4 Ways to Explore Colorado's Chautauqua Boulder's Cultural Gem
Pretty much everyone knew what “chautauqua” meant when Boulder’s Colorado Chautauqua opened in 1898, but the word stumps people today – most would be hard pressed to spell or even pronounce it (“shuh-TAH-kwuh,” in case you were curious).
The Chautauqua movement swept the country at the dawn of the 20th century. Named after the founding location along Chautauqua Lake in New York, chautauquas were idyllic retreats where average people could spend the summer listening to scholars, attending concerts and plays, and taking courses on great books. William Jennings Bryan and other renowned lecturers traveled the Chautauqua circuit, visiting temporary chautauquas in tents and permanent chautauquas, like the one in Boulder.
The Colorado Chautauqua began as a summer school for Texas teachers who wanted to escape to a cooler mountain climate. Some 4,000 teachers were slated to arrive for opening day, July 4, 1898, but as May rolled around there was still one minor problem: Colorado Chautauqua didn’t exist yet. Workers rushed to build the Chautauqua Auditorium in May 1898, completing the huge wooden structure in just 54 days. Although the Texas teachers have long since found other things to do in the summer, the hastily erected building has stood for 119 years and counting.
The Chautauqua Auditorium might look like an old-fashioned barn, but it has the acoustics of a giant violin. The walls are made of a single layer of wooden boards. Few concert halls are constructed in such a way – and few concert halls sound quite so beautiful. Waves of sound resonate inside this big wooden box just as they do inside the wooden body of a violin.
The Chautauqua Dining Hall was built at the same time as the auditorium, originally serving as a cafeteria for summer residents. Today it is open as a year-round restaurant, run by the same people who operate the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. Guests dine on the expansive covered porches on warm days and sit in front of the fireplace for traditional afternoon tea when it’s colder outside.
That these and other historic buildings on the grounds have been preserved is remarkable. Of the 3,000 chautauquas founded in the movement’s heyday a century ago, the Colorado Chautauqua is one of only three to have remained in continuous operation with its original buildings.
As grand as the architecture of the auditorium is, Chautauqua’s most beautiful architecture was designed by Mother Nature. Outdoor exploration has been a part of Chautauqua since its inception; the Flatirons used to be known as the Chautauqua Slabs, as Chautauquans created many of the first hiking trails there.
The Chautauqua Trailhead is Boulder’s favorite jumping-off point for adventures into the open space that joins Chautauqua to the mountains. From the trailhead, hikers can take an easy stroll through a meadow, climb to the top of the Flatirons or trek all the way south to Eldorado Springs. One of the most impressive hikes goes right under Royal Arch, one of the Front Range’s only natural stone arches.
This being Chautauqua, it’s inevitable that some hikes combine nature and culture. Each summer, performance troupe Arts in the Open guides groups of 32 people up the Enchanted Mesa Trail to the Upper McClintock Trail and down Bluebell Road. The hikers make sure to bring folding camp chairs with them, because they’re not just hikers – they’re an audience. Every so often, the group stumbles upon a scene of a play unfolding. Sometimes the actors emerge from behind rocks and trees; other times, the scene is already in progress as the audience saunters up.
“We have a wonderful backdrop already built in,” said Matt Davis, artistic director of Arts in the Open. “Our lighting is whatever the lighting is that day. If it’s a cloudy day, it’s a little spookier. If it’s sunnier, everyone’s a little sweatier.”
When each scene ends, the actors disappear up the trail. They often take secret cutoffs to keep ahead of the hikers, but they have to move quickly to be ready for the next act, so they get to be in pretty good shape by the end of a play’s run.
The actors also learn to improvise when random dogs decide to join the play – a not infrequent occurrence – or when inclement weather visits their outdoor stage. When a recent production of Alice in Wonderland had to turn back down the trail midway through a performance to flee an approaching lightning storm, the actors stayed in character while hiking with their audience. A 3-year-old girl in the audience looked frightened, Davis said. The actress playing Alice walked over to the girl and said, “Would you like to hold my hand? Because I’m kind of scared, too.” The little girl eagerly took her up on the offer.
For the rest of the story see the May/June 2017 issue of Colorado Life.