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Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater task force talks $30M project

August 29, 2013
Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

By Dave O'Connor


CHAUTAUQUA - A cut-away model showing the Chautauqua Amphitheater after completion of a proposed $30 million renovation is the basis of both questions and answers during lunch-hour presentations at Smith Memorial Library throughout this season.

Article Photos

Photo by Dave O’Connor
John Milos, a member of the task force committee for the Chautauqua Amphitheater, discussed proposed changes to the 120-year-old structure recently in Smith Memorial Library on the grounds. Milos used the cut-away model to help explain how an estimated $30 million renovation would change the historic structure.

John Milos, a member of the Amphitheater project task force, hosted last Friday's session; one of a series since July 6, when the model was first displayed.

The preliminary design development plan was drawn up by Serena Sturm Architects in Chicago.

Milos emphasized the work must be completed between program seasons, "That is our biggest concern." Funding is also a concern, he added, and Institution management hopes the necessary money will be available as early as next summer so the refurbished amp could host the 2015 program.

Institution bylaws require full funding of a project including a maintenance reserve before work begins. "No shovel will go into the ground until the money is raised," Milos told the approximately 25 people on hand at the most-recent session. The current proposal is, measured in dollars, the largest public works project in Institution history.

At earlier sessions, John Shedd, administrator of architectural and land use on the grounds, has been equally adamant about the money part.

"I cannot emphasize this enough: We will get the funding first," he said.

Skepticism that 10 months would be enough to complete the contemplated changes was reflected in a series of questions. One question, for example, raised the common experience of construction delays.

Milos remained firm that if the project happens, timely completion will be an absolute priority. This, he said, means sheltering the amp so weather will not cause holdups.

Reinforcement of at least one street to allow heavy equipment access would be another precaution, according to Milos who assured that the street would be restored following the renovation.

Some questions weren't answered. "We're just getting ready to look at construction documents," Milos explained.

Responding to concerns about maintaining the unique look of the amp, Milos noted that careful research uncovered some 25 minor and major revamps during its 120-year history.

This presented a choice between what Milos termed "materials and experience."

"We're capturing the experience for sure," Milos commented. He noted that many materials used in the structure over the years are either no longer easily available or no longer used: leaded paint for example.

Removing the bleacher seats from the rear of the amp is an example of one change that would make the building more closely resemble its pre-1980s appearance, Milos pointed out.

Based on information at Friday's session it seems likely that at least one part of the renovation will get done: strengthening the roof. "The real driving issue (for some of the changes) is concern for the safety of the community," Milos disclosed. New lights, speakers and other equipment suspended from the ceiling plus the weight of winter snow and ice are placing ever more stress on the roof and associated support structures, he said.

These changes would allow fewer supports between the floor and ceiling, according to Shedd, and thus increase the number of seats with a good view of the stage. A big change involves lowering the floor 15 feet.

Last Friday's questions included one from a member of the Chautauqua Symphony about the effect of structure changes on sound quality in the Amphitheater. Milos responded that great care has been taken to preserve and even improve acoustics in the amp which, he noted, has a very good reputation as a venue with superior sound quality.

This led one participant to list a series of well-known acoustic debacles at other venues following interior changes.

Improved access for disabled patrons is another reason the Institution wants changes, according to large posters adjacent to the model. This would include wider aisles and appropriate seating.

Chautauqua officials have already begun approaching major donors. The Institution will roll out a public fundraising campaign in early 2014.



Increasing seating capacity by approximately 300 seats

Eliminating several interior columns to provide better sight-lines

Standing and strolling room around the back rows of seating

Increasing handicapped-accessible seating in orchestra section and along top back row

Code-compliant steps leading down to deepened seating bowl with handrails and footlights

Orchestra pit with capacity for 100 musicians, including pit elevator for flexible stage size

Improved acoustics through increased seating bowl depth and volume

New ergonomic bench seats that still keep similar look to current benches

New back-of-the-house building with improved spaces for function and comfort for performers

Enhanced visibility of Massey Memorial Organ

Stormwater control and sustainable design features

Architectural appearance that will closely match existing elements and characteristics where new components are installed

Preservation of key structural elements and the Massey Memorial Organ chamber



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