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Chautauqua Amphitheater called ‘endangered’ by national preservation group

The Chautauqua Amphitheater has been named one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” by the country’s pre-eminent historic preservation organization.

The announcement by the National Trust for Historic Preservation comes as Chautauqua Institution’s leaders pursue a controversial plan to replace the open-air theater with a modern replica. It also was timed for the start of Chautauqua Institution’s 2015 season, which begins Saturday.

“The story of the Amp is the story of America’s political, cultural and spiritual identity,” said Stephanie Meeks, the National Trust’s president. “For well over a hundred years, it has occupied a special place in American culture, and we believe a solution can be found to ensure that it stands for the next hundred years.”

A spokesman for the institution disagreed with the National Trust’s conclusion.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed about being placed on that list,” George Murphy said. “We have been working quite closely with the National Park Service, which gave us the National Historic Landmark designation. We have set up a panel with six preservationists looking at ‘character-defining qualities,’ as was recommended to us, that can be in the final design.”

Murphy said the institution also followed the Park Service’s advice to have a structural engineering analysis, and the panel is poring over the results.

“We continue to feel we are working with the people who gave us the historic status we have, have a good process and will keep following it. The trust will go down their path, and we will go down our path.”

Demolition planned for later this year was postponed in January after a public outcry. The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation was among those who asked Chautauqua’s leaders to stave off demolition. But the state lacked the authority to force the institution to change its plans, since the project is being funded with private dollars.

The institution’s board of trustees is planning to vote on the issue in August.

In January, the National Trust gave the amphitheater – which has hosted historic figures ranging from William Jennings Bryan, Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall and Robert F. Kennedy – its seldom-used “national treasure” designation to bring added attention to its threatened status. The preservation organization also paid for five billboards mounted near the institution that went up June 8 with the message “Save the Amp.”

More than 250 sites have been on the “most endangered” list in the National Trust’s 28-year history and only a handful of the buildings have been torn down, the organization said. Others on the 2015 list include Little Havana in Miami, the Grand Canyon, South Street Seaport in New York City and the Old U.S. Mint in San Francisco.

Chautauqua leaders say a new, modern amphitheater is needed to improve comfort, safety and the overall viewing experience; make load-ins of equipment easier; expand seating; create an orchestra pit; allow better use of technology; and improve back-of-the-house functions, including updated dressing rooms.

Critics of the plan agree that some modifications are necessary, but feel they can be done within the existing structure. They point to incremental improvements that have been done in the past, and renovations in historic theaters, meeting halls and stadiums across the country.

A preliminary plan this spring by CJS Architects, a firm with offices in Buffalo and Rochester, concluded the administration’s goals could be met while preserving the amphitheater’s authenticity through low-tech approaches and some construction work. CJS is an unpaid adviser to the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, a group committed to saving the structure.

CJS principal architect Dirk Schneider said the upgrades could be done for one-third to one-half of the $30 million price tag necessary to demolish the current structure and build a new one.

Paul Goldberger, the former architecture critic at the New York Times and the New Yorker and now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, told The Buffalo News that the institution needs to take a more serious look at preserving the amphitheater, and the CJS study was a good place to start.

“The CJS study didn’t answer everything, and there wasn’t a guarantee that every bit of it was practical because it wasn’t based on a full understanding of the existing building and state of things,” Goldberger said, noting that the firm lacked access to all of the information it needed. “But I find it very encouraging. I would hope they would use it as a starting point for a more serious dialogue.”

Richard H. Miller Jr., great-great-grandson of Chautauqua Institution co-founder Lewis Miller, said he, too, is hoping the leadership will change its mind about the amphitheater’s future.

“This is really the soul of Chautauqua,” said Miller, who has been there every summer of his 53 years. “This is a very emotional situation and there are so many things that are wrong with this, including not wanting to make preservation the paramount goal.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com