Photo: House in the Point Chautauqua Historic District [†], Mayville, NY. Listed on National Register of Hstoric Places in 1996; wikipedia username Pubdog, photographer, 2012, [public domain] via wikimedia commons, accessed July, 2023.
The Point Chautauqua Historic District in Chautauqua County, New York is located on a peninsula along the shores of Lake Chautauqua in southwestern New York State. The site is approximately three miles from the village of Mayville. The Point Chautauqua Historic District is a planned resort community that was laid out in 1875 as a Baptist camp meeting to the design of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Within a generation, the religious retreat had evolved into a resort community, which continued to develop in that mode throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The eighty-acre Point Chautauqua Historic District is characterized by its serpentine street system, which ascends the steep wooded slopes of its lakeside site, and its collection of single-family residences from throughout the period of significance.
The Point Chautauqua Historic District occupies a promontory on the northeastern shore of Lake Chautauqua, an eighteen-mile-long, irregularly shaped body of water confined within a deep valley. The hills rise "en echelon" above the lake on either side, displaying the rounded forms typical of this glaciated sector of the Appalachian Plateau. At an elevation of 1,309 feet above sea level, Lake Chautauqua is one of the highest large fresh-water bodies of water in the country. Its waters drain through the Allegheny River into the Ohio-Mississippi system. These natural features have provided the district with a lush, sloping landscape bordering a curving waterfront. The Point Chautauqua Historic District covers a hilly area ascending steeply (105 feet) from the shore of Lake Chautauqua.
The Point Chautauqua Historic District is almost directly across the lake from the grounds of Chautauqua Institution (NHL), with which its shares several thematic associations. New York State Route 430 runs north of Point Chautauqua and provides access to the community via Leet Avenue. Forming an irregular crescent, Leet Avenue intersects Route 430 at two places, providing the Point Chautauqua Historic District with both an upper and a lower entrance. From this semicircular drive, other tributary roadways branch off into the community grounds.
Landscape and Plan
The plan for Point Chautauqua was commissioned by the American Baptist Church, which intended to establish a facility similar to the Methodist camp at Chautauqua Institution, located directly across Chautauqua Lake. In accepting this commission, Olmsted took advantage of the opportunity to incorporate his own ideology, developing an innovative plan that contrasted with the more conventional grid-like layout of the Methodist camp. Although the Point Chautauqua plan included all of the functional features required by the Camp, over and above the needs of the client, Olmsted designed a "summer city" that embodied current ideas about suburban planning. Distinctive features included a design conforming to the natural lay of the land, a reliance on serpentine forms, a gently curving and graduated street plan, the enhancement of views and vistas, the provision of common lands to bring people together, and a careful balance between public and private spaces, formal and informal features and manipulated and natural landforms.
Olmsted placed the public portions of the community — parks, hotels, public buildings, docks and bathhouses — on that part of the land with the gentlest gradient. The residential properties are located on the steeper slopes, where the gradient is as much as 12 to 100. The roads were laid out in such a way that they ascend at a gentle slope seldom greater than 1 to 20. Following the contour of the land, these narrow roadways (only 26 feet wide) roughly parallel each other in their ascent, creating residential blocks that are long, narrow and gently curvilinear. The longest principal streets generally parallel the shoreline; these include Lake, Orchard, Floral, Midland, Lookout, Leet and Diamond Avenues.
The streets and paramecium-shaped residential blocks were laid out exactly as Olmsted planned them. The plan identified 465 small lots, each only one-eighth of an acre. Although Olmsted's lot divisions continue to be followed, from the beginning, property owners generally purchased several lots each. The public spaces, however, never really functioned as Olmsted had intended. While the tabernacle site was laid out according to plan and developed with a large tabernacle building, the Corinthian Grove and Ashmore Park were apparently never developed in accordance with the Olmsted plan. The Ashmore Park site, which was intended as the site for tents, was instead developed with the Grand Hotel. An adjacent, much smaller site to the south, on which Olmsted had planned a more modest hotel, became the lawn of the Grand Hotel. And, although little is known about the early development of the Corinthian Grove, it seems fairly certain that the pavilion designated by Olmsted was never built. The other significant public space was the Strand, an open expanse of lawn along the site's entire waterfront that was intended for public viewing and strolling. This was also the location of the two public docks that served the community, as well as the site of waterfront recreational activity. Although the Strand appears to have originally been used within the community as Olmsted intended, a good portion of it has since been incorporated into private property and is no longer accessible to the public. Thus only a fragment of the Strand still functions according to Olmsted's plan for communal use. This fragment is the sole representative of the public gathering space component that was so important in Olmsted's subdivision planning work.
When Olmsted's original client went bankrupt by 1887, half of the lots remained unsold. The Grand Hotel burned in 1902 and the tabernacle was demolished in 1904. A variety of smaller inns and hotels occupied these sites and other lakefront sites along the Strand through the 1940s. By the late 1960s, all but one inn had been torn down. Bungalows were built on the northern portion of Ashmore Park in the 1920s and 30s, while the southern quarter of the site remains undeveloped and is known as Memorial Park. Elm Park is still identifiable. Fountain Park, with its grove of maples, remains across the street from the original site of the steamer dock. Today the dock site is marked by a community playground, beach and swimming dock. Although some of it is not open to the public, a portion of the Strand survives visually as a green strip of well-maintained lawns, occasional stands of willows or maples and widely scattered shrubs. The waterfront is owned mainly by the Point Chautauqua Land Company, a non-profit organization that serves to keep the lake recreational areas available to residents for swimming and boating. This organization has kept most of the lakefront free of buildings and permanent docks.
Olmsted's only explicit recommendation for landscaping specified tree platings on the fill side of the road. The trees species now found in the Point Chautauqua Historic District include a majority of those extant in 1875, such as maple, sycamore, wild cherry, oak, pine, spruce and butternut. Wild ferns strawberries, iris and forget-me-nots can also be found.
The intact historic street plan includes eleven principal streets. These are Lake, Diamond, Orchard, Terrace, Floral, Midland, Zepher, Lookout, Emerald, Groveland and Leet Avenues. Each of these streets retains its location, form, shape and scale as planned by Olmsted in 1875. According to correspondence, Olmsted was hired specifically to plan the street layout. The streets were designed with gracefully curved lines, generous spaces and the absence of sharp corners. The idea was to suggest and imply leisure, contemplativeness and happy tranquility. Despite the many changes in the community over the years, including the loss of its public spaces to growth and changing function, the street plan and the individual street forms remain almost entirely intact. This aspect of integrity is reinforced by the high concentration of historic buildings that characterize individual streets.
There are two streets in the Point Chautauqua Historic District that were not designed by Olmsted but are the result of the re-development of the tabernacle. Corinthian Grove and Ashmore Park sites. These are Maple and Elm Avenues. They were designed in the spirit of the Olmsted plan and do not detract from the district.
The community has experienced three specific development eras: 1) its Baptist beginnings (1876-1887), 2) its grand hotel resort period (1887-1904) and 3) its twentieth-century resort era (1904-1940). The district's historic architecture represents all three periods. Today, other than one remaining inn, the Point Chautauqua Historic District is composed entirely of residential properties. With only two exceptions, the buildings are of wood-frame construction. Although the residences were constructed over a span of 150 years, they form a homogenous collection of eclectically styled, vernacular designs. Other than a few residences that boast the distinctive characteristics of one specific style, most of the residences embody features derived from two or more styles, for example, the Carpenter Gothic and the Craftsman.
The Carpenter Gothic style is represented by approximately thirty residences located throughout the Point Chautauqua Historic District, with the heaviest concentration in the area away from the lake. This style distinguishes the oldest buildings in the Point Chautauqua Historic District, many dating from the community's Baptist beginnings. Most of these are two and one-half story wood-frame buildings with asymmetrical forms and eclectic embellishments in the Queen Anne, Stick or Gothic modes. The residences at 6128 Zephyr and 5475 Emerald are good examples of the Carpenter Gothic, while the house at 5497 Emerald, distinguished by its elaborately carved vergeboards, is one of the finest examples of this style in the Point Chautauqua Historic District. The residence at 6079 Orchard Avenue is especially distinguished by a steep gable roof and narrow width; its form is reminiscent of the "tents" typical of the Bible camp. Houses at 5384 Lake Avenue and 6095 Floral Avenue exhibit the finest wrap-around porches in the district. Many of these buildings have exposed basements, providing them with higher vantage points from which to view the lake.
The Craftsman style includes approximately eighteen residences, five of which are Craftsman Bungalows. These houses are scattered throughout the Point Chautauqua Historic District with a heavy concentration near the lake on Diamond and Lake Avenues. A number of buildings in this style are also found inland on Groveland and Maple Avenues, on the site originally occupied by the Grand Hotel. The larger Craftsman style residences are typically one and one-half or two-story wood-frame buildings with full-width recessed porches and dormers. Two of the best examples are at 5997 Diamond and 6007 Diamond. The house at 5981 Diamond Avenue, a rather eclectic example of the Craftsman style, is one of the largest houses in the Point Chautauqua Historic District and includes a garage with an eyebrow dormer. The house at 6192 Terrace Avenue, with its full-width trellised porch supported by circular tapered columns, is one of the best examples of this style. The smaller Bungalows were generally built as summer cottages and are distinguished by one or one and one-half story forms with hipped roofs, centered-gable dormers and recessed porches. The best example can be found at 5984 Maple.
There are several houses that are excellent examples of specific styles. The house at 6199 Lookout Avenue is the district's only example of a stucco-clad Tudor style residence. The stately house at 6118 Midland Avenue is the only example of a brick residence, as well as the sole example of a Colonial Revival style building. There are two excellent examples of the Gothic Revival at 5463 Emerald and 5392 Lake, one outstanding example of the Queen Anne at 6073 Orchard and one superb example of the Stick style at 6120 Floral Avenue. The house at 5454 Lake is an unusual example of the Gothic Revival, with paired end gables, decorative vergeboards and a cut-out balustrade. It is also the only two-family residence in the Point Chautauqua Historic District, built for brothers.
The Point Chautauqua Historic District is significant for its long and varied history as a summer community on Lake Chautauqua. Initially developed (1876) as a Baptist camp meeting ground in the tradition of nearby Chautauqua Institution (and numerous other examples across the state), Point Chautauqua quickly evolved into a summer resort community and has remained a viable and popular resort in western New York for over a century.
In the first phase of its history, Point Chautauqua was one of numerous Bible camps that developed around the lake in the wake of the success enjoyed by Chautauqua Institution. All of these camps can be seen as an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening, a nineteenth-century movement of religious and spiritual revivalism that had an enormous impact on many aspects of American religious and social life. Although the majority of the camp meetings were organized by Methodists, Point Chautauqua is distinctive as the only surviving resource that represents a Baptist meeting in New York State. Like many of the camp meetings, Point Chautauqua's religious phase was rather short-lived; however, the history of that period is represented in the district by remnants of its original plan and a number of its buildings.
Subsequent to the camp meeting era, Point Chautauqua became a popular resort, adding hotels and inns, commercial and recreational features. During this period, which extended from 1887 to 1940, the community served as a popular vacation spot for a wide region, aided by excellent transportation systems linking it to the cities of Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland. The resort continued to evolve, becoming, by the mid-twentieth century, a community of private, single-family vacation cottages rather than one featuring the large hotels that characterized the early resort era. Despite its history of change, the Point Chautauqua Historic District is characterized by its continuity of recreational function, intact setting, numerous features of its original plan and a homogenous collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century cottages that illustrate the various popular styles of the period.
Point Chautauqua is also significant under criterion C in the area of community planning for its street plan, laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. in 1876. Olmsted's original design for the Point Chautauqua campground, his only commission for a religious organization, is a product of the early phase of his career and was completed shortly after the design of Riverside, Illinois, his first planned residential subdivision. Like Riverside, Point Chautauqua represented an opportunity for Olmsted to test his ideas about suburban planning. As originally developed, Point Chautauqua illustrated a number of Olmsted's firmly held principals, including a design conforming to the natural lay of the land, a reliance on serpentine forms, a gently curving and graduated street plan, the enhancement of views and vistas, the provision of common lands to bring people together and a careful balance between public and private spaces, formal and informal features and manipulated and natural landforms.
As Point Chautauqua continued to evolve throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, certain elements of the Olmsted plan were altered. The most significant change was the loss the community's major public gathering spaces. Because this key element of Olmsted's design has been lost, the plan of Point Chautauqua as a whole no longer retains integrity as an example of an Olmsted subdivision plan or as the work of a master. However, the community's hillside site, orientation to the lake and the street plan remain substantially intact and illustrate important principals of mid-nineteenth century suburban design. In particular, the street plan, with its small scale and serpentine pattern, is a particularly rare and significant feature not often preserved to this degree in other resources of this type.
By the end of the 1950s, Point Chautauqua had sunk to its lowest ebb. Property values deteriorated and the land company was forced to sell off some of its holdings, including the golf course. Other parcels, including the tabernacle site, were given over to pay debts. Several houses stood empty and others could be had for a few thousand dollars. The low property values, however, proved to be a positive attraction for some newcomers. By the 1960s, Point Chautauqua had been revitalized as a residential vacation community.
Point Chautauqua's long-time residents took many steps to renew the community. They undertook a beautification program, clearing and trimming vegetation on the public lands, planting and maintaining flower beds in the triangular plots that marked some road intersections, and constructing tennis courts at Memorial Park (the lower portion of the Ashmore Park site). The community organization reorganized itself, taking the founding organization's name, the Point Chautauqua Association. A board of governors, elected from the membership, now oversees community affairs throughout the year.
Today there are over ninety residents in the community, many of whom remain year-round, and every house is occupied. A committee of the Point Chautauqua Association, the Point Chautauqua Historic Preservation Committee, has incorporated itself as the Point Chautauqua Historical Preservation Society and has been instrumental in efforts to preserve the community's history.
The Point Chautauqua Historic District is an excellent example of a planned religious community that survived the vagaries of a changing society to become a viable vacation community. Its many changes are typical of those experienced by many nineteenth-century planned residential communities. It is especially distinguished by its intact, Olmsted-designed street plan and its many contributing buildings.
Letter from Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. to Rev. J.H. Miller, Secretary, Point Chautauqua Association, February 28, 1876.
Albert Fein, Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Environmental Tradition, (New York: George Braziller, 1972): 2.
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Dorsey, Leslie and Devine, Janice. Fare Thee Well: A Backward Glance at Two Centuries of American Hostelries, Fashionable Spas and Seaside Resorts. New York: Crown, 1964.
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Fein, Albert. Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Environmental Tradition. New York: Braziller, 1972.
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Fishman, Robert. Urban Utopias in the 20th Century. Cambridge: MIT P, 1977.
Graff, M.M. Central Park and Prospect Park: A New Perspective. New York: Greensward, 1985.
Jacox, Helene P., Kleinhans, Eugene B, Jr. and Malo, Paul. Thousand Island Park: One Hundred Years and Then Some. Thousand Island Park: Valhalla, 1975.
Hall, Lee. Olmsted's America: An "Unpractical Man and Him Vision of Civilization. Boston: Bulfinch, 1995.
Morrison, Theodore. Chautauqua: A Center of Education, Religion and the Arts in America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.
Mumford, Lewis. The City in History. New York: Harcourt, 1961.
Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr. and Kimball, Theodora, eds. Frederick Law Olmsted. Landscape Architect, 1822-1903. New York: Bloom, 1970.
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Stevenson, Elizabeth. Park-Maker: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
Sutton, S.B., ed. A Selection of Frederick Law Olmsted's Writings on City Landscapes. Cambridge: MIT P, 1971.
Sweet, W.W. Revivalism in America: Its Origin, Growth and Decline. New York: Scribner, 1944.
Weisberger, B.A. They Gathered at the River: The Story of the Great Revivalists and Their Impact on Religion in America. Boston: Little, 1958.
Weiss, Ellen. City in the Woods: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting on Martha's Vineyard. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Young, Andrew. History of Chautauqua County. Buffalo: Matthews, 1875.
Journals and Brochures
"Annual Gathering of the Point Chautauqua Baptist Union." Chautauqua Assembly Herald 10 August 1881.
"Baptists Founded Point Chautauqua." Post-Journal 12 August 1978: 6.
Olmsted, Frederick Law. "Riverside, Illinois: A Residential Neighborhood Designed Over Sixty Years Ago." Selections from the papers of Olmsted and Vaux. Landscape Architecture 21 (July 1931); 256-291.
Point Chautauqua Centennial Issue. (newsletter) August 1975.
"Point Chautauqua." Buffalo Daily Courier 31 July 1876: 2.
"Point Chautauqua." Jamestown Daily Herald n.d.
"Walter L. Sessions." Jamestown Daily Herald 8 August 1877.
Ward, Sylvanus. "Point Chautauqua." Westfield Republican 4 June 1876.
Primary Source Material and Manuscripts
Allen, Everett. "Notes to Accompany Photograph Album of Point Chautauqua." 18 August 1985. Copy on file at Chautauqua County Historical Society, Westfield, New York.
Campagna, Barbara A. "Development of New York State's Resorts: Recreation, Recuperation, Relaxation and Religion." Historic Preservation Planning Alumni, Inc. Conference. Cornell University. Ithaca, January 1991.
Leet, Ernest D. "Point Chautauqua, Its Early History and Present Status of its Roads and Highways." 15 May 1957.
Olmsted, Frederick Law. Correspondence relating to the preparation of the plan for Point Chautauqua. 1875-1876. Photocopies of 104 pieces of correspondence on file at Point Chautauqua Historical Preservation Society.
Point Chautauqua Historical Preservation Society. "Frederick Law Olmsted's Point Chautauqua: The Story of an Historic Lakeside Community." Draft application for National Register listing. September 1994.
Point Chautauqua, New York. Point Chautauqua Historical Society. Postcard collection.
Tennant, M.D. "Point Chautauqua Notes." Memo to F.L. Olmsted. n.d.
Corian Drive • Diamond Avenue • Elm Avenue • Floral Avenue • Lake Avenue • Leet Avenue • Lookout Avenue • Maple Avenue • Midland Avenue • Orchard Avenue • Shore Drive • Zephyr Avenue