Share this article

print logo

National campaign launched to save Chautauqua Amphitheater

The nation’s foremost preservation organization announced Tuesday in Buffalo that it is launching a campaign to save the Chautauqua Amphitheater.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the 1893 Amphitheater a National Treasure – a designation the organization seldom uses – to emphasize the building’s precarious future and national importance.

Chautauqua’s board of trustees had announced last year it would demolish most of the structure at the conclusion of this summer’s session to build a modern replica in its place. But after a mounting uproar – including more than 2,100 online signatures and charges of a lack of transparency – the institution announced Jan. 20 that it will revisit its decision in August. Many became upset after the project morphed from a “rehabilitation” into a demolition without the public’s knowledge.

“There are many significant cultural historic sites in America, but there is only one original Chautauqua Amphitheater,” Stephanie K. Meeks, the National Trust’s president and CEO, said at a news conference in Kleinhans Music Hall. She was joined by representatives of the Preservation League of New York State and Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

Meeks said she was pleased by Chautauqua’s announcement postponing its decision, and encouraged its leaders to “embrace the value of the authentic building as a starting point for a renewed dialogue.”

“Any plan to demolish or significantly alter the Amp would destroy the heart of Chautauqua, and compromise the historic character that Chautauquans and visitors from around the world value. It would also threaten the National Historic Landmark status of this nationally significant place,” Meeks said.

Meeks noted that upgrades have been made to theaters and stadiums while retaining their authenticity, and said that could be the case in Chautauqua, too, if the leadership so chooses.

“I really think of Chautauqua as being so progressive, and the proposal they put forward is not in keeping with the standard that I believe, and people across the country and internationally, attribute to the Chautauqua Institution.”

Peter T. Flynn, co-chairman of the board of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, said the organization stands ready to help develop an alternative plan for the amphitheater’s long-term future.

“Once a building like the Amp is lost, it can never be replaced,” Flynn said.

The long list of luminaries who have appeared there for more than a century include William Jennings Bryan, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Marian Anderson, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“We had the opportunity to advise the institution during the early Amp planning process, but somewhere along the line, the preservation values that were set for this project got lost,” said Jay DiLorenzo, president of the Preservation League of New York State, in urging Chautauqua’s board to reconsider preservation-based solutions for retooling the structure.

Brian J. Berg, chairman of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, which has organized opposition to the demolition, said he was encouraged that a better solution for the amphitheater’s future may lie ahead. Doing so, he said, was important for Chautauqua and the nation.

“Like Faneuil Hall and Independence Hall, the Amp has been at the center of American ideas and discourse for more than 120 years, and our country would be far poorer for losing this cathedral of culture and history,” he said

Walter Rittman, who has lived in Chautauqua for his 58 years and now lives there year-round, said he drove to Buffalo to voice his concern.

“To a Chautauquan, its a gut punch to hear what was touted for years as a renovation turns out to be a demolition. It’s kind of puzzling to me why some place like Chautauqua would even consider this in the context of what Chautauqua is all about. It’s beyond shortsighted,” Rittman said.

Thomas M. Becker, president of Chautauqua Institution, said in a statement that he appreciated the National Trust’s concern for the amphitheater, reiterating the board of trustees’ plans to lead community discussions in the summer over the amphitheater’s fate.

However, CJS Architects, a firm Becker met with at the request of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, said the institution’s insistence that it sign a confidentiality and nondisclosure statement was a nonstarter. The firm is working pro bono to find an alternative approach that could also address modernization concerns of the institution. Becker, in a Dec. 2 open letter to Chautauquans, expressed “openness to any timely insight they could offer.”

“They sent us a do-not-disclose agreement when we asked for the drawings, and we just could not sign it because we essentially couldn’t show anybody anything, except them,” said CJS’s Robert E. Stark. The agreement specifically mentioned not showing plans to Berg, the group’s chairman.

“We’ve never had this experience before. These were terms we could not possibly agree to,” Stark said.