The endangered Chautauqua Amphitheater can be preserved and still meet current needs through some construction work and low-tech approaches.
That’s the conclusion of CJS Architects, which shared with The Buffalo News on Wednesday its preliminary plan to renovate the Amphitheater.
The firm said its alternative plan meets most of the goals advanced by Thomas M. Becker, president of Chautauqua Institution, and the board of trustees.
“I think we have shown that if you think a little bit outside of the box, there are easy ways you can make something happen,” architect Dirk Schneider said.
Last year, the board approved remaking the site into a modern $30 million replica of the Amphitheater. Critics, however, complained the project had been misrepresented to the public, saying the board’s plan was more of a demolition project than rehabilitation.
CJS, with offices in Buffalo and Rochester, has acted as an unpaid advisor to the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, which spearheaded opposition to the institution’s plan.
Following the public uproar, Becker announced on Jan. 20 that he was postponing a decision on what to do with the 1893 outdoor theater until August. A public statement released by Becker on Dec. 2 – hours after his first and only meeting with Schneider – expressed “openness to any timely insight they could offer.”
Becker had planned to meet with the preservation committee later this month in Chicago. Design and preservation professionals were expected to review the CJS plan.
But now that meeting is in doubt as Becker expressed anger over the release of the preliminary plan to The News before he saw it.
“I see no reason at this time to meet with you, and I have asked our communications firm to discontinue its work in setting up that meeting,” Becker wrote in a letter Wednesday to the preservation group.
“We cannot expect a frank discussion and have all participants open to compromise when we must worry about point-scoring reports in the press.”

Saving history

Critics of the institution’s plan include New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and more than 10,000 people who signed petitions calling for an alternative to demolition.
“These are the first alternative design ideas presented to the institution’s plan to tear down the Amp and build a replica,” said Alicia Berg, a committee member. “They illustrate what quite possibly can be done to make the historic Amp and the Chautauqua program sustainable for generations to come.”
The estimated cost to modify the Amphitheater would be one-third to one-half of the $30 million the institution said is needed, Schneider said. The most invasive aspects call for digging an orchestra pit and rebuilding the back of the Amphitheater.
Architecture critic Paul Goldberger welcomed the alternative plan.
“I’m 99.9 percent sure most of what the Chautauqua Institution wants can be achieved without demolishing the existing amphitheater, and starting all over again,” said Goldberger, who formerly wrote for the New York Times and the New Yorker.
“The Amphitheater is sort of a miracle, because it is simultaneously both casual and grand, and kind of funky, and that itself is the essence of Chautauqua,” he said.
Among those who have spoken there are Franklin D. Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall, Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.

The alternative plan

Schneider called the circumstances in which the alternative plan was developed less than ideal.
The firm relied on field measurements and documents posted on the Chautauqua Amphitheater website. Becker denied access to existing drawings, studies and archival material unless the firm agreed to share the information only with Chautauqua Institution, Schneider said.
An institution official, however, said the institution only wanted to see the drawings before their release to the public.
“We couldn’t agree and it kind of went silent,” said George Murphy, the institution’s vice president.
Schneider said he remains hopeful the institution – known for transparency and public debate – will consider the plan.
The preliminary alternative plan calls for:
• Increasing seating by more than twice as much as the institution’s plan while leaving the shape and depth of the bowl intact.
This would be accomplished by adding fixed seats in upper level corners, temporary seats along the perimeter and the choir section and through collapsible grandstand sections.
• Stabilizing the roof rather than tearing it down.
“The existing steel columns are not plumb, so that needs to happen no matter what,” Schneider said.
• Extending the roof line with retractable awning systems.
“Awnings are part of Chautauqua’s flair,” Schneider said.
• Adding an orchestra pit while maintaining the existing stage level and size.
• Expanding the back of the house.
The 1984 structure that wraps around the back of the building would be replaced by a less-boxy design than shown in the current plan.
• Retaining the iconic Peter’s Bridge, now targeted for removal.
• Safeguarding aisles by adding steps with more space between them than in the institution’s plan. Handrails and LED lighting would also be added to the aisles.
In addition, the preliminary plan would phase in construction over two or three years, reducing the risk of losing a season.
“They are saying they will do everything in one off-season,” Schneider said. “If there are any surprises once the Amp is torn down – another winter like this, or any delay in a delivery of a critical item – they’re in trouble.”
The plan also calls for keeping the pillars. The institution sought to remove them because they partially obstruct views.
CJS found 96 percent of attendees have clear sightlines of an individual speaker on stage, and nearly 80 percent can see the entire stage during large performances. Reducing the number of columns by half would only result in 9 percent fewer people needing to move their heads to see, Schneider said.
Instead, they place monitors on the pillars.
“Most of our solutions are reversible and adaptable,” Schneider said.