Panel: Chautauqua Institution Faces Tough Decision On Amp

The Chautauqua Institution must choose between programming and preservation in deciding the future of its 122-year-old amphitheater, a panel of preservationists concluded, adding that a decision to demolish the venue “cannot be reversed, only regretted.”

Photo: Carolyn Thompson/AP, file
The Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater in Chautauqua, N.Y., is deserted in advance of the summer season.

Plans to raze and rebuild the open-air theater where Susan B. Anthony, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Duke Ellington and countless others have taken the stage have been debated through the summer at the intellectual and arts retreat in anticipation of an Aug. 29 vote by the institution’s board.

Administrators have said a reconstruction that would add an orchestra pit, increase accessibility and improve comfort for both the audience and headliners is necessary for the viability of the not-for-profit institution. But preservationists, who earlier this year secured a “National Treasure” designation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, want the current structure – known as “the amp” — saved.

A historic preservation panel formed at the recommendation of the National Park Service said in an Aug. 6 report that the institution must decide whether its desire for expanded programming and capacity is worth losing the existing amphitheater over.

It recommended a preservation architect be consulted about rehabilitating the aging structure, but “if every program goal must be met in the existing building, there may be no way to preserve the historic amp,” it said.

The panel’s suggestion that a second venue be built on the grounds to accommodate larger productions is financially unrealistic, chief marketing officer George Murphy said.

“Their conclusion, at the end of the day is, there’s a trade-off to be made between preservation and programming,” Murphy said.

The report said the final decision should be delayed until an anticipated engineering report on the structural stability of the site is complete.

Stephanie Meeks, president and chief executive of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a statement backed the delay while encouraging institution leadership to build support for “a preservation-based alternative for the amp.”

Photo: Chautauqua Institution Archives via AP
Amelia Earhart speaks on her flight across the Atlantic to a capacity Chautauqua Amphitheater audience.

The institution’s board will consider the report, along with public input gathered throughout the summer, Murphy said, before the vote later this month.