The Carter Barron Amphitheater closed after a 2017 inspection found that the stage’s substructure was not strong enough to handle the weight of performers and equipment onstage. The National Park Service (NPS) initially planned to only repair the stage. We realized during the preliminary design phase that the stage structure actually needed to be rebuilt, which would also require rehabilitating all of the dressing rooms, restrooms, and backstage infrastructure located below the stage to bring these areas up to current codes, including universal accessibility and other 21st century needs.
Carter Barron Amphitheater, 1952. Credit: NPS / Abbie Rowe
Carter Barron Amphitheater, 2016. Credit: NPS
A Brief History of the Carter Barron AmphitheatreBuilt in 1950, the Carter Barron Amphitheatre is more than a stage; it is a drama unto itself. From Shakespeare to Springsteen, this stage tucked away in the woods of Rock Creek Park has hosted legendary performers and entertained thousands of patrons over the decades. It has also been a reflection of cultural change in DC.
Act IIn the early 1940s, NPS landscape architect Harry Thompson developed a plan for an outdoor theater with permanent benches and a stage. An area of Rock Creek Park was a favorable location for such a theater. In 1947, a window of opportunity opened as Congress authorized a Sesquicentennial Commission to celebrate 150 years of Washington, DC, as the nation’s capital. President Harry S Truman served as ex officio chairman of the commission, with Carter T. Barron as executive vice chairman. Among the commission’s initiatives, they planned to build the outdoor amphitheater in Rock Creek Park.
Although there was some local opposition to developing the natural area, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved the plans in November, 1949, and construction started on December 17. The amphitheater was to be built with native limestone and include a seating area that would house 3,500 to 5,000 attendees and a parking lot to accommodate 600 automobiles.
Interestingly, the open-air theater would not include a curtain, but would instead use lighting effects to transition between sets and scenes. The theater was designed specifically for an original production titled Faith of Our Fathers, written by Paul Green. Green had written two other successful historical dramas performed in outdoor theaters: The Common Glory, performed in Williamsburg, VA, until 1976, and The Lost Colony, which is still performed in Manteo, NC, today. Although the front gate at the amphitheater would not be completed until the next spring, Faith of Our Fathers premiered on August 4, 1950, as the first performance at the Sesquicentennial Amphitheater.
On November 12, 1950, just months after the amphitheater opened, Sesquicentennial Commission vice chair Carter Barron died of cancer. To recognize Barron’s important role creating the Sesquicentennial Amphitheater, President Truman renamed the venue as the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Truman spoke at the theater’s rededication on May 25, 1951, praising Carter Barron and the American values presented in Faith of Our Fathers.
Act IIThe theater struggled to fill seats in the early days. Managers focused solely on establishing Faith of Our Fathers as the trademark production at the theater, and did not allow any other performances. Whether it was mismanagement or lack of public knowledge and interest, the venue did not turn a profit its first two years. In 1952, the Sesquicentennial Commission chose not to renew Faith of Our Fathers. On July 1, 1952, the Sesquicentennial Commission disbanded and the National Park Service took over management of the theater. The struggles continued for two more years. In 1954, the production company Super Attractions took over the summer lineup, ushering in a new era at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.
By the summer of 1954, the Carter Barron Amphitheatre entered its heyday. The venue booked is biggest acts and brought in the largest crowds year after year. Carter Barron hosted performers including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Harry Belafonte, and Ray Charles. Finally the venue lived up to its potential as a hotspot of culture, and a place people would return to again and again.
And then, overnight, everything changed. In 1968, Washington, DC, experienced intense riots in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Attendance, particularly by white, middle-class patrons, dropped sharply. Competing venues at the Merriweather Post Pavilion (1967), the Filene Center at Wolf Trap (1971) and the Kennedy Center (1971) also drew audiences away.
Although many great musical acts performed at Carter Barron through the 1970s, the venue struggled to adapt to its changing audience, which was increasingly black youths. To fill the seats, the National Park Service started a program to subsidize tickets, providing thousands of free tickets to children. In 1975, Super Attractions, who had made Carter Barron such a popular venue in the preceding 20 years, declined to renew their contract. After other producers tried and failed to reignite interest in the venue, the National Park Service took over direct management of the concerts in 1978. The struggles continued through the 1980s, with a Washington Post editor mocking that Carter Barron was “now more celebrated as a parking lot.” The punishing decade culminated with two massive, fallen trees causing major damage to parts of the amphitheater in 1989.
Act IIIDespite the difficulties, the DC community expressed support for keeping Carter Barron open. Beginning in the 1990s, the Carter Barron Amphitheatre entered a period of revival, with a number of repairs and rehabilitation work completed to modernize the facility, supported by the Friends of Carter Barron from 1992-2000. A popular Shakespeare theatre production ran from 1991 to 2009 until it moved to an indoor theater. Among other renovations and technical tweaks to the venue in the 1990s, the seating area was completely reconstructed in 2004. However, despite these upgrades, structural deficiencies in the stage deck and supports remained, causing the National Park Service to close the amphitheater for repairs in 2017.
Carter Barron Amphitheatre has attracted visitors from around the globe, but remains something of a local attraction. Carter Barron is in many ways a reflection of DC itself: its people, its history, and its manifold identity.
Rehabilitation FAQsWhat makes up the stage?
The amphitheatre’s stage is made of concrete covered with wood. The stage is also part of a larger structure, making the stage itself the roof of the dressing rooms below.
How did you find out/decide that no one can use the stage?
In 2014, the National Park Service completed a condition assessment report for the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Engineers took cores of the concrete (just like we’d take cores out of ice or trees) and tested them. Those tests showed that the the concrete that makes up the stage “is in generally good condition” despite some rust and cracks from water. The 2014 report did not look at how the structure responds to stress, like earthquakes, and how much weight it can support.
Based on the results of the 2014 report, we contracted with an engineering firm to conduct that structural assessment of the stage. The park received their report in February 2017. The engineers compared the amphitheatre stage’s original design with current building codes and determined that the structure is subjected to forces and stresses it isn’t designed to handle, even without people or equipment on it. The stage cannot support weight other than a person walking across it, which means the stage cannot safely support performances.
What does the report say?
The report shows that the stage cannot support weight of 150 pounds per square foot, which is the amount required by current building codes. It recommends that the NPS stop using the stage immediately until it can be replaced or strengthened and repaired.
How can you fix the stage?
The engineering report has identified several preliminary options for fixing the stage:
While we do not have exact figures at this time, to rehabilitate the amphitheatre stage is estimated to cost between $520,000 and $620,000. The carbon fiber option is estimated to cost between $460,000 and $560,000. We do not know what the temporary shoring would cost, as the shoring would need to be designed first. In each case, we would need to apply for special National Park Service funding, as the park’s annual budget cannot cover these costs.
Which option are you pursuing, and why?
We investigated options, including short- and long-term repairs, and determined that rehabilitating the stage (Option 3) is the best choice. This option would ensure that the amphitheatre meets all current codes and is accessible for all, and it would last for 75 to 100 years.
We remain committed to finding solutions to preserve this amphitheatre which may include addressing other structural concerns and needs. We will keep you informed as we move forward.
Why wasn’t this fixed previously?
We only learned of the actual condition of the stage when we received the structural assessment in February 2017.
The National Park Service upgraded parts of the amphitheatre in 2004, including the area where the audience sits. We did this using $1 million from the DC Sparkle fund. However, these upgrades did not include the stage. We did complete a design to rebuild the stage at that time, but did not have funding for construction. We are reviewing those designs now and hope that we can still use them (with minor updates for current code and accessibility), which would save time and money.
Last updated: March 11, 2021