Preservation experts release Amp report to public

A capacity Amphitheater crowd listens to Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward in August 2014. (Rachael Le Goubin | File Photo)

A capacity Amphitheater crowd listens to Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward in August 2014. (Rachael Le Goubin | File Photo)

As promised at Friday’s public dialogue on the Amphitheater renewal project, the independent advisory panel of state and regional preservation experts released its report to the public today. The findings will serve as important input for the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees as it prepares for a likely Aug. 29 vote on the project, and will also inform the project’s design team as it works toward a final design proposal.

Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker welcomed the report, which he requested based on feedback from the National Park Service, saying it confirmed the administration’s conclusion that there is no “silver bullet” or simple compromise to resolve the difficult dialogue between the building’s program and preservation.

“This report provides important and useful information, as well as an appropriate perspective for consideration by the Institution’s leadership,” Becker said. “I am grateful to the members of the panel for their thoughtful approach to the issue of historic preservation and the Amp.”

Following the April recommendation of Bonnie Halda, the National Park Service’s chief of preservation assistance for the Northeast, Becker invited a group of six independent experts in historic preservation to take a close look at the Amphitheater and review the proposed new design for the building.

Panel members included:

  • Julian Adams, director of the Community Preservation Services Bureau, New York State Historic Preservation Office,
  • Jay DiLorenzo, president, Preservation League of New York State
  • Peter Flynn, co-chair and trustee, Preservation Buffalo Niagara
  • Kathleen LaFrank, National Register coordinator, New York State Historic Preservation Office
  • Theodore Lownie, partner, HHL Architects, Buffalo
  • Caleb Pifer, executive director, The Historical Society of Erie County (Pa.)

The panel was specifically charged to:

  • formally catalogue the Amphitheater’s character-defining qualities;
  • assess the proposed design in light of those qualities;
  • and make recommendations as to how those qualities might be incorporated into a new design, and how a renewed building might best respect its history while achieving the Institution’s strategic and program objectives.

Members were provided access to Chautauqua Institution archives, architectural drawings, and the work of the 2011 Study Group that provided the design direction for the current plan, according to George Murphy, Chautauqua Institution vice president and chief marketing officer. The panel conferred directly with the Amphitheater project’s executive architect, Marty Serena of Serena Sturm Architects, and was briefed on the century-long evolution of the structure Amp.

Among the panel’s findings was a determination that achieving all of the Institution’s program objectives and preserving the current structure were probably not reconcilable.

“If Chautauqua Institution decides that every program goal must be met in the existing building there may be no way to preserve the historic Amp,” the report stated.

The panel’s recommendation to resolve this conflict was to limit programming in the Amp.

“Preservation of facilities is an important consideration for the Institution,” Becker said. “In fact, the National Park Service has credited us for being good stewards of the historic resources that make Chautauqua Institution a National Historic Landmark District.”

In the case of the Amphitheater, Becker said, Chautauqua’s leadership will face complex decisions in prioritizing preservation relative to other strategic objectives.

“The sustainability of the programmatic expression of our mission is of paramount concern,” he said. “The panel confirms that our design direction is consistent with this mission and this focus.”

However, Becker said, “for the administration and board, this has never been some simple ‘either/or’ proposition. From the beginning, we have and continue to weigh the relative rankings of not only preservation and program, but also safety, accessibility, functionality, sustainability, mission and vision.”

The panel’s suggestion that the Institution should reduce the number of programs housed in the Amp as the way to accomplish preservation of the Amp, Becker said, “would limit our work and our ability to fulfill our mission in a sustainable manner for the next 100 years.”

Other significant recommendations from the panel include building another theater elsewhere at the Institution to provide additional programming; hiring a preservationist architect to work with the project’s executive architect; and delaying a decision until a structural engineer’s report is complete to see if the Amphitheater’s roof might be retained.

Murphy said that the Institution is in fact awaiting a final report from a well-regarded preservation engineering firm, Old Structures Inc. Serena and the project’s team of specialty architects — all with preservation experience — consulted with a preservation architect and will continue to do so as needed, he said.

Becker said that the Institution and its 2011 Study Group had already examined the idea of a second Amphitheater and dismissed it.

“The notion we should both restore the Amp as it is and then construct a new theater somewhere else on the grounds to house the programs that can’t be accommodated in the Amp is financially unfeasible,” he said.

Becker said, however, that disagreement with the panel  is not the point.

“Healthy, constructive disagreement makes for better, more informed decision-making,” he said. “They did their work without emotion but with a strong, professional passion for their mission. We respect that, just as they respect our passion and our mission.”

The panel was facilitated by Elliot Fishman, Ricochet Group LLC, New York. Chautauqua Institution staff support was provided by Murphy and John Shedd, director of operations.

The report comes amid a great deal of Chautauqua community dialogue this summer regarding the Amphitheater.

There are 2 comments

  1. COMRADITY (@comradity)

    The panel’s specific recommendation related to programming was: “cut back the kind of programs that tax the amp in general and return it to its original purpose; embrace the kind of experience that is common to outdoor summer festivals: subject to weather, some sight line interference, not the most comfortable seats, entertainment in nature, not a theater that just happens to have open sides.”

    Ironically, as Chautauqua considers replacing the Amphitheater, with a structure designed to minimize the light and sounds of nature, Silicon Valley’s newest development, the Central & Wolfe campus in Sunnyvale, features a 500 seat Amphitheater surrounded by redwoods – to provide a biophilia retreat from technology for tech workers.

    One wonders if we will regret losing a design that integrates nature, creativity, and learning.

    The panel’s conclusion validates the Motion accepted at the Chautauqua Corporation Meeting to take the time to answer questions that have not been answered by the Institution:

    “Ultimately, what is the value to the community of preserving the amphitheater? What will be lost if it goes? What are you willing to give up to keep it? These are the questions Chautauqua Institution must ask itself. As preservationists who have been in this field for many decades, each of us knows that there are no easy answers. Yet, each of us has also seen the effect of losing a major landmark (Penn Station) or saving one (Grand Central). This is a pivotal moment in the life of Chautauqua Institution. A wrenching decision must be made; but, if that decision is to demolish the amp, it cannot be reversed, only regretted. Our hope is that you will exercise your judgement with care and with prudence.”

    It would be disappointing if the Board is as quick as the Administration to reject the recommendations of the Panel.

    Katherine Warman Kern

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