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‘Save the Amp’ billboards raise awareness of preservation issue at Chautauqua Institution

People attending the Chautauqua Institution’s nine-week season this summer will be greeted with nearby billboards – and a message intended to stir debate.

Five large outdoor advertisements are going up Monday in Chautauqua County with the message “Save the Amp,” accompanied by an illustration of the 1893 outdoor theater.

“The billboards are designed to raise public awareness of the institution’s unnecessary plan to tear down our national treasure in order to replace it with a replica,” said Brian J. Berg, a leader of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater. “We continue to call on them to explore alternative solutions so that the Amp can be improved while its historic character and integrity are maintained.”

The billboards are being erected near the institution in Mayville, Westfield, Bemus Point and Chautauqua. They are financed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The institution announced in January that it would put on hold plans to start demolition of the amphitheater this year. The stop order followed a public uproar, including criticism from the National Trust.

In March, the National Park Service recommended a structural report on the Amphitheater’s longtime stability. It also recommended an advisory panel to consider future changes, which the institution established last month.

The Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater was not invited to be part of the panel, despite having architects and preservationists among its ranks.

The group drew the ire of Thomas M. Becker, Chautauqua’s president, in late March after it released information about a preliminary architectural plan for renovating the Amphitheater by CJS Architects. The architectural firm has an office in Buffalo and acted as an unpaid adviser to the group.

CJS’s plan appeared to achieve most of the institution’s goals while preserving the structural integrity of the Amphitheater. Dirk Schneider, the lead architect, put the cost to modify the structure at one-third to one-half of the institution’s $30 million price tag to demolish and replace it.

Schneider met with institution representatives in April and said he was told by project architect Marty Serena that the institution wanted the Amphitheater brought up to current building code, which is not a requirement for older buildings.

“That is a death knell for any old structure,” Schneider said. “If that’s the directive, then that’s what you’ll get.”

Recent advertising material by the institution suggests that the leadership hasn’t wavered in support of its plan to tear it down and build a replica.

“Becker, with the acquiescence of the board, has always intended, and still intends, to demolish the Amp and build a replica of it,” Berg said. “All of his interactions, communications and language have been carefully orchestrated, designed and crafted to fend off and marginalize any opposition to his plan, while at the same time make it appear that he is interested in dialogue and the consideration of alternatives to demolition.”

That makes what happens this summer all the more urgent, Berg said.

The National Trust is hoping that its billboards will have an impact.

“As thousands of visitors travel to Chautauqua this summer,” said Alicia Leuba, a National Trust field director. “The billboards will help raise awareness that this could be the last season for the historic Chautauqua Amphitheater.”