Point Chautauqua’s Grand Hotel

The years when the Fenton Mansion was built and when the Fenton family lived here, the late 19th century, were known then and since as the Victorian era, stemming ultimately from the influence of Queen Victoria. The British Empire, of which she was queen, was the largest and most powerful empire that had ever existed. Although the queen had almost no actual legal or political power, her influence, mediated through respect and tradition, was enormous. It radiated down through the British aristocracy and from there to the entire English nation, the British empire, and ultimately the world, very much including the United States of America with its rapidly growing industrial, economic, intellectual, and military attainments.

The British were riding the crest of the industrial revolution, which fueled their wealth and power and bestowed on them resources unprecedented in all of world history. Today we hear mainly about the evils of exploitive capitalism, colonialism, racism and rapacious environmental heedlessness, but the larger truth seen from the time was that quite suddenly levels of comfort, security, prosperity, health, culture and opportunity beyond the dreams of their ancestors were opening up for ever larger segments of the populations of England and other industrializing countries.

Queen Victoria and large segments of the British elites had an attitude perhaps just as unprecedented as the Industrial Revolution itself, that the new boons, blessings, and benefits should somehow be directed to the betterment of all people, and also to all areas of human endeavor: arts and culture, science and learning, morals and civilization. The hollow shell that is left of Victorian attitudes today still structures much of how we see and categorize the world and ourselves.

The English and we Americans had the resources and the determination to take ideas from others and develop them in a more organized and democratic, or at least a more popular way. Landscape architecture is a perfect example of this. What had been a frivolous luxury for the French royalty and then the English aristocracy was transformed into a Victorian discipline loaded with notions of its effects on public health and moral improvement. Fredrick Law Olmstead, born 191 years ago today, was the leading American landscape architect of the era and very much a believer in the benefits of landscape for body and soul.

Olmstead is chiefly noted as the co-designer of New York City’s Central Park and closer to home, as the father of the Buffalo park system.

In 1876, with Methodist-backed Chautauqua Institution experiencing enviable success, the Baptists planned to create their own institution across the lake at Point Chautauqua where they determined to include everything good that Chautauqua lacked, starting with the best in landscape architecture, designed by the master himself, Olmstead. Ground was broken for the streets on today’s date in 1876. Congressman Walter Sessions from Panama, one of Chautauqua County’s most colorful and under appreciated characters, was the first president of the Point Chautauqua Association. Despite the modified Olmstead ground plan, the energetic personality and extensive connections of Walter Sessions, and the earnest intent and prayers of numerous devout clergy, the Baptist institution faltered and ended in bankruptcy.

By 1885 organized religion was supplanted at Point Chautauqua, and the colony forged ahead on a secular road.

The Grand Hotel, completed in 1880, was the chief attraction. Despite its size, elegance and reputation, it lost money every season. On the night of Oct.17, 1902, the well-insured hotel burned to the ground, a victim of arson.

Our featured item this week is one of the less familiar photos of the Grand Hotel. Another view of it graces the cover of Helen Ebersole’s book, “Chautauqua Lake Hotels,” available in our gift shop.

The mastermind of the arson was one of the owners, James Crate, a wealthy 70-year-old Buffalo lumber dealer who died a few months later.

But the actual perpetrators were a Jamestown couple: Crate’s paramour, a beautiful married woman with nerves of steel in her late 30s, Laura Allen, and her articulate and versatile black male accomplice. All this made saleable newspaper copy but must have been tragically dispiriting to the optimistic Victorian enthusiasts of moral progress and the ennobling effects of landscape architecture as well as to the Baptists who had hoped to glorify God and encourage the best in man.

The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County’s history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.

Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.

If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.