The massive project is expected to end on time with the new amphitheater OK’d for use sometime between the third week in May and June 1.
CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. — It’s fitting that Jamestown High School’s graduation will be the first event at the Chautauqua Institution’s new $41.5 million amphitheater, says the institution’s new president.
Such an event is symbolic of the value the organization places on education and community, but Michael E. Hill knows that even when the construction is done, work remains to heal divisions created by the project, which replaced a beloved 122-year-old structure central to the life and traditions of this nonprofit education center and resort about 40 miles east of Erie.
Demolition of the old covered amphitheater started in September 2016. The massive project, funded through private donors and foundations, is expected to end on time with the new amphitheater OK’d for use sometime between the third week in May and June 1.
Patrons who visit the new amphitheater will notice increased seating capacity, greater accessibility and safety for handicapped visitors and better sightlines. The new facility will have a larger, 100-musician orchestra pit, an expanded stage, improved stage lighting and technology systems for sound and projection, larger storage areas, an improved loading dock with stage-level access, and a new attached area for artists, production crews and guests.
The new facility’s seating capacity will increase 8 percent to 4,363 from 4,000 and overall and total space under cover will increase by about 15 percent.
Some of the key changes, such as improvements to space that hosts visiting performers, may rarely be seen by the institution’s broader audience, but are essential to remaining competitive in the effort to book and host highly sought after speakers and musical performers, Hill noted.
The project was allowed to move forward in February 2016 only after the New York State Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group called the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater. Many of the project’s opponents wanted to preserve most of the original structure and address the most pressing needs through renovations. Champions of the replacement project countered that a complete overhaul — with careful attention to recreating the details that made the amphitheater special — was a must.
The fallout left some hurt feelings and damaged relationships in a community known for its dedication to robust discussion and inclusion of wide-ranging viewpoints.
While the installation of Hill as the 18th president on June 25 and the ribbon cutting at the new amphitheater the following weekend feels very much like the start of a new chapter for the 143-year-old institution, shaping how the past colors the present is among the top items on Hill’s to-do list.
“How we acknowledge and reintegrate the amphitheater back into the life of the community is what I perceive is my job and my team’s job,” Hill said. The amphitheater “has always been one of the moral hearts of the place, one of the intellectual hearts of the place and one of the artistic hearts of the place. It will still serve that function. So how we invite people in to celebrate that and to affirm that is what I hope we will do this summer.”
“Healing is on a different timeline for everybody,” he said of those who remained unsettled in the wake of the project. “My hope is to make them feel heard and celebrate our life together under a really great new resource.”
Pat Bywater can be reached at 870-1722 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNbywater.