Institution plans sessions for community to engage with Amphitheater project

PhotoRUBY WALLAU | Staff PhotographerAt top, Chautauqua property owners view the choir rehearsal room in the back-of-house during a tour of the Amphitheater last Monday. Above, John Shedd, director of operations and administrator of Architectural Land Use Regulations, stands addresses the crowd standing in the choir loft.

This summer, Chautauqua Institution will make as much information as possible available to Chautauquans and visitors regarding one of the largest public works project in its history.

The five-year-old project to renew its centerpiece Amphitheater became the subject of animated off-season discourse on the grounds and among the broader Chautauqua community around the country.

As a result, President Tom Becker recommended in January to the board of trustees that final decisions on the $30 million-plus project be deferred until the board’s Aug. 29 meeting.

Becker said deferral would permit further review of the project’s design, costs and timelines; consultation with federal historic preservation experts; and greater community discussion and input during the 2015 season.

There have been significant developments in these areas since Becker’s letter to the board.

Dialogue and Discussion Sessions

Public sessions have been announced for each Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout at least the first six weeks of the season. Details will be available in The Chautauquan Daily, and the basic schedule is as follows:

8 – 9 a.m. Mondays in the Amphitheater: Tour led by Institution Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer George Murphy and Director of Operations and Administrator of Architectural Land Use Regulations Manager John Shedd. This will provide a detailed look at the Amp, including the back of the house, stage and seating bowl. After the Amp tour, the group will view a model of the renewed Amp, which has already been installed in the Smith Memorial Library lobby.

8 to 9 a.m. Wednesdays in the Hall of Christ: Institution Archivist and Historian Jon Schmitz will provide a history of the Amp. In order to look at both the facility’s operational and programmatic evolution and limitations, Schmitz will be followed by Vice President and Director of Programming Marty Merkley and representatives of Chautauqua’s arts programs.

8 to 9:15 a.m. Fridays in the Hall of Christ, Weeks One, Three and Five: Community dialogue and input through breakout groups. Shedd will be joined for some of these sessions by Becker and/or Murphy. Q-and-A sessions will be included.

8 to 9:15 a.m. Fridays in the Hall of Christ, Weeks Two, Four and Six: Dialogue on the Amp design process. Shedd will be joined for these sessions by project lead architect Marty Serena and/or Buffalo historic preservation architect Ted Lownie. Q-and-A sessions will cap these dialogues.

Preview Amp Tour

The Institution has already begun its public outreach and discussion process. Last Monday morning, in two sessions organized by the Institution and the Chautauqua Property Owners Association, Murphy and Shedd led groups of attentive property owners on a preview of the Monday Amp tours.

Fifty-nine participated in the first session, and 35 joined the second tour.

Gathering on the Amp’s back porch, the groups made their way through the labyrinthine corridors and narrow stairways in the back of the house. Shedd highlighted aspects of the outdated infrastructure in this part of the Amp.

While he provided the narrative lead, the groups then passed through the choir music storage and dressing area to the choir loft. The property owners were briefed on the Amp’s massive attic, with pictures illustrating its riveted steel truss structure.

Shedd’s remarks were at times disrupted by the noise of workers hustling to complete repairs to the part of the Amp’s roof that sagged after a support column snapped in March.

Shedd said that structural engineers retained by the Institution had reported the current Amp roof is safe for the summer season but would need reinforcement to withstand Chautauqua’s winter wind and snow. Consequently, the engineers have recommended installation of structural X-braces across the lower bowl seating area, from the top of one column across to the base of the opposite column, to stabilize the roof in the off-season.

As tour participants moved from the choir loft to the stage, Shedd pointed out that several vertical structural columns supporting the main Amp roof had gradually slipped several inches off pure vertical over the 17 years since the Institution began measuring in 1998. The present stage is the Amp’s fourth version; replacement stages were installed in 1921, 1954 and 2003.

Shedd referred to the March visit and April assessment provided to the Institution by the National Park Service’s Chief of Preservation Assistance Bonnie Halda. In response to her recommendations, the Institution has engaged one of the nation’s leading historic preservation structural engineering firms, Old Structures Inc. of New York City. It is Old Structures that urged installation of the off-season X-braces to support the Amp roof.

Also in response to Halda’s report, the Institution has convened an advisory panel of key professionals with strong backgrounds in architecture and historic preservation. Their report is due shortly.

Here are some questions and Shedd’s answers flowing from the two Amp tour briefings held on Monday:

How about the current acoustics?

Experts have described current acoustics as satisfactory for the spoken voice, but not good for music.

You mentioned drift in some of the Amp’s vertical columns. How about the organ chamber?

We haven’t detected any drift in the organ chamber.

Have performers refused to come to Chautauqua due to substandard conditions in the Amp?

We have heard rumors, but no specific names.

Current accommodations for the handicapped are unacceptable.

There are ADA-mandated improvements incorporated in the renewal plan.

What is the capacity of the proposed renewed Amp?

4,500, which represents an increase of 500. But the current Amp capacity figure of 4,000 includes an estimated 400 bleacher seats. And for events such as inter-arts productions, the CSO moves off the stage onto the floor with a loss of 300 more seats. So the increased capacity is more than 500 in some situations.

Questions, concerns and feedback are welcomed at the 18 public discussions. Those who are interested are strongly encouraged to attend and participate. The Chautauquan Daily will publish a weekly summary report.

There is one comment

  1. Liz Landon (@LizLandon1)

    Wonderful news that Chautauquans are being consulted about the project! I think the new Amp design is fabulous but lacks any sunny seating in the back, not even a few benches. For those of us who love the bleachers, the new design looks chilly! Please leave someplace where you can watch the lectures and catch a few rays too! Thanks! Liz Landon (weeks 4 and 5)

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