Amphitheater project dialogue sessions continue to draw large crowds

Community interest in Chautauqua’s ambitious plans for its Amphitheater centerpiece continues to run high. There was another full house at Friday’s Institution-sponsored session in the Hall of Christ.

This public meeting concluded the second week of a series of dialogues that Institution leaders had announced before the season. The focus on Friday was a panel discussion and Q-and-A on the Amp design process.

Principal presenters were lead Amp executive project architect Marty Serena of Serena Sturm Architects, Ted Lownie of Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects and John Shedd, the Institution’s director of operations and land use regulations. Institution consultant Elliot Fishman facilitated.

As had been the case the previous week, supporters and critics of the Institution’s Amp plans were well represented in the audience. There seemed to be general satisfaction with the idea and the structure of the session; several who attended said it was overdue, but they nonetheless appreciated the opportunity to ask administrators and consultants about the Amp project. Representatives from the Institution’s Board of Trustees were present as observers.

Serena led off. He told the large crowd the planning process for the Amp project actually began in Spring 2011.

“We looked at what we felt were the basic elements of the Amp,” he said. “These were the back of the house, the roof, the bowl, the Massey organ chamber and the site — the physical footprint of the building.”

Aided by images of the Amp and renderings of some of the early project plans and drawings, Serena recalled his early examination of the Amp.

“We looked at circulation patterns, views to the stage and especially accessibility,” he said.

“The feel of the Amp has always been in our minds. We thought about bench alignment, more bleachers, extending the roof, enlarging the stage. We were focusing on extending the accessible bowl.”

Serena and Shedd, assisted by Fishman, talked about the arc of their deliberations spanning nearly three years.

“Throughout the design development stage of the project, our perspective was that the project would be centered on reinforcing the existing structure of the Amp,” Shedd said.

“Our idea was to keep the Massey Organ chamber and to keep the roof structure over the bowl. The emphasis was always on rehabilitating the front of the house where audiences sit,” Serena said. “This was still a historic rehabilitation project.”

In the meantime, planning was intensifying and more experts and consultants were engaged to examine the project. A construction representative, LPCiminelli of Buffalo, was consulted to provide guidance on the overall project scope, direction and modalities.

In the course of last summer, LPCiminelli began to raise substantive issues related to retaining the roof structure over the Amp’s bowl. The construction representative advised that keeping the roof would add more than $1 million to the cost, imperil completing the project on time and expose project workers to safety hazards.

Lownie had also been the Institution’s consulting preservation architect with the Institution on the Amp project. He suggested to the Institution last fall that the project could not realistically be called a historic rehabilitation if the roof structure were not retained. On the other hand, Lownie confirmed at Friday’s meeting that he hoped that retaining the roof structure might return the project to historic rehabilitation status.

According to Shedd, Institution planning still includes retention of at least part of the Amp’s roof structure as an option, if the concerns raised by LPCiminelli can be mitigated.

“We have asked that this option remain on the table,” Shedd said, adding that the Institution has commissioned a structural engineering firm to look at this possibility.

Shedd and Serena said they had met with Chaintreuil Jensen Stark Architects, a firm engaged by the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater. Serena added that the CJS suggestions had a good deal in common with options that had been reviewed by the project architects and advisory group.

“We did a couple of studies incorporating some of their ideas,” Serena said. “One, for example, involved installation of permanent bleachers in the northeast and northwest corners of the Amp as a way of increasing the Amp’s seating capacity.”

Shedd also reported that a report of a panel of architectural and preservation experts, suggested by the National Park Service during its visit this spring to the grounds, is due in a few weeks. The report will identify key elements in the Amp which most define its unique historic status. Serena and Shedd said they hoped the panel would make recommendations as to how their team might incorporate as many of these elements as possible in the final plan.

Chautauquans quickly formed a lengthy line to ask questions of the panel. Among those were queries about drilling during construction (Serena said micro piles would be used to minimize site damage), whether a geo-tech specialist and hydrologist were on the project team to cover soil and water issues (they are) and whether expanded seating capacity was driving the project (safety and sightlines are among other key considerations).

Sessions will continue on Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week. Details will be in the Daily.