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Chautauqua Institution OKs $41.5 million project to replace historic Amphitheater

The Chautauqua Institution’s board of trustees approved $41.5 million in contracts Wednesday to demolish its historic 1893 amphitheater and build a replica in its place.

The decision – which ratified a board vote in August that was dependent on affordable bids – will likely further inflame an already divided Chautauqua community.

“We are incredibly excited to be moving forward with a renewed Amphitheater,” President Tom Becker said in a statement. “This is one of the most significant projects in our 142-year history, and a commitment to the future of this institution.”

The planned demolition of the amphitheater has drawn criticism from scores of Chautauqua homeowners, preservation organizations, theater groups and architectural critics.

Earlier this year, the National Trust for Historic Places listed the amphitheater as one of the nation’s “11 Most Endangered Places.”

“We continue to be amazed by the institution’s determination to demolish Chautauqua’s sacred space and that President Tom Becker and the board of trustees can be so oblivious to the value of historic preservation – at Chautauqua of all places,” said Brian Berg, chairman of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater.

Buffalo-based CJS Architects, on behalf of the committee, determined that most of the institution’s goals could be met by making improvements to the current amphitheater without tearing it down.

Luminaries from Booker T. Washington and Susan B. Anthony to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy have spoken at the National Historic Landmark structure.

The institution has said the building no longer meets future programming and comfort needs.

The vote by the board authorizes a Buffalo company, LP Ciminelli, to be the project’s construction manager.

No public funds will be used on the project, so the institution doesn’t have to abide by Department of Interior guidelines covering a National Historic Landmark.

The board met in October to consider the bids, but found them too high and delayed the vote. Those concerns have now been satisfied.

“The board has reviewed the bid packages and the changes made to them in achieving our project cost target,” Board Chairman James A. Pardo Jr. said in a statement. “We will deliver an Amphitheater that meets all of the goals and objectives that were set for this facility.”

The board also approved a final design, which “honors the look and feel of the original structure.”

The project includes an expanded bowl, new roof, enlarged stage area, an orchestra pit for 100 musicians, and a new back-of-house facility for artists, guests and production crews. The new structure will also meet federal accessibility standards.

Some preliminary work will begin in early February, but most of the construction will occur between September 2016 and June 2017, the deadline for completing the new facility in time for the 2017 Chautauqua season.