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Historic Chautauqua Institution amphitheater demolished into pile of rubble

With a few tugs of a yellow mechanical claw, and some gentle pushing from the other side by a pair of excavators, the Chautauqua Institution’s century-old amphitheater came crashing down this week into a pile of dust and debris that workers are now attempting to clear.

The final demolition of the 1893-era facility Wednesday evening, under a sunny and clear-blue sky, ended more than 123 years of speakers, entertainment and history within its shallow bowl. The controversial action came seven months after a state judge refused to issue a preliminary injunction stopping the work, after preservationists sued to prevent the destruction of the National Historic Landmark.


At the same time, the demolition signals the start of a new phase in a $41.5 million privately funded project by the Institution to construct a newer and much larger replacement on the same site. That project, which the Institution has termed “restorative” in nature, is designed to mimic the current facility’s look and feel, while better serving the community’s needs with improved comfort, safety, access and presentation, officials have said.

“The structure will visually look very similar to the current amphitheater, just larger and more accessible,” said George Murphy, vice president and chief marketing officer. “We do skew older, so accessibility is an issue. It had some fairly steep ramps.”

But critics of the project were disappointed. “It’s kind of a tragedy and a travesty,” said Brian Berg, chair of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater and a senior executive at MK Communications in Chicago. “We have never said the amphitheater should have stayed the way it was. But you could have gotten an improved and modernized amphitheater without having to tear it down.”

The Institution’s plans call for tripling the back-of-the-house space, with construction of a 21,000-square-foot building to house performance, rehearsal and storage space. That’s up from just 6,000 square feet in the old complex.

Officials also are expanding the concrete seating bowl, which will be seven feet deeper and 15 feet wider, to accommodate 800 more guests under the new roof. Where the former design handled 4,000 under the roof and another 400 in bleachers outside the bowl, the new plan features 4,800 covered seats without bleachers, for a 20 percent increase in protected seating.

The proposal has been in the works for over three years, as Institution officials pursued what they initially said was a plan to upgrade or rehabilitate the existing amphitheater. It’s a major part of a larger multiyear fundraising initiative that will raise nearly $100 million for the Institution.

But the effort erupted into controversy two years ago after The Buffalo News reported that officials had instead decided to demolish and rebuild. Opponents quickly mobilized, and both regional and national preservation organizations took up the cause, arguing that it was a historic structure that needed to be saved. The battle has caused divisions within the normally friendly community.

Then, last December, the Institution board voted to take demolition bids, and announced in January that it had obtained town demolition and building permits for the first part of the project, which is being managed by Buffalo-based LPCiminelli with at least 16 subcontractors. That prompted the preservation groups to file suit, calling on the town and Institution to comply with town and state laws designed to protect historic resources. They argued that the amphitheater could have been renovated to meet the Institution’s goals, without losing its history and character.

State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita III granted a temporary restraining order in late January to halt work. But he declined to take further action in February after hearing testimony from both sides. There was no appeal.

After the ruling, workers began initial site work and limited demolition by removing the entire wooden portion of the back-of-the-house space – including dressing rooms, storage rooms and bathrooms – that surrounds two sides of the three-story brick Massey Organ Chamber. In its place, they put up temporary trailers for the summer. When the summer season ended, work started anew on Aug. 29, as the rest of the wooden structures were removed, followed by the seating in early September. Murphy said crews even salvaged “a bunch” of seats and benches for sale to community members, while the stage floor will be used in the new amphitheater.

The site was also cleared, and contractors then turned their attention to detaching the roof structure from the 18 support columns. That task was completed on Tuesday, but it destabilized the entire facility. So rather than risk having it fall on the Massey building, officials opted for a quick controlled demolition the next day.

The bowl will be excavated further next month, with construction on the new facility starting soon after and continuing through the winter. Officials hope to have most of the job finished by mid-May, in time to install lighting and rigging before the season starts again June 24.

“They could have spent millions less to get an improved, historic and authentic amphitheater. Instead, what the Institution has done is try to copy the amphitheater in the most superficial way,” said Berg, who said he will keep “an open mind” about the finished product. “Replicas are only appropriate for amusement parks or Las Vegas. The Chautauqua community deserves better.”


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