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Judge issues order putting Chautauqua Amphitheater demolition on hold

A State Supreme Court judge issued a temporary restraining order Monday blocking Chautauqua Institution from taking actions leading to the demolition of the 1893 Amphitheater.

The Chautauqua Institution board voted in December to accept bids to knock down the Amphitheater and build a modern replica in its place.

“This gives us some small hope that one of America’s national treasures, and a Chautauqua National Historic Landmark, might be saved and improved for future generations,” said Brian Berg, president of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater.

The ruling by State Supreme Court Judge Frank A. Sedita III will be revisited in one week, at 2 p.m. Feb. 1, when attorneys reconvene. At that time Sedita could continue the temporary restraining order, lift it, call for a hearing or grant a preliminary injunction.

“This afternoon, the New York State Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order, halting construction on our Amphitheater,” the Institution said in a statement. “We continue to move forward with planning, logistics and procurement of materials ... We respect Judge Sedita’s decision and this process, and we are eager to present our side in court.”

The court filing was made by the committee and five Chautauqua residents to preserve the Amphitheater. The beloved 1893 Amphitheater has been championed by national and regional preservation organizations, and differences over its future have caused a deep rift within the usually controversy-free Institution.

Luminaries who have appeared at the Amphitheater over the years have included several presidents, Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall, Booker T. Washington and Robert F. Kennedy.

The legal action was brought in response to the Institution’s Jan. 13 announcement that it had obtained demolition and building permits from the Town of Chautauqua’s code enforcement office.

That was to pave the way for the first phase of the plan leading to the Amphitheater’s demolition, although the front of the house is supposed to remain intact until the conclusion of the season in August.

The suit, filed by attorney Arthur J. Giacalone, calls on the Town of Chautauqua and the Institution to fully comply with two laws meant to preserve and protect historic resources: The town’s Waterfront Consistency Law and the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

The lawsuit named the board of trustees, the town’s code enforcement officer and the Chautauqua Town Board.

The Town Board, along with eight other towns and village adjoining Chautauqua Lake, adopted a local waterfront revitalization plan in 2008 that recognizes the Amphitheater as “a site of historic significance,” Giacalone said.

He said the plan and town codes call on Chautauqua Lake communities to “preserve historic resources of the waterfront area,” and asks each municipality to “maximize preservation and retention of historic resources.”