The historic Chautauqua Amphitheater has been granted a reprieve from the wrecking ball for at least a year.
Critics opposed to a demolition that was to have begun this fall sought more transparency from Chautauqua Institution officials. They wanted the entire institution community to weigh in on the site’s future, and to have government preservation officials given a chance to consult on the future of the National Historic Landmark.
On Tuesday, Chautauqua Institution officials agreed to all three requests, saying they will put off a decision on the Amphitheater’s future – including whether to build a replica of the 1893 outdoor theater in its place – until a board of trustees meeting in August.
“Opening the door to a more inclusive and sincere dialogue with all stakeholders is exactly the right thing for Chautauqua Institution to do,” said Brian Berg, a longtime Chautauqua resident and a leader of the ad hoc Committee to Preserve the Historic Amphitheater, which had collected more than 2,100 online signatures on a petition to save the “Amp.”
“This dialogue will spark new ideas and elicit the best thinking, and the end result will be an improved Amphitheater with its historic character and integrity intact,” Berg said.
“This strikes me as a great decision,” said Jonathan Eig, who has taught and spoken at the institution on several occasions, and is the author of “Birth of the Pill” and “The Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.”
“I think everyone is on the same side in this debate, in that they want the Chautauqua Institution to remain the wonderful place that it is, and that means preserving history as well as making the place great for future generations. This is a good first step.”
The privately run sanctuary for learning and contemplation was under increased criticism even as it was preparing to issue construction bids as early as this month, with the start of demolition planned for September following the conclusion of the 2015 season.
Thomas M. Becker, Chautauqua’s president, said the institution will renew discussions with the community this summer on how to proceed, and consult with a preservation expert from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which promulgates standards for National Historic Landmarks.
“Following a detailed review of the project to date, it is clear from the public and private communications going back and forth between the institution and various members of the Chautauqua community that meaningful re-engagement of our various constituencies – especially those who are so passionate in their views, both positive or critical, about the Amp and its future – should occur, especially during the summer season and before we move forward,” Becker said in a statement.
Becker, in a letter to board Chairman James A. Pardo, also called for a review of the project’s design, costs and timelines.
Last year, the board approved remaking the site into a modern $30 million Amphitheater to improve comfort, safety and the overall viewing experience; make load-ins easier for traveling performers setting up for shows; expand seating; create an orchestra pit; improve technology capability; and improve back-of-the-house functions.
However, it continued to call the project a “rehabilitation” – as opposed to a demolition – as late as October, after officials became aware their plans would require extensive demolition. That led critics to say the project had been misrepresented to the public, and that the new information warranted a full airing.
In addition, critics said the institution treated preservation as an afterthought, even if the project, by being privately funded, was not legally obliged to follow government standards for national landmark designations.
Becker said that all design aspects of the project, including historic preservation, “must meet the project’s safety, engineering, sustainability, and long-term programmatic objectives that form the foundation of the project.”
That was the same rationale behind the decision to tear the Amphitheater down and build a modern facility in its place.
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