7 of Our Favorite Historic Amphitheaters Around the Country
Warm weather brings to mind lighter clothes, lighter meals—even lighter architecture. Freed from the practical need to protect against cold temperatures, amphitheaters make fresh air and natural surroundings key players in the ceremonies, concerts, and performances that take place in these sloped-seating, open-air venues.
The Scott Outdoor Amphitheater at Swarthmore College is “a premier example of designing in harmony with nature,” says Claire Sawyers, director of the school’s Scott Arboretum. Designed by Philadelphia landscape architect Thomas W. Sears, the structure was built in 1942 on the site of a dilapidated outdoor auditorium that had all but disappeared into the woods. Its shady stone-and-grass tiers seem to have spontaneously sprung from the surrounding forest, and massive tulip poplar trees rise like Greek columns within the amphitheater, their foliage providing a leafy ceiling.
Outside Denver, a landscape of a different sort plays a starring role at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre (shown at top). Three massive sandstone monoliths rise from an arid landscape and surround this naturally occurring basin once used by the Ute, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other Native American peoples as a sacred site and gathering place. With the support of the city of Denver and the National Park Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed Red Rocks between 1936 and 1941. Architect Burnham Hoyt used a restrained style that blended with the landscape, combining rustic, Pueblo, and Modernist influences.
In 2021, Red Rocks replaced its old stage roof with a sturdier one to better handle the weighty rigging necessary for modern performances. The new roof’s materials and curvilinear lines echo the naturalistic appearance of the rest of the structure.
As a fairly common New Deal building project type, amphitheaters were built not only by the CCC, but also by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its short-lived predecessor, the Civil Works Administration. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the latter in November of 1933, Sioux City, Iowa’s Monahan Post Band and its supporters quickly received approval for the construction of the Grandview Park Bandshell. Based on an award-winning design by young local architect Henry Kamphoefner, the Moderne-style amphitheater features a grand wide arch of white concrete that frames a rounded shell of the same material. The Bandshell still hosts the Sioux City Municipal Band—a successor to the Monahan Post Band—as well as Saturday in the Park, an annual festival that draws thousands of visitors.
The opportunity to apply for New Deal programs allowed even residents of smaller towns to enjoy their own amphitheaters. Evans Amphitheater at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was born of drama teacher Dina “Doc” Rees Evans’ staging of an outdoor community production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1934. At the time, the park contained little more than a sledding hill in this residential area. The success of the play, along with Evans’ powers of persuasion, led the city of Cleveland Heights to found a municipally owned and operated theater on the site, and the WPA completed the amphitheater in 1938.
Today, it hosts national musical acts rather than theater productions, but remains at its heart an amphitheater in a woodsy ravine. Performers are tucked below street level, with the audience gently sloping toward the stage inside a curtain of trees. Over the years, big-ticket upgrades have been added, such as a stage roof and improvements to seating and accessibility, but the day-to-day work of preservation includes keeping nature in check. The original stone walls are regularly repaired, pruning and weeding are ongoing tasks, and WPA-built drainage under the amphitheater must be diligently maintained, but it’s worth the effort, says Erin Cameron Miller, Cain Park general manager. “Cleveland Heights has this gem right in their own backyard, and the community has it within walking distance of their homes.”
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Maintenance is a challenge for all historic amphitheaters—after all, they’re outside—but it can be more difficult for communities with fewer resources. “I’ve been trying to push for a ‘Friends of the Amp’ to help with restoration—getting it documented, looking for grants,” says Jen Weathington, director of the Gadsden, Alabama, parks and recreation department. She oversees the Mort Glosser Amphitheater, locally called “the Amp.” The rustic-style, semi-hexagonal Amp was built of local stone by the WPA in 1935 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988. Originally owned by the American Legion, the Amp has hosted events as varied as boxing matches, USO performances during World War II, theater productions, political speeches, and more. Today it’s best known for its free monthly musical performances every summer. “When you sit in the Amp, you can just feel the history,” says Weathington.
Some American amphitheaters were built from the start with an eye toward history—even ancient history. In Los Angeles, industrialist Griffith J. Griffith gave 3,000 acres to the city for a public park in 1896, and later bequeathed $1 million for the establishment of an observatory and a Greek-style theater in Griffith Park.
The park’s Greek Theatre, dedicated in 1930, is now known for hosting big-name musical acts from Aretha Franklin to Bruce Springsteen, but it began as an opera venue and was used as a military barracks during World War II. Starting mostly in 2017, a major rehabilitation upgraded visitor amenities, made functional improvements, and painstakingly restored some of the original Classical Revival and other historic elements that had been obscured or had degraded over the years. Architecture firm Page & Turnbull oversaw the preservation aspects of the project. Firm principal John Lesak says the team removed layered paint and corrosion from the amphitheater’s signature entry doors; made the facade’s decorative, cast-in-place concrete Greek key banding visible again; and painstakingly matched glazed terra-cotta roof tiles with custom replacements.
The Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery was built for ceremonial and commemorative purposes rather than the arts. After the cemetery’s smaller Tanner Amphitheater (which is still in use) could no longer accommodate larger crowds, and after years of appropriations requests to Congress and World War I construction delays, the new amphitheater, designed by architect Thomas Hastings, was dedicated in 1920. Thousands of visitors and dignitaries gather every year for services on Veterans and Memorial days, and, as the pandemic allows, the site and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on its eastern plaza are open to visitors daily.
Recent renovations include the meticulous restoration of windows and doors, as well as treatment of the discolored marble to remove the stubborn buildup of algae, fungus, and bacteria accumulated over decades outdoors. Like all amphitheaters, the Memorial is both built upon and battered by nature.
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