My husband worked there. His late father had worked there. Both of our daughters worked there. So when the Chautauqua Amphitheater was demolished, our family felt a profound sense of loss. To witness the razing of a structure that has so personally touched so many people is heartbreaking. At the same time, we understand that our emotions defy logic.
Logic tells us that the building was no longer safe, nor did it meet the demands of its current role. It was incredibly difficult to get in and out of the Amphitheater, for performers who had equipment to load in and out, and for spectators who had incredibly steep ramps to traverse just to find a seat on a rock hard wooden bench where your knees may or may not have hit the back of the bench in front of you. Countless times we rose from our seats to help catch a person (young and old alike) nearly taking a header down a ramp. We also watched as parts of the Amp struggled to keep up under the weight of rooftop snow. We heard from the Chautauqua staff about engineering studies which showed that many of the columns holding the roof over our heads had never been permanently anchored in concrete below the frost line; that they were actually just stuck into the earth, and that the building was very slowly sliding downhill towards Chautauqua Lake.
This Amphitheater was not the original at Chautauqua. An earlier flat-roofed model lasted just thirteen years before it was replaced. In addition, this Amp had been changed so many times over the years that almost none of it was original equipment: the Massey organ chamber was built, the stage was replaced, and countless other changes were made over the years.
I don’t believe that replacing the Amphitheater was ever an easy decision for any member of the Chautauqua Board of Trustees. Every person who has ever set foot under its tent-like roof has felt the weight of the historic speeches and performances there. The gravity of the loss has not been taken lightly. Yet the board is also required, as boards are, to look forward for the good of the Institution. Creating a vision and mission are the most crucial roles of any board. I do believe that the founders of Chautauqua were progressive thinkers. Having read about Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent and their vision for Chautauqua, it is clear that they were in the business of focusing on teaching others in order to create what they felt would be a brighter future. It was their vision that created the Chautauqua Institution we have all enjoyed for decades. Now, their successors, are working towards maintaining that vision and looking forward.
When push came to shove yesterday, quite literally, the remains of the Amphitheater fell to the ground in less than sixty seconds. It turns out the engineering studies were right, and that the structure by itself was not safe. Once it was no longer anchored to the organ chamber, the crew on site could see it shifting and felt it could fall into the organ chamber, which would have been a disaster since that structure is being saved with a new Amp to be built around it. A few pushes by backhoes and a pull by a crane claw at the other end were all it took to knock it down in just about 45 seconds, according to the videos I have seen online. To watch it come down this quickly is both affirming and heartbreaking. Progress is often painful, but safety should always come first.
The landscape at Chautauqua is suddenly dramatically different, at least temporarily. It is very hard to see the place we have loved lying in ruins. Our family has spent hours in the old Chautauqua Amphitheater, both working and watching amazing performances, hearing fascinating lectures, and worshiping with inspirational preachers. Our children have graced that very stage, participating in All County Music Festivals and the Music School Festival Orchestra. We will always have those extraordinary memories.
Now, as we wait to see the new Amphitheater rise in its place, we look forward to making new memories. After all, it is the people and the relationships we have built that make Chautauqua a special place. The Institution remains focused on art, religion, music, and education, and that has not changed. We hope you will join us there next summer as we gather under the new Amp. Come and see if you’re inspired, as we have been, by the words uttered from the Amphitheater stage by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, to “think higher, feel deeper.”