Amphitheater plans halted at Chautauqua

Nov 10, 2015

The Chautauqua Institution board is giving itself a month to reevaluate bids on replacing the historic amphitheater.

Credit WBFO News File Photo

The board had planned to approve construction bids for demolition of the current 19th Century Amp and replacement with an identical 21st Century building.

When the 16 different sets of construction bids were opened, they were over the anticipated $36 million. There has been a strong push to repair the current structure rather than replace it.

Chief Marketing Officer George Murphy says planning is going ahead for the new structure.
"They did come in toward the end of the month a little bit higher than we'd like," Murphy said. 

"Right now we are going through called de-scoping all the bids. There's 16 different packages. We're probably rebid a couple. And, the intent is to get everything squared up in early December and then re-convene a board meeting some time in the month of December."

Murphy says some bids were under estimates and others were over. While this is going on, the present building is being structurally braced for winter. He says if the bids are accepted in January some work can be done before Chautauqua opens for the summer season, with nine-months of intensive work going on a year from now.

UPDATE: On Thursday, Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker sent the following letter, as a follow-up to a November 7 board meeting:

Dear Chautauquans:
All of us at Chautauqua Institution want to thank you for a wonderful 2015 season. We are grateful to all of you for your support. We have a terrific season upcoming in 2016, and we hope you will join us as we celebrate our 143nd assembly with an exciting series of lectures and events. You can find details and new announcements regarding the 2016 season at

I also write to clarify some misinformation that has cropped up in media reports regarding our Board’s recent decisions about the Amphitheater renewal project. At its Nov. 7 meeting, the Board of Trustees agreed to take additional time to thoroughly review the construction bids we have received — especially as they concern timeline and cost.  As has been the case throughout this process, the Board wants to ensure that all of the objectives for the Amp project will be met. The trustees agreed to meet again, prior to the end of the year, to evaluate and consider action on the completed bid review.

  • Some media reports jumped to the conclusion that this means the project is halted, or that we are "going back to the drawing board." That is not true. We are moving forward, and our timeline remains consistent with the current bid plans for completing the Amp project for the 2017 summer season.
  • One factor affecting the cost of the project was the community’s desire — expressed many times throughout the summer — that we ensure the Amp project will be completed in the 2016–17 off-season. This caused us to re-evaluate the scope of site work prior to the 2016 Chautauqua season. We have asked our construction manager to ensure that an aggressive pre-2016 season site-preparation plan is part of the bid package.
  • Further, contrary to some media reports, we do not yet know what the final cost for the Amp project will be. At this point, any figure you might hear is speculation. As you know, we have been very open and transparent about anticipated cost throughout this process. However, we also tried to be clear that all the costs have been preliminary and subject to a final bid process. In fact, the initial estimated cost was arrived at before the project was fully defined and all the details of the project were finalized. That is why the Board decided to take more time and, in some cases, to seek re-bids. We are working hard to make certain we are meeting our program goals while being fiscally responsible.
  • Finally, we want to put to bed the myth that the renewed Amp will be a replica. That is wrong. The renewed Amphitheater will be a state-of-the-art facility that harmonizes seamlessly with its setting, and retains vital connectivity to the other significant community gathering places at the heart of the Chautauqua Institution grounds.

    The design honors the look and feel of the original structure, a requirement Chautauquans have emphasized to us from the earliest stages of the project. The design had to have a familiar feel. In that regard, I believe we have succeeded enormously.

    Importantly, the renewed Amp will greatly improve safety and accessibility for people with disabilities or physical limitations. The design respects the audience and performers alike; providing a modern-day experience with suitable comfort, access, and sight lines for audiences; and appropriate space on the stage and in the back-of-house for artists, presenters and production crews.

We look forward to continuing to work through this process and toward our goal of a renewed Amp that will meet the needs of all Chautauquans for the next 100 years. We will keep you informed as the project progresses. Again, thank you for your support, and all the best to you and your family this Thanksgiving season.
Tom Becker