Chautauqua’s parks provide space for community conversation, play

Adam Birkan | Staff Photographer
Young Chautauquans play and ride bikes in the evening sun earlier this season in Lincoln Park.

Leaves are faintly stirring on the mature trees in St. Paul’s Grove, the setting for the Hall of Philosophy. The sun’s rays filter through the leaves, dappling the dirt and lawn below. Humidity is at a reasonable level. It is a comfortable, pleasant summer Chautauqua afternoon.

Scattered around the upper grove and the Alumni Hall front yard across the street are exactly 52 lightweight and oddly insubstantial-feeling green plastic chairs, seven picnic tables, and several trademark slat- and-metal-frame Chautauqua benches, more portable than they look.

Professional opera singer, architect and Chautauquan Jane Foster is enjoying the serenity.

“Chautauqua is a compact and complex visual environment which releases into the parks and the lake,” Foster said.

Knowing that most architectural attention is paid to Chautauqua’s richly varied public buildings and private residences, Foster wanted to focus instead on this installment of her architectural tour of the grounds on some more humble open spaces.

“There’s no dominant philosophy in the layout of the upper grove or the Alumni Hall front lawn,” Foster said, “so the area lends itself to a lot of uses. Look around.”

In the Hall of Philosophy, the Department of Religion’s afternoon speaker addressed another full house. “The experience of the invisible church … ,” he said.

The acoustics are amazingly good in the still air, hundreds of feet from the speaker’s lectern. It is not surprising that so many Chautauquans prefer to sit in the grove on their own folding chairs instead of the Hall of Philosophy’s wooden benches.

There were the many auditors of the 2 p.m. lecture. An outdoor gallery of sturdy wood frames showcased stunning National Geographic photos. Pedestrians, bicyclists, trams and buses crossed the yard on Wythe. Ladies were knitting at a couple of picnic tables. An older man sat on a bench, patiently stroking his terrier while absently listening. A mother smiled at her giggling child.

“This space invites conversation,” Foster said. “The scale of it is intimate, and in fact, its evolutionary design encourages intimacy in several ways. The place oozes informality. There is an uncluttered structure to the space. There is more serendipity than design at work here. The arrangement of the trees is even informal. It is significant that no one seems worried about the lawn under many of the trees.

“Bestor Plaza, for example, is more of a parade ground,” Foster said, “much more formal with its symmetrical design and fountain and precise walkways. Here in the grove, we’re in an outdoor library, a place to sit and learn.”

From the distant lectern, the afternoon speaker employed his audience to “concentrate on problem solving.” In the grove, problems were few.

“The simplicity of this place lends itself to a sense of ownership and the responsibilities that go with it,” Foster said. “In other Chautauqua environments, you’d expect someone else to do it, but notice here how everyone carefully returns his green plastic chair to the stacks on the Alumni Hall front lawn.

“Maybe it is related to that sense of ownership, but the grove seems to be largely a place for adults, with only the occasional dog or child.”

Down Wythe is a place for adults, dogs and children, often interacting quite harmoniously. Lincoln Park, sun-drenched and often largely empty while Children’s School and Boys’ and Girls’ Club are in session, fills before and after dinner, and on weekends, with Chautauquans of all ages, but mostly kids.

“Like the upper grove, Lincoln Park is a well-used space,” Foster said. “Maybe more like an Italian piazza than a park. Piazzas in Italy were often designed as market places, but kind of evolved as spare space which was simply left open. Of course, Lincoln Park was once the site of the Morey Hotel. … But the result is a pleasing, open playground.

“For architects and planners, the key question is ‘Do people come to a place you plan, or do you make your plan consonant with people’s behavior?’ ”

Lincoln Park, named for Louisa Lincoln, was originally the site for numerous cottages. The Morey Hotel evolved from linking the cottages under unified management. After the hotel was torn down in the 1930s, the property was reportedly transferred to the Institution with the proviso that it remain undeveloped.

“If that is so,” Foster said, “Lincoln Park responds, as much through chance as design, to both sides of the urban planner’s choice.

“The park is very successful at unifying the surrounding buildings in a celebration of daily life. It’s a welcoming, easygoing, safe place. It’s like your favorite neighbor’s back yard. For a comparison, Bestor Plaza seems more like Chautauqua’s front yard, structured and ceremonial.”

Discussing parks and planning in Chautauqua conjured in Foster’s mind the name of Frederick Law Olmsted, widely regarded as the father of the landscape architecture profession in the U.S. and among those who might have played a crucial role in Chautauqua’s early development.

“Olmsted’s vision was of sweeping open green spaces to enable citizens to better connect with their better selves,” Foster said. “He felt providing rural recreational settings produced a healthier environment.

“He designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn, for instance, with its meadows and ponds. He also developed a large residential community almost directly across Chautauqua Lake from the Institution.”

In the later 19th and early 20th centuries, Point Chautauqua was an elegant residential community with grand ambitions and a Grand Hotel on the lake. Now, a small residential community remains adjacent to a golf course. The 2010 tornado destroyed a restaurant affiliated with the golf course.

When Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent founded Chautauqua as a Methodist institution, Baptists were busy with a competing community across the lake. “Olmsted’s vision might have influenced Chautauqua, but its founders preferred the more dense, camp style plan with 90-degree corners for their community,” Foster said.

“Early Chautauqua was also influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, among whose tenets was the notion that monumental architecture promotes harmonious social order,” she said. “The Hall of Philosophy likely owes its inspiration to this movement, for instance. The lower grove, below the Hall, is largely a ceremonial space which especially blooms during Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle graduation ceremonies.”

Further north, and bounded by Massey, Miller, Center and Palestine, a humble park occupies one Chautauqua square block. Reputedly named Harper Park after the family who long owned an adjacent home, the piece of real estate remains uncelebrated on maps. Only a small plaque at the back reveals the park’s name.

Despite its lack of renown, Harper Park has a history, from Chautauqua’s earliest days. It is a remnant of a more extensive system of parks along Massey designed to serve as buffers from the noise and commotion of the Mayville-Jamestown highway now known as Route 394.

Now, Harper Park is notable principally for its crossed asphalt paths, which get heavy use from early morning Athenaeum Hotel workers to late evening concert-goers, all transitioning to and from the Main Gate. Kids, dogs and the contemplative adult make use of its small open spaces and five benches.

“This small park does hark back to the intimate little neighborhood parks in central London and New York City,” Foster said. “It is interesting to note that the hedges surrounding the park all have welcoming gaps, except along the edge which borders Massey Avenue. So some vestige of the original buffer intent remains.”

Strolling along Wythe and Palestine between three Chautauqua parks, Foster noted the residential density along both main and side streets.

“The lack of space between and around many homes makes even more precious the open areas we do have,” she said. “We’re right to cherish and use them fully.”