Amphitheater Controversy Ramps Up: Pros and Cons Debated

Artist’s impression of new main entrance of the proposed Amphitheater reconstruction.
Artist’s impression of new main entrance of the proposed Amphitheater reconstruction.

Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut

“We want to have a Chautauqua style discussion where everybody has all the information and can make a good decision from there,” George Murphy, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Chautauqua Institution told an interviewer recently.
Murphy was answering questions about the controversy over the proposed renovation or replacement of the legendary and historic Amphitheater at the center of the Institution’s grounds. The Amphitheater project has drawn both fire and praise from many.
Murphy reflected that no controversy can be settled without looking at both sides, an especially difficult exercise once opinions have become polarized. A recent pre-season visit to the grounds revealed apparently reasonable opinions on both sides of the issue.

Voices to be Heard
A series of informational sessions will be held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through the first six weeks of the season at Chautauqua Institution for participants to hear in-depth discussions of the challenges and plans involved in the project, to ask questions, voice opinions and register their approval or disapproval based on that information. Guests are also invited to tour the facilities as part of these opportunities to see the physical problems and opportunities inherent to the project.
Members of the administration and the production and artistic staff who use the Amphitheater will also be on hand to discuss their experiences and needs in the production of live entertainment.

Aging Gracefully or Crumbling?
The Amphitheater was built in 1883 when the Institution itself was not yet 10 years old. “A lot of the features of the old building cannot pass today’s building codes,” according to Bill Flanders, a long time Chautauqua resident, engineer and builder whose family business was instrumental in constructing many of the Institution’s buildings over the years. “There’s not as much of the original Amphitheater left as some people may think, considering the years of repairs and modifications that have gone into it,” he added. This view stands behind the many who favor demolition.
Opponents of the old Amphitheater’s demolition, however, counter that the Institution’s plan will obliterate nearly “…every character-defining element of the structure,” a recognized National Historic Landmark.
According to Brian Berg, chair of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, and the National Treasures website (, the Chautauqua Institution administration has admitted to planning demolition rather that their originally stated “rehabilitation.” The website states “…the Amp is certainly in need of some upgrades and improvements today. All buildings need to be cared for and maintained over time” and with “…careful stewardship, the Amp is still very much a historic structure worthy of preservation for future generations.”

Looking Ahead or Backward?
According to one Chautauqua property owner who started coming to the Institution 60 years ago as a youngster with her family (who preferred not to be named), “the founders of this place were forward thinkers. They were revolutionaries, not historic preservationists. Doing ‘the new thing’ is in Chautauqua Institution’s DNA. A 132-year-old building doesn’t make sense with 21st Century technology and a new century’s opportunities. We weren’t meant to live in the past here.”
This view is consistent with the Institution’s Study Group Report which states, “The current structure has many challenges because of age, size, configuration, and the demands of presenting a 21st century program in a 19th century building.” See for more.
Historians note that the Institution was founded as the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly in 1874 to experiment in outside-of-school, vacation-time education. Quickly expanded to provide teacher training and music, art, philosophy and science, it became the 19th Century version of “Viral”, within only a few years spawning hundreds of “Chautauquas” across the nation, some of which still exist today. Change and forward thinking, according to many Chautauquans, are the Institution’s most important “historic landmarks” to preserve, not buildings.
Nevertheless, according to, “The Institution’s own survey shows that the architectural history of the Amp was the most important feature in defining the Amphitheater experience among respondents. Additionally, 93% of respondents indicated that the current Amp adequately accommodates the Institution’s programming, while 31% felt that the Amp meets those needs perfectly.”
According to Bill Flanders, “People here feel they ‘own’ the Institution, in a way. They have invested so many years and dollars in it that their sense of ownership and loyalty entitles them to a voice in what happens here.”

Practical Matters
A recent visit to the Amphitheater revealed repairs underway on a section of the Amphitheater roof that had collapsed under the weight of the 2014-15 winter snow. “Here’s the new beam,” a construction worker said, indicating a massive wooden beam and supporting structures under a large new section of roof. “The old one was rotted right out. Lucky thing more didn’t come down this year.”
“The back stage is abysmal, really,” said a member of the Chautauqua arts community describing the behind the scenes facilities that greet performers, whether they are Chautauqua’s own performers or guests stars and groups. It was also noted that the back stage loading area, having been designed for 19th century horses and freight is inadequate and even inaccessible for 21st century semis and heavy stage equipment.

Demo or Rehab?
The question most often voiced is whether demolition or rehabilitation is more appropriate.
“In the past, the changes that were made to update and improve the Amp were done incrementally and with great respect to the historic character and integrity of the original design,” according to Presumably, the 21st century upgrades could be accomplished once again by rehabilitating the existing structure while maintaining its original character. One Chautauquan asked, “Do we really need to spend $33 million for a brand new building that will only be used for nine weeks every year?”
“Will the old Amphitheater really last another 130 years, no matter how well we care for it? An old building cobbled out of a patchwork of fixes, repairs and modifications just isn’t good enough,” a senior member of the Chautauqua Institution administration countered. “We simply have to start from the ground up to make it right. And shouldn’t we offer our patrons and guests the kind of safety, convenience, comfort and theatrical experience that are simply beyond the old building traditions and out dated codes to provide?” The new building is designed to retain the “outdoor” experience and much of the feel of the original architecture, according to the architects developing the project.
The 2011 Study Group Report provided, “…a conceptual estimate of construction costs showing a range from $19 million to $21 million.” In 2015, a price tag of $33 million is circulating and many wonder if “project creep” can be far behind.

Final Answer?
Whether the final answer will be based on sentimental attachment to an historic and noble structure, a forward looking drive to a finer future or simply on economic considerations, Chautauqua Institution is poised to stop, look and listen to all sides this summer with an eye toward a final decision slated for mid-August, 2015. Opinions on all sides seem firm but few claim the final answer will be simple to arrive at.

Extensive roof and support repairs under way due to winter snow collapse of the northwest corner of the Amphitheater.
Extensive roof and support repairs under way due to winter snow collapse of the northwest corner of the Amphitheater.
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Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.