By Heidi V. Anderson
Community. Family. Kinship. The 100 or so Chautauqua cottages in Boulder, Colorado, are like family members. Each one has its own personality, but they resemble one another in the way that relatives often do.
Maintained for more than a century, a Chautauqua is a gathering place. It started as way to bring culture–classes, lectures, concerts–to rural communities across the nation. Today the Chautauqua in Boulder, which is one of only a couple remaining Chautauquas in the nation, draws people from around the country who take part in a wide range of cultural events.
That all-important feeling of togetherness is highly evident in the living quarters of Chautauqua residents and guests. The Chautauqua cottages were built to facilitate this sense of community and it is clearly apparent in the architecture.
“There isn’t a single one, with the exception of Gwenthean and the ranger cottage, that is architecturally significant,” says Joan Draper, a professor of architecture at the University of Colorado. “Some of them are little more than huts. But what makes them significant is that they are collectively the site of one of the Chautauquas.
“It has to do with the ensemble, not the individual structures,” she adds. “It has to do with use.”
Colorado a Summer Destination
The cottages were conceived back in the late 1890s. When citizens from around the area, some traveling from as far away as Texas, gathered for the first Chautauqua summer in 1898, most of them stayed in 100 tents on the Chautauqua grounds. Old photographs show visiting dignitaries, dressed in their finest suits and gowns, posing outside small canvas structures perched on wooden platforms.
But it soon became evident that something more substantial needed to be built. The wind made tent living a bit uncomfortable. As a local newsletter stated, not everyone “preferred tenting to living in any house ever built.” The city sought out private builders, and the Boulder City Council enacted an ordinance stating that cottages would be the property of the builders.
And so the first cottages were born. They were barely a step up in size from the tents, and most were simply slapped together. Cottages were board-and-batten, one of the earliest, most basic forms of siding. Rough boards are nailed vertically, and narrower boards (called battens) are then added to cover the spaces between them. They had gable roofs (two pitched roofs that join back to back and make a triangle), a couple of windows, a door, and a porch.
The porch is particularly significant. Not only were they places were people could meet to discuss the day’s events and chat with neighbors strolling by, they doubled as sleeping areas. And, according to Steve Watkins of the Chautauqua Association, they still do. Watkins estimates that nearly half the summer residents sleep on their porches these days. The porches were typically screened in to keep local wildlife, such as skunks and raccoons, at bay.
Why were these cottages so simple? The answer lies in the community values of the time. Chautauqua was intended to be a place where people would be educated about the country’s social experiences and problems. During the day, residents attended speeches at the Assembly, concerts at the auditorium, ladies’ activities at the Woman’s Council. The cottages were meant to be sleeping areas, and sleeping areas only.
It should be noted that a few of the cottages were larger and called “dormitories.” One, a duplex, was rented out to University of Colorado faculty. Another, larger cottage was where the speakers and musicians stayed. Still, the typical cottage was made up of just a few rooms.
Housing Shortages and War
But change came to Chautauqua. During the 1920s, indoor plumbing became popular, and many of the cottages were expanded – to the point where they included a small kitchen and bath. Those cottages built from the late 1920s and later were somewhat bigger, but most were relatively tiny by today’s standards.
At some point, perhaps the ’30s, the Chautauqua Association began building most of the cottages. A significant percentage was privately owned, but the city of Boulder owns the land and leases it to the association, which in turn subleases lots to the private owners.
The next big change came in the 1940s. Up until then, the Chautauqua cottages had been used in the summer only. But the university was experiencing a housing shortage, and some of the cottages began to be winterized. Wall heaters that conformed to the code of that time were put in, and the attics insulated. Even today, 15 or 20 of the private cottages are not used in winter, and they are closed up until the following spring.
The last group of cottages was built or added in the early ’50s, a number moved up from the university. Today, about 40 cottages are privately owned. Sixty are owned by the association.
Some of these cottages have been enlarged over the years. But so many of them resemble the originals that it’s as if you can see the “child” in each “adult” cottage – and in many cases the cottages of today are almost exactly the same as when they were first built.
“There are enough of them that you can walk into the area and get a feeling that it’s 1910,” Watkins says. “The place still looks like it did 50, 60, 70 years ago. That’s what’s neat about it.”
A Collection of Individuals
Still, while all the cottages are related, each has its own personality. Here’s a look at three of the more distinguished members in the family.
The Gwenthean Cottage (#29)
Miss Theodosia Ammons is a well-known name in the Chautauqua circles. A professor of domestic science at Colorado State University and an active participant in women’s suffrage, she became the Principal of the Chautauqua School of Domestic Economy, what we today think of as home economics. She decided it was necessary to build a model cottage for efficient summer living–especially one that made it easy for women.
It contained convenient built-in features, such as a built-in buffet in the dining room. The pantry had two pass-throughs; the cook could pass meals through the opening in the wall rather than having to walk through the house. Although it has been closed over, you can still see one of the pass-throughs from the kitchen onto the porch. The kitchen would get quite hot in the summer, thanks to the wood stove used for cooking, so doors were built to close it off and isolate the heat.
And then there’s the porch. The cottage has a huge porch that extends around three sides – the south, east and north. Canvas curtains rolled down to give porch dwellers a bit of privacy. Catherine Long Gates, a descendant of the family, says that her mother, who was born in 1912, recalls spending a great deal of time on the porch as a child because of the emphasis of fresh air and healthy living. Keep in mind that this would have been around the time of the tuberculosis epidemic. And, she says that the low railing with closely spaced spindles turned the porch into the world’s largest playpen.
“One thing people ask is why the porch didn’t go all the way around the house,” Long says. “I think it’s probably because the focus was so different. People were here to attend all the lectures, not to sit there looking at the view. It reflects a different time.”
The Cantwell Cottage (#6)
If the Gwenthean Cottage was full of thoughtful touches, the spartan Cantwell Cottage is just the opposite. This duplex, which is owned by the association, is basically four rooms with a wall down the middle and a porch on the front. It looks as if it were pieced together from whatever materials the builders could find. The doorjambs are thicker than the walls. The studs are covered up by 1 x 8-foot boards. And some of the other cottages didn’t even go that far; they simply painted the studs.
But this isn’t to say the cottage is without charm. It has original wood floors. The bathroom fixtures, including a claw-foot tub, gives a sense of what it would have been like to summer here decades ago.
The cottage was built in 1902 or 1903, and used by teachers. In fact, many of the Chautauqua residents were teachers. In 1900 the director sponsored a contest, with prizes totaling $250, to the school districts or teacher groups that could build the best vacation cottage. Teachers from the Houston area still vacation at the Houston cottage each summer. One can easily imagine where two or three teachers each would sleep on cots in the back two rooms of the cottages and spend time in the front rooms studying.
Rest Cottage (#401)
This association-owned cottage illustrates the evolution of a Chautauqua cottage. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union established a home for girls in Denver in the mid 1880s, and by the end of the century they wanted a “rest” cottage for temperance workers nearby. In 1899 the Rest Cottage appeared. The union fund-raised for the cottage and it was built for about $250. A single room, it was doubled in size in 1911.
“I’d never seen anything put together like it was,” Watkins says. “Every cottage roof sags some, but this one was way under built. It had a crazy truss system. It looks like when they built it they weren’t planning on it lasting a hundred years.”
It almost didn’t, at least in its original state. When the association bought the cottage in 1961, it spent $20,000 to remodel it. The cottage was turned into a three-bedroom, two-bath structure, and it was winterized as well. But last year, the association spent $110,000 to restore it to the original 1911 look. The main room was left intact, and the 10-foot ceilings, fireplace and other aspects were restored. It can be rented year-round for a short-term lease.
The Rest Cottage isn’t the only one available for rental. If you’re intrigued enough to want to see the cottages first-hand (and spend several nights sleeping on the porches!), you can do so by contacting the Colorado Chautauqua Association at 303.442.3282, ext. 11, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. And you may just want to take in a concert during the summer festival, as well.
Helpful Web sites:
http://chautauqua.com/ (Colorado Chautauqua Association)