John Ford | Staff Writer
It’s going to be Thursdays with Charlie this summer.
Every Thursday afternoon this season at 4:30 p.m. in the Amphitheater, Charlie Heinz, Chautauqua’s former vice president for community planning and design, will conduct a briefing and tour for Chautauquans interested in progress on the Institution’s ambitious plan to rehabilitate and modernize one of its most iconic and functional public buildings.
Heinz initiated the series of weekly sessions last Thursday, with a crowd of more than 100 Chautauquans in attendance. As Heinz led the group from the Amp’s west plaza to the orchestra and then to the rear of the house and back porch, he explained the process of the rehabilitation project to date and highlighted some milestones ahead.
Heinz first reminded the group that information on the rehabilitation project is available on the Institution’s website. The “On the Grounds” tab at http://www.ciweb.org/on-the-grounds includes a history of the Amphitheater, a copy of the Amphitheater Study Group’s report to the board of trustees, and a timeline for the project.
Last year, Chautauqua Institution assembled a group of experts in theater architecture, historic preservation and community planning, along with eight Chautauqua community members, to examine issues of historic preservation, functionality, size, sustainability, safety, audience experience, environmental impact and connectivity to the community.
Heinz said that the Amphitheater Study Group presented its report to the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees in November 2011 and architect and study group chairman Marty Serena presented in further detail in February. At the February meeting, the board approved the implementation of the schematic design phase, after funding had been secured. Serena Sturm Architects of Chicago was also named the architect of record for the project.
During Thursday’s session, Heinz led the group through the next steps of the process, cautioning that funding must be secured for each phase before the project can proceed. The schematic design was recently completed and presented to the boards of Chautauqua Institution and the Chautauqua Foundation earlier this season.
“In a perfect world,” Heinz said, “the project could advance over the next nine months to design development and construction drawings, leading to a potential request for bids in May 2013. Again, in a perfect world, we could go to construction after the 2013 Season and be ready with the renovated Amp in time for the 2014 Season.”
During the earliest conceptual planning stage, the project estimate for the building itself was $21 million. Heinz said that subsequent design phases will more fully encompass the entire project and redefine goals. He stressed again that no work will proceed until the money has been secured.
Heinz said the preliminary plans include the bowl in which the Amp sits to be dug out 15 feet and seating increased by more than 10 percent from the current capacity of 4,036 to 4,458. The seating capacity, Heinz said, depends on the average size of an audience member’s backside. Between 18 and 20 inches is a common measure.
Also, the current plans call for the bleachers to be removed, and the “flower” columns which support the lateral roof extension pieces will be moved out to the current perimeter fence line so the increased seating and handicapped seating will be covered.
It is possible that some of the view-inhibiting, interior vertical steel columns may be removed as adjacent columns are reinforced and lengthened. The columns date from the 1893 Amp renovation and were reinforced in 1907 and 1978. They do not currently sit on bedrock, which is 22 feet below grade.
According to the current plan, the entry ramps would be more gradual and have steps, and there will be more gates from the west plaza. Benches in the historic style will be retained, but it is undecided as to whether the current benches will be modified or new benches will be constructed.
There will be some changes and adjustment of the roof-hanging light trusses to improve acoustics, which Heinz described as presently good for the spoken word but not as much for the orchestra.
Various options are being considered for the ceiling, such as a return to the original 1879 design featuring open truss work supplemented by modern acoustic tiles as a possibility. The organ and choir loft will stay where they are, and the stage will remain at its height relative to the orchestra seating.
Mechanical lifts installed at the front areas of the stage and nearby orchestra seating will streamline and facilitate unloading issues for instruments and other equipment from the rear of the house to the stage area. In the down position, the lift will create a pit for the orchestra; in the up position, the lift extends the Amphitheater stage.
Storm water management, a consistent Institution priority, will be significantly improved with the installation of large underground cisterns under the west plaza and rain gardens from the rear of the Amp to Chautauqua Lake.
Numerous improvements are envisioned for the Amp’s rear area, ranging from better storage to increased locker and office space and warm-up and staging areas for the performers. A new choir rehearsal space is also possible.
Because of the massive scope of the work the Institution envisions, Heinz was served dozens of questions about issues such as handicapped seating, sight lines, acoustics and replacing the benches. He and staff members in attendance took note of the concerns and urged more Chautauquans to join the dialogue.
“Our beloved Amp is central to what we do and who we are at Chautauqua,” Heinz said. “The board of trustees knows this. They see these necessary changes as our generation’s legacy to all those who follow in the next 100 years.”