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Divide in the Chautauqua community should be enough to halt Amphitheater project

In the end, the task of achieving any goal is, first of all, a matter of defining it. For some majority of the board at the Chautauqua Institution, the goal involving its historic Amphitheater seems to be about programming and, along with that, safety, accessibility and functionality.

It is for those reasons, Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker said, that the board has voted to go ahead with plans for a modern performing arts facility to replace the historic, unique, not especially comfortable Amphitheater.

But goals should be decided by more than a simple majority. They should involve some consensus, especially at a place as revered as the Chautauqua Institution. It seems clear that there is little consensus not just about the Amphitheater, but about the institution, itself. Is its popularity – and its continued success – more about programming or more about the overall experience it offers its users?

Western New Yorkers have learned – or should have learned – painful lessons about the price of demolishing historic structures. The link to precious elements of the past should not be easily cast aside.

That doesn’t mean that every old building needs to be saved or preserved in its precise original configuration. Shea’s Performing Arts Center was preserved, but improved. The Richardson Olmsted Complex, designed by famed architect H.H. Richardson, is being restored but dramatically repurposed.

In those projects, some kind of consensus was achieved. The Chautauqua Amphitheater project seems to have none. It’s a division that could haunt the institution for years and even generations to come.

Sometimes, buildings have a serviceable life. Sometimes, historic ones are replaced by others even more historic (the original Waldorf Astoria Hotel gives way to the Empire State Building). It’s a matter of goals, of clear vision and, in a case such as the Chautauqua Amphitheater, of building a broad-based consensus.

At the institution, there is time to pause, to reconsider the goals, the actions necessary to achieve them and what can be done to preserve a beloved element of an impressive past. Build a consensus, then decide.