The arguments in favor of tearing down the Chautauqua Amphitheater and replacing it with a new version designed to look something like the old one usually include a complaint that preservationists—those of us who would rather see the old Amphitheater kept and used as the starting point for any renovations—are against change. It is as if preservationists were determined to tether Chautauqua to its past, blocking the administration’s earnest efforts to keep Chautauqua current. In my view, the argument for preservation is not that at all. It is not an attempt to maintain the status quo, but is rather an argument for managed change, for careful, measured, respectful change. As one who has spoken at the Amphitheater, I am as aware as anyone of the inadequacy of its facilities, and of how urgent some kind of update is. But we have not seen any convincing evidence that the only way the Amphitheater can be updated is to tear it down and start over.
Why does it matter? Why not just start over? Isn’t that fresher and more exciting? After all, Chautauqua has changed and evolved over the generations, and why freeze it now? Lewis Mumford, perhaps the greatest architecture critic of the twentieth century, wrote “In a city, time becomes visible,” and those six words tell us everything about why preservation matters, and what its goals should be. Chautauqua is a kind of city, for all its tranquility and rustic beauty, since it is a place in which multiple buildings come together to make a place that is larger and more complex and more meaningful than anything any of them could be on their own. And we know that the visibility of time is one of the most important things about Chautauqua — the sense that the setting may evolve, but it does not change dramatically, that it is a place in which we can expect that the elements that give it meaning will not change, but will be a backdrop for all kinds of new events and new encounters. The people and the ideas change constantly, but it is the continuity of their setting that gives what they say and what they do much of its meaning. It is the continuity of the setting that is fundamental to the experience of Chautauqua, and which, paradoxically, allows it to be a place that is safe and hospitable to new ideas. The very fact that a conversation is taking place at Chautauqua and not somewhere else gives it a degree of resonance.
I once heard a very simple but wonderfully poetic phrase, “the ever continuing past,” and that says it perfectly, since it suggests a past that is not only visible but has an ongoing life that in some meaningful way connects to the present: a living past, you might say. Here, there is absolute relevance to Chautauqua, since in a place with an ever continuing past, the past is not something sealed off to look at, and then we go back to the rest of our lives. It is a place in which the past helps to define the present, and in so doing it continues to evolve. The meaning of the past changes as each age uses it differently, views it differently, interprets it differently. In an ever continuing past, old buildings have a meaningful duty not solely to remind us of the past, but to enrich the present. I have always thought of Chautauqua as embodying the idea of the ever continuing past. But intrinsic to this idea is the notion that a place changes through evolution, not revolution.
There is something off-putting about a place that is entirely new. It may excite you for a moment, but you rapidly sense the absence of history. The heart of a place like Chautauqua — which is to say the Amp — needs to feel like it began long before you and will go on long after you. It should have a patina. It should have gravitas. It almost goes without saying that another reason to oppose the current plan is that the replacement version of the Amp is so lacking in the very gravitas that the current Amp, for all its admitted funkiness, has earned through the generations. It strikes me as a mediocre and banal attempt to copy the Amp in the most superficial way, and it seems not to have any of the Amp's hard-earned authenticity. When I referred to the Amphitheater as having a unique combination of funkiness and monumentality, I was talking about a quality that cannot be consciously replicated, and that will surely be lost if the present structure is destroyed.
I know as well as anyone that places cannot and should not remain static. Places that do not grow and change invariably die; change is what keeps a place, and an institution, alive. But I have not yet seen the evidence that change and evolution cannot come to the Amphitheater without tearing it down and starting from scratch. It seems to me as if Chautauqua has an opportunity here to show that it is a place where the layers of time sit comfortably together. In the proposed new Amp, there will not be layers of time, but a false past standing on its own in place of a real and resonant one. That is not what Mumford meant when he talked of time being visible.
Join our campaign! Sign our petition urging the Chautauqua Institution's Board of Trustees to take the time needed to develop a preservation-based rehabilitation plan befitting of this National Treasure.