Architectural historian Posner talks Amp as place and memory

Photo courtesy of Chautauqua Institution Archives
In this photo from March 1995, extra wooden supports attached to the Amphitheater’s inner beams can be seen on the venue’s east side.

To some visitors, Chautauqua looks the same as it did the day it was born, a mind-boggling idea to someone who has ever slept in a tent. But change comes hard to Chautauquans steeped in generations-old tradition. And change it must.

Av Posner, longtime Chautauquan and architectural historian, appreciates the complexity of Chautauqua, its programming, its people and Chautauqua as a place — in this case, the Amphitheater. Posner will bring his memories and experience of the Amp to the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ. He would like the audience to bring their Amp stories to share as well.

Posner cited William Cronon, a University of Wisconsin history professor who said that history is not the past; it is the stories people tell about the past. Stories and how they are framed reveal as much about people as they reveal about past events and places.

Posner has a special recollection of the Kingston Trio at the Amp in 1959. And he reflected on his routine as he attends events there, how he approaches the structure, where he sits.

Plans are well in the works to rebuild the Amp, and with that impending change, Posner thought it a good time to bring together people to share their memories.

Posner has a Ph.D. in the history of art and architecture. He said he recognizes and accepts that things change.

“If the story doesn’t change, it gets boring,” he said.

But he is interested in documenting change, and this change to the Amp is a big deal.

“Some people say that Chautauqua is the center of the universe and that the Amphitheater is the center of Chautauqua,” Posner said.

The first Chautauqua Amphitheater was constructed in 1879, but entirely replaced in 1893 with the building that now stands. The Massey Organ was installed in 1907. Changes were made to the stage in 1921. In 1928, a new console was installed with changes to the organ. In 1954, a new floor was installed, changes were made to the roof, and the platform was enlarged. Still additional reinforcements were installed in 1978.

An undertaking as large and significant as rehabilitating the Amp needs a little luck, as well as careful planning, Posner said. And such a project needs a lot of money.

“[Chautauqua] has never looked better,” Posner said. “The investment in private and public structures has never been better.”

There is one comment

  1. Stephen Davies (@scurtisdavies)

    Talk about “change”! Except for the organ loft, the existing Amphitheater will be completely demolished—to the ground—probably after next season. This is what we learned this afternoon at this lecture. Few people talked about their memories at this meeting, but they should have. The common understanding among Chautauquans that this is some kind of of historic rehabilitation project is, well, not exactly true. For example, I always thought that the roof, original to the 1893 structure, was to remain, but we heard today it is to be demolished as well – despite being an innovation of its day, It’s just too hard and expensive to prop up and dig down to make a deeper Amp. Everyone knows that the Amp needs fixing and safety enhancements, but is demolition and starting over at a cost of $33 million the only solution? And why are those of us who oppose demolition being portrayed as anti-change? Change is fine, but so is common sense and maintaining our genuine historic heritage.

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