Rocks, Logs and Circular Perfection: Design Parameters and Processes for Constructing Outdoor Theaters in the Nation’s Parks During the New Deal

This presentation is part of the A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

Linda Jewell, University of California, Berkeley

Linda Jewell, University of California, Berkeley

Linda Jewell: I’m going to thank everyone for a wonderful series of lectures since I’ve been here. So, I’m going to offer something a little bit different. Okay, let me go back to this.

During the 1930s, multiple agencies within Roosevelt’s New Deal built hundreds of outdoor theaters designed by government-hired architects and landscape architects. Influenced by the popularity of outdoor performances during the previous decades, these designers proposed outdoor theaters for the nation’s parks, schools, and city plazas. Often whether there was programmatic demands for theater or not. Many of the most memorable theaters were built by the CCC, and designed by National Park Service designers.

The zeal for constructing theaters was an outgrowth of an early 20th-century movement promoting the benefits of staging drama in undisturbed nature, to enhance the spiritual and civic life of all community members, rich or poor. These drama events inspired the construction of Berkeley’s Hearst Greek Theater in 1903. Conceived as a jewel in the forest by architect John Galen Howard, he and project architect Julia Morgan carefully sited the 6,000-seat theater to save the existing trees surrounding it. Whoops- You can see Morgan on the site here as they very carefully crafted this into the surrounding area.

Hearst’s success prompted the construction of additional outdoor theaters during the teens and twenties, when interest in outdoor performance grew markedly. Publications as diverse as Craftsman, Sunset, Vogue, Landscape Architecture Quarterly, and even Scientific American published pieces on outdoor performances and theaters. These articles, along with two books, “Outdoor Theaters” by landscape architect Frank Waugh, and “The Open Air Theater” by critic Sheldon Cheney, advocated for outdoor theaters.

Cheney classified theaters into three types. The nature- Whoops, I keep doing this- The nature theater at the top- We’ll just forgo the laser- where both materials and geometry merged into the landscape. And one of his examples was the Bohemian Grove in northern California. Garden theaters, where materials merged into the landscapes, but its geometry contrasted with it. And architectural theaters: this is in Point Loma, it still exists. Architectural theaters, where both materials and geometry contrasted with the landscape, as they had at Hearst.

As the popularity of outdoor events increased, requests for events in the National Parks became overwhelming. To address these demands, in 1924 Stephen Mather appointed Berkeley’s drama coach Garnet Holme as pageant master of the National Parks. Horace Albright had been in Holme’s place, and had introduced him to Mather, a Berkeley alum. Holme’s charge was to instruct that events were appropriate to their parks’ settings. He reviewed event requests, and even wrote plays for Sequoia, Yosemite, and Yellowstone National Parks, and was working on ones for Crater Lake and Mount Rainier when he died in 1929. Most events were in unimproved landscapes, but overflowing crowds supported the need to build theaters for lectures, plays, and church services during the 20s. This is actually a church service at Yosemite, up there.

In 1933, Roosevelt established- Well, wrong one … Yellowstone, yes.

The layout of the 1903 Hearst Greek Theatre (left) was seemingly a precedent for the Yellowstone NP Amphitheater (right) (Sources: Drawing, L. Jewell (left): Albert Good. Park Structures and Facilities (National Park Service, 1935): 178. (right))

In 1932, two theaters with 800-plus seats each were built at Yellowstone as adjuncts to museums designed by Herbert Maier. These theaters, assumedly designed with input from Thomas Vint, were built from log seats placed in concentric arcs around a central space, backed by a raised stage. Essentially, a smaller version, in rough logs, of Hearst Theater, and it’s really rather amazing to look at the parallels here. It should be noted that both Maier and Vint had attended Berkeley in the teens, and so most probably, certainly, had been at events here.

In 1933, Roosevelt established the emergency conservation work, known as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC. It put youths to work conserving the natural environment, including parks. Single men between 17 and 26 were 90% of the enrollees, and 10% were World War I veterans. Recruits cleared vegetation, planted trees, and constructed roads and small structures in parks and forests.

When the CCC was established, Thomas Vint’s in-house design group was poised to provide leadership for CCC projects, not only in the national parks, but also in state and local parks, where actually 70% of those CCC projects were located. They not only expanded their core staff to manage National Park projects, but they also established a separate State Park division headed by Conrad Wirth to address the non-federal parks.

Although a supply of master plans and designs existed for the national parks, there were seldom any for other parks. To meet the need to “keep the boys busy”- that’s a quote from William Penn Mott that I could into it at another time- Wirth organized a process to produce a constant flow of designs with three roles for designers: one, staff and regional offices to select and review projects; two, senior design consultants, hired to generate design schemes and inspect construction projects; and three, landscape foreman, who worked daily in the field with the CCC recruits.

To aid the newly hired design professionals with little experiences in park design, the National Park staff produced references for existing park structures. In 1934, Dorothy Waugh assembled the first ones: portfolio of comfort stations and privies- such a enlightening topic- and portfolio of park structures, with dimension drawings of existing structures. Waugh was the daughter of Frank Waugh, a former professor of Wirth and author of “Outdoor Theaters,” but surprisingly she did not include any outdoor theaters in her references.

In 1935, with input from Maier, Waugh, and Vint, Albert Good added to a more sophisticated volume, “Park Structures and Facilities” with photographs and beautiful ink drawings. The first edition included 6 examples of theaters, all circular and symmetrical. The initial copies were quickly distributed, and in 1938 Good published the more extensive 3-volume version, “Park and Recreation Structures.” So, as you can see, they were all based on circular geometry.

Good recommended that- Whoops, I’m sorry- Good recommended that most park structures should defer to the landscape. So it is surprising that he did not include any theaters with the geometry and materiality merged into the surrounding landscape. Examples, so for regularly organized theater layouts, had been published in Cheney’s book and elsewhere. So there were examples around, although not in the national parks. The advantage of less geometric layouts would have been the flexibility to adapt to a range of topographic locations, while still avoiding earthwork.

To achieve geometric layouts without significant earthwork, Good provided guidelines for locating theaters: whenever possible, the outdoor theater should be located in a natural half bow; if anything short of accomplishment of complete naturalness, results from remolding of topography in creation of an open air theater, the park is long, perhaps forever, disfigured by a scar that should be rigidly avoided.

At Red Rocks Amphitheater, CCC recruits moved 250,000 cubic yards of soil while working from a concept sketch (right) and then revised the plan into an asymmetrical scheme (left) to avoid additional earthwork. (Sources: Drawing – L. Jewell (left): NPS notations on Burnham Hoyt drawing – Record Group 79, SP-48-CO. National Archives, College Park, MD (right))

Good’s 1938 edition expanded the theater examples to 13, and here a couple of them. All composed of symmetrical arcs, however the Zion National Park theater did have a fire circle located to one side of the main theater, that you can see in the far drawing. And the theater at General Grant National Park actually eliminated a segment- and these are the construction drawings for that- and you can see that, rather than having the parallel segment over here, they eliminated, because of some rock outcrops and trees in this area. Although, also when you look at the grading plan, you realize that the new topography never varied more than a foot from the “natural bow,” where they had located this.

There were other examples where trees or boulders briefly interrupted the arc rows, but none where the geometric layout was reshaped. Good also specified that natural materials and hand-hewn construction should be used in all structures, directives that mesh well with the limited skills of the recruits and the limited budgets that dictated collecting materials on-site. In most forested parks, recruits crafted local timber into planks supported on logs or stone piers, and placed them in straight segments approximating a circle. At Rainier’s Yakima campgrounds, Rocky Mountains National Park’s theater, and elsewhere, recruits also planted trees to obscure the theaters. In western forests, as you see below, with large trees, they removed a quarter section from a large-diameter log to make a striking bench with a flat seat and sloped back.

At Lassen National Park, they used these log seats to create what Good called “a campfire circle” … a campfire circle, with budding ambitions to be an outdoor theater. And what they did was so very clever: they took and removed the back. They did not have backs on this portion of log seats, so that when there were events on the stage, they could sit in one direction, and then when the campfire started they’d just turn around and join the other people here. The other thing was they had progressively larger logs, which are detailed here, as they stepped back from the fire circle. … In parks where stones were available, such as Mesa Verde, recruits built curved seat walls, because stone seats could hug the natural terrain more closely than straight segments of wood.

New Deal funds also expanded interpretive programs, prompting the widespread use of lantern slide. CCC workers encased modern screens and projectors in unfinished logs. These log-encased screens resulted in rather incongruous assemblages of rough-hewn structures supporting the latest technical apparatus, including- I love this little log house, right house, that’s been blown up: little log cabin to hold the projector at Yellowstone.

In the national parks, this rustic imagery of rough-hewn natural materials was so ingrained that it went unchallenged as the only way for theaters to defer to the surrounding nature. But similarly entrenched was the notion that outdoor theaters should have rigorously symmetrical plans. The motivation behind this reliance on classical arrangements is unclear, assumedly the designers Beaux-Arts training and a current concern for maximizing seats with perfect sight lines encouraged this bias.

Whatever the reason, the design strategy resulted in a distinctive sequence of landscape experiences, particularly in forested locations. From a distance, the materials of the theaters rendered them nearly invisible, but visitors then unexpectedly happened upon these purposeful arrangements of logs or stones: unmistakably human-made invitations to stop, sit, and gather. Similar to installations by Andy Goldsworthy and other contemporary environmental artists, their natural materials rendered them essentially invisible from a distance, but up close they were powerful reminders of the deliberate human effort that created them.

In his 1938 book, Good also discussed how natural parks had evolved to include not only the superlative nature of the national parks, but also what he dubbed the “sub-superlative” nature found in most state and local parks. He proposed that structures in this “sub-superlative” nature could be visible and even improve a setting when beauty was lacking.

The state parks program’s more flexible expectations opened up opportunities for bolder theater designs. Nevertheless, most theaters in this program were low-key structures similar to those in the national parks, but they were still located in a broader variety of topographic situations. But some state park projects strained the interpretation of CCC’s conservation mandate, with theaters for concerts, pageants, and civic gatherings, sometimes in urban areas. National park planners in the CCC also worked in collaboration with the WPA on a number of municipal and campus theaters, where they again could apply design training to more adventuresome designs. These are actually two theaters that I grew up with in North Carolina that were WPA/CCC-built.

To initiate a state project, either the NPS staff or local agency could submit a conceptual design to obtain approval for six months of labor. The foreman then adjusted the scheme to site conditions, and developed design details in the field while directing recruits to collect materials. An NPS inspector would visit the projects and filed reports periodically. On a large project, one section might be designed in one six-month period and then they were continued through subsequent periods.

Most state park theaters were based on the same classical precedents that the national parks. They were often located in topography not necessarily conducive to these layouts. In Boulder, Colorado’s Sunrise Amphitheater, it was one of the earliest CCC projects built in the program, but it was different in that it was also designed to be seen. S.R. de Boer, known for his Beaux-Arts planning schemes for Denver, proposed the small theater on the mountain’s summit while working as an inspector on roads and trails. His only drawing, concentric circles that you see there, overlaying on a topographic map, guided the theater’s construction. It was built from rough stone collected on site, and its circular plan was focused on a fire circle. It was located on this landform to take advantage of the spectacular view. The foreman and CCC recruits fit the theater into the convex topography by adjusting the vertical distance between the seats and the surrounding grade, with only shovels and wheelbarrows. The resulting precision of circular seats underlined the theater as separate from the rugged native landscape, while its rust stone seats emphasized it as also very much a part of.

The Sunrise Amphitheater in Colorado was one of the earliest theaters built by the CCC. (Photograph by Anton Grassl)

But reshaping terrain to a defined geometry was usually impractical in a large theater, due to the limited availability of earth-moving equipment. Instead, a scheme’s idealized geometry was adapted to the topography at the 5,000-seat Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheater in Marin County, California. The CCC built this theater between 1934 and 1941 on state land where plays had been held since 1913. Inspired by a Greek theater at Segesta, Sicily, landscape architect Emerson Knight sketched a theater scheme, that you see up here, in 1924. And it had a symmetrical stage, but little was done until 1934, when the state received CCC support and Knight became conveniently a NPS inspector overseeing the project. With limited access to heavy equipment to reshape the site, Knight and landscape foreman Paul Holloway worked daily in the field, with the recruits, to reshape the plan into a distinctive suite that closely follows the contours that you see here. So they went from the symmetrical stage, down to this.

Knight attempted to save as much existing vegetation as possible, allowing clusters of oaks and rock outcrops to abruptly interrupt the sweeping lines of seats. To avoid removing a backdrop of trees at the top of the theater, he fine-tuned the upper rows to shift up and down with the existing knolls and depressions. Evidently Knight produced no additional design drawings, but instead gave written instructions: he specified that recruits should bury at least one-third of each stone to give the impression the stones had been in the ground for centuries. That stone becomes those stones: they’re that large, under the ground. He also insisted they select only uncut stones with at least one naturally-occurring square edge to become the line that defines the front of each row. This stone-to-stone line of square edges highlights the suite of native topography while also delineating the rows as distinct from it. From some positions, the stone seats appear to be random boulders, but from others, the precision of the long curved edge reminds visitors that both human hands and nature’s made this very special place.

In 1936, the CCC program had matured and more local and state governments retained their own designers for state park projects. These consultants were in a position to obtain local support for more adventuresome designs than the usual National Park Service structures. These later projects also had more time to produce detailed drawings, although they still adhered to the six-month approval process that fostered incremental design decisions.

In 1936, Denver officials submitted a proposal for CCC’s support to build a 10,000-seat theater in a beautiful park outside the city, where Denvers had picnics since the 1870s. Beginning in 1902, concerts were periodically held between two gigantic red sandstone formations, just on the raw site. The city therefore began to plan a grand theater between the two gigantic rocks, but funding was not available until Denver received CCC support for the theater, based on a concept proposal by local modernist architect Burnham Hoyt. And there you can see Burnham Hoyt’s diagram, right there.

Hoyt’s proposal challenged the National Park Service assumption that the only way a structure could respect a spectacular landscape was by disappearing into it. He proposed a simple, undifferentiated plane for an auditorium that brazenly contrasts with the textured walls of the rock outcrops. Yet, this simple, unadorned surface concentrates the visitor’s attention on the site’s dramatic rocks and its 200-mile panoramic view. With only a National Park Service superintendent’s marked copy of Hoyt’s prospectus sketch- and this comes from the superintendent’s report, where he had marked this in red, but I don’t have it in red- the CCC began building the stage at the bottom, without completed drawings, and incrementally progressed uphill, building the auditorium as six-month funding periods were extended 11 times.

Hoyt achieved the undifferentiated surface of the auditorium by eliminating all theater aisles, which you can see here, within the rows of benches. Instead, he provided a generous passage along each row, allowing patrons to quickly reach wide peripheral stairs. But creating this deceptively simple plane meant a radical change to the topography, requiring dynamite blasting to modify the slope and displace 25,000 cubic yards of rock and soil. This radical manipulation of the earth was a challenge to Good’s directive to minimize reshaping site, just a bit. It also required an extravagant commitment of CCC labor, but local officials were persistent advocates for the theater. Most of this soil was moved pretty much by hand with labor and trucks.

Once excavation began, Stanley Morse, an architect on the city’s payroll, under Hoyt’s watchful eye, began the incremental production of 127 sheets of detailed drawings, through nearly five years of constructions. But he produced these day by day. Morse visited the site each morning, with drawings produced in his city office the day before, constantly adjusting the theater’s details to the site. In his words, “the layout plan for the entire theater was not actually completed until construction was completed.” But Hoyt also adjusted the scheme to the site: when a 25-foot excavation- and you can see the excavating that was over there, that was the existing grade beforehand- revealed unexpected rock ledge, along one rock- after 28 feet they had done enough blasting, they decided- Hoyt simply warped the auditorium’s plan to circumvent the newfound bedrock and avoid additional planning. So here, you can see where it evolved into this wonderful asymmetrical scheme.

The result was the distinctive layout that maintained the central axis, because you have to realize they had already started building at the bottom, and had established this basic geometry. So they just figured out a way to continue it up. As the theater took shape, the architect sometimes allowed the structure to reshape the site, such as moving thousands of cubic yards of earth, while in other situations the site reshaped the structure, the alignment of the plan to compensate for the hidden rock ledge.

The influence of the CCC-built projects on the American landscape is indisputable. Throughout the country, thousands of CCC structures in hundreds of parks have defined how American parks are used, and what they look like. However, it is important that we look beyond the iconographic imagery of rustic images, to imagine how the National Park Service designers, to examine how the National Park Service designers, kept the landscape front and center when designing theaters. Whether undertaking rough-hewn fire circles in the national parks, or daring structures in the state park program, National Park Service designers never approached the landscape as a generic abstraction. They instead pursued an understanding of the particulars of each site, by spending time in the landscape.

In the national parks, they fashioned memorable theaters and fire circles with a limited vocabulary of logs, planks, and stones, and located them in a prescribed topography. In the state parks, they institutionalized the process to designing on-site as well as on paper, to insure that even the most daring structures were crafted to the natural features. After the New Deal, priorities in outdoor theaters shifted: emphasis was placed on large capacities, comfortable seats, and technologies of interior theaters. Such considerations continue to dominate the design of new theaters, yet Red Rocks and many other Depression-era theaters have continued as prestigious outdoor venues. These wonderful theater structures, whether modest or spectacular, continue to provide models for all structures, for how all structures can give a voice to the landscape in the conversation between site and structure.

Thank you.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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