Written by John Warren-
It would surprise no one to hear the Disciples of Christ inner circle invoke the word “miracles” to characterize the events that led to the opening of their new denominational house.
At 4:30 p.m. on June 21, the afternoon before the 2019 Chautauqua season opened, the Disciples got their occupancy permit. In less than eight months, a century-old building had been razed, and a four-story building 50% larger rose in its place on Janes Avenue.
At many points, the project felt doomed. Due to asbestos issues, it was Oct. 30, 2018, before the Disciples got the “all clear” to begin demolition of the old Graybiel building. There were 29 change orders issued during construction, for lights added, windows deleted, etc. Most significantly, there was a panicked episode when the foundation had to be reimagined.
The old Graybiel House was built on a creek bed, on an original Chautauqua Assembly tent platform that had been reinforced through the years. When a portion of the basement was excavated, the architect, Bill Laubscher, realized the shifting soil could claim a neighboring house.
“I climbed down, and the soil was actually moving,” said Laubscher, who worked pro bono on the project, as he has with other denominational house projects, including at the Mayflower and Ecumenical Community of Chautauqua. “I yelled, ‘Fill it back in!’ ”
Piers were set in drilled holes 20 feet deep in the ground, with vertical steel pipes and horizontal wood beams reinforcing the perimeter. It added two months to the project, and $200,000 to the cost.
Disciples administrator Tom Brownfield said he woke many mornings at 5 a.m., crafting in his head the apology letters he would mail to the dozens of people who had reserved rooms for the nine-week season.
“Writing off a whole season? Financially, it would have been a fundamental disaster,” said Brownfield, an engineer by trade who served as volunteer clerk of the works for the project. “I don’t see how we could have survived that.”
Eventually, he prayed: “Here we are, Lord. Take care of it. Because I can’t.”
Brownfield credits the architect, Laubscher, with making the deadline. Laubscher, in turn, credits builder Chris Keefe with devising creative, time-saving maneuvers, such as building the Graybiel’s walls off-site.
“That saved a month,” Laubscher said. “A week before the season, I stood back and said, ‘I can’t believe we got this done.’ It was, absolutely, a miracle.”
The old Graybiel House at 28 Janes dated to 1874. It was a cafeteria and boarding house when the Disciples bought the building in 1945, for $2,500, furniture included. It was then named “The Brotherhood House,” and was a summer home for Disciples ministers and missionaries.
In the early 2000s, it was named for the Graybiel family, who established a Disciples gathering spot at the dawn of the Chautauqua Assembly in the 19th century, in a tent on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, near Miller Bell Tower. When the Disciples outgrew the tent, there were a couple temporary homes — including by the Presbyterian House, adjacent to the Amphitheater. In 1904, the Disciples — led by the Graybiels, who included mother Sara and daughters Adelaide, Katherine and Mary — raised $2,800 to buy what became the Disciples Headquarters House, on 32 Clark, where it meets Janes.
The Graybiels and other Disciples founders were involved in mission work in India, China and Africa — among Christianity’s frontiers in the early 1900s. Old newspaper clippings attest to mission travels, as do scattered artifacts at the Disciples’ houses.
There’s nostalgia for the old place, to be sure, which is not the same as saying anyone misses it. The chipmunks, maybe. The old place was … porous.
“Chipmunks pretty much ruled the house,” said Cathy Brownfield, Tom’s wife and hostess for the Disciples’ two houses.
The loosey-goosey foundation meant nothing in the building was plumb. One could pick up momentum walking from one side of a room to the other. Windows wouldn’t open. Doors wouldn’t shut. There was a top-story toilet that notoriously listed to port.
“I called it ‘Shim City,’ ” said David Lollis, who was the Disciples host for 17 years with his wife, Betty. “We were constantly jamming little slats of wood under dressers and beds to level them.”
Talk about the new project began 10 years ago, when it was realized it would be more expensive to rehabilitate the building than to raze it and start over. A fundraising campaign followed, during which $1 million was raised.
The new building has 17 rooms compared to 12 at the old house, and can accommodate up to 37 people, in place of 25. The square footage is about 6,000 compared to about 4,000. And, it has central air conditioning — far from a given at many of Chautauqua’s seasonal properties. It has a well-appointed, spacious, space-engineered kitchen meant to accommodate several families preparing meals and washing dishes simultaneously. The Disciples aim for year-round occupancy and are recruiting groups for the off-season.
The problem now is supply and demand. Denominational houses represent the best housing deal on the grounds. And with rooms as low as $200 a week, the old Graybiel House was at the ground-floor pricing tier.
But the need to offset $1.9 million (and counting) in construction and the popularity of the new, air-conditioned space has created a new paradigm. Room rates at the Graybiel and Headquarters buildings start around $325, but most certainly will climb in coming seasons.
“There is a much greater market than we are able to address,” Tom Brownfield said. The Disciples reservation list has tripled in size. Asked if Disciples could fill another house today, Brownfield responded: “Definitely.”
The off-season holds a laundry list of to-dos, from painting stairwells, to installing trim board, to finishing off the basement, which will effectively provide a fifth level.
One nagging vestige of the old Graybiel remains. Like the resilient gopher of “Caddyshack,” the chipmunks wouldn’t be daunted, not even by a bulldozer. Though they now prefer the Headquarters building.
“Don’t leave a door open,” said Betty Lollis. “If you do, they fly right in.”
John Warren is director of news and information at University of California, Riverside and a former columnist, writer and editor at The Virginian-Pilot and The Roanoke Times. A longtime Chautauquan, he has served for several years as a writing coach at the Daily.