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Architect’s qualifications cited in dispute over Chautauqua Amphitheater

Critics of a plan to tear down the 1893 Chautauqua Amphitheater and build a replica are raising questions about the qualifications and selection process of the architect overseeing the project.

Martin J. Serena, a principal with Serena Sturm Architects in Chicago, was chosen despite lacking a background in historic preservation and without the institution’s soliciting proposals from other architects for a project of national significance.

Serena, who specializes in environmentally sustainable design, was chosen while leading the institution’s Amphitheater Study Group, which was given the responsibility of developing recommendations to modernize the open-air National Historic Landmark.

The architect also designed a home on the grounds for Joseph S. Kanfer, chief executive officer of GOJO Industries and a major donor of the project.

Kanfer told The Buffalo News that he gave “a seven-figure gift” for renovating the amphitheater, declining to provide the exact amount. He also said he played no role in the selection of Serena.

“He did a great job on my property, and he was introduced to the people at the institution because they saw his work,” Kanfer said. “There was never a discussion with me about whether he would be the architect or not. The choice was completely independent of me.”

Critics of the project say the selection of Serena helped torpedo efforts to preserve the historic building from the start.

“It is difficult to understand why the institution – whose own Amphitheater Study Group told them they had a ‘moral obligation’ to follow the secretary of interior’s guidelines for rehabilitation – would turn to a Chicago architect with little or no experience involving entertainment venues and historic structures,” said Brian J. Berg, a member of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater.

“If the process had been an open and sincere one from the start, we would not be in the situation we’re in today.”

Jane A. Gross, a Chautauqua resident, said she has had little confidence in how the project has been conducted from the start.

“I do not believe that this administration is the right group of people to competently oversee and execute a project of this size,” said Gross, a benefactor of the arts.

The institution declined to speak with The News after first asking for and receiving written questions.

“We are now in-season and extremely busy,” George Murphy, Chautauqua vice president and chief marketing officer, said in an email. “… We are also in the middle of a process concerning the Amp, and there will be no comments to any press requests until the process is completed. I expect this to be in late July or early August.”

The advisory panel is studying the amphitheater’s future, using results of a new structural engineering report. President Thomas M. Becker, who called off the wrecking ball in January following a public outcry, is expected to recommend demolition again in August, when the board of trustees plans to vote on the issue.

Steven J. Carmina, a partner with Carmina Wood Morris, said the building does not need to be demolished.

“All of the structural problems with this building can be solved, from everything I’ve read and from what people have said. The building is restorable,” Carmina said.

“The challenges are creating some of the modern conveniences that go along with this type of performance facility, and those problems are not insurmountable.”

The project would have been better off starting with an architect who worked on historic buildings, Carmina said. His firm’s local restoration projects include Hotel @ the Lafayette, Webb Lofts and Bethune Lofts.

“When you’re not a historic architect with a historic appreciation or bent, you tend to look at things more generically. I think that may be what’s going on here,” Carmina said.

Calls to Serena were not returned.

CJS Architects has developed a preliminary plan for the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, suggesting most of the administration’s goals could be realized while still retaining the amphitheater’s integrity, and at a considerably cheaper cost than the current $30 million price tag.

Kanfer, the major donor, said he thought too much attention had been on preserving the Amphitheater when substantial changes were long overdue. “The bottom line for me is the amphitheater is no longer functional. The world changes, and I think the amphitheater has to change,” Kanfer said.

But Kanfer said he had not closed the door on preserving the amphitheater if Chautauqua’s leaders were convinced needed changes could occur in the present facility.

“If preservation can be done in a way that maintains the function of the institution, I think that’s great,” Kanfer said.

Chautauqua’s plans have been sharply criticized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and local and regional preservation groups.

email: msommer@buffnews.com