For a brief period in the early 1900s, a bustling grab-and-go café served locals and visitors on a small patch of land sandwiched between the historic Chautauqua Dining Hall and the General Store in West Boulder.
Now, that freestanding porch café is back for the first time, and modeled after the original.
Following six months of construction, the nonprofit Colorado Chautauqua Association (CCA) opened the café in its original location on July 3, 2022. The following day, Colorado Chautauqua — part of the historic nationwide movement of educational camps — turned 124 years old.
With funding from the State Historical Fund and the City of Boulder Landmarks Board, the CCA — which runs Colorado Chautauqua — reconstructed the Chautauqua Café based on old photographs. It was able to recreate the open-air porch pavilion as seating for the General Store’s café. And though the food isn’t quite the same as it was more than a century ago, the experience is meant to be: Customers can grab coffee, ice cream, salads and sandwiches from inside the General Store and take it “to go” and enjoy on the new porch.
“We tried to reconstruct what was there 120 years ago as closely as possible,” Jeff Medanich, Colorado Chautauqua’s director of preservation and sustainability, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
The 19th century origins of Colorado Chautauqua and its tented deck
Part intellectual salon and part educational summer camp, chautauquas were a national rage starting in the late 1800s. (Chautauqua, an Iroquois word loosely meaning “a bag tied in the middle,” is said to describe the shape of a New York lake where the movement started.)
Though roughly 12,000 communities had hosted a chautauqua by the height of the social and educational movement around 1915, only a handful have continually operated since then. Boulder’s is among them.
In early 1898, the City of Boulder bought nearly 80 acres of ranch that would serve as the location for the Colorado Chautauqua, which opened later that year. The first visitors (around a thousand of them a day) milled about the academic hall and dining hall, taking in lectures and performances at the auditorium and turning in at night in the more than 350 tents around the property.
Today, the CCA rents 26 of those acres from the city for Colorado Chautauqua’s buildings and 61 rental cottages. The remaining acres are used for the Chautauqua Park and playground, tennis courts, and the area surrounding Chautauqua’s trails.
During Colorado Chautauqua’s first year, organizers were desperate for more seating to satisfy hungry visitors. So in 1899, they built a tented deck beside the Chautauqua Dining Hall as a casual sister establishment to its more formal sit-down restaurant.
With the deck came new menu options: grab-and-go coffee, cold meats and short orders like easy breakfast food and burgers.
From piecing together archival photographs, it is believed that the café deck was demolished around 1905.
“They then got rid of it, for some reason,” said Liza Purvis, director of marketing and communications at Colorado Chautauqua. Purvis suggested it may have been because of the dining hall’s addition of a wraparound porch in 1900, which rendered the café’s overflow seating useless.
Making an 1899 structure ‘wind-proof, waterproof, fire-proof and sustainable’
Medanich said he first heard rumblings about rebuilding the café when he joined Colorado Chautauqua in 2008. And while the talk never stopped, the project gained serious momentum with the CCA during the early days of Covid-19, when there was increasing need for outdoor dining.
Medanich and his co-workers began discussing how to replicate the original structure with as little environmental footprint as possible, while adhering to building codes and climate concerns that weren’t on anyone’s radar when the café was first built.
“How do you create an 1899 structure and make it wind-proof, waterproof, fire-proof and sustainable?” Purvis said, channeling those initial conversations.
The CCA figured it out with help of several local companies, including Pel-Ona Architects & Urbanists, the consulting engineering firm JVA, and contractor Smiley Construction.
They decided to build the deck with ipe, a sustainable Brazilian hardwood that is naturally resistant to insects and rot because of its hardness, which doesn’t require additional treatments or chemicals for upkeep. Ipe’s density contributes to the café’s one-hour fire rating, given to structures that can withstand fire exposure for at least an hour.
The café’s combination of steel tresses and wooden ones embedded with steel plates protects the structure from heavy winds and the weight of Boulder’s seasonal snow. Its canvas roof, the same material as the original café’s, resists rain water, offering the community a place to have a cup of coffee in any weather, among old-fashioned hanging incandescent light bulbs, wooden chairs and tables.
“It’s timeless,” Purvis said. “It could be modern, it could be from 100 years ago.” In a way, it’s both, she said.
Colorado Chautauqua plans to host musical performances on the café porch and rent it out occasionally for private events. Every other Tuesday, the café hosts free Tales By the Trails story time with local storyteller Judy Volc.
At one of the first reading sessions on the café porch, Purvis said, some parents hung out for hours with their coffees, bouncing back and forth between the pavilion and the playground. “It fills their day,” Purvis said of the tented porch and surrounding gardens “and offers shade, which young families are definitely looking for in Boulder in the summer.”
The Chautauqua Café inside the General Store at 100 Clematis Drive, and its new porch next door, are open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday (9 a.m.-6 p.m.); Tuesday (10 a.m.-4 p.m.); and Friday, Saturday and Sunday (9 a.m.-7:30 p.m.).