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Chautauqua Institution celebrates new amphitheater

The new Chautauqua Institution amphitheater that has been immersed in controversy over the past couple years looks strikingly similar to the old Chautauqua Institution amphitheater that was demolished.

It has that same yellow interior.

It has that familiar bench seating.

It even has similar Y-shaped columns holding up the roof.

“Basically, it looks the same,” said Kay White, 73, a longtime summer resident of the gated community on the banks of Lake Chautauqua. “Chautauqans like to keep things they way they were.”

That was the sentiment echoed by many Sunday when the public got its first glimpse of the new amphitheater during a ribbon-cutting ceremony and matinee performance by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

“As an old Chautauquan, I was a little skeptical about taking the historic amphitheater out, but they did a beautiful job,” said Bobbi Savage, 60, of Boston, Mass., who works at Chautauqua during the summer. “It’s just like the old one – only better.”

The project had been in the works for almost four years, as Institution officials pursued what they initially said was a plan to upgrade or rehabilitate the existing amphitheater.

But the effort erupted into controversy after The Buffalo News reported that officials had instead decided to demolish and rebuild. Opponents quickly mobilized to save the 1893-era amphitheater and the battle lines were drawn.

Preservationists filed a lawsuit, and although a temporary restraining order was granted, a State Supreme Court judge declined to take further action after hearing testimony from both sides. There was no appeal.

In September, the old amphitheater was reduced to a pile of rubble and, among some, the bitterness still lingered Sunday.

“At best, I think it’s mediocre and a banal attempt to copy the historic amphitheater in the most superficial way,” said Brian Berg, chair of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, when reached by phone Sunday evening. “It might excite us this moment, this season, but over time we will quickly sense the absence of history.”

The Chautauqua Amphitheater after its September 2015 demolition. (News file photo)

But Michael E. Hill, president of Chautauqua Institution, invited the public down to take a look for themselves.

“This amphitheater has aesthetically what people most remember and love – the benches, the yellow, the open sight lines,” Hill said. “The community feel is all still here.”

“What’s new is a little bit more space,” Hill said, “significantly better amenities for our artists and guests coming through, better sight lines, better sound and technology, an orchestra pit – all of those things that make us a first-rate facility that allow us to attract and retain some of the best artists and thinkers in the world.”

Visitors on Sunday noticed a larger footprint, with an expansion of the concrete seating bowl to accommodate some 4,500 covered seats.

The 400 bleachers that once sat outside the bowl were removed to make way for a landscaped courtyard with a rain garden.

“The old Chautauquans I’m talking to love it,” said Elizabeth Thrasher, a longtime summer resident at Chautauqua.

“I think a lot of outcry against it led to it looking the same,” Thrasher said. “I think they were listening.”

A crowd fills the new amphitheater during the Chautauqua Amphitheater Celebration at the Chautauqua Institution, Sunday, July 2, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

There’s a larger stage, an orchestra pit and the institution tripled the back-of-the-house space, constructing a larger building for performance, rehearsal and storage space.

And gone were the steep ramps leading patrons down into the bowl, replaced by steps and railings. That was mentioned by several from the older generation in attendance Sunday.

“The single best thing is they replaced the steep ramps with steps,” said Franklin Sherman, 88, who has spent the summer at Chautauqua for some 25 years. “It was steep for anyone.”

“This has been a real problem for me as a handicapped person,” said Dolores Gruen, 86, who has spent the last three summers at Chautauqua.

“From my perspective, I’m so glad they have these railings going down, because I was getting increasingly nervous going up and down the ramps,” said White.

Maybe the biggest surprise was that the institution was able to complete the $41.5 million project in nine months, said Cynthia Strickland, another summer resident.

“I was for it,” White said. “What I was skeptical about was if they could do it in a year. It’s pretty amazing they were able to do it. We thought we were going to be in a tent at the ball field.”

And the acoustics?

Well, that depends who is talking.

Opinions Sunday ranged from “extraordinary” and “twice as good” to needs “a little tweaking.”

The bench seating could use some work while they’re at it, said Sherman.

“Previously, it was very uncomfortable. Now, I would say it’s just uncomfortable,” Sherman said. “I think I’m going to bring a cushion.”

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