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Board votes to replace Amphitheater

August 30, 2015
By MARGOT RUSSELL - Special to the OBSERVER , Observer Today

CHAUTAUQUA - In what may arguably be the most momentous decision in the history of Chautauqua Institution, the board of trustees voted Saturday to forge ahead with a $30 million plan to replace the 122 year-old Amphitheater, which has been the centerpiece of the cultural enclave since 1893.

The decision was announced at a press conference Saturday afternoon that was closed to the public. And while no formal announcement was planned, hundreds of Chautauquans gathered outside the Smith Library on the grounds of the institution awaiting news on the fate of the open-air venue.

Many of the onlookers erupted into applause when institution president Thomas Becker emerged from the press conference and gave an emotional speech on the steps of the library announcing the board's decision.

Article Photos

Photo by Margot Russell
Brian Berg of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Amphitheater addresses the press following the board’s decision Saturday.

"I'm really proud of the people who have worked on this project," Becker said, "those who have approved of the design and those who have been passionately opposed to the design. I think all of you bring a genuine love and concern for this institution," adding "I think this is one of the biggest steps we've taken in a very long time, maybe since 1892."

But the pronouncement by the 24-member board may not put to rest a contentious debate over the fate of the "Amp," a controversy that moved beyond the gates of the Institution and spilled over into newspapers and other forums across the United States.

Administrators maintain that plans for the new amphitheater embrace the future of the institution, with the addition of a new orchestra pit, improved accessibility, expanded seating, and more performance space. The structural integrity of the theater is also a concern, say administrators, who cite significant safety issues.

But critics and preservationists, including the Committee to Save the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, believed those issues could be addressed while leaving the venue's historic integrity intact. They favored renovation over reconstruction and pointed to the institution's own Architectural and Land Use Regulations which discourage demolition on the grounds of the institution.

Saturday's decision may have sealed the fate of the theater, whose structure was described by one architect as "summer, expressed in wood and steel," and by another as being a "great wooden tent." Opponents of the new plan point to the venue's storied history, where Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his "I Hate War" speech, and where scores of other luminaries like jazz legends Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald graced the stage.

The venue was seen by generations of Chautauquans and visitors as the physical expression of the Institution's ideals, lacking formality while at the same time boasting a simple grandeur. Few could argue that the Amphitheater was in need of attention, but when it became apparent that the reconstruction plans would involve demolition rather than renovation, concerned Chautauquans formed the CPA to bring into focus the administration's plans, and several preservation organizations stepped up to signal their alarm at the proposed plans for complete reconstruction.

In January 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that it had conferred the Amphitheater National Treasure designation as part of a program that works to preserve historic buildings, although administrators called the Trust's announcement "little more than grandstanding for the media."

Institution leaders point to the ongoing conservation efforts at the Amp, where, over a century, most of its parts were repaired or replaced, so that little of the original construction remains. Today's Amphitheater is a blend of history and structure which opponents contend is irreplaceable, while leaders say what matters most is seeing Chautauqua as a "place," and a destination that will carry the same familiar ambiance when the renewal of the Amp is complete.

Leaders at the institution said Saturday the decision to replace the Amp involved an intensive process that included information and study from outside historic preservation experts and the opinions from the greater community in the form of weekly panel discussions and tours during this season's nine-week summer session. But opponents claim that the forums were "one-sided" and that the entire discovery process lacked transparency.

Following the board's announcement, Brian Berg from the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater held a press conference next to the Amphitheater, and vowed to continue efforts to stop demolition of the venue.

"It's been clear they never intended to explore any other options other than demolition," he said. "They can call it renewal, they can call it reconstruction, but let's call it what it is: 'demolition.' With our more than 10,000 supporters across the country, we will continue to engage and explore all options to preserve this living link to our history."

Leaders say the process of renewing the Amp originally focused on preservation, but it became evident over time that nearly everything in the structure would have to be replaced to meet their goals of safety, respect for the audience and the performers and the sustainability of the venue.

A preservation committee appointed by institution leaders favored renovation, but added that if the Amp was to be torn down, something new should be created and not something that attempts to mimic the original structure.

Leaders contend that their goal in rebuilding the Amp is to reference its history. "We think it is crucial that we show respect for the Amp's history of place and purpose while retaining its essential feel."

The board will consider bids on the project at their November meeting, with a goal to select a contractor who will get preliminary work underway this year. Construction is slated to begin in the fall of 2016 after the summer session has ended.

A grand opening is planned for the 2017 summer session.


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