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The indispensable value of authenticity: Chautauqua Amphitheater connects us to our extraordinary past

Late afternoon sunlight bounces off nearby pastel cottages and slips under the raised roof, illuminating rows of benches with a pink and gold as only a Western New York sunset can. The warmth of summer is gone, along with the bustling hum of an audience seeking to enrich its mind and lift its spirit. This day it’s a placid, peaceful space. Yet even without the sounds of a scientist speaking, a cellist playing or a poet reading, sitting alone in the Amphitheater at Chautauqua, I knew exactly where I was: a place where American history has been made, and the American experience improved.

The Amphitheater’s fate appears now sealed with the Chautauqua Institution’s decision to demolish and replace it with a more modern structure. That in mind, I visited it on a recent autumn day and tucked into the fourth row, some 20 feet from the platform where Nobel laureates have preached, American presidents pondered and renowned artists performed. I closed my eyes and pictured just some who’d stood there: Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Gershwin; Ella Fitzgerald and Elie Wiesel; Reinhold Niebuhr and John Philip Sousa; Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington; Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart; Duke Ellington and Robert Kennedy. And in the crisp autumn air, I felt not their ghosts, but their genius.

To stir, lift and provoke

Founded in 1874, Chautauqua is our nation’s first think tank. It’s the place to which Americans repair every year to ponder who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re headed. And if Chautauqua is the historic center of the national body politic, then the Amphitheater is its heart. On summer mornings, as visitors scurry from their cottages and hotel rooms to file into the Amp for the day’s first lecture, it’s as if America’s blood is flowing inward, seeking nutrients to carry out to the nation’s farthest extremities.

In the Amp’s sheltered, outdoor bowl, scooped out of the rise of land that gently slopes down to Chautauqua Lake, ideas have been expressed that, as historian David McCullough noted in his seminal 1993 Chautauqua lecture, “moved not just the audience at hand, but the nation at large.”

On Aug. 14, 1936, America was deep in economic turmoil as the structures of world peace crumbled under Adolf Hitler’s marching boots. Americans had no stomach for more fighting so soon after World War I, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking to quell their fear. In a dark, driving rain, gripping hard the Amp’s podium to conceal his inability to stand on his own, Roosevelt declared, “I have seen war … I’ve seen blood running from the wounded. I’ve seen cities destroyed. I’ve seen children starving. I’ve seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”

As both governor and president, FDR visited Chautauqua frequently, in imitation of his uncle-in-law, President Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke in the Amphitheater in 1905, famously describing Chautauqua as “typically American, in that it is typical of America at its best.” In all, 10 presidents have been to Chautauqua, including Ulysses Grant, James Garfield, Rutherford Hayes, William McKinley, TR, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, FDR and Bill Clinton.

But perhaps what most renders the Amp worthy of esteem are the powerful words that have been spoken there in support of social and political reform, propelling our nation from its adolescence into its adult self: Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, and Ida Tarbell, who exposed 19th century political corruption, were both Amphitheater speakers; Booker T. Washington, who in 1896 from the Amp’s platform implored America to “treat the Negro as a Christian gentleman, no more and no less;” and the Rev. Anna Shaw, a leader in women’s suffrage, who in 1892 told her audience that “any law which says that I cannot develop myself because I am a woman is utterly contrary to the will of God and contrary to the highest interest of womanhood.”

Eleanor Roosevelt brought her commitment to human rights to the Amp on several occasions, often combining a Chautauqua trip with one to Buffalo. When visiting the city, she usually stayed at the Delaware Avenue home of her longtime friend, Harriet Mack (805 Delaware, now the site of Temple Beth Zion). Mack, whose husband, Norman, owned the Buffalo Times, was a prominent member of the Twentieth Century Club. After addressing Chautauquans at the Amp and Buffalo women at the Twentieth Century Club within a period of months, Roosevelt told her friend that she was “heartened by the club, and lifted by the Amphitheater.”

On July 18, 1929, some 5,000 visitors in the Amp heard the hum of Amelia Earhart’s engine as she circled her plane over Chautauqua and landed on the 14th hole of the golf course just across the street. Earhart walked from the course to the Amp, “her infectious smile winning everyone in sight,” according to the Chautauquan Daily. Noting the already fleeting notoriety of her trans-Atlantic flight, which had taken place the previous year, Earhart told her audience that “just this morning I was congratulated for being the first woman to swim the Atlantic.”

But affection for Chautauqua and the Amp, as McCullough has noted, has not been universal. After a 1920 visit, Rudyard Kipling wrote that “Chautauqua lectures were no way for people to learn.” He called the institution “a lawn tennis tabernacle of the arts and sciences,” adding, “there’s something wrong with Chautauqua, and I don’t have the time to find out.” Words that come to mind when noticing, sadly, that the institution’s seasonal visitors remain to this day woefully lacking in diversity.

Authentic versus replica

In the late 1990s, New York State stood determined to bury the Commercial Slip and surrounding streetscape of the Erie Canal western terminus on Buffalo’s waterfront. Politicians sought to build a “replica slip,” thereby clouding the story of where the Erie Canal met Lake Erie, connected middle-America sellers with European buyers and changed the world. Our urban waterfront had been fallow for 50 years, and public desire for any development was at fever pitch. But preservationists, heritage experts and, most important, local citizens knew better.

In 2000, to educate politicians and galvanize citizens, I organized a public forum on the Erie Canal and development, bringing urban planners, cultural experts and canal historians from around America to Buffalo. Before the conference began, they all piled onto the historic fireboat Edward M. Cotter for a waterfront tour, during which they saw the original stones that frame the slip, and cobblestone streets that surround the terminus. Before disembarking, Jerry Adelmann, then president of the Canal Corridor of America, turned to me and said, “Buffalo must do whatever’s necessary to preserve the original slip, because authenticity tells stories like nothing else can.”

Through great effort by countless Western New Yorkers, the Commercial Slip was saved, ensuring that Buffalo’s history would form the centerpiece of development on the Inner Harbor. And today, as tens of thousands of visitors flock to Canalside for activities year-round, what renders their experience unique is their sense that they are in a space indispensable to America’s story. Without that underlying narrative, visiting Canalside would be less meaningful and memorable.

Authentic spaces like the Erie Canal terminus and the Chautauqua Amp matter because in tactile manner they connect us to what took place there. They remind us that we are all part of a common thread, beneficiaries of those who went before, and stewards for those who come after. And they afford us the chance to touch yesterday, and thereby imagine tomorrow.

Balancing past and future

Scanning the rows of benches under its sloping roof, the weight of time is visible on the 122-year-old Amphitheater’s lopsided seats, and the narrow, steep, concrete aisles that separate them. The necessity for renovating the Amp is apparent. But the idea of erasing it from Chautauqua’s landscape is inconceivable.

As Americans, our heads know that if we refuse to embrace the future, we cease to live. But as human beings, our hearts feel that if we fail to honor the past, a part of us dies. Somewhere in between those two truths lies wisdom. And finding that reasoned course is the challenge that beckons not only those who govern Chautauqua, but all of us.

Like a family reuniting at home after periods of separation, the Chautauqua Amphitheater is America’s living room. A place to which we return in moments of challenge and joy, to pause, connect and think. And a place where, through the exchange of ideas, we remind ourselves that every human problem can be solved by human effort.

Demolishing the Amp will not silence the echoes of those heroic women and men who raised their voices and lifted a nation here; those echoes still bounce off the pillars and posts that gallantly hold up this uniquely American space. But it will make their sound more faint, less poignant and more difficult for future generations to hear.

Kevin Gaughan, a Buffalo civic leader, founded the Chautauqua Conferences on Regionalism and the Erie Canal Conversation. His email is kevin@kevingaughan.com