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Chautauqua Institution - Controversy Over the Demolition of the Amphitheater

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Background

One of my favorite vacation destinations is one hour away from my home in western New York.  It is the Chautauqua Institution, a venue which has provided education and entertainment in an awesome setting since its founding in 1874.  Lewis Miller and Bishop John Vincent started a summer school for Sunday school teachers that year and it has evolved into an institution offering the performing arts, lectures, interfaith worship, symphony, ballet, opera, current films and popular entertainers.

                                     

Chautauqua Amphitheater

                                                      The Amphitheater at Chautauqua                                                                                                                                     Wikimedia

Introduction

This sublime setting was disrupted this past year when the Board of Directors of the Chautauqua Institution voted to renovate the Amphitheater, the heart of the Institution, making it more serviceable for modern-day use.  At stake is the open air lecture and performance pavilion known to Chautauquans as the Amp.  A group of concerned citizens quickly realized that the project would not be a renovation but instead would necessitate almost complete removal of the historic Amp.  To stop the demolition they formed a group called the Committee to Save the Amp. The petitioners have been aided in their cause by national and regional preservation organizations, and the conflict over the future of the Amp has caused a deep rift in this usually controversy-free Institution.  The petitioners maintained that the demolition and construction permits were improperly granted since there was no review in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).

Upgrading is Necessary

The structure definitely needs major upgrades.  The old wooden benches are so uncomfortable that most visitors bring cushions to sit on.  Wooden columns inhibit the view of the audience.  The proposed additional seating would be an asset to the crowds who overflow at certain performances.  The present back stage facilities for performers are currently inadequate.  The building is 123 years old.  The Amp could be described as a barn or a revival tent.  It has no classic lines, no fine carvings, no famed architect.  What it does have is history, tradition, and an unmatched atmosphere.

                                      

Hall of Philosophy

                                                  The Hall of Philosophy at Chautauqua                                                                                                                                  Wikimedia

Preservationists Disagree with the Board of Directors

The group of petitioners, some of whom are property owners at the Institution, have sought to prevent the demolition of the historic building, based on the fact that the Chautauqua Institution is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The National Register is the official federal government listing of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects that are worthy of preservation by virtue of their association with significant events or people, design, construction, or other criteria that justify the national designation. Chautauqua is also listed in the New York State Register of Historic Places.  

Chautauqua - A National Historic Landmark

Chautauqua’s historic preservation status was further honored by its listing as a National Historic Landmark District on June 29, 1989. National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Today, fewer than 2,500 historic places bear this national distinction.” In all of the official documents, registries, recognitions, and honors, the Amphitheater is identified as “contributing.”  It is most often specifically noted as the “heart” of Chautauqua.

                                       

Chautauqua Amphitheater

                                                        The Amphitheater at Chautauqua                                                                                                                                     Wikimedia

Many Celebrities Have Spoken at the Amphitheater

The Amp is one of the most historic buildings in the entire nation. There may be only a handful of other places in this country that have hosted more famous performers and influential speakers than the Amp. 

Chautauqua has been an important stage for American presidents, statesmen, and theologians. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his famous “I Hate War!” speech in the Chautauqua Amphitheater to a crowd of over 12,000 people. Among the famous Americans who have spoken in the Amphitheater are: Booker T. Washington, Susan B. Anthony, William Jennings Bryan, John and Melvil Dewey, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Admiral Byrd, Norman Thomas, Nelson Rockefeller, Bobby Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Al Gore, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ken Burns, Ellie Wiesel, and many, many others.  Prominent musicians have performed in the Amphitheater, such as John Phillip Sousa, William Sherwood, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Paul Anka, Johnny Mathis, and several more of the finest American artists of the 20th century.  Bill Clinton came to Chautauqua to write his inaugural address in its peaceful, creative atmosphere.  Thomas Edison was a regular visitor because his second wife, Mina Miller Edison, was the daughter of one of the founders, Lewis Miller.

The Courts Have Decided in Favor of Demolition

In February 2016, State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita III declined to grant a preliminary injunction that would have halted work leading to the demolition of the Amphitheater.  The Chautauqua Institution is close to raising the $30 million needed for construction of the project. They tentatively plan to move forward with demolition and construction in September, immediately after the conclusion of the 2015 season. The new theater would be complete for the following summer season.  The protestors claim that Chautauqua should not be about being state-of-the-art.  It can never be replicated and should not strive to make itself like every other place in the country.

                                    

Lake Chautauqua

                                                       Lake Chautauqua - Wikimedia

Chautauqua’s 2016 Season

Chautauqua’s 2016 Season at the Amphitheater will continue without hindrance and includes the following:

Week One: June 25–July 2 - Roger Rosenblatt & Friends: On Creative Expression

Week Two: July 2–July 9 - Money and Power

Week Three: July 9–16 - Moral Leadership in Action

Week Four: July 16–23 - Our Search for Another Earth

Week Five: July 23–30 - People and Environment In Partnership with National Geographic Society

Week Six: July 30–Aug. 6 - The Future of Cities

Week Seven: Aug. 6–13 - Pushing Our Bodies’ Limits

Week Eight: Aug. 13–20 - War and Its Warriors: Contemporary Voices

Week Nine: Aug. 20–28 - America’s Music with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center

Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” will be shown at the Bratton Theater on selected evenings.

Well-known personalities will voice their opinions during the nine-week season.  They include: Jane Pauley, Garry Trudeau, Alan Alda, author Geraldine Brooks, Bill Moyers, Sister Joan Chittister OSB, author David McCullough, author Lily King, General (ret.) David H. Petraeus, poet Billy Collins, and Wynton Marsalis.

There is no place in the world like Chautauqua.  I am in favor of upgrading the Amphitheater even though it requires its demolition. It will not take away from the sense of history that is prevalent throughout the grounds.  It is sacred space. 

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Chautauqua: An American Utopia
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Bibliography

  1. "Chautauqua – The Curious Case of the Missing SEQRA Process." Buffalo Planet The Weekly. 4/04/2016. 4/04/2016 <Web >
  2. "The Fight for the Soul of Chautauqua." Buffalo Planet The Weekly. 4/04/2016. 4/04/2016 <Web >
  3. "2016 Season." Chautauqua Institution. 4/04/2016. 4/04/2016 <Web >
  4. "Wrecking Chautauqua: Famous Amphitheater Scheduled for Demolition This Year." Buffalo Rising. 4/04/2016. 4/04/2016 <Web >

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