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Wrecking Chautauqua: Board Votes to Demolish Amp

Last Saturday the Board of Trustees of the Chautauqua Institution voted to proceed with accepting bids to demolish the historic Amphitheater (the Amp), which has sat at the heart of the venerable institution for more than 120 years, so they can build a new theater in its place.  The Board has decided that the historic resort town on the banks of  Chautauqua Lake is out dated and old-fashioned. There announcement of the vote can be found here.  They have decided that Chautauqua’s history is less important than their desire to have a state of the art theater.  Oh but don’t worry, it will be designed to mimic the historical characteristics of the actual historic Amp. It is obvious by this action that the Board, the group entrusted with managing one of the most beautiful and most historic places in the country, has no clue about what makes Chautauqua special.  This is very sad.

Following is a statement in response to this demolition vote from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

This decision is regrettable and begins the path to demolishing an irreplaceable piece of American history and a crown jewel of the Chautauqua community. Despite evidence that the building is sound and that alternatives to demolition do exist, the Chautauqua Institution’s Board of Trustees chose to disregard the findings and recommendations of the historic preservation panel they created, the expertise of a structural engineer they hired, and the wishes held by so many in the community they serve. Preservation of the Amp and robust programming can and should co-exist at Chautauqua.

The Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater has been fighting against the proposed demolition for more that a year now.  Their efforts have included proactively developing reasonable alternatives to demolition. Last winter when the Board delayed voting on demolition, it seemed like the Committee might prevail.  Now, it appears as if the delay was nothing more than a way to buy time for a pro demolition public relations campaign.  The Institution has refused to work with the Committee, but the Committee is not going away.  Following is their letter to the Chautauqua community and to those who understand the importance of this piece of American heritage.

Dear Chautauquans and Friends of Chautauqua,

With Saturday’s vote by the Chautauqua Board of Trustees to proceed with bidding for plans to tear down the Amphitheater and replace it with a replica, we will continue working to save this vital part of Chautauqua’s history.

The Institution has announced that it will make a final decision in November, once the true costs are known. In 2012, the cost was estimated at no more than $20 million. That cost has nearly doubled since original estimates, and that doesn’t include repairs to damaged properties which Chairman Jim Pardo recently promised property owners is the responsibility of the Institution.

The more than 10,000 supporters from across the United States believe that the Institution’s plan is wrong and unnecessary and are offended by the public relations effort that has masqueraded as “dialogue” this summer. Instead of an informed decision based on sincere and transparent discussions – one that honestly considered fact-based analysis from preservation, engineering and architectural experts – Chautauquans heard canned, one-sided presentations three times a week aimed at continuing to ‘sell’ the administration’s plan.

Given everything we have seen and learned over the past four years, it is clear the Institution had its mind made up from the start and never intended to explore the Amp’s genuine historic rehabilitation. It invited, then ignored, public comment. It commissioned a variety of structural and engineering reports, only to shelve them when they disagreed with their preferred outcome. Under pressure, they agreed to consider alternative designs from a preservation architect that would address their concerns, only to deny them access to the materials they needed to do their job.

But that only fuels our determination to explore all options to effect a more appropriate solution. Until the wrecking ball hits the Amp’s wood and metal, we will continue working with the community, armed with the advisory and structural reports that the Institution itself commissioned.

Understand that preservationists are not opposed to change. We recognize that historic structures like the Amp must evolve with the times. But we profoundly disagree when the change being proposed destroys the entire structure and replaces it, as Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger says, with “a mediocre and banal attempt to copy the Amp in the most superficial way.”

So we will continue to engage in a civil discourse in order to preserve this living link to our history. It’s the only way we can unify our community, uphold the legacy of Chautauqua and restore our national treasure for present and future generations.

Stay tuned!


The Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater


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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