Greek revival: UVA's amphitheatre gets historic touch
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.
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.
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 antsmarching.com, 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."