Chautauqua Institituion's Athenaeum Hotel
Nancy J. Parisi
Sited on a rise alongside long and breezy Lake Chautauqua, the Victorian, wooden Athenaeum Hotel is elegant and imposing. Operating continually since it was completed in 1881, the light yellow hotel with wrap-around verandas, soaring columns, and two-story mansard roof topped with fluttering American flag is known as “the grand dame of Chautauqua.” It is one of Chautauqua Institute’s iconic structures, and remains one of its finer places to dine and stay during a visit.
The Institute was created by two visionaries: a magnate and a pastor. Lewis Miller was the magnate, an inventor whose daughter married Thomas Edison. Edison did some early wiring of the hotel, and had a regular corner table in the hotel’s dining room where he took his meals—to this day still called “the Edison Table.” The staff tells of him leaving via a window when autograph hounds and curiosity seekers got too persistent.
Created as a seasonal tent assembly in 1874, Chautauqua Institute was intended as a simple place where one could commingle with nature, learn, and pursue spiritual awakening. The 154-room hotel remains a place of serenity that is mostly disengaged from the wired world. Its lobby is grand of scale and furnished with a mixture of simple wicker furniture and antique pieces—indeed, guests who may have stayed at other hotels of the same era (such as the ornate Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz) may find the Athenaeum’s furnishings minimal. Jason Toczykdlowski, dining room manager, states that the hotel was “not meant to be luxurious, it was meant to be comfortable.” It’s designed for good air circulation and doesn’t require air-conditioning; summer evenings here are cool.
Toczykdlowski adds: “People see the hotel and expect to have all modern luxuries, but at the same time people understand our historical value and understand it’s a comfortable place to stay, to enjoy programs. Numerous guests have been coming and staying here for longer than I’ve been alive.” (He’s thirty.) Nearby amenities include a golf course, tennis courts (clay and fast-dry), a swimming pool, and a gym; it’s a short distance to all and a complimentary shuttle takes guests anywhere on the grounds. All visitors must purchase a gate pass for the Institute, and that includes admission to many cultural events.
The lobby houses an old wooden phone booth, a large safe, and an ATM in addition to the original front desk and its call board for bellmen. Front desk manager Merrilee Harrington explains that at one time ten to twelve bellmen sat on a bench facing the desk awaiting spinning arrows above room numbers, indicating a room call. This summer there’s a new, self-service elevator, the hotel’s second. The first, an Otis dating from the teens or twenties, is still run by an operator.
Harrington emphasizes that the staff has close relationships with many of the seasonal guests, some of whom have been coming for decades: their narratives, she says, become part of the Athenaeum history. As we visit several rooms, she recalls the guests who request certain rooms. A serene blue room with a single bed and simple floor plan on the first floor has been chosen by a retired Manhattan principal for forty consecutive years. A visiting writer always chooses a second floor room with a porch for his visits.
The hotel has recently upgraded some of the rooms and they are deliciously appointed with luxurious beds, fine linens, and renovated bathrooms (along with elegant desks and wall-mounted flat-screen TVs). All are comfortable and many still resemble the guest quarters in the average American house, but the newer ones are designed to be more like those in boutique hotels. This is a gradual transformation to alleviate culture shock for guests who do expect things to be just as they left them the previous season.
Harrington proudly shows off the suite where Bill Clinton stayed when he was preparing for his presidential debate. Clinton slept in room 90, but there is no plaque outside the door, or any other door where the famous rested their weary heads. Other well-known guests include Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor; singers Neil Sedaka, Johnny Mathis, and Rosemary Clooney; president Theodore Roosevelt; and civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony.
Both Harrington and Toczykdlowski stress that the Athenaeum is “American style lodging,” which means three meals a day are included as part of the room rate. This season, chef Ross Warhol (profiled in the April 2011 Spree) is again executive chef: Warhol worked early in his career at the Athenaeum and returns to WNY after working at el Bulli in Spain and Alinea in Chicago.
Inevitably, as a visitor wends through the expansive hallways, peers into old bookcases with books left behind for lending, and enjoys all the nooks and crannies of the fine old hotel, thoughts turn to ghosts. Are there any spirits in residence? All staff reply “no,” but do speak of the hotel as a living, breathing her: the grand dame on the lake, an updated Victorian lady with grace and breeding.
Photographer and artist Nancy J. Parisi is a proud resident of Buffalo’s Old First Ward.