Chautauqua Institution: A Model for Life-Long Learning

By Donna K. Keesling

Founded in 1874 as a summer assembly to train Sunday school teachers, Chautauqua Institution evolved into an active community based on four founding pillars: the arts, education, religion, and recreation. Nearly 150 years later, the Institution continues to operate based on a “time-tested model for lifelong learning.”[1]

The cofounders of the Chautauqua Institution, Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, met through the ministry of the Methodist church – a Protestant Christian denomination. Miller was the superintendent of Sunday schools in Akron, Ohio and Vincent was a Methodist minister. The two men developed a two-week religious education training course to better equip Sunday school teachers. Because they believed it was “impossible to understand religious truth so long as it remained set apart from a general understanding of the world,” their program included the study of science, literature, and the arts.[2] Miller suggested property that had been acquired by the Methodist Episcopal church along the shore of Chautauqua Lake as the location for their course. The first gathering, called the Chautauqua Assembly, was held there on August 4, 1874.[3]

The organization was originally known as the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly. Shortly after its founding, the scope of the organization expanded to include academic subjects, music, art, and physical education. By 1880, Chautauqua had established itself as a “national forum for open discussion of public issues, international relations, literature, and science.”[4] In 1902, the organization was renamed the Chautauqua Institution.

The Chautauqua Institution campus, known as the Grounds, encompasses 750 acres on Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State. One hundred and seven of the buildings on the Grounds, including the Athenaeum Hotel built in 1881, are owned by the Institution.

During the first Chautauqua Assembly in 1874, there were more than one hundred tents serving as accommodations for attendees. They met in an outdoor auditorium and obtained their meals at a dining tent. Eventually, cottages replaced the tents and additional buildings were constructed for various purposes. When it was first established, Chautauqua had all the conveniences of a large town including a hotel, grocery store, post office, newspaper office, and municipal services including water, power, and sewage.[5] The Grounds also included rooming houses to accommodate summer visitors.

Visitors could travel to Chautauqua from Mayville or Jamestown via one of the steamboats that operated on Chautauqua Lake. Passengers disembarked from the steamers at the Pier Building at the Fair Point boat landing. The building included a waiting room, ticket and baggage offices, shops, a promenade, and a veranda. The building was razed in 1916 after it became too difficult to maintain. Visitors had other methods of transportation to Chautauqua and the Pier Building was no longer needed.

Beginning in 1904, the Chautauqua Traction Company operated trolley cars on the west side of the lake. In 1907, the company built the Chautauqua Traction Station, later called the Main Gate Building, as an entry depot for visitors. Today visitors still use the Main Gate Building to enter the Grounds.

The Chautauqua Amphitheater was built in 1893. In 1907, the Hart Massey Foundation donated the Massey Memorial Organ which was installed in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. To this day, it is the largest outdoor organ in the world.[6] In September 2016, the original Amphitheater was demolished despite an effort led by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to prevent the destruction of the National Historic Landmark. The Institution built a new Amphitheater on the same site with improved accessibility among other modern features.

The Miller Bell Tower was built in 1911 as a memorial to Lewis Miller, one of the Chautauqua Assembly’s cofounders. The 75-foot tall tower has a brick exterior and tile roof. Lighted clocks are mounted on all four sides. There are fourteen bells in the tower. In 1885, a 10-bell chime cast by the Clinton H. Meneely Co, of Troy, New York, was put in place on Fair Point and later moved to the Pier Building when it was erected in 1886. These bells were then moved to the Miller Bell Tower when it was constructed. The Bryant bell, purchased in 1878 and named for the American poet William Cullen Bryant, is also in the Miller Bell Tower along with three bells that were added in the late 1960s.

Chautauqua Institution has hosted many famous speakers, including several US Presidents. President Ulysses S. Grant was the featured speaker at the second Chautauqua Assembly in 1875. President Grant had been one of John Heyl Vincent’s parishioners at his church in Galena, Illinois. His visit drew national attention to Chautauqua and set a precedent for future presidents, many of whom have visited the Grounds. In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech that has come to be known as his “I Hate War” speech. Other early visitors and speakers of note included Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Amelia Earhart, Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Music has always played an important part in the summer assembly season at Chautauqua. In the early years, there was a Chautauqua Choir and a Chautauqua Band. The Chautauqua Opera Company was founded in 1929 and is the oldest continuously producing summer opera company in the United States. George Gershwin spent the summer of 1925 in one of the practice shacks on the Grounds composing his Concerto in F.[7] Visiting performing artists included the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1967 and Duke Ellington in 1972. Contemporary artists continue to grace the stage at the Amphitheater.

In 1878, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) was formed as a four-year guided reading program. The program was a home-study based course that provided members with “an opportunity to acquire the basic knowledge and skills of a college graduate by reading in their spare time.”[8] Upon completion of the program, graduates were invited to participate in a CLSC Recognition Day ceremony on the Chautauqua Grounds and receive a certificate of completion. The CLSC continues today, providing members with an opportunity to read books of literary value and hear the authors speak.

Currently, the summer season at Chautauqua, known as the Summer Assembly, begins in late June and runs through the end of August. Each week, speakers and events are focused on a specific societal topic theme. Themes of the 2022 summer season include “The Future of History” and “The Vote and Democracy.” There is also a separate weekly theme for an interfaith lecture series. During the Summer Assembly, approximately 7,500 people are in residence on any day. According to the Chautauqua Institution’s website, more than 100,000 people attend publicly scheduled events each year.[9]

The Chautauqua Institution’s mission statement best describes how the founders’ vision continues to this day: “Chautauqua is dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life through a program that explores the important religious, social and political issues of our times; stimulates provocative, thoughtful involvement of individuals and families in creative response to such issues; and promotes excellence and creativity in the appreciation, performance and teaching of the arts.”[10]

[1] 150 Forward: The Strategic Plan for Chautauqua Institution 2019 – 2028, Chautauqua Institution, 2019, 8.

[2] Jonathan David Schmitz and William Flanders, Chautauqua Institution (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011), 10.

[3] Kathleen Crocker and Jane Currie, Chautauqua Institution: 1874 – 1974 (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2001), 9.

[4] “About.” (Chautauqua Institution),

[5] Crocker, Chautauqua Institution: 1874 – 1974, 10.

[6] Schmitz, Chautauqua Institution, 16.

[7] Theodore Morrison, Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 130.

[8] Schmitz, Chautauqua Institution, 8.

[9] “About.” (Chautauqua Institution),

[10] “About.” (Chautauqua Institution),