Greek revival: UVA's amphitheatre gets historic touch

onarch-amphitheater-0917jpgWork commences on the McIntire Amphitheatre's gravel walkway.

The University of Virginia’s iconic McIntire Amphitheatre, the 1,500-seat concrete neoclassical Greek theater space, is looking more like the original did now, thanks to the addition of a 10-foot-wide gravel walkway and stone curb between the grass and the lower level seating.

"We want to reclaim the area visually," said Mary Hughes, landscape architect for the University. "It is used as an outdoor gathering space and it is visible from many academic buildings."

The structure was a gift from local philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire and was designed by Fiske Kimball, head of UVA’s Architecture School, who also directed the restoration of Monticello from 1925 to 1955. It was reported to have been only the seventh such neoclassical “Greek theater” built in America, commissioned and built in 1921 to celebrate the University’s centennial. That same year marked the start of a tradition of holding Final Exercises there, a tradition that lasted until 1952 when the ceremony was moved to the Lawn.

onarch-mcintire-1921This 1921 photo shows the gravel walkway covered with additional seating.

Over the years, the amphitheatre has hosted myriad concerts and events, as it still does today. But there were a few hiccups along the way. In the 1960s, there were plans to demolish the amphitheatre, and in the 1970s the grassy center was paved over and served–- no joke–- as a parking lot, but it was converted back to a theater again within the decade.

Today, the amphitheatre is a focal point of student life, populated every day with sun worshipers, studiers, lunchers, and the occasional preacher reminding students that the end is near. It is also the site of protests and rallies, serves as a hole in Chi Omega’s "Golf Across Grounds" fundraiser, and before school starts every year hundreds of clubs set up looking for new members at the Student Activities Fair. Of course, it also still serves as a performance space.

"I would say it is booked about three times a week," says Newcomb Hall event planner Elizabeth Carey.

The structure is also going green. While the building behind the open-air stage once housed an organ and dressing rooms, it is now used for storage and office space for UVA’s Facilities Management crews. In addition to the restoration out front, a 10,000-gallon underground cistern was recently installed behind the building, which will serve as a holding tank for rainwater for Central Grounds landscaping, water that previously had to be trucked in.

news-vigilcrowdOn April 17, 2007, thousands gathered at the amphitheater to pay respects to those affected by the Virginia Tech tragedy .

The amphitheatre helped launch the career of five local musicians who would go on to become the country’s biggest touring act. On September 27, 1994, Dave Matthews Band held a CD-release concert there for debut album Under the Table and Dreaming. At a more sparsely attended event on October 1, 1991, the band played the amphitheatre for incoming First Years. According to fan notes on, it was the first show Boyd Tinsley played with the band. Tinsley would give UVA's 2007 Valedictory Address, and Matthews would later help fund the construction of a UVA building.

The amphitheatre was also the site of a moving candlelight vigil on April 17, 2007 to remember the day-earlier tragedy at Virginia Tech. Thousands gathered in and around the amphitheatre to pay their respects to the school that had been UVA's fiercest rival. After a moment of silence, something unprecedented happened: a group of students began chanting “Go Tech” before everyone gathered in the grassy center of the theater to sign condolence cards.

"It's a special place for people to gather when something happens," says long-time Charlottesville resident Betty Mooney, who recalls the candlelight vigils held at the amphitheatre following 9/11. "There were people coming there all day, and into the night, just sitting there with candles. I'll never forget that."


In 1982, when the BBC came here to film segments of a miniseries on the life of Lady Nancy Astor (born Nancy Langhorne in Virginia), writing assignments gave me reason to be on the set often. The cast imported for the project included Irish actor Dan O'Herlihy. He played Nancy's father, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne. It was an important part, but a small one in terms of camera time. So he had little or nothing to do most days.

Dan and I struck up a running conversation on interests in common. I had spent time in Ireland, knew many of his favorite haunts, and had recently interviewed friends of his for an article on the Abbey Theatre. Also, he had been educated as an architect, and I had long studied architectur both formally and informally.

Talk led to tours. One day, we did U.Va.'s Grounds. When we reached the empty amphitheater, Dan told me to go up to the back row while he went to the stage to test the acoustics. For 15 minutes, I enjoyed a msster's rendition of Shakespeare's greatest hits. And I could hear every word perfectly.

P.S. For obvious reasons, Dan paid particular attention to buildings hereabout. He had special opportunity to prowl s few like Monticello and Redlands, which played the part of the Langhornes' too-close-to-the-highway Mirador. He also had chances to explore Richmond and Williamsburg. But his favorite was the little branch bank at the intersection of Tenth Street N.E. and East High Street in Charlottesville. He thought it was a brilliant bit of design.

UVA Law School class of 1940 assembled here for graduation ceremonies and for an address by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Torrential rains drove us all to Memorial Gym where FDR delivered his famous "Dagger in the back" speech. His son, Franklin Jr., was one of the graduating members of 1940 Law. A rare day for all!

Mr. Caplin,

Thank you for you input. What a wonderful memory, one I wish I had included.


Dave McNair

PS: anyone else have stories about the amphitheatre?

Certainly there are stories of generations of students who saw their peers hypnotized and do funny stuff in public.

The gravel or macadam - I don't recall which - for the parking lot was taken up and the ground was re-sodded in time for the Law School to conduct its graduation, as the first post-parking lot University event, May 26, 1975, according to my diploma. Third year student Mitch Abbott chaired the graduation committee, which included classmate Rick Henning, who died March 31, 2010. Mitch figured we should do things up right, which included provision for generating doctoral law hoods (thanks to Oak Hall in Salem, VA) to bestow on the students who that day progressed from graduands to graduates.