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Another Voice: The time for sentiment about the Chautauqua Amphitheater has passed

By Les Buhite

The Chautauqua Institution has always cultivated a tension between progress and sentiment, at once a “new thing in the world” within the trappings of an old-fashioned camp meeting. Though the religious element has largely fallen away, the sentiment remains as strong as ever, as expressed in the outpourings over whether to rebuild or replace the Amphitheater.

To build an entirely new amphitheater or to upgrade and rehabilitate the old one at nearly the same cost, while addressing long-standing issues of comfort, safety, sightlines (those annoying pillars!) and a decaying superstructure. These were the questions facing the Chautauqua Assembly in 1892. The princely sum of $26,000 was budgeted for its replacement – the present Amphitheater, now slated for reconstruction.

A winter after its construction, the blue and white 1893 Amphitheater was falling off its foundations. A scheme to raise the choir loft to provide more room on the speakers’ platform nearly ended in catastrophe. Only by virtue of endless tinkering, stopgap measures and several major overhauls has the Amphitheater remained upright this long. Even the most optimistic of the save-the-Amphitheater contingent admits that substantial reconstruction is required if the Amp is to remain a safe and functional assembly space.

As the institution correctly observes, virtually the only original elements in the Amphitheater are the steel support trusses and wooden beams of the superstructure. These are the things most in need of replacing. The benches have been rebuilt several times, the wooden floor replaced with concrete, the roof redone, bracing, turnbuckles and cribbings added above the ceiling. That historic, indeed hallowed, stage celebrated by lifelong Chautauquans no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. It’s in an uncelebrated Chautauqua landfill.

Faced with a difficult choice, the institution has made the rational decision to replace the Amphitheater, despite the vocal opposition. The Victorian-era steel columns that hold up the place cannot stand much more tinkering. The Fink trusses of the superstructure cannot be made safe by modern building standards.

The spirit, if not the structure, of the Amphitheater remains. No one in living memory recalls the original Chautauqua Amphitheater designed by founder Lewis Miller, much less that Civil War-surplus mess tent that preceded it, nor the original auditorium in Miller Park. All of these have fallen by the wayside, yet Chautauqua has continued. There is a time for sentiment, and a time to move forward. Now is the time to move forward.

Les Buhite, Ph.D., of Lockport, is a 25-year stagehand at Chautauqua Institution and author of “The Chautauqua Lake Camp Meeting and the Chautauqua Institution” (2005 dissertation, Florida State University).