Chautauqua `cottage' revives a tradition

Historic: A Garrett County couple have revived an old house and with it a tradition that entertained and educated millions of Americans.

October 20, 2002|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOUNTAIN LAKE PARK - After running a children's summer camp in Garrett County for nearly 20 years and living there year-round, you would think Fred and Nancy Learey would decide to take it easy. But instead the couple decided to renovate and expand a historic cottage not far from the camp.

"That was hard work and a lot of responsibility," Fred Learey said about running Camp Minnetoska. "We reached the point where it was time to do something different."

The Leareys knew they wanted to stay in the area after selling the camp. Nancy Learey, who worked as a guidance counselor at Southern Middle School in Garrett County at the time, said there were only two houses she would live in - both in the area.

When one of the houses went on the market, the couple immediately put in a contract for the asking price and beat out two other offers to get the house of their dreams.

The house, known as Clayton Cottage, dates to about 1882. It was one of the first houses constructed in Mountain Lake Park, a former Chautauqua summer community of the late 1800s near Deep Creek Lake and Oakland. The community is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The cottage is named for U.A. Clayton, a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad official, the earliest owner on record, according to the Leareys.

The word "cottage" is deceiving, with the original house coming in at a spacious 2,500 square feet.

The home sits on a 1.5-acre lot on a hillside above the Mountain Lake Park Town Hall, whose clay tennis courts are used in one of the oldest tennis tournaments in Maryland, the Western Maryland Tennis Championship.

Although the Leareys made some renovations shortly after they moved into the house in 1992, the real transformation of the residence occurred in 1996 with the completion of a 3,500-square-foot addition.

The outside of Clayton Cottage is striking. Its style is believed to be a cross between Victorian and missionary Gothic, with elaborate church window frames and suspended crosses on the gables.

The siding, shingles and peaked roofs add to the cottage's beauty as does a partly enclosed porch in the front of the home.

The addition contains a lavish music room and library and is connected to a carriage house that contains a two-car garage. A large, sunny atrium was also built to unite the new section with the original house.

The addition was designed specifically to blend in easily with the old part of the house, both inside and out. "I didn't want the addition to look like a chunk we added to a lovely house," said Nancy Learey. "We felt an obligation to maintain the integrity of the house and area."

The couple has since purchased, renovated and sold two other historic houses nearby.

"They are such warm and charming houses," she added. "They are just beautiful homes and have been let go into disrepair and it's sad to see. They seem to be crying out to you to fix them. This is a neat house. We love it and we share it."

In sharing the house, the Leareys say they are continuing the Chautauqua traditions that made Mountain Lake Park such a popular summer destination in the late 1880s and early 1900s.

Chautauqua refers to the Chautauqua Institution in Upstate New York founded in 1874 by Lewis Miller, an inventor and manufacturer, and John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister who later became a bishop.

The Methodist institution's religious lectures and educational programs turned Chautauqua, N.Y., into a popular summer resort and helped found the national Chautauqua movement. By 1900, more than 400 sites across the country were offering similar educational programs in the summer.

In 1881 a group of prominent Methodists purchased 800 acres to develop Mountain Lake Park as a summer village devoted to religious and other Chautauqua-type programs, according to Once Upon A Mountaintop, a history of the area by Mary I. Love.

The Chautauqua programs were focused on mental and spiritual development with restrictions on gambling, drinking and even dancing.

Mountain Lake Park caught on quickly, becoming a stop for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the summer months.

A year after its founding, Mountain Lake Park boasted an assembly hall and a number of cottages - including Clayton Cottage, all built to accommodate extended families, Love wrote.

Streams were dammed to form the lake that gave the community its name. Hotels were built and soon tennis courts, ball fields and a bowling alley were part of the resort town.

An amphitheater built in 1899 was used for concerts, lectures and other programs through 1941. It seated 5,000 people and the stage accommodated 450.

"These were summer cottages that no one intended to live in year-round," said Fred Learey. "They came up in the summer and attended the Chautauqua events and in the winter they would close them up. Once the automobile became popular and the trains stopped running, then people started winterizing the houses."

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