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Chautauqua Board to Hold Amp Demolition Vote Saturday

For about a year now, the Chautauqua Institution has been roiled in a debate over the future of the historic Chautauqua Amphitheater (the Amp). The Institution’s board of directors, with its architect, developed a plan to have the Amp demolished  to make way for a biggie sized replica of the historic old performance pavilion.   They had been describing the project as a rehabilitation, until a group of concerned citizens called attention to the true nature of the work and mounted a public campaign to stop the planned demolition. The Jamestown Post Journal began publishing stories about the extensive nature of the so-called rehabilitation as early as July 2014, but references to rehabilitation where not removed from the Institution web site until October of that year.

As public pressure against demolition mounted, the board tabled its earlier vote to proceed with the replica and then set a new vote for this Saturday, August 29th.  The vote will be held in secret. The stated purpose for postponing the vote was so that the Institution could step back and assess their options.  As part of that assessment the Institution hired a structural engineer to do a detailed examination of the existing building. Apparently this was not done before determining that demolition was the only option.  The institution also assembled a panel of preservation and historic architecture experts to prepare a report to, “…specifically assist it in continuing to identify the Amphitheater’s significant character-defining qualities and offer recommendations to support the Institution’s intention for the Amphitheater project design to retain the historical vibrancy and significant character-defining qualities of the Amphitheater’s place and purpose.“ It is important to note that nowhere in this description of the committee scope does it say, “Identify important elements of the Amp and determine how they can be saved”  In fact, the Institution has proceeded with a carefully worded campaign of publications, statements, and public events, which appear to be designed as a sales pitch for the proposed demolition project.

Fortunately for the Amp, the structural engineers and the historic review committee were not part of the “demolition is the only option” campaign.

The structural engineer’s report does not propose demolition as a solution to correct any any structural problems.  The full report can be found here.  It states that the building structure was found to be basically sound during  summer (non snow) conditions, but exhibits some over stressing in some locations under certain winter conditions.  The engineers state that this problem can be corrected with temporary winter cross bracing and that a permanent year round correction can be made with moderate interventions, which strengthen columns and truss connections.

The Historic Preservation Panel, as well, does not appear to support demolition.  The full report can be found here. In the second paragraph the committee says: A building or site is historic if it represents a significant aspect of American history and if it retains the physical qualities that illustrate that history. A resource must have a tangible association with the past and it must be able to illustrate its significant theme. It must be “the real thing.”

They go on to say: Buildings that do not change often do not survive. However, if a building is so changed that its history can no longer be understood, it is no longer historic. Likewise, if a large percentage of a building is new, it is no longer historic – it has lost its authenticity. A replica can never be historic because it has lost its association with the long chain of events over time that connects a building to the past. You can build a reproduction of the house you grew up in but it will never be your home.

On the subject of rehabilitation the committee says: From a historic preservation perspective, rehabilitation means to preserve or repair a building for continuing or compatible use. In a rehabilitation, building materials and character defining features are protected, but features that have deteriorated over time can be repaired or replaced with compatible new materials. The removal or alteration of historic materials, features and spaces should be avoided. Rehabilitations should be limited and sensitive in nature and the key is to repair rather than replace and to replace in kind when necessary. Changes that create a false sense of historical development should be avoided

The committee concluded with a set of six recommendations for preserving the Amp.  Recommendation three contained an observation and criticism of the Institution as stewards of an important American historic landmark: …What is more difficult to address are the institution’s goals aimed at increasing the audience capacity of the amphitheater and changing its historic use so significantly that the current stage, orchestra, and choir spaces would no longer suffice. Some of these issues might be addressed with a newly designed back of house (see below), but it was clear to the panel that for the institution, the desired programming for the amphitheater and need for greater capacity have superseded the desire to rehabilitate the structure. This is, of course, an organizational decision that the board and the staff are free to make. However, given our roles as professionals who care deeply about our shared historic places, we are concerned that as a steward of a nationally significant place, the institution’s commitment to historic preservation is not clear and unambiguous…

Amp images are courtesy of Anthony James


Add your voice of concern.  Help save this important piece of American heritage by contacting the Board of the Institution at  Tell them to got no on demolition.  Tell them to vote yes on saving our connection to the past.



Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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