Fred Kent, Kathy Madden and Steve Davies September 11, 2022 — 11 minutes read

Founded in 1874 and still thriving today

Social LIfe in Chautauqua around 1900.

"There's no place like it. No resort. No spa. It is at once a summer encampment and a small town, a college campus, an arts colony, a music festival, a religious retreat, and the village square." --Historian and author David McCullough

Founded in 1874, Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State is actually a hard place to describe. Started as a retreat for Methodist Sunday School teachers, Chautauqua evolved rapidly in the 19th Century to become a remarkable gathering place. Its four "pillars" of Arts, Education, Religion, and Recreation are woven into the daily schedule of a nine-week summer season. Beyond its bucolic site on Lake Chautauqua, Chautauqua Institution launched the first book club in America (boasting some 60,000 members in the 1880's) and became a national movement that inspired mini-Chautauquas that brought the four Pillars to small towns across America.

Our long-term friend and colleague, Steve Davies, whose family has been going to Chautauqua for three generations, has owned a house there for a decade. It was our first trip this summer. The experience of being there was like no other in our entire careers of traveling the world working, or in our quest looking for the best of the best. Chautauqua is paradise on earth and a sacred place.

Sadly, Chautauqua Institution has been in the news recently because of a tragic event that took place two days before our visit when author Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage at the morning lecture. Steve reports that the community has come together and its strong bonds of multi-generational families and community have enabled Chautauquans to weather this storm.

Chautauqua has all the public spaces of a small town (including a town square and lakefront promenade) as well as those of a campus (wonderful quadrangles, outdoor meeting venues.) During the nine-week summer season, cars are limited on the 750-acre grounds so everyone walks, bikes, or takes a shuttle bus or mobility scooter to get around. There are almost no sidewalks. A gate pass admits you to all the concerts, lectures, and hundreds of events that take place there every week. We had ample time to explore both the historic core and newer neighborhoods and, with Steve as guide, we went pretty much everywhere.

In the historic core, mostly dating to buildings built prior to World War I, all have porches and there are virtually no cars on the streets. The few cars that we saw in our five days were coming to our hotel or just making a rare trip for provisions. Very few houses had parking and if they did it was usually well hidden. The roads are narrow and the predominant vistas are of nature, greenery, and flowers, and people walking or biking...or sitting on porches.

Before the automobile, Chautauquans arrived by steamboat and rail

Adapting a Holly Whyte Quote, Chautauqua is built on a set of basics which is why its Social Life flourishes. Here are Chautauqua's "basics:"

Today' vision: A sign expressing views held by most

Streets for people

This is one place that we can't "start with the sidewalks" because there aren't that many of them. People walk, ride, and jog in the streets, and the few vehicles there are must drive 12 MPH.

This is a typical street

The Main Square

The heart of Chautauqua is a square called Bestor Plaza. Flanked by the post office, bookstore, public library, coffee shop, stores, and administrative offices, the square is full of impromptu social interactions. There's a market on Tuesday, kids play in the fountain, and people sit and socialize in this very special place.


The variety of porches is astounding. Almost every building has a porch and nearly all were were heavily used, many with dining.

The entire place is about tightly knit together small houses with the vast majority set back only about 10 feet from the streets. So it's hard not to say hello to passersby and the porches themselves are full of people reading, chatting, and eating. There are actually many different kinds of porches.

The grandest porch of all is the historic Atheneum Hotel.
Steve, Fred, and Kathy enjoy the morning sun on the porch at the Atheneum Hotel

Open Porches

Open porches are often at grade with no railings and have a feeling of flowing into adjacent streets.

Corner Porches

We love the way houses on corners take advantage of having frontage – and porches – on intersecting streets.

Two story Porches

If a one-story porch is good, a two-story porch is even better! While the second-floor porches are more private, they still create a connection to the street life beneath them

Favorite Porch

We love this porch that extends on three sides of the house and on two levels. Can't have too many porches!

Three Level Porches

Many historic Chautauqua buildings were built as rooming houses, where accommodations were inexpensive and every floor had a porch. These rooming houses are now apartments and condos. Some private homes have three story porches as well, especially those with lake views.

Art and Amenities

Everywhere we went, Kathy (who has a very keen eye for this kind of thing) pointed out special elements and amenities that property owners and others put out for public use and display.

Steve put this bench in front of his house. It gives people a place to stop to have a rest or wait for a bus.

Many Dogs and at least one Cat

Dogs and cats are social curious and social as well.

Inside-Outside Events

One great thing about Chautauqua is how private events often take place in open public view. Street performers, often students Chautauqua's music school, abound.

Performance/Discussion Venues

The "beating heart" of Chautauqua is a 4000-seat amphitheater. Every day there is morning religious services, a lecture by notable speakers at 10:45 am, afternoon open rehearsals, and an evening concert. The "Amp" is a reconstruction of the original which dated back to 1883 and was sadly demolished and replaced with a replica which opened in 2017. The new Amp maintains the historic openness to public view and enjoyment even if you are just walking by.

Friends pause for a conversation after an event in the Amp


Chautauqua would not be Chautauqua without the lake. It's a popular place to walk along – as well as boat and swim – but the anchor is the park around the historic bell tower.

A private gathering for fun and dance at the bell tower.
A cafe by the bell tower

Historical Images

Historic Bell Tower and Landing
The Chautauqua Book Store and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of six presidents who gave talks at Chautauqua

Additional Notes: What it Means to American Culture

"Chautauqua is part of the American Imagination. It is one of those places that help define who we are and what we believe in. It has its own mythic force. "David McCullough, 1973

"Chautauqua is to be a center for the identification and development of the best in human be a resource for the enriched understanding of the opportunities and obligations of community, family and personal life by fostering the sharing of varied cultural, educational, religious and recreational experience."


It is the easiest place to meet people where any conversation is easy to have and easy to start.

Children roam do adults. People find themselves just wandering to see what is happening.

Very few people were on their cell phones

David Brooks, the prominent syndicated columnist, and a frequent speaker there, recently wrote a column, Why Your Social Life is Not what it should Be

Places that reflect a Similar Magic

Back on Brooklyn, part of our family live in a muse built in 1876. It evokes a similar sense of place that we found at Chautauqua.

Balboa park in San Diego was built in 1868 as a Spanish Colonial Revival destination.

The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities.

If you are interested in collaborating (articles, presentations, exhibits, projects, and more) or supporting the cause contact us.

Share this post
The link has been copied!

Get the free newsletter

We highlight what makes public spaces thrive, drawing from communities around the world.