This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
By Linda Jewell, ASLA
More outdoor theaters were built in American parks during Roosevelt’s New Deal program than during any era. This zeal for theater buildings was an outgrowth of an early 20th century movement that promoted the healthful benefits of viewing performances in nature. Beginning with Berkeley’s 1903 Heart Greek Theatre, designers built countless outdoor theaters in the nation’s campuses, estates and parks. But the Depression ended this building boom until Roosevelt’s New Deal again built outdoor theaters “everywhere from the heart of a redwood forest to city streets.”
The NPS’s Branch of Planning and Design managed the Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the nation’s natural parks. Needing to keep these CCC recruits busy, the NPS designers often proposed and designed numerous modest and sometimes spectacular theaters, often without a program request. With 70% of the CCC projects in state and local parks, Theodore Wirth led a new division to manage and design these projects. He included not only in-house design staff, but also junior landscape architects working on-site with the CCC recruits and senior designers who visited the sites to oversee projects as they took shape. To aid designers who had little experience in park design the NPS retained architect Albert Good to produce the book Park and Recreation Structures with examples of appropriate park structures. It included thirteen “Camp Fire Circles and Outdoor Theaters” with recommendations on how structures should blend into a national park landscape. He emphasized the use of local materials, hand-hewn construction, a desire to surround the theater in vegetation and the selection of a bowl-shaped landform to reduce earthwork.
An unspoken, but similarly ingrained notion was that theater plans should be symmetrical. This bias was not only influenced by a concern for efficient sight lines, but also by Goods thirteen examples. Each was a circle or symmetrical arc referencing Hearst and other classically derived theaters of the Beaux Arts era. This geometric predilection, along with the desire to limit earthwork, favored bowl-shaped landforms for theater sites. Even with these limitations, the NPS design staff produced inventive theaters and fire circles that highlighted the beauty of each landscape. These simple but purposeful arrangements of logs or stones were nearly invisible from a distance but they became memorable signs of human intervention when visitors suddenly happened upon them, particularly in forested landscapes such as California’s Big Basin.
On the other hand, theaters in state and local parks with the less scenic ‘subsuperlative nature” described by Good, were sometimes sited in convex or asymmetrical sites where there was a powerful vista or unique setting. Such sites required reshaping the theater to the landscape as at the Mount Tamalpais Theater or reshaping the landscape to the theater. Sometimes the design required both, as at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. This paper will examine how the NPS designers, their consultants and the CCC recruits adhered to, modified and challenged the guidelines and examples laid out in Good’s book to create new and unexpected designs emphasizing the distinctive beauty of each landscape.
Linda Jewell, ASLA, is a Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley. An architect and landscape architect, Jewell has written more than 40 articles for professional and academic publications. Her design work and publications have won numerous ASLA awards, including the Presidential Award in Communications for her construction series in Landscape Architecture magazine, the Bradford Williams Medal and the Jot Carpenter Teaching Medal. She has served as Chair of Landscape Architecture at both Harvard University and UC Berkeley. She is working on a book, Gathering on the Ground: A Voice for the Landscape in the American Outdoor Theater.