Future of New York's Chautauqua amphitheater sparks divide

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Posted: May 31, 2015 11:08 AM
Future of New York's Chautauqua amphitheater sparks divide

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. (AP) — It's a 122-year-old stage that has played host to soaring speeches, debates and musical performances from such luminaries as Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy and Duke Ellington.

But the biggest debate now at the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater is whether to go ahead with a plan to demolish and rebuild the open-air venue affectionately known as "the Amp."

Administrators say a reconstruction is necessary for the viability of the institution — and they note there have been so many fixes over the years that little of the hall's original construction remains anyway. But preservationists say there must be a better way than a complete rebuild.

"The Amphitheater has always been the centerpiece, the beating heart if you want to call it that" of the not-for-profit intellectual and arts retreat, said Brian Berg, a summer resident who leads a group, Savetheamp.org, that this year secured a "National Treasure" designation for the hall in its fight against demolition.

Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which conferred the designation, said demolishing the Amp "would tear at the heart of Chautauqua and compromise the historic character that many Chautauquans and visitors from around the country deeply value."

The dispute has cast an uncharacteristic air of conflict around the gated enclave that comes alive as a bastion of enlightenment and learning for nine weeks each year.

In response, leaders postponed a planned February vote on the project and now say they will spend the summer seeking public comment, answering questions and examining options with the hope of having a resolution by August.

The Chautauqua Institution in the rural southwest corner of New York sits on the shore of Chautauqua Lake amid the region's plentiful vineyards and wineries. Its walking community of Victorian homes, cafes and shops is tucked amid lush gardens, with the open-air Amphitheater, a rustic roofed bowl, serving as the primary gathering place.

Many of each season's 100 lecturers speak there around weekly themes (this year's schedule examines irrationality, 21st-century literacies, the Middle East, immigration and other current affairs), with the institution's symphony and visiting musicians, dancers and operas also taking turns in its spotlight.

It was where President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his "I hate war" speech in 1936, where Susan B. Anthony spoke out to give women the right to vote, author Salman Rushdie discussed the world's religions and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall shared her research. John Philip Sousa, Ella Fitzgerald, the Neville Brothers, Tony Bennett and scores of other musicians have performed there.

But the Amp is showing its age. The steeply pitched concrete aisles separating the painted wood bench seating are off limits to wheelchairs and don't meet today's building codes. The columns bearing the concave wooden ceiling have slipped and leaned over time.

The institution's board in 2011 approached the $30 million upgrade as a "historic rehabilitation," chief marketing officer George Murphy said. But when engineers in August determined the roof would need major structural work, the project no longer met federal guidelines for the designation and the project was reclassified as a reconstruction.

Critics say the board was secretive about the shift and has ignored expert recommendations they have offered. Chautauqua leaders point to public meetings that were covered by the institution's newspaper and a 3-D model of the proposed structure that was displayed in the library for two years.

Said Berg: "How do you take your kids and say, this is where your grandmother saw Marian Anderson or Bobby Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor? That would all come to an end with what they plan to do."

Institution officials say the plans all along have been to preserve the charm and sense of community of the current space — only with an added orchestra pit, more comfortable seating, improved sight lines and dressing rooms worthy of their guests. The location would remain the same and much of the current design re-created with materials repurposed where possible.

"You're going to sit here and feel the same way, and that was always the intent," Murphy said. Even though the space feels historic, he estimated that only about 10 percent of the materials are original. The Amp's roof and wooden benches have been replaced over the years and the stage enlarged.

But Berg counters that the Amp is still the original. "Replicas are reserved for Las Vegas," he said.

In May, a newly convened advisory panel of experts in architecture and historic preservation met for the first time at the recommendation of National Park Service representatives who spent two days in March inspecting the grounds. The institution also has enlisted a structural engineer familiar with historic buildings to re-assess the current structure's long-term stability.

With weekly public sessions planned through the season, the goal is that the board can reach a consensus and vote at the end of August to approve a design. Construction would take place over nine months beginning at the end of the 2016 season.