tall plaque memorializing the Children’s Temple, Cheops Pyramid and the Jewish Tabernacle stands on Bestor Plaza, rising above a privet hedge on the corner between the Colonnade and the Post Office. Ironically, the plaque is directly opposite the actual Children’s Temple site — across from the Smith Memorial Library.
As intriguing as the other edifices sound — a pyramid, really? — the Children’s Temple is important because it is a testament to an enshrined ideal: Chautauqua’s commitment to children’s education. That ideal continues and flourishes today.
It is interesting to note that the Temple was built before the first Amphitheater. Though the Temple, as it quickly became known, was built initially for religious education, it also provided a large hall for other events, including musical recitals, having both a grand piano and the space for a large audience.
William H. Sherwood gave his first Chautauqua performance in the Temple. Brainard’s Biographies of American Musicians states that he was “the pre-eminent American piano virtuoso of his age.” Sherwood’s biography further states, “During the summer of 1889, Sherwood began holding workshops and lessons for piano teachers at Chautauqua Institution Summer Festival until his death in 1911.”
Its glory days were brief, from 1878 to 1911. The Temple was Lewis Miller’s brainchild, a copy of the Akron, Ohio, Sunday School building of which he is credited with designing along with Walter Blythe and architect Jacob Snyder. This church design was first used at the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Akron in 1872.
An Aug. 12, 1947, column in The Chautauquan Daily describes the Temple’s design as “classrooms opened with folding doors into the large assembly room. It could accommodate 2,000 children and 1,500 adults.”
The Temple was a wooden building resembling, simultaneously, a wealthy man’s stable and a rustic church with its gothic doorway and window frames. In photos the Temple looks like it would be comfortable in the fields of Chautauqua County.
Its history seems joyous, ringing with music and children’s voices. One of its primary purposes was to house the popular Children’s Hour, a daily class taught by Bethuel Thomas “B.T.” Vincent, Bishop John Heyl Vincent’s brother, and Frank Beard, the popular chalk artist.
The July 1883 Assembly Herald states that the class began at 8 a.m., “the course of study chiefly a Biblical text book, Bible Studies for Little People by Dr. B.T. Vincent and cost ten cents. A certificate was given to any pupil who answers 80% of questions correctly.”
In two Daily interviews separated by a decade, Alfreda L. Irwin, former Chautauquan Daily editor and Institution historian, recorded Chautauquans Emily Bixby’s and Louise Knox’s remembrances of the Children’s Temple.
Bixby, secretary treasurer of the Chautauqua Foundation, secretary treasurer of the Chautauqua Reorganization Corporation and 45-year Institution employee, shared this with Irwin in the Aug. 17, 1961, Daily:
“And to Dr. B.T. Vincent’s Bible class for children in the Children’s Temple at 8:30 each morning all Season! At the end he always gave an examination. One year I won second prize, a book of Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales. The Children’s Temple was a large wooden shell of a building located in what would now be the end of the Plaza.”
Knox, a lifelong Chautauquan, recalled in the Aug. 28, 1971, Daily: “We went at 8:00 in the morning. We learned about the Bible and even took examinations.”
Slowly, the focus of the Children’s Temple waned. Other sites like Kellogg Hall housed kindergarten, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Club began to dominate children’s activities. The Temple became a large available space for other needs, including storing fire department equipment.
Its end came in 1911 — the same year that Sherwood died and the First Methodist Church in Akron, Ohio, burned.
Historical coincidence is astonishing.