Miller Cottage, built in 1875 by Chautauqua’s co-founder Lewis Miller, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, the only structure on the grounds to hold that National Park Service-issued title. When longtime Chautauquan and philanthropist Tom Hagen learned that the owners of the Lewis Miller Cottage had decided to put the founding family’s home on the market, he asked for a tour.
“I realized that it was absolutely essential and important that the Institution own the only remaining founder’s cottage, right across from where the Assembly first met,” Hagen said.
He decided to donate the funds required to allow the Chautauqua Foundation to purchase the house from then-owners Ted and Kim Arnn. The Foundation is now working with Jeff Kidder, AIA, a preservation architect and partner at Kidder Wachter Architecture & Design in Erie, Pennsylvania, to document the current condition of the cottage and recommend any structural repairs needed or alterations required by the building codes or otherwise appropriate for potential future uses.
“This is a preservation project, not a restoration project,” Kidder said. “The building has been in one family for its entire history. It has been maintained very well.”
Only one major renovation was ever undertaken at the Miller Cottage by Mina Miller Edison, the wife of Thomas Edison and daughter of Lewis Miller. In the early 1920s, she created a large open living room with a dual staircase to the second floor, added new wood trim, built-in bookcases, finishes, light fixtures and furniture.
Miller descendents Ted Arnn and his sister, Kim Arnn, inherited the house from their mother, Nancy Miller Arnn. It was Nancy who had bought the cottage years ago from her cousin, Charles Edison (Mina’s son). As Ted and Kim prepared to inventory the contents of the house for appraisal, they found all of the invoices for the furniture Mina Edison purchased in 1922, along with precise information about paint colors and fabrics. “Eighty to 90 percent of what was in the house back then — especially the furniture, china cabinets, and books — are still there and accounted for in our inventory,” Ted Arnn said.
During her renovation project, Mina Edison also engaged Ellen Biddle Shipman, a pioneering landscape architect in an era when men dominated the field. Though she designed many residential landscapes for distinguished American families such as the Astors, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, Shipman also undertook public landscape projects such as the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University, the plantings along Lake Shore Boulevard in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, and the Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans, Louisiana. Shipman’s landscape plans for Miller Cottage have been preserved in the Chautauqua Archives and will inform the future care of the grounds surrounding the cottage.
While the Foundation awaits a full architectural assessment from Kidder, there are tentative plans in development for the cottage’s ongoing use. Options under consideration include having Miller Cottage serve as an intimate facility where the Institution can house a small number of resident guests in the five bedrooms. Depending on access, it may serve to host small gatherings for lectures, receptions or intimate dinners inside the house, as well as larger events outside in the gardens. A catering kitchen and handicapped-accessible restrooms may be housed in a structure adjacent to the original facility.
Hagen is especially keen to see the cottage used as a means to showcase Chautauqua’s history and heritage for newcomers to the Institution. Kidder also notes that the social history of the house — the prominent guests that the Miller and Edison families entertained here — is an important story.
“We are certainly grateful to Tom Hagen for making it possible for the Chautauqua Foundation to acquire the house,” Ted Arnn said.
Both Ted and Kim have made gifts toward the $150,000 challenge grant that Hagen has pledged to match, dollar for dollar, to endow future maintenance of the cottage.
“The Hagen family has helped us make Chautauqua’s past come alive for future generations,” said Geof Follansbee, Chautauqua Foundation CEO and Chautauqua Institution Vice President. “I hope others will be attracted to support the endowment for Miller Cottage. We are exceedingly grateful to Tom Hagen and the Arnn family. In the coming years, we will work diligently to ensure the cottage continues to stand as a tangible connection to the founding of this place and as a tribute to the many prominent Americans who passed through its doors and gardens.”