“I must protest against the dismemberment of Chautauqua.”
- Letter to William Rainey Harper from John Heyl Vincent, 4 July 1899.
I stumbled across this nugget while researching other matters regarding George Vincent and William Rainey Harper, the first President of the University of Chicago. Vincent’s father John Heyl Vincent was a founder of Chautauqua, which as you may know, is a place in New York state that evolved from a Sunday School into a nationwide educational movement.
The Amphitheater, built in 1893, has echoed the voices of Americans ranging from Susan B. Anthony and William Jennings Bryan to Ella Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor. And William Rainey Harper to be sure. It is central to the Chautauqua National Historic Landmark and one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Treasures. The Trust also named ‘The Amp” one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites back in June.
The “dismemberment” in the letters between Vincent and Harper referred not to the physical Amphitheater but the movement itself and the richness of the educational and cultural experiences it offered. From upstate New York (and Ontario) the movement spread and created auditoria and ampitheaters from Florida to Colorado, many of which are now significant landmarks as well.
Chautauqua was a way of bringing great minds, great music and culture to adult Americans everywhere the the nation. President Theodore Roosevelt called it the most American thing in America. The Amphitheater was of course the center of the Chautauqua experience and the edifice that edified, indeed.
The current leadership of the Chautauqua Institution is trying to demolish the Amphitheater and replace it with a new one. They FINALLY admitted that after pretending they were going the rehab route. Always good to determine your design approach AFTER you start the fundraising.
I am back in Chicago and the whole project reeks of the small-mindedness of a Chicago political deal. There are the usual complaints about sight lines and contemporary amenities, but the more that is revealed about the deal the more Chicago it gets. The architect has never even done a building like this before but has built a house for one of the major donors.
*Mic drop* You sure there isn’t a Chicago alderman or Illinois governor involved?
The latest is that the demolition bids are way higher than expected. Well, gee whiz you hired an inexperienced architect – looks like your cost guy hasn’t played in the big leagues yet either.
Speaking of the big leagues, when a football or baseball team wants a new stadium it is all about the luxury boxes and seat licenses. Which is to say it is financial. So, what are the finances of demolition and reconstruction? About $5-$15 million MORE than rehabilitation.
You see, there are limited situations where rehabilitation does not work physically or financially. 1. A grave disorder or limitation in the historic structure that cannot be solved. Not the case here. 2. A new need or use that cannot be accommodated. Also not the case here. 3. Financial burdens. Also not the case – they are spending MORE. They are basically replacing an old Ampitheater with a new one.
Because? Newer is better? That works when you are selling houses, because newer is better for all of five years, and most people flip after five years. But an amphitheater where Marian Anderson sang and Booker T. Washington spoke? Where Van Cliburn played? This legacy deserves better than a strip mall mentality, an insider deal and an amateur approach.
Nothing historic to see here. Move along.
UPDATE: More Hijinks!
Well, as is common in these cases, a few more fun, Chicagoesque details have come to light. The first involves the shift from “Rehab” to “Demolition” and follows a very yellowed and very tattered playbook. You know the one: raise a structural red herring.
So, you are coming to see this incredible historic place where half of the people in your American History textbook spoke. You want to walk among the columns, touch the benches, gaze upon the stage. But they make you sign a WAIVER not holding them responsible in case you suffered an injury in an unsafe Amp. BRILLIANT!
So, they did a structural study, right? Oh yeah, they did, RIGHT before they voted to demolish it in August. Two weeks before, but MONTHS after they made people sign waivers based on…..wishful thinking?
This is a pattern. They had another historic house on site that they promised to rehab, started raising money for rehab and — SWITCHEROO — decided to demolish it and call the new one the same thing. Just like the Amp. So this is how they operate: Fake a rehab, draw in dollars, and then throw the bomb.
Second fun detail: The state of the campus plan and the organization’s strategic plan. Every self-respecting National Historic Landmark has a plan. Not Chautauqua. The National Park Service even offered to help. But as far as I can discover, there is no campus plan, nor a current strategic plan to guide decision-making, even if it is done in the dark.
That’s just bad policy. Sure, it happens all the time, but rarely with an organization and a PLACE of this import, scale, and budget.
Images courtesy Committee to Save The Historic Chautauqua Amphitheatre
Post script – check out the comment below! Full on ad hominem!
Visit Save The Amp! to find out more!
2016 UPDATE: The board of the Chautauqua voted – as expected, opaquely – to trash the Amp and spend $41 million demolishing and replacing it. Power corrupts.
HOT OFF THE PRESSES! A lawsuit has been filed by those who want to preserve the building, charging that the process had circumvented local and state laws requiring architectural and environmental review. Given what is chronicled above and the Institution’s proclivity for process-avoidance, it could be true, and the Supreme Court has issued a stay on the demolition – Stay Tuned!
12 FEBRUARY 2016 UPDATE:
Well, the stay is lifted so they can begin demolition. I am very sad about this loss, not least because as the National Trust, we do not lose that many of our 11 Most Endangered Sites.
The next step after the loss of the Amp should be the delisting of Chautauqua as a National Historic Landmark – that is what happened to Soldier Field after a spaceship landed in it a decade ago. That wasn’t even a full demolition like this one, and to their credit, the Soldier Field folks were transparent and straightforward about what they were doing.