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Demolition of the Amphitheater will cost Chautauqua Institution part of its soul

It’s only September, but the American Wrecking Ball Association already has its Man of the Year.

Tom Becker, president of the Chautauqua Institution, will add his name to a grim list of destructionists by unleashing the bulldozers on an irreplaceable icon in the name – as these mindless demolitions always are – of “progress.”

The Becker-guided board of directors voted last week to crush the historic 122-year-old Amphitheater in favor of a $30 million “replica” that conveys none of the charm, sense of place and connection to greatness of the original. It will be less a demolition than a desecration.

Across the country, there is a sense of disbelief that the revered Amp will actually come down – particularly given Chautauqua’s renown as a center of enlightened thinking and lofty ideals.

Communities from Buffalo to Bakersfield have benefitted from the economic, aesthetic and place-defining value of historic buildings. Becker, conversely, is intent on pulverizing the structure where FDR spoke and Marian Anderson sang. The building’s age and grace reflects the generational sweep and philosophical and spiritual quest at the heart of the Institution’s identity.

Maybe they can sell popcorn as the wrecking ball swings.

It’s distressing that someone with such an anti-preservationist sensibility somehow got his hands on the wheel at Chautauqua. The question of how it happened will loom as conspicuously as the eventual hole in the ground where the Amp once stood.

A national Who’s Who of historians, preservationists – from the heavyweight National Trust for Historic Preservation, to renowned architectural critic Paul Goldberger – have virtually begged Becker to cease and desist. Everyone acknowledges that the Amp – with its cramped backstage and posterior-hostile seats – needs updating. A reputable design group fashioned a rehab plan that would drag the Amp’s amenities into the 21st century, while securing its 19th-century character. It’s a cheaper, saner alternative to demolition.

But no.

“It’s strange that the Institution is so intractable, given how feasible it is to adapt and update” the Amp, said Goldberger, arguably the nation’s pre-eminent architectural expert, by phone from Manhattan. “The building is the heart of Chautauqua. It has a combination of gracefulness and funkiness that’s quite magical.”

The magic, barring an official change of heart, disappears after next summer season.

An obvious preservation parallel is Boston’s Fenway Park. The sense of history and character conveyed by the circa-1912 ballpark cannot be bought, replicated or replaced. Plans to demolish it 16 years ago were waylaid by a grass-roots uprising that sparked an enlightened rehabilitation. Fenway was seen for what it is – not an outdated eyesore, but an invaluable asset whose worth appreciates with time.

The Amp deserves the same treatment. More than 10,000 signees on anti-demolition petitions agree. Despite that, the National Historic Landmark will likely soon be history.

Maybe Becker & Co. believe that anger will melt and regrets fade once people walk into a bright, shiny replacement building. But comfortable seats and better sightlines are to my mind no trade-off for authenticity, history and sense of place.

Not much, apparently, can be done to save Chautauqua from the myopia of its leaders. As a private institution, it is beyond the reach of public officials. Becker has the backing of a compliant board. Nearly all of the $30 million cost was in hand before many Chautauquans realized the aim was demolition, not rehabilitation.

As startling as it seems, Chautauqua officials apparently will destroy the retreat’s spiritual center. The place will be diminished without it – both by its physical absence and by the brutish, narrow-minded march that led to its demise. Chautauqua will lose not just a chunk of its history, but a piece of its soul.