Chautauqua Institution Closer To Amphitheater Upgrade Goal

CHAUTAUQUA – Fundraising efforts over the last five months have brought Chautauqua Institution’s Amphitheater upgrade $8 million closer to a final goal of $33.5 million in private donations.

A total of $23.5 million has been raised since January 2011, designated for major upgrades to several portions of the venue. Key features include increased seating, elimination of several interior columns, an orchestra pit and improved acoustics through increased seating and bowl depth.

John Shedd, administrator of architecture and land use regulations and capital projects manager for the institution, said construction will not begin until the full amount of $33.5 million has been raised.

The project has moved into the construction document phase, which entails drawings to be used in the process of bidding for contracts. Shedd reinforced that maintaining the venue’s historic feel has been an underlying motive behind much of the new design.

“We’ve had multiple community members involved to develop our goals for the project,” Shedd said. “Historic preservation has always been part of the discussion.”

While open forums have been held to discuss the Amphitheater project, including the initial development of the scope of work to be completed, the project’s 14-member study group enlisted the help of historical preservation architect Ted Lownie of Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects in Buffalo.

“Ted Lownie did a formal evaluation and designed our methodology, programming statements and processes and said we had gone above and beyond what’s normally performed in terms of historic preservation,” Shedd said. “He also gave us additional guidance as we move into the construction document phase.”

However, a few concerned Chautauqua residents have called the Amphitheater upgrade “drastic” and “historically insensitive.”

Alicia Berg, an urban planner from Chicago who specializes in historic preservation, has lived at the institution each summer for the past 15 years. She expressed concern over changing the Amphitheater’s most distinguishable features, such as the pillars and bench seating.

“What I fear is that Chautauqua is going to, in the long run, end up hurting themselves because it won’t be real and people see through that,” Berg said. “I’m very familiar with the need to continue to make these places safe, but they’re changing the entire proportion of the Amphitheater.”

“We understand that, and we have reverence and respect for historic fabric,” Shedd said. “The most important aspect was the cultural side of the facility that dictated major changes to the Amphitheater, and so we continue the discourse of the artistic performance. Our historic designation the cultural history was most important. It was also important in relativity to the structure, but that was of secondary importance.”

He added that since the building was constructed, it has been renovated several times to support programming, and that improvements are a major component of the Amphitheater’s history within Chautauqua Institution.

“Even with the extensive demolition, we’re removing major portions and rebuilding them in materials that represent the character of the current Amphitheater,” Shedd said.

Berg and Steve Davies, a third-generation resident at the institution, questioned the need for increased depth within the bowl of the Amphitheater, which will be lowered by 15 feet.

“I think people that are familiar with design and architecture feel the same way that there was a process that was set up with the community that didn’t really explore all the options available,” Davies said. “It’s a fairly major change, lowering the bowl.”

Shedd said there are two purposes for lowering the lowest part of the Amphitheater.

“If we can go deeper into the bowl and wider with the upper rim, that’ll achieve a 10-percent increase in seating volume and improve acoustic value,” he said.

“We should be stewards of this incredible national treasure and doing whatever we can to preserve and enhance it for the future,” Davies said.

Lownie said he was very much aware of the importance of the quality of the space at the Amphitheater, particularly the public space.

“We told the architects that it was the quality of the space that mattered, and the quality is seen in the materials used in its special characteristics,” he said. “In terms of domed or vaulted ceilings and the pillars, all of those things are visually important and acoustically important and those are all being maintained or reconstructed.”

Seeing has how the project is being privately funded, it will lack state and federal oversight, Berg said.

“To some extent, that’s true, but not really,” Shedd said. “The town of Chautauqua has oversite over what we’re doing here. There is still oversight, there’s just not as many strings that would normally be attached to state and federal money, which would definitely lengthen the process.”

Shedd said bids are expected to be placed in the early part of next year, with construction beginning at the end of the 2015 summer season. The project could be complete as soon as the summer 2016 season.

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