January 27, 2015

[Q&A] Chautauqua Amphitheater: Paul Goldberger on America's Newest National Treasure

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Since it opened as a Sunday School in 1875, the Chautauqua Institution has helped spark and sustain a broader movement in education, culture, and spirituality in communities throughout the country. Today, this 750-acre education center on the shores of western New York’s Lake Chautauqua continues to serve as a summertime retreat and intellectual, spiritual, and cultural wellspring.

At the institution’s center is the 1893 Chautauqua Amphitheater, a 4,000-seat, roofed, open air structure internationally recognized as a forum for American culture and history. Its wooden stage has hosted Franklin D. Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall, Bobby Kennedy, Ella Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, Booker T. Washington, Bill and Hilary Clinton, and Sandra Day O’Connor, to name just a few.

But the building is in jeopardy. Despite a recent delay in the Chautauqua Institution’s decision-making process, there is a chance “the Amp” -- as it’s affectionately known -- may be replaced by a replica structure. In an effort to save the Amp, the National Trust has chosen it as our newest National Treasure.

To get a better sense of just how important the Chautauqua Amphitheater’s survival is, I spoke with Vanity Fair architecture critic and National Trust board member, Paul Goldberger.

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Can you discuss the architectural significance of the Amphitheater?
It’s actually not the most beautiful building in the world -- I think that should be said right out front. It’s almost non-architecture in a way, because it is without much great style to it, but it has a presence, a feeling, an aura, that’s very powerful. Chautauqua is one of those unusual assemblages of buildings in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The Amphitheater is really its functional and its spiritual center.

What is the cultural significance of the building and this place in a larger sense?
Chautauqua is one of the great centers of American dialogue. It’s the beginning of a very, very important notion, which is that of the summer retreat as a place of intellectual betterment and an exchange of ideas. Spirituality, intellectual inquiry, the arts, and relaxation in a beautiful summer environment were the key ideas of Chautauqua and I don’t think they’d ever been put together in exactly that way before.

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Do you feel a personal connection to the Amp?
Very much so. I’ve spoken there a few times and attended many events as well. It’s thrilling to be on that platform where so many important talks have been given; so many important ideas have been presented, debated, and discussed. It’s one of those places, sort of like the Great Hall of The Cooper Union where Abraham Lincoln made his famous speech. They’re places of great importance to the history of intellectual discourse in this country, and [they’re] just quite wonderful and exhilarating not only because of that history, but because an aura that the history contributes to also is inherent in the place itself.

What is it like to be in the space?
It’s like being in a great wooden tent. It doesn’t have the formality of an auditorium or a lecture hall at all. That combination of informality and grandeur that it has -- I might almost go so far as to say funkiness and grandeur -- those are adjectives that almost never describe the same place. But I think that you could say that they both describe the Amphitheater. It’s very exciting and I have great joy and exhilaration speaking there.

What are your thoughts on how the preservation process should move forward from here?
I think the administration of Chautauqua is faced with a very legitimate challenge to update [the Amphitheater] and make it somewhat more feasible for 21st century events. It’s been discussed widely that it has significant shortcomings in terms of its sound system, its back-stage amenities, its level of access to the disabled, all those things. And there’s no question they need to be fixed and should be fixed. But they don’t need to be fixed by starting all over again. There are a lot of ways that sensitive architects can update and upgrade this facility without changing its fundamental nature, and I think that has to be the goal.

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What will it mean to preserve this place?
I think the most important thing to say about Chautauqua is not its importance as a physical place -- even though obviously as a preservationist I believe profoundly in that -- but how successful it’s been at continuing to be a living institution. If Chautauqua had failed, that would be one thing. But in fact it’s been remarkably successful in keeping going into the 21st century. Why under those circumstances would you want to fix what isn’t broken? What needs to be done, and what is broken, are just details. So I’m very excited that they now seem to have recognized this after a false start in the wrong direction. No final decisions have been made, but… hopefully they will be going in the right direction when the whole thing restarts.

What’s one element of this effort that sticks out as important to you?
One thing that’s important to say is that it would be a great shame if the preservation effort devoted to the Amphitheater were misinterpreted as in some way being opposed to the idea that Chautauqua is a living, evolving institution. However, the point is that it’s possible for the Amphitheater to evolve and improve without starting all over again. I would be very sad if it lost that kind of a wonderful combination of funkiness and grandeur that I referred to earlier, because there’s almost no place else I can think of that has those two qualities together. It is at once noble and casual.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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